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Behind the #ChallengeAccepted campaign, rising Turkish femicides and hostility toward a womens’ rights treaty

It wasn’t until social media feeds were inundated with black-and-white selfies of women, typically accompanied by the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted, that users began asking about the origins of the posts supporting female empowerment.

This particular hashtag and selfie format is not new, and is believed to have first been used to draw attention to fundraising and general awareness about cancer in 2016. There are several theories for how this more recent iteration began, including a Brazilian woman’s post encouraging women to support each other, and some users doing so as a response to a verbal assault against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., last month.

But many users have traced the viral moment back to a campaign combating violence against women in Turkey, where rates of femicide — often perpetrated by current or former romantic partners — have grown dramatically in just the last few years. At the same time, there has been a growing movement within some conservative corners to leave a human rights treaty meant to prevent such violence.

“The most recent case that has sparked this outcry is really only one of a number of cases,” said Hillary Margolis, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division.

Turkish women began posting black-and-white pictures of themselves following the July disappearance and brutal murder of Pinar Gültekin, a 27-year-old Turkish woman whose murderer confessed to killing her and trying to hide her remains after she rejected his advances.

Part of why it’s been so hard to pinpoint where and how the social media campaign started is that there has been no single authoritative explanation of why people are posting pictures. Several American news outlets cited an explanation from Twitter user @imaann_patel, whose account is no longer active, about how the original social media campaign began: “Turkish people wake up every day to see a black and white photo of a woman who has been murdered on their Instagram feed, on their newspapers, on their TV screens. The black and white photo challenge started as a way for women to raise their voice. To stand in solidarity with the women we have lost. To show that one day, it could be their picture that is plastered across news outlets.”

Posts in Turkey were accompanied by hashtags including #kadınaşiddetehayır and #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır, which loosely translate to “Say no to violence against women” and “Enforce the Istanbul convention.” The Istanbul convention, or the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, is a human rights treaty that centers on preventing violence against women.

In Turkey last year, there were 474 instances of women being murdered by men, almost half of whom were current or former spouses or romantic partners, the group We Will Stop Femicide Platform reported. In 2013, the group tracked 237 murders.

This year, the group reported that 27 women across Turkey were killed by men in just June alone. The group also noted that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the crisis by forcing people, including women and their potential assailants, indoors for months on end.

Margolis noted that such statistics are reliant on reporting and therefore may not be fully representative of the full scope.

“But what we are seeing is what appears to be a trend towards ongoing violence against women and domestic abuse that is really not being addressed appropriately,” she said.

Gültekin’s murder sparked protests across Istanbul and other Turkish cities. At one rally in Istanbul in late July, women reportedly chanted, “we want to live” and “end femicides.”

It’s not the first time a woman’s murder has galvanized the Turkish public in the streets and on the internet. In 2015, thousands of people marched in protest of the murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old student who was brutally murdered following rape attempts by her murderer, who confessed to the crime. There was a hashtag campaign that followed on Twitter, with users posting Aslan’s name and #sendeanlat, which means “tell your story,” encouraging women to share their experiences with harassment and abuse.

While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called violence the “bleeding wound” of the country following the demonstrations, it led to no policy changes. Some politicians called for the reintroduction of the death penalty — a move supported by Aslan’s mother but opposed by some feminist groups — but no measure was enacted.

Margolis said this time seems different, though, in part because of a political trend — not just in Turkey but throughout Europe — away from the Istanbul Convention, which was named for the city where it was first made available for signature in 2011.

The convention created a legal framework for nations across Europe to protect women against all forms of violence. And since Turkey became the first nation to ratify the convention in 2012, the focus of the country’s feminist groups has been ensuring that its protections are fully implemented, noted Milena Buyum, Amnesty International’s Turkey campaigner.

“There are all kinds of things that, on paper, the law provides for and should be happening, but in reality, in the execution, there are massive, massive gaps in Turkey, as there are elsewhere,” Buyum said.

For example, last year, a woman was murdered by her husband after she pressed charges against him for abuse 23 times. The police had recommended she seek mediation, which Buyum said was an indication of how they weren’t being properly trained in how to prevent domestic violence and murder of women.

In recent years, however, the political conversation in Turkey about the Istanbul Convention has shifted, as it became a target of far-right political leaders who claim it’s really meant to advance policies that threaten what they call traditional family values.

Last month, a leader in Turkey’s conservative ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), deputy chair Numan Kurtulmuş, advocated for withdrawing from the convention.

“The signing of the Istanbul Convention was really wrong,” Kurtulmuş said in an interview, arguing that the convention’s protections for women regardless of sexual orientation “played into the hands of LGBT and marginal elements.”

Poland’s government is also trying to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Last month, the country’s justice minister said the convention “contains elements of an ideological nature.”

“The whole debate about withdrawal has been soaked in this whole debate about family, and keeping families together, and that the convention is a threat to family life,” Buyum said. “It is an indication of how far removed from the daily realities of violence that women are subject to the authorities are.”

Buyum praised social media campaigns like #ChallengeAccepted as an effective method for inspiring people to speak out against injustices in Turkey and elsewhere. But she warned that such channels might not be available to Turkish activists for long, given that Erdogan is working to tighten controls over social media in the country. Last month, Turkish parliament advanced a bill that would force companies like Facebook and Twitter to be more responsive to the government’s calls to remove posts it doesn’t like.

“This is another thing that Turkish authorities want to curb, with the recent internet law, which will make it really difficult for social media platforms to be present in Turkey. So I think especially in the context of COVID and physical meetings being more difficult, social media provides a really important platform,” she said.