The gender wars in Turkey: a litmus test of democracy?

The pent up fury and grief released by Özgecan Aslan’s attempted rape and gruesome murder reveal deep fault lines and simmering sources of disaffection in Turkish society.

Deniz Kandiyoti
30 March 2015

Woman holding a placard with an image of a young woman alongside Turkish text

Photo: @emekci_hareket

On a freezing cold day on the 21st of February 2015 a group of men wearing skirts marched towards the iconic Taksim square: they were protesting the brutal attempted rape and murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20 year old student from Mersin, whose mutilated and partly burnt body was discovered in a riverbed on February 13th. This came on the heels of nation-wide demonstrations staged by women’s groups who were outraged and combative: among their striking slogans was “Özgecan is not our lament but our rebellion”. In a repetition of what has sadly become an all too common ritual in Turkey, it was women who carried her coffin to its final resting place.

Gruesome sexual assaults and murders of women are, sadly, commonplace throughout the world. These seldom lead to overtly political contestations. In Turkey, however, things rapidly escalated into full blown attacks on the current regime and its policies.

Men march with linked arms

Turkish men wear skirts to protest violence against women

How do we account for this hyper-politicization? Does the realm of gender based violence and women’s rights serve to articulate deeper layers of disaffection? What does this tell us about the state of democracy in Turkey?

It would be fair to say that this tragic event acted as a litmus test of the struggles over the soul of the polity. One set of reactions focused on how to better segregate women in order to protect them from such assaults (with proposals for women-only “pink”  buses or separate carriages on the subway system). Some politicians, like the Family and Social Policies Minister, even called for the reinstatement of the death penalty which was abolished in 2004 to meet European Union standards. An implicit admission that the pubic domain is out of bounds for women, and the simultaneous pathologizing of violent men, underlies this rather confused bundle of reactions.

A diametrically opposed reaction came from those who mounted virulent critiques of the type of society and mentality that puts women in peril unless they are segregated. We were reminded of numerous legal judgements where perpetrators of violence  against women (including murderers) got off lightly, with arbitrary references to “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance of the gang rape of a 15-year-old who was supposed to have given her “consent”, and of the many instances of threatened women seeking police protection and receiving none. This climate of impunity clearly has institutional underpinnings that were being brushed under the carpet. References to pathological men and a violent society obfuscate a systematic pattern of institutional discriminination, marginalization, intimidation and abuse of women.

The President added fuel to the fire when he stated that he condemned violence against women because “men are the custodians of women” (kadinlar erkeklerin emanetidir) and men have a duty to protect them. He claimed his views were based on Islamic sources. This triggered howls of protest from women’s rights defenders at the demeaning implications of this stance and a demand for rights, not protection.  A theologically trained women’s rights defender also weighed in and contested the purported religious grounding of such pronouncements. Clearly,  it was not only secular feminists who felt deep unease with the notion that adult women are the wards of men (a notion that prevails in some countries under shari’a based family legislation. Needless to say, this also contravenes existing legislation in Turkey which since the 2001 reform of the Civil Code and the 2004 amendments to the Criminal Code, has come into closer compliance with CEDAW requirements.

Meanwhile, the demonization of feminists reached new heights when the President reprimanded them for having “no relation to our religion and our civilization” (ya senin bizim dinimizle medeniyetimizle ilgin yok ki), resorting to a form of “othering” that morphs any opposition into treason. He bitterly resented the politicization of this murder case, apparently unaware that this might be the harvest of seeds planted under his rule.

Women march holding a banner

Photo: @emekci_hareket

These debates had clearly struck a chord in the public conscience: the general mood was one of outrage and despair. On the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, television channels were not only beaming news of demonstrations and events (which included a men’s run “against violence” and a mixed sex cycling event) but an announcement by the PM Davutoğlu that he was embarking on a new 2016-19 action plan on "Fighting Violence against Women". The President delivered an address vowing to make the elimination of violence against women his personal mission. With an election looming in June 2015, broadcasting the message that women would be safe under their watch had clearly become a priority for the ruling party.

How, when and why had their credentials in this domain become so tarnished? I suggest that  the combination of the rapid unravelling of women’s rights between 2004 - 2015, and the effects of a populist discourse that puts women's conduct and propriety at the heart of AKP’s political messaging - distinguishing a virtuous “us” from an immoral “them”- accounts for both an erosion of trust,and a hyper-politicization of gender issues.

The unravelling of women’s rights: a tortuous trajectory

During the early years of the AKP regime the women’s movement in Turkey achieved significant gains in the sphere of legal reforms. Between 2002-2004 a vigorous three-year campaign led by a coalition of women’s and sexual liberties groups - The Platform for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code – successfully pushed through the adoption of a draft law on September 26, 2004. With the earlier reform of the Civil Code in 2001, these changes represented the most progressive pieces of legislation in the republican era since the early Kemalist reforms.

Turkey’s EU membership candidacy in December 1999 and the necessity to bring its legal, political and economic system into alignment with EU standard undoubtedly provided the women’s movement with a window of opportunity to press for further demands. Like many other countries jumping on the women’s rights bandwagon for geopolitical advantage, Turkey made the most of advances in this domain during the first term of the AKP  (2002-2007). It took a lead role for the empowerment of women in the US-led Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) in the context of the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD). The reforms of its civil and penal codes furthered its attempts to meet the criteria for EU accession. Later, in 2009, a Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women was established for the first time. Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), the Istanbul Convention, in 2012.

