Instagram photo challenge on trend (except that the cause gets lost)

In case you didn’t know, there is a black and white photo thing happening on Instagram.

Over the past few days, the social media platform has been hit with a wave of women posting black and white photos of themselves with a caption that begins with the words “Challenge accepted.” Its usually followed by something great about other women, and ends with #womensupportingwomen.

And how exactly is women sharing photos of themselves with a monochrome filter helping anyone? Sure, it’s great to see women feeling confident in their skin and asserting solidarity with other women in general, but is there some deeper meaning connecting it all together?

Turns out there is. And it isn’t pretty.

(Trigger warning: an account of violence against women follows).

In Turkey, the black and white photo trend (though not an original one) recently developed as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the rising rates of violence against women and femicide. It was sparked by the brutal murder of Pinar Gültekin, a 27-year-old Kurdish student whose body was found on July 21, five days after she disappeared.

Reports say Gültekin was killed as an act of jealousy by her former boyfriend, Cemal Metin Avci. He allegedly beat and strangled her, then unsuccessfully attempted to burn her body, before disposing of it in a bin that he filled with concrete. He has been apprehended and has reportedly confessed.

For women in Turkey, Gültekin’s murder was evidently the final straw in a rising trend of women being killed (that has only increased with the pressure of COVID-19). Outraged, women took to the streets in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş neighbourhood and three other cities across the country, holding a vigil for Gültekin and other femicide victims.

A women’s advocacy group in Turkey – whose name translates to “Platform to Stop Women Murders” – published this report for June 2020:

“This month, 22 women have been murdered, five women have been found to be suspected deaths, 23 women have been found suspiciously. It was not possible to determine why 11 of the 27 women who were killed were killed, two were killed on an economic pretext, 14 were trying to decide on their own life, such as wanting to divorce, rejecting peace, rejecting the relationship. Failure to identify [why 11 women were killed] … is a consequence of violence against women and making women murders invisible. Unless it is determined by whom and why women are killed; Unless fair trials are made and suspects, defendants and murderers do not receive deterrent punishments and preventive measures are implemented, violence continues…”

The group’s site also contains a counter that logs the deaths of women, showing 157 deaths of women this year, following 416 in total during 2019.

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. – @imaann_patel

So what does all this have to do with Instagram being flooded by black and white images of women?

Turkish Twitter user @imaann_patel attempted to explain the somber origins and meanings of the original challenge:

“Turkey is one of the top countries when it comes to femicides. Most often the murderers barely get a slap on a wrist or no charges at all … Our government is trying to abolish certain aspects of [the] Istanbul Convention which is a human rights treaty that protects women against domestic violence … 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.”

New York Times reporter Tariro Mzezewa spoke to women in Turkey directly, and tweeted that the trend has recently surged there with accompanying hashtags #kadınaşiddetehayır #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır, which she was told translate to “say no to violence against women” and “enforce the Istanbul Treaty/Doctrine (where rights to protect women are signed.)”

“Challenge NOT accepted,” – Taylor Lorenz

Another New York Times reporter, Taylor Lorenz, provided an even wider context. She explained that although the trend had been given a new meaning in Turkey, it actually dates back many years:

“In 2016, [they] were meant to spread a message of ‘cancer awareness,’” she wrote. “Over the years the photo trend has also been used to ‘spread positivity.’”

“The challenge has spread in Brazil and India, but it really began to take hold in the past week after AOC’s viral speech about the sexist comments she endured. IG users began to share more messages of female empowerment and the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag took off with the new meaning”.

“Seeing people claim the black and white challenge originated with Turkish women seeking to raise awareness for femicide after the murder of Pınar Gültekin. This is not accurate. The challenge has been around since 2016 in various forms. That is just one recent manifestation of it.”

As to her assessment of the trend’s value, Lorenz was less than impressed: “Challenge NOT accepted,” she wrote.

“Black-and-white selfies have been leveraged in support of various vague causes over the years, ultimately having no measurable impact on any of them … ” she wrote.

How much social change can be achieved by any social media campaign – however well it is executed – is yet to be seen.

While campaigns can raise awareness that may lead to other types of action, a country like Turkey’s problems are complex, with a whole range of minority groups also currently strained under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Leaving Islam is seen as a betrayal of the Turkish identity and a source of shame to the family.” – Open Doors

Religious minorities, like Christians, are one such group, as Open Doors reports: “In Turkish society, strong religious nationalism puts pressure on Christians, making it hard for them to proclaim the gospel. Though converting to Christianity is not illegal in Turkey, it is widely considered unacceptable. Christians often feel pressured to stay silent and hide their faith, especially if they have left Islam.”

“Leaving Islam is seen as a betrayal of the Turkish identity and a source of shame to the family. Believers who come to Christ are often threatened with divorce and the loss of inheritance rights. Christians who cannot share their faith with their family are often too afraid to meet with fellow believers and become isolated.

“Outspoken believers can face discrimination in their workplace and in the legal system. Several churches also have been closed and vandalised. Pastors have been imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Since religious affiliation is recorded on ID cards, it is easy for employers and authorities to discriminate against Christians. They are viewed as second-class citizens and are closely watched by their family and community.”

One woman who is well-acquainted with the intersectional tensions of being a woman and a Christian in Turkey is Joy Anna Crow Subasigüller, who Eternity reported on just a fortnight ago.

Subasigüller is originally from Florida, USA and has lived in Turkey for ten years. She has been married to her Turkish husband, Lütfü, for seven years and they have three children together. The entire family are Turkish citizens.

Yet their settled and peaceful life as a family changed on June 5 when Subasigüller was told by the Turkish migration department to prepare for deportation with no reason given.

The couple is reportedly challenging the decision in court, hoping to learn why she is being deported. However, the likely reason is her husband’s church work is the problem for the Turkish government, as Subasigüller is among more than 50 expatriate Protestant Christian workers who have been denied residence visas or re-entry permits during the past 18 months.

Instagram posts may well help raise awareness about of all of the above. Prayer, though, seems to be what is needed most of all.


Some prayer points to help

Join us in prayer for Turkey this week. Pray specifically that women would be safe and religious minorities including Christians would be free to practise their faith in pace. Pray also that Protestant Christian workers would be protected from persecution and able to gain the visas they need.