Turkey’s Women Strike Back

Police detain protestor in Kizilay.jpg

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Corbis

Police detaining a woman during protests at Kizilay square in central Ankara, June 16, 2013

In June, the protest that began as a tiny demonstration against the destruction of Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square morphed into a large-scale, country-wide standoff with the Turkish government that has been followed around the globe. Since then, five people have died, some eight thousand have been injured, and hundreds of professionals, students, and workers have been arrested; still, the protests continue. The government’s frequent recourse to water cannons, tear gas, and even rubber bullets has only strengthened the resolve of the protesters, to the surprise of even the activists leading them. When the police come out in full force in the neighborhoods around Taksim Square, the people gather together and challenge them.

What hasn’t been much noted abroad, however, is how many of the activists closest to the front lines are women. One of the most emblematic images of the protests is of a woman in a red dress being pepper-sprayed in the face. And a study of the Gezi movement estimated that more than half of those taking part have been women, though the prime minister, employing his typically divisive rhetoric, has often warned his constituents that “our sisters in headscarves” would not be safe in the park.

In his ten years in office, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey from an inflation-ridden, coup-prone country with an impoverished Anatolian hinterland into what had been widely regarded as a model of Muslim democracy and economic stability. Before this summer’s crackdown, the prime minister had been applauded in the West for building his party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, into a powerful engine of liberalization that, it was thought, had successfully married neoliberal economic policies and moderate Muslim values. In recent years, however, Erdoğan’s consolidation of power in parliament, the judiciary, and the military has given him sweeping influence over contemporary Turkish society and revealed growing authoritarian tendencies in his government. Those tendencies have been particularly pronounced in issues relating to Turkish women.

In fact, despite the Erdoğan government’s reputation for innovative economic policies and four-percent annual growth, the situation of women has lagged far behind international standards on almost every measure. Though Turkey has a booming job market, only around 25 percent of women participate in the labor force—one of the lowest rates in the world. While the AKP government has initiated campaigns to improve women’s labor force participation, it has done little in the way of creating social services that would encourage women to work. And while Turkish women have been able to vote since 1934, Turkey ranks 124 out of 140 countries analyzed by the World Economic Forum in gender equality—below Qatar and Jordan and just above Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. A widely publicized study by Turkey’s International Strategic Research Center found that 42 percent of Turkish women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes and left little doubt that violence against women has not abated during the Erdoğan decade.

And then there are the prime minister’s attempts to regulate the private lives of women. In 2008, Erdoğan announced that all Turkish women should have three children; he later amended that number to five. In 2010, he said that he did not believe men and women were equal: “Women are women and men are men. Is it possible for them to be equal?” In 2012, the State Ministry Responsible for Women’s Affairs was turned into the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. Erdoğan began denouncing Caesarean sections as “unnatural,” and in that same year, he decided to take on abortion. In the spring of 2012, Erdoğan announced that the AKP would draft a law that would ban abortion outright–it has been legal since 1983—and he publically compared the act of abortion to the controversial killing by the Turkish military of thirty-four Kurds in the southeastern village of Uludere. (They had been mistaken for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists—in part because of misleading US drone intelligence.) “You always talk of Uludere,” Erdoğan said, presumably to his critics. “Every abortion is an Uludere.” His comments provoked a public outcry and eventually the ban was dropped—though his rhetoric about women has not changed. In August, the prime minister said, “I am calling on those sisters who are devoted to our cause. Come, please donate to this nation at least three children.” (He added, comically, “It is alright when Putin is saying this in Russia, but it is not when Tayyip Erdoğan says it in Turkey?”)

There is a temptation to attribute this dismal record to the AKP’s promotion of conservative Islam. Indeed, as Islamist parties have gained power across the Middle East, there have been growing concerns—in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere—that women are being sidelined. And Turkey’s growing ties with the conservative Sunni governments of North Africa and the Gulf region have done little to allay such fears. And yet, in many ways, the status of women in Turkey has as much to do with the patriarchal tendencies of the Turkish Republic itself.


