The oddly phrased message popped into my inbox on a Sunday afternoon in late July. It read more like a chain mail text than a note from my friend in Istanbul with whom I usually chat with in a mixture of Turkish and English.
“I was careful to choose who I think will meet the challenge, but above all I know who shares this type of thinking,” the message said. “We are beautiful the way we are. Post a photo in black and white alone, written ‘challenge accepted’ and mention my name . . . ”
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Her message was an invitation to join #challengeaccepted campaign on Instagram, the same one that many women I follow had already posted. Each smiled confidently at their smartphone cameras, unmasked, ready to be seen. Then they passed it on.
Broadly speaking, these #challengeaccepted selfies are about a surface-level version of “women’s empowerment” — essentially an Instagram beauty contest. But in the current Turkish context, this iteration often includes #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır, a hashtag calling for enforcement of the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty aimed at fighting violence against women. Forty-five countries, mainly in Europe, signed the convention. Turkey was the first country to ratify the treaty, but is now considering taking legal steps to exit it.
Instagram confirmed to Hyperallergic that the hashtag #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır started being used frequently the week of July 20, followed by frequent use of #challengeaccepted the next week. (According to the New York Times, #challengeaccepted has been around since 2016.)
Both hashtags spread quickly in Turkey after the murder of 27-year-old Kurdish-Turkish university student Pınar Gültekin by her ex-boyfriend Cemal Metin Avci. Gültekin was reported missing on July 16; five days later Avci confessed to torturing and murdering her, and led police to her body. Avci was arrested on charges of “killing with monstrous feeling.” According to Turkish media outlet Hürriyet, he has been transferred to a high-security prison in the central Anatolian province of Afyonkarahisar where he is in solitary confinement.
In the days and weeks following Gültekin’s murder, protests spread across at least 12 major cities in Turkey, calling attention to the country’s high rate of femicides, and demanding adherance to the Istanbul Convention. On social media, some who posted hashtagged black-and-white selfies attracted viral, global attention to Turkey’s femicide issue. Celebrities Christina Aguilera and Salma Hayak tagged their black-and-white selfies with both #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır and #challengeaccepted, while Eva Green cited info on femicide in Turkey from @auturkishculturalclub. But others simply performed a surface-level gesture of “empowerment,” tagging flattering selfies with #challengeaccepted, #womensupportingwomen.
For many artists in Turkey, the “challenge” came as a surprise.
“Maybe for the first time on social media, there was solidarity instead of a competition to ‘be more beautiful and look happier,’” photographer/photojournalist Dilan Bozyel noted to Hyperallergic over email (translation from Turkish by the author). “This motivated me, and I decided to participate.”
In the caption of her post the hashtag #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır sits front and center, with #challengeaccepted further down.
“The most important thing that encouraged me to participate were the black-and-white photos, a reference to photos that mourners pin to their clothes at the funeral of a murdered woman,” she said, referencing a Turkish funeral tradition.
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İstanbul Sözleşmesi Yaşatır! #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır • • @aycaderinkarabulut @begberdan @cemrenurmeleke @alevisildakhaddadieh @namecamerastrap @didemayberkin @aysegulkumova #challengeaccepted • • @mollaoglunermin @yazguvendi @icimdekiyolcu @cisembaydar @minacelik @sanembahcekapili #womensupportingwomen
Bozyel thinks Gültekin’s murder spread so fast in part because her friend Ozan Önen, a writer, tweeted about her disappearance.
“He used the words ‘my missing/disappeared friend,’ which gave it more impact,” Bozyel explained. “The person lost wasn’t a stranger . . . it was someone’s friend.”
Gültekin’s murder is indicative of the broader issue of femicide in Turkey, one that affects women from every social class, as noted by Elif Ege, a representative from the Istanbul women’s shelter Mor Çatı. “Based on the knowledge we obtained from the women who apply to Mor Çatı, we are seeing that male violence doesn’t discriminate against either economic status or education level,” Ege commented via email (also in Turkish, translated by the author).
In 2019, a total of 474 women were killed in the country, an increase of 200% since 2013. According to Stop Femicide Now (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız), just this year, a total of 211 women have been murdered, with 36 confirmed cases in July alone, not to mention 11 other suspicious murders reported. Stop Femicide Now has already counted at least six murders since August 1. Killers are usually a partner or relative.