Under this façade of compliance with international standard setting instruments, new political messages had started circulating. One of the first shocks came at a consultation meeting with women’s non-governmental organizations (where some 60 organizations were present) on 18 July 2010, where then Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that Turkey’s signatory status to CEDAW notwithstanding, he did not believe in the equality of men and women. Women’s principal, and preferably sole vocation, should be home making and motherhood. This accords with their distinctive and divinely ordained nature (fitrat). This has now become such an established tenet of public discourse that the period when it still had shock value seems like a distant memory.

Institutional changes followed. The General Directorate of Women’s Status and Problems, the national machinery for the promotion of gender equality, established as a requirement of the CEDAW process and created in 1990, was abolished in 2011. It was replaced by the Ministry of the Family and Social Policies. Discrimination against women was henceforth placed alongside the protection of children, the disabled, and the elderly, clearly marking it out as a social welfare issue.  Women were being cast primarily as objects of  “protection” rather than fully-fledged bearers of rights.

This polarized context was inflamed further when the embarrassing Uludere incident in December 2011 (where 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed near the Iraqi border after the Turkish military mistakenly thought them to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants) was rather unexpectedly turned into a debate about abortion and a Turkish woman's right to choose.  Speaking to a May 26, 2012 meeting of the AKP's women's branches in Ankara, the Prime Minister told the gathered women he considered abortion as murder. He also suggested that abortion and Turkey's high rate of caesarean section births, which he claimed make it harder for a woman to give birth again, were part of a "hidden" plot to reduce Turkey's population.

It is worth noting that that no significant legal changes followed these debates. There is little need for changes on the statute books for actual practices to change on the ground.  It is now a matter of routine that public hospitals work with de facto directives that restrict access to abortions and discourage C-sections. Despite Erdoğan’s declared aim to raise “a pious generation”, overt legislative actions such as lowering the age of veiling in schools to 10 years old were sporadic. Instead, public space became saturated with messages and exhortations targeting the life worlds of citizens by monitoring their lifestyle choices such as limiting access to alcohol, proscribing displays of intimacy in public, or attempting to ban co-ed dorms for university students. It is  little wonder that youth protests (including the forms of expression in evidence during the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013) targeted the hectoring and moralistic tone of the head of state on occasions when he took on the role of the strict and scolding pater familias.

However, policing the status and comportment of women cannot be simply put down to enforcing norms of Islamic modesty, but constitutes a key component of a more complex political landscape where two new trends are working in tandem.

The first consists of the co-optation of women’s rights issues by government-organized organizations (GONGOs) which, in collaboration with the government, aim to sideline and marginalize the women’s movement in Turkey, and to supplant its guiding principle of equality between men and women in favour of a gender ideology closely mirroring party priorities and directives.

I drew attention elsewhere to the hijacking of women’s rights platforms and organizations by ruling elites in authoritarian Arab states where the wives, daughters and close kin of heads of state or ruling dynasties headed government sponsored women’s organizations. This type of co-optation did not characterize the political landscape in Turkey, at least until recently. Although “official” women’s organizations have always collaborated with governments, and women’s branches of political parties have always acted as their auxiliaries, there was a space in civil society allowing the articulation of women’s demands (as demonstrated by the lobbying activities that led to the legal changes in 2001 and 2004, referred to above). The current onslaught on women’s rights platforms and organizations is therefore unprecedented, and reflects a broader process of capture of civil society by the state, and a more totalistic political project.

The fateful turn: from rights to conditional protection

A second diffuse but persistent tendency has been the deployment of a populist discourse where women’s conduct and propriety plays a key role in delineating the boundaries between “us” (God- fearing, Sunni, AKP voters), and a “them” consisting of all political detractors and minorities, cast as potentially treasonous and immoral. These modes of “othering” potentially expose those sections of the female citizenry - not to mention sexual minorities - who fail to conform to norms of government-decreed propriety to intimidation and harassment. Not only are these citizens not worthy of protection, but even ordinary civilians may take it upon themselves to discipline them with impunity. We may recall that even tradesmen (esnaf) have been encouraged to enforce law and order as guardians of national traditions and morality. With memories of machete wielding “tradesmen” attacking protestors during the Gezi events still fresh in the public mind, the chilling implications of this stance are crystal clear.

Yet women supporters of the ruling party (and polls suggest they may outnumber men) feel empowered by the new populist deal on offer. These are not just women of the ruling elite who are key stakeholders and powerful political players in their own right, but women of the popular classes who have become beneficiaries of new welfare entitlements ( 60% of welfare recipients are women ) and who are directly targeted for benefits, by-passing male heads of household. Supporting women in their roles as mothers and home makers goes beyond cash transfers and in-kind assistance, and extends to a range of municipal services in the areas of health, education and culture that create a new sense of citizenship through entitlement

The proof of women's loyalty does not lie in voting behaviour only, but in their demonstration that they are among the worthy who have absorbed the party's message about their God-given vocation as mothers and home makers. This is both a de facto reality for a majority of women and a world view they can easily relate to, since they are deeply familiar with a patriarchal trade-off that offers conditional protection in exchange for acquiescence and consent. Those who step out of this protective embrace and dare to demand equal rights as individuals put themselves in jeopardy. And the chasm separating those who acquiesce from those insisting on full-fledged rights is growing.

The case of Özgecan Aslan occasioned such deep revulsion and despair not only because of the gruesome nature of her murder, but because she was so blatantly “innocent”; a 20-year old commuting between home and college who fought back against her assailant and paid with her life. She was not merely seen as the victim of an individual rapist/murderer, but as the casualty of a system that was seen to have cheapened women’s lives in the process of spinning out a polarizing populist discourse targeting women. This latest episode of violence released all the pent up fury (and grief) of sections of society that were feeling trampled upon and could no longer recognize themselves in the “New Turkey” taking shape by fiat and, increasingly, through coercion.

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