For most of its eighty-year history, the Turkish Republic has been governed by secularists; even if an Islamist or pious leader came to power, the civilian government remained in the shadow of the far more powerful secular (and all-male) military. And regardless of what party was in office, one thing was fairly constant: the situation of Turkish women—in education, in the economy, and in private life—was held in check by a conservative nationalism centered around men. Since he became prime minister, Erdoğan has dismantled the military elite, and allowed the AKP’s conservative Muslim values to flourish in public life. But he has also revealed himself to have a great deal in common with his secular Kemalist predecessors—not least in his arch-traditional attitudes toward women.

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Kayhan Ozer/Anatolian Agency/Corbis

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with his wife Emine during an election rally in Istanbul, Turkey, June 11, 2011

“The AKP is disappointing, because the hope was that they would be more democratic. Instead, they’ve become like every authoritarian misogynistic party before them,” Jenny White, an anthropologist who studies modern Turkey, told me. “They’ve become a typical Turkish party.” White, whose recent book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, explores the status of women under Kemalism and under the AKP, also said:

People forget how bad things were before and during the 1980s. Violence against women before then was not a subject for public discussion because it was widely accepted as “normal” and because political violence stole the spotlight. It was one issue among many that have come out of the shadows in the last twenty years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Turkish leftists (Marxists, Maoists, students, members of the liberal Alevi sect) and rightists (nationalists, Islamists, paramilitary gangs) fought violent battles in the streets; people who lived through those years often remark that they were afraid to go outside. This was followed by a brutal 1980 military coup that had far-reaching effects on Turkish society. Leftist leaders were killed, exiled, or jailed, and their followers were almost entirely wiped out; the military imposed a climate of fearful obedience; and the generals devised what was called the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” in the schools and other state institutions to quell both Islamic radicalism and communist activity—which in practice meant it was up to the military to decide how Islam could be used to regulate public life.

While maintaining a strictly secular political state, the military also established country, family, and mosque as the three pillars of what the Turkish constitution calls “Turkishness,” thus providing a basis for the more overt Turkish Islamism—and nationalism—that has been espoused by the AKP since 2002. According to the historian Erik Zürcher, “it is no coincidence that ‘religion and ethics’ became part of the basic curriculum of all schools” after the 1980 coup. As Zürcher explains, “This religious teaching was exclusively Sunni in content, and patriotism and love for parents, the state, and the army was presented as religious duty.” The initial fusion of Islam and nationalism in the 1980s coincided with the political awakening of working- and middle-class Anatolians—the constituencies who would later find a voice in Erdoğan’s AKP. Along with these developments, however, other events were reinforcing the older, Republican ideal of Turkish society: beginning in 1984, Kurdish separatists began a violent insurgency, and a generation of Turkish men, who are required to serve in the military, went off to defend the Turkish state against them, a conflict that continued through much of Erdoğan’s first decade in office.

The militarized conception of “Turkishness” is where, according to White, the problem for Turkish women begins. Atatürk did support women’s rights—he gave women the vote, outlawed polygamy, banned the veil, and encouraged education–which primarily benefited elite women who had access to it in large cities. But far more pressing was the need to build a strong republic out of an impoverished, weak, and fledgling nation, in part by creating a new national ethos that had distinctly masculine undertones. Decades of military leadership further cemented this ideology of the father-state. Today, White notes, Turks use nearly the same language to describe defending the nation’s borders (sınır namustur, or the “border is honor”) as they do to discuss defending or protecting a woman’s honor (also known as namus). Actual women, who did not serve in the military and who with few exceptions did not liberate the nascent Turkish nation from its Western aggressors, did not have much of a part in the Kemalist story. “All Turks are born as soldiers,” goes the saying. Well, that leaves a lot of Turks out.


Paradoxically, during the AKP’s initial rise to power in the early 2000s, some liberals believed the lot of women might improve. In contrast to the old economic and military elite, Erdoğan seemed a more inclusive leader who promised to bring economic justice to the masses, including lower and middle-class Anatolian women. Early on, the AKP advocated for eliminating the ban on headscarves in public institutions, a measure that would over time allow more women to attend university (though covered women still face discrimination in the public sector). The party also seemed to be creating a safe space for Muslim women to participate in public and political life; many were instrumental in helping to mobilize AKP voters in their own neighborhoods.

