Leading women’s rights defender and lawyer Canan Arın has been fighting for women’s rights in Turkey for most of her life. In recent discussions on the possibility of Turkey withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention and increasing pressure on critical lawyers, Arın is an influential voice in the women’s rights movement.
Canan Arın has been a lawyer for almost 50 years. As a daughter of civil servants, she was raised in a Kemalist family, and growing up, she was taught that women were equal to men. But when she returned toTurkey from London in 1976 after studying Constitutional Law, these beliefs were challenged, as she learned about the glaring inequalities inherent to Turkish law. “The Family Code stated that the husband is the head of the family. And our Penal Code said that when a woman is raped, it is a crime against the family order and the public. Not against the person,” Arın explained.
Ever since Arın found out about these inequalities, she has been an outspoken feminist and an advocate for women’s rights. In addition to her work as a lawyer, she is one of the founders of the Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation (Mor Çatı Kadın Sığınağı Vakfı) — a solidarity centre and shelter that supports women in combatting violence against women. Arın was also involved in setting up the women’s right organisation KA.DER, which advocates equal representation of women and men in all fields of life. She is also one of the founders of the IstanbulBar Association Women’s Rights Enforcement Centre (İstanbul Barosu Kadın HaklarıUygulama Merkezi).
Arın has actively worked on reforming Turkish laws. Together with colleagues, she advocated for and worked on a new penal code that would ensure equal rights for women. Having studied the penal codes in several countries, and taking inspiration from other legislation, Arın and her colleagues eventually wrote the “Crimes Against Sexual Inviolability” (Cinsel Dokunulmazlığa Karşı İşlenen Suçlar) section of the current Turkish Penal Code, which was adopted in 2004. Arın has made consistent and unmistakeable contributions to the expansion of women’s rights in Turkey ever since her return in 1976. Other than the new Penal Code, Arın helped draft a new civil code and a new family code with an expansion of women’s rights, which were introduced as part of Turkey’s efforts to become a member of the European Union (EU).
“Instead of focusing on further expanding our rights, we are forced to defend the hard-won rights we do have. That is horrible to witness.”
In recent years though, women in Turkey have been forced on the defensive once more. Violence against women has risen rapidly. According to women’s rights organisation We Will Stop Femicide Platform (Kadın Cinayetilerini Durduracağız Platformu), almost 2.000 women were killed since February 2015 in Turkey, often by their husbands or boyfriends. In 2019 alone, 474 women were murdered, most often by men they knew. Despite this troubling increase of violence against women, the Turkish government has been debating with drawing from the Istanbul Convention — a Council of Europe treaty specifically aimed at preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. In 2012, Turkey was the first country to ratify the treaty — the same year that the government passed Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence AgainstWomen (6284 Sayılı Ailenin Korunması ve Kadına Karşı Şiddetin Önlenmesine Dair Kanun) as well as various gender equality policies.
Arın is appalled at this prospective rollback of rights. “Instead of focusing on further expanding our rights, we are forced to defend the hard-won rights we do have. That is horrible to witness,” she explained. She points out that the necessary legal tools for the protection of women currently do exist in Turkey, but that lack of enforcement is the actual problem. She gives an example: “Abortion is legal in Turkey. But de facto, it is difficult for women who want to have an abortion. Because our President wants women to give birth as much as they can. But who is going to look after these women and children? Are there any jobs?”
Arın does not hold back. She has been a vocal opponent of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi –AKP) ever since it came to power in 2002. Arın criticises the reforms made to expand rights of minorities and women in the early days of the AKP government, labelling them “hypocritical.” “It was all due to the pressure of the strong women’s movement and the hope to enter the EU that these laws were changed,” she explained. According to Arın, President Erdoğan and his government are now showing their true colours. “He said it himself: ‘Democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination.’ Now he is off,” she stated.
The government signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011 because of international developments, Arın told. Two years earlier, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the landmark case of Opuz v.Turkey that Turkey violated its obligation to protect women from domestic violence. Nahide Opuz and her mother had suffered years of brutal domestic violence from her husband. Despite their complaints, the police and prosecuting authorities did not protect Opuz and her mother, which eventually resulted in Opuz’s husband killing her mother. The case raised pressure on Turkey to sign the treaty. Arın sees the current debate about the Istanbul Convention as a sign of electoral opportunism, but fears the consequences in case Turkey withdraws: “We would make a fool out of ourselves in the international arena and it would give the signal that men are free to commit violence to women,” she added.
“They [the Saturday Mothers] were called ‘terrorists’ and all they did was ask where the graves of their loved ones are.”
The open attacks on the rule of law meant not only an erosion of Turkey’s democracy, but have also come at great personal cost to many. Arın keeps an eye on many of these cases and is visibly upset when she mentions some of them: her colleague Ebru Timtik, who died during a hunger strike in pursuit of a fair trial; the cases against prominent businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala; and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, the latter two are both in prison, or the Saturday Mothers (Cumartesi Anneleri/İnsanları) who were banned from protesting at their regular spot since August 2018 (for more about the Saturday Mothers, read Sebla Arcan and Nadire Mater’s stories). “They [the Saturday Mothers] were called ‘terrorists’ and all they did was ask where the graves of their loved ones are,” said Arın.
Her courage to speak up for cases she finds important has also led to her own persecution. “In my talks, I always like to give the most striking examples, so that they stick with people,” she explained. In 2011, a group of lawyers from the Antalya Bar Association joined a training on violence against women. Arın lectured the group on early and forced marriages as a form of violence. To highlight that early marriages have been custom throughout history, she mentioned marriages of the prophet of Islam and then-President Abdullah Gül, who married his wife when she was fifteen. After the conference, a prosecutor opened a case against Arın for “insulting the President of the Republic” and “for publicly degrading the religious values of a section of the public.” The case was later suspended. “It shows that already back then there was no independent judiciary,” Arın said.
In these repressive times, the women’s movement offers a glimmer of hope to Arın. “We are the best opposition, that’s why the government wants to control us,” Arın said with a smile. She turned 78 this year, but Arın is still very active in the movement. She mentors younger colleagues, publishes articles on women’s rights, and occasionally takes up cases as well. Recently, she took up a case of a 13-year old girl who was raped by her uncle. In a country where violence against women often goes unpunished, Arın is particularly proud of the verdict in this case: “I managed to get him behind bars for 30 years,” she shared.
In 2018, Arın won the prestigious Bruno Leoni Award for her struggle against child marriages. In her acceptance speech, she dedicated the Award to all courageous women: “I think that all women are courageous. I think that we are indebted to our grandmothers all over the world for having provided us with the rights we have today.” They give her inspiration to remain hopeful for the future: “Even if I might not see it, women will prevail,” she stated.
Canan Arın continues fighting for women’s rights in Turkey despite increasing persecution of women’s rights defenders.
(Last updated December 2020).