The Turkish government does not keep official records of femicide.
Ege continued, “It is the male dominance in every aspect of life, the inequalities between men and women, and men’s desire to control a woman’s womanhood/femininity that allow for violence against women.”
Istanbul-based artist Sena Başöz said that she enjoyed looking at the photos on Instagram of women being themselves, while also mourning Gültekin and other victims of femicide. “It spread very quickly because it was very depressing what led to her murder, and this challenge is something that gave you hope,” she explained by phone. “You see livelihood in the face of death.”
The most popular image of Gültekin on social media shows her at the beach, sitting on the shore, smiling and laughing.
“As soon as we heard the news, we were exposed to her online presence — her selfies, her photographs, the [TikTok] video of her singing along to a song in a car, the wind blowing through her hair,” Başöz explained in English by phone. “She is a woman who expresses herself through photographs on social media . . . and I think that’s what the images communicated to us, that she embraces her womanhood, she enjoys life to the fullest, and she is beautiful in that respect.”
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Zeynep Dilara, a writer/filmmaker based in Istanbul, wondered about the surface-level nature of the #challengeaccepted hashtag.“Because we’re at a very desperate point, we’ll embrace everything that we think can help us,” she commented to Hyperallergic in Turkish. “ChallengeAccepted is one of those things.”
“The radical conservatives wanted to abolish the Istanbul Convention for a long time,” she continued. “Pinar Gültekin’s murder brought up the issue again, and it got a huge response on social media.”
In Turkey, actresses Berenn Saat and Hazal Kaya, and model/actress Serenay Sarikaya likewise posted using both tags.
Yet not every recent black-and-white selfie was posted in solidarity with Turkish women; many selfies fell flat, appearing as attention-grabbing, though beautiful, gestures of boredom— a way to “connect” during pandemic times.
Social media control
In Turkey, the battle for media control rages on. On July 29, the government passed legislation enabling it to regulate social media content. The law goes into effect October 1, further complicating privacy concerns. President Erdoğan has been open about his disdain for social media and the government already controls the country’s traditional media outlets.
As the Turkish Government continues to debate whether it will withdraw from the Istanbul Convention — which includes law 6284, an established framework for combating gender-based violence — Reuters reports that the vote originally scheduled to take place August 5 has been postponed.
Melek Önder, a representative from Stop Femicide Now (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız) said that for now, the vote remains controversial. “At this time we are using our struggle [to stop femicide] as a way to enforce the convention,” she wrote to Hyperallergic in Turkish via WhatsApp. “We do not even want to think about what could happen if the government withdraws from it.”
According to Duvar English, an independent newspaper in Turkey, parliament speaker Mustafa Şentop suggested that it’s unnecessary to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Some AKP officials disagree, arguing that it “undermines family values.”
In the next week, the AKP will decide whether or not to begin legal proceedings to withdraw from the convention.
Sümeyye Erdoğan, deputy chairwoman of the conservative group Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), and President Erdoğan’s daughter, defied critics to express support for staying in the Istanbul Convention.
In New York, protests against the Turkish government’s proposed actions are planned for Sunday, August 9 from 12-2 p.m., at 10 Columbus Circle.
From selfie to action
Around the time that this latest iteration of #challengeaccepted caught on, New York-based Turkish-American artist Dilek Baykara and her friend Adam Abou-Heif decided to do more than take a selfie.
“As a Turkish-American woman I have been witness to the discrimination and abuse that Turkish women are subject to, from their families and/or communities,” she commented over email. “Turkish women deserve a chance to be safe and free to be who they are without physical or psychological abuse.”
Through a social media-driven fundraiser, Baykara and Abou-Heif raised $8,777 USD, or 60,000 Turkish Lira, for Mor Çatı. This past Thursday, the Turkish Lira dropped to a record low of 7.3TL to 1 USD, a number not seen since the recession of 2018, meaning the donation could be worth even more.
For Başöz in Turkey, watching the photos spread amplified another feeling: “Some of my friends said to me, ‘she is just like us,’ or ‘it could be me.’”
Special thanks to Esin Menceloğlu and Bade Turgut for their translation assistance.