As it happened, the first years of Erdoğan’s administration coincided with some important reforms relating to the status of women in Turkish law. Lobbying efforts by women’s rights advocates in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a campaign coordinated by over one hundred women’s groups in 2001, led to a reform of the penal code to recognize women as individuals. Until 2005, a sexual crime against a woman was called “a crime against society,” or a “crime against public morality and the family,” rather than a crime against an individual. The new laws also criminalized marital rape and sexual harassment, increased punishment for honor killings, and reversed legal discrimination against unmarried women. Though Erdoğan had little to do with these reforms, it was he and the AKP who took credit for dramatically improving the legal status of women in Turkey.

Not surprisingly, however, while the laws have changed, implementation has been abysmal; prosecutors and policemen continue to behave as if the old laws were still in effect. One activist who runs a women’s shelter, Hayrettin Bulan, told me that things were so terrible for women in Turkey that if he had a daughter he would forbid her from marrying. Bulan was traumatized but I took his point: Turkish women still don’t have full legal protections. For some of them, that means that their lives are in danger.

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Osman Orsal/Reuters/Corbis

The “woman in red” being pepper-sprayed by Turkish riot police, Istanbul, May 28, 2013

In the spring of 2012, before the abortion debate broke out, feminists and opposition politicians attempted to draft a domestic violence bill calling for, among other things, more legal protection for unmarried women and the establishment of more women’s shelters. It was, by many accounts, a strong bill that would have altered the status quo. But at the last minute, the prime minister’s office gutted it, and a much weaker bill was passed instead. One of the phrases that didn’t fly with the AKP was “gender equality.”

I asked Pinar Ilkkaracan, Turkey’s leading feminist scholar and activist, why the AKP would obstruct the passage of a strong domestic violence bill. Presumably the men in Erdoğan’s party did not want to look like they supported domestic violence. Illkaracan replied that “gender equality” did not fit with their rhetoric of “family values.” “The AKP are literally borrowing the language from the Americans,” Ilkkaracan said. “It’s very sophisticated language, and difficult for feminists to fight against. The AKP is copy-pasting the American conservative party.” Perhaps that explains why Erdoğan decided to take on abortion last year. After the AKP was forced to drop the abortion ban, it called for a new law that feminists say would keep abortion legal but limit women’s access to it—a move that makes Turkey sound a bit like Mississippi.

The riots in Istanbul began over the destruction of a park, but by now, the uprising has become a forum for the grievances of many different groups. Most activists, politicians, and ordinary citizens involved in the protests include women’s issues among many other concerns. In June, the prominent women’s organization Women for Women’s Human Rights presented the government with a list of demands that included protection of the park, the right to assembly, justice for victims of police violence, along with such women-related complaints as lack of accountability for domestic violence, restrictions on state family planning services, and the AKP’s sexist rhetoric.

Of course one risk is that, as in earlier decades, the plight of Turkish women will get lost in larger political debates about basic freedoms and rights in general. And yet the growing recognition of women’s rights among the spectrum of grievances many people have against the Turkish state suggests that the old ways may be changing. In July, when an Islamic pundit declared it “immoral” for a pregnant woman to appear in public, hundreds of pregnant women flaunted their stomachs in protest, joined by men with pillows stuffed under their shirts. Just as some Turks have recognized for the first time that violence against the Kurds in the east is no different than the police violence they are now experiencing in the west, they are also becoming aware that state meddling in women’s lives means meddling in the lives of everyone. Whether or not this will mean actual progress for women, Şehnaz Kiymaz of Women for Women’s Human Rights told me, “will be only seen some time ahead. We expect that the protests will go on in the near future.” If they do, Gezi Park may mark a watershed in not just the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but also the much stronger hold of a patriarchal Turkish state.

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