Amidst allegations of large-scale government corruption, as well as growing concerns of one party authoritarianism, Turkey’s ruling party AKP emerged victorious from the local elections held on March 30 under the leadership of its chairman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. An important part of Erdoğan’s electoral success was his effective mobilization of women. According to the polls, more than half of the AKP votes were likely to be cast by women. Yet in return for their support women got little more than a thank you message delivered during the prime minister’s post-election victory speech. Only 1% of AKP mayors elected at the city and the district level are female.
There are many factors involved in the AKP’s success to make the party relevant to female voters, from its effective grassroots politics to the fact that Erdoğan is a charismatic leader with a great deal of personal appeal. Yet it was Erdoğan’s political discourse in particular that brought together all the contributing factors and channelled them into votes.
At the centre of his discourse lies an effective branding of the idea of victimhood. Ever since the AKP emerged into the Turkish political landscape in 2001, Erdoğan and his fellow party members have presented themselves as perpetual victims of the secular state establishment. They see themselves as being pushed to the sidelines of society and politics due to their beliefs. Erdoğan maintained this discourse of victimhood during the recent electoral campaign and, as before, he extended it to women as well.
In Erdoğan’s discourse, headscarved women are victimized due to their beliefs and the stakes for them vary from a noble death to public humiliation. The example he cited for the former during his rallies was 17-year-old Asma, the daughter of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Al-Beltagi. Asma was killed during a demonstration in Cairo last year. For the latter, Erdoğan has often relied upon the case of a young headscarved woman who claimed to have become caught up in one of the massive demonstrations in Istanbul in the summer of 2013 and to have been molested by a group of around fifty demonstrators. Video footage of the alleged event did not display any signs of attack against the woman in question, but Erdoğan nevertheless kept singling her out as a victim.
In fact a number of new regulations undertaken by Erdoğan’s government mostly in 2013 addressed Turkey’s restrictions on the use of the headscarf in government institutions, including in parliament. It can thus be argued that nowadays there would be less ground to build a solid discourse of victimhood around the headscarf issue, but Erdoğan maintains that headscarved women continue to remain the victims of intolerance and prejudices. While referring to the female victims of the secular establishment as his own sisters, Erdoğan has also been identifying another group of Turkish women whom he demonizes and occasionally calls “unconscionable women” or other sisters. These women of allegedly vicious character belong to the opposition parties and his former allies in the Gülen movement.
Yet Erdoğan’s description of female victimhood remains rather narrow in a country that ranks 120th out of 136 countries in the 2013 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index. He does not, for instance, persistently address the issues of growing violence against women, low rates of female employment, or the so-called child bride problem, which has long plagued Turkey.
Moreover, female empowerment, which could be an antidote to female victimhood, does not have a visible place in Erdoğan’s and his party’s discourse. Erdoğan has in fact announced that he does not believe in gender equality. He is also known to have taken a stand even against headscarved women when a group of these women started a campaign during the 2011 national elections to be elected to the parliament on the AKP ticket. He dismissed the campaign as inappropriate and said that the headscarf issue should not be turned into a matter of confrontation.
Nurten Ertuğrul is an elected municipal council member from the city of Bingöl. She was a part of the successful electoral campaign for the AKP candidate who won 65% of the female votes cast. When the time to decide on the division of labour in the municipality came, Ertuğrul was informed that she would not be considered for any of the key positions. The mayor thought that such an appointment would be against religion and traditions. She resigned from office in protest. She did not receive any support from her party and she was criticized by the AKP deputy chairman for her reaction. Her case has once again demonstrated that within the AKP there is not much room for women seeking political agency beyond the discourse of victimhood.
There is an unnamed crisis of representation in Turkey, as half of the population is not effectively integrated into the political decision-making mechanisms at local and national levels. The blame does not fall exclusively on the AKP. Nevertheless, as the major player in contemporary Turkish politics for more than a decade, the AKP has had a substantial role in maintaining the status quo in keeping politics the gentlemen’s club that it is.
Erdoğan’s persistent reference to victim versus vicious sisters pays off in terms of electoral success, but it also deepens the crisis of representation. When women demand more active roles and representation in the party, in other words when they seek to transcend their alleged victimhood, they become one of the vicious sisters. Under these conditions the female electorate’s fascination with Erdoğan is likely to remain a rather one-sided affair.