No laughing matter: Women and the new populism in Turkey

Stirring up moral anxieties over women's conduct and propriety is key to a populist discourse that pits a virtuous “us”- the people- against an immoral “them”. But despite its potential for authoritarian control of gender relations, this new populism holds many attractions for women.

Deniz Kandiyoti
1 September 2014


Dancing in Gezi Park. Credit: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

When Turkey's deputy PM,  Bülent Arinc, declared during a public address marking the Bayram festivities at the end of Ramadan  that women should refrain from laughing in public and must remain chaste (iffetli) at all times he created a furore in both the local and international media. Some women protested by posting  pictures of themselves laughing out loud, using a combination of ridicule and non-compliance as a form of resistance. The deputy PM proceeded to compound matters when he added , in reaction to the media storm he stirred up, that those he deplored were “women who go on holiday without their husbands” and  those “who cannot resist climbing a pole when they see one”. This oblique reference to pole dancing, a decidedly marginal phenomenon in Turkey, must have proved irresistible in terms of its potential for sexual innuendo and the opportunity to project immorality and dissolute living onto certain sections of the citizenry. 

Local media commentary took a variety of  forms. The most alarmist came from those who saw this as the thin end of the wedge, a clear sign that Turkey was headed in the direction of   al-Qaeda-type fundamentalist Islam, presaging a bleak future for women. Mustafa Akyol, a journalist from an Islamist background, wrote that although he found the deputy PM's intervention misguided and was in sympathy with the protesting women, the statement was not as outlandish as it seemed.  Various sources in classical Islam do indeed offer prescriptions concerning women's voices (and their laughter) as haram (religiously proscribed) but these medieval treatises, he added, have no place  in our daily lives today. Finally, others used the occasion to bemoan the condition of women in Turkey, arguing that women have very little to laugh about since by international standards they are down at the bottom of the league tables.  For instance, Turkey ranked 120th of 136 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index, down 15 places since 2006, while a 2011 U.N. report indicated domestic violence rates were almost twice those in the United States and 10 times higher than in some European countries.   

But is all this talk concerning women's propriety (or lack of it ) really what it appears to be about?  Or do these moralistic pronouncements  perform less obvious but vital  functions in the ruling party's political arsenal?

The virtuous “us” vs.  the impious “them”: concealing class under the veil of morality 

In fact, the deputy PM's injunction against female laughter came in a broader package containing some of the key ingredients of the AKP's populist appeal. First, a touch of nostalgia for an age when “young girls used to blush and lower their eyes when someone looked at them”- presumably an age of superior Ottoman morality unsullied by the evils of modern Turkey. More intriguingly  the excessive use of cars, and the consumption of lots of petrol, was condemned as was the frequent use of mobile phones, presented as an act of frivolity. This was clearly a call against consumerism and frivolous leisure. How do we explain this bizarre mixture of themes? 

The AKP's brand of populism, masterfully wielded by now president Erdoğan, is by no means  unique to Turkey. It relies on a distinction between “us”, the “real” people (god-fearing, AKP-voting Sunni Muslims in this particular case) versus a “them” consisting of all political detractors and minorities, cast as potentially treasonous undesirables. It is the person of the leader who represents “the national will” and creates a direct bond with the people, by-passing the cumbersome institutions that provide the checks and balances characterizing modern democracies.

This populism also relies on a politics of ressentiment that encourages the projection of  hatred onto  groups or classes seen  as privileged and exclusionary and as oppressors of the national “underdog”. The country's metropolitan, secular middle-classes have long been  routine targets of this discourse. For instance, at the height of the summer protests of June 2013  Erdoğan told a rally in the conservative central Anatolian province of Kayseri:These people have drunk their whiskies for years overlooking the Bosphorus ... and have looked down on everyone else."  Erdoğan plays up his humble origins, uses slang, projects a macho image and mocks the educated classes;  during the presidential campaign he derided the opposition  candidate who is a professor and speaks three foreign languages by interjecting “So what? Are we looking for an interpreter?” This was no doubt intended to  cement the identification between the leader and the popular masses even further.

However, after over a decade in power deepening class cleavages between the AKP ruling elite and their less advantaged followers have become glaringly evident. These have been papered over with reference to shared religiosity, cultural affinity as well as dislike and mistrust of assorted “others”, seasoned with messianic faith in the Turks' vocation as leaders of  all Muslim nations. The latter message resonates particularly well with the base of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) on the ultra-nationalist right, some of whom switched their vote to Erdoğan .

The story of capitalist accumulation in Turkey under the AKP is no longer a tale of self-reliant,  pious Anatolian entrepreneurs making their way in a new market  economy but one of sustained  government intervention in the economy in support of politically privileged entrepreneurs. A glimpse of the fortunes amassed under this regime briefly flashed across the nation's TV screens when an alleged corruption scandal erupted on 17 December 2013 only to be buried under counter-allegations of conspiracy and foul play. But no scandal was necessary for ordinary citizens to take notice of the luxurious homes, expensive cars and lavish lifestyles of the new rich. Indeed, expensively veiled women in designer sunglasses, driving  SUVs and talking on their mobiles is quite a commonplace sight. This raises alternative interpretations concerning the intended target of the deputy PM's admonishments. Could he have been reassuring his conservative popular base that he endorses the Islamic values of sobriety and lack of ostentation by targeting women as reckless consumerists?

In fact, behind overt vituperation against the secular elite a deeper sense of unease now lurks in ruling circles especially after falling out with an erstwhile AKP ally  the Islamist cemaat led by Fethullah Gülen (now dubbed the “parallel state”). The preoccupation with rooting out cadres suspected of  affiliation with the Gülen movement in the police, the judiciary and intelligence, already purged extensively after the 17 December scandal, makes the liquidation of such opponents  a top priority for the newly appointed PM Ahmet Davutoğlu.  In addition, voices of dissent from the Muslim left, although muted and marginal, have berated the government for abandoning its commitment to social justice and labour rights in favour of rapacious profit-seeking. The participation of anti-capitalist Muslims in the Gezi protests was not lost on anyone. The Justice and Labour Platform, set up by Muslim intellectuals, also deplored the violent police repression during the Gezi protests, arguing that having once been oppressed did not justify turning into oppressors. At the apparent zenith of its power, the brand of political Islam represented by the AKP is having to work harder at maintaining its legitimacy despite its near monopoly of the media and extensive capacity to intimidate of its opponents.

Protecting the deserving : the populist deal for women

However, it would be a grave error to imagine that the battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate is mainly being fought out on ideological grounds. The principal pillar of the AKPs electoral success has been the improvement of the economic conditions of the poorer strata through the expansion of welfare entitlements.   Welfare aid includes a vast array of programmes targeted at poor families, including specific benefits aimed at women. There is a distinctly gendered pattern to welfare distribution: women make up 60 percent of the welfare aid recipients and 55 percent of the voters of the AKP are women. The iron logic of this equation was also demonstrated in the presidential elections of August 2010.

Women changed the results” proclaimed the headline of the  daily Milliyet  newspaper reporting on  an exit poll conducted during the presidential elections on August 10th: 55% of women had voted for Erdoğan as against 48% of men. Simply put, Erdoğan would not have got through at the first round if it hadn't been for the female vote. This may come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with  the AKP's controversial policies on women and the family  

Explaining these results by invoking women's self-interest as recipients of benefits, their traditional outlook, or their adulation of a charismatic male leader falls short of capturing the complex dynamics behind their loyalty.  

The AKP inherited the extensive local and neighbourhood-based networks established by its predecessor, the pro-Islamist Welfare Party (Refah) which, after a brief period in power in  a coalition government, was closed down in 1998 on grounds of violating the country's secular constitution. For a while, the Welfare Party took over the role of the left as a champion of economic justice and of the poor, promising a Just Order (Adil Duzen). Studies by Yesim Arat and Jenny White provided useful insights into the roles played by women in the party rank and file and at the local neighbourhood level. Involvement in party activities undoubtedly marked a moment of civic empowerment and political mobilization for women, especially for the previously home bound and the less educated. Many women achieved a new sense of purpose canvassing neighbourhoods and dispensing charity, without incurring the risks of exposure and loss of respectability that haunt women in Turkey when they step out into public roles.  

When the AKP came to power in 2002, the promise of the Just Order gave way to deepening neo-liberal market reforms in the context of EU accession, receiving broad backing outside the party's core constituency. This led to a professionalisation of cadres and a growing distance between party elites and their followers, although religion continued to be used as a political resource. Crucially,  having come to power with a resounding majority the AKP could now embark on publicly funded social welfare programmes. Welfare entitlements that made up 0.5 percent of GDP in 2002 rose to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2013.

The family is key to benefit provisions in Turkey and women are targeted as mothers and as carers of the elderly, sick and disabled. However, women are not just passive  consumers of benefits but active participants in daily interfaces with public bodies at the local level. For instance, municipalities which previously provided only limited  charity aid and in-kind poverty relief now have significant financial resources at their disposal and offer additional social services and benefits. Just in Istanbul, the most populous city, a wide network of Neighbourhood Lodges (Semt Konaklari) tied to different districts offer diverse amenities from soup kitchens, showers and laundries to health (screening services, vaccination and advice) and educational services ( vocational training for adults, literacy classes for women, nurseries and tutorial help for school age children), not to mention cultural activities such as concerts, conferences and excursions. The integration of women and children into urban life is an explicitly stated goal.  Women of the popular classes, especially those of rural extraction, experience a new sense of “citizenship through entitlement”. What is more although the funding for these activities comes from taxpayers' money, sometimes  augmented by charitable giving, the recipients perceive it as the exclusive result of party largesse - a belief no doubt cemented by the distribution of in-kind help for winter fuel and basic foodstuffs from  party coffers especially during election periods.  

However, 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, and those who realize that only the deserving will be protected.  

Two episodes starkly illustrate this proposition. The first relates to an alleged attack on a veiled woman in front of Istanbul’s Kabataş dock at height of the  Gezi protests.  Although later challenged by CCTV footage as possibly bogus, this incident had the PM fuming over the affront to “our sister” that demonstrated the violent, barbaric and anti-religious disposition of the protesters. An earlier episode concerns the case of a woman demonstrator who in June 2011 climbed on a panzer during a protest in Ankara and was savagely beaten by the police, suffering a hip fracture. The PM , belittling the incident, asked at a public meeting:  “was she a girl or a woman, I don't know” (kiz midir kadin midir, bilemem). By casting aspersions on her virginity he left his listeners in no doubt that he thought her of small virtue, as would be expected from her unseemly, unfeminine behaviour. The message could not be clearer: only the deserving (our sisters) are worthy of protection, the rest, and especially women with the audacity break the norms of modesty and protest in public put themselves in jeopardy.

Is the price of protection too high? Apparently not for millions of women who either subscribe to the same gender ideology themselves, who feel better off or who opt for the comforts of what they see as protection and security traded against acquiescence and loyalty. This, after all, is the oldest deal with patriarchal power in all its forms, now being played out on a national scale with the powerful resources of paternalistic populism.

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