President Erdogan and the gender repercussions of political Islam

Can a new victorious president, ready to transform Turkey, sustain a Muslim modernity while bypassing the individual rights and liberties of women and gay citizens? 

Dila Gurses
20 August 2014

Turkish women protesting against Erdoğan's anti-abortion statements. Nurcan Volkan/Demotix. All rights reserved.On Sunday, August 10, more than 70 per cent of Turkish voters lined up in queues under the humid Turkish summer sun to vote for the twelfth president of the Turkish republic. Had it not been Erdogan’s new project of gaining more executive powers in a presidential system, a possible light at the end of the tunnel for the first opposition bloc, and the legitimacy test of a moderate, inclusive Kurdish candidate, this election would have been just another meaningless ballot box race.

Enough has probably been said about Erdogan’s modern transformation of Turkey in the framework of a hybrid modernity, how this reinforces his legitimacy as the leader of Turkish conservatism, the religious right, as well as an urban educated young Muslim middle class and the business world. Lately, it is estimated that during his office as a PM, Istanbul alone experienced a $100 billion-worth boom of infrastructural investment, becoming a dazzling metropolis under his neoliberal economic governance.

Having claimed to be spearheading an alternative modernity (as Fuat Keyman and Berrin Koyuncu argue) with massive urbanization projects and what was referred to as a Muslim ‘conservative democracy’ by Erdogan's advisor Akdogan in 2003, there is no question that Erdogan has also gained and sustained the considerable support of secular liberals and non-Muslim groups who gave support to the actualization of a democratic framework inclusive of Islam.

My focus, on the other hand, will be from a gender-based viewpoint, stressing the urgency of not compromising over the rights and liberties of women and LGBT in this alternative modernity framework. Can a new victorious president, ready to transform Turkey, sustain a Muslim modernity while bypassing the individual rights and liberties of women and gay citizens? 

The many promises of Alternative Modernity

Many European and American scholars have already discussed this question under headings like the ‘rise of the new right’, the ‘unholy alliance of neo conservatism and neoliberalism’, or ‘gendered austerity cuts’. The fact that right wing politics ignores women, feminist politics and their positions of disadvantage is certainly not a phenomenon confined to the Middle East and Turkey. It is also well documented, not least by Michel Foucault, how European modernity, starting from its nation-building processes of the nineteenth century, has furiously sought to reshape an individual, her/his body with political and medical measures and regulations. So, it might be very misleading to regard western-secular modernity as gender-neutral or fully in line with feminist political theory.

On the other hand, as claims over ‘alternative modernity’ have mounted – both in scholarship and in policy making – we witness the birth of a moderate, neoliberal Muslim political doctrine launched by Erdogan’s AKP or Ghannouchi under the title of a ‘new conservative democracy’. And though analyses of political developments, foreign policy, post-secularism and its other promises are abundant, it is surprising how under-researched in this doctrine are the implications for women’s rights, bodies and sexuality. Critiques of western modernity/top-down secularism offer very limited or incomplete analyses concerning exactly how we are to reconcile tradition, religion and women’s rights, sexuality, and bodily control. Not to mention the dilemma of those women or LGBT citizens who refuse to acknowledge any alternative, Muslim politics that would envisage a compromise with a liberal-secular framework and legalism.

It is left up to gender and democratization scholars to ‘deconstruct’ the democratic legitimacy of such doctrines that are aiming to reshape public policy with alternative, post-secular promises. If this alternative ‘Muslim democracy’ is to change the way we look at democracy in countries like Turkey, India or Tunisia, shouldn’t we pay closer attention to voices like the widowed wife of the moderate politician, Mbarka Brahmi, interviewed here by Karima Bennoune? Can we afford to ignore Erdogan’s deputy Arinc, when, a week before the elections, he advised women not to laugh too loudly lest this might imperil their chastity

AKP’s test applied to women’s bodies

The potential power of women as a constituency has been a longterm preoccupation for Erdogan, as in his party programme. Since the early days of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) and when he was running for the position of mayor of Istanbul, he was surely aware of the benefits of procuring the women’s support. Thus, he claimed he would increase the ‘political literacy of women’, empowering the ‘women’s branches’ of his party, and focusing on the activism, rights and liberties of women. When he was Prime Minister, his efforts focused on women with headscarves: he would free headscarved women, their bodies, from secular-autocratic state regulations. And women in headscarves did not hesitate to call upon Erdogan and the AKP as their ‘saviours’ or ‘pathfinders’ enabling their participation in public and political life for the first time. By October 2013, Turkey had four MPs wearing headscarves in parliament.

Such a liberation, not surprisingly, marked him out as ‘the liberator’ of modern, urban headscarved women as Nihal Bengisu Karaca, one of the most recognized woman columnists in Haber Turk newspaper, herself wearing the veil wrote during the Gezi protests

“[w]omen with headscarves has just begun to feel themselves ‘normal citizens’. Only over the last two years have they embraced their basic human liberties despite the secular sensitivities [in Turkish society]. Moreover, before the AKP government, these women’s experiences and visibility in public were limited to local neighbours and the dominant örf/custom … Do you really expect these women who are freed from secular authoritarianism and discrimination thanks to Erdogan to espouse anti-Erdogan slogans?”  

As Karaca says, no veiled women from the mainstream media, to my knowledge, criticized Erdogan’s tough stance on the Gezi Park protests, leading to the excessive use of tear gas canisters, water cannon, and police brutality as recorded by Human Rights Watch in their ‘Gezi Park’ Report.

The politics of the body in Erdogan’s new ‘conservative democracy’, apart from veiling, focused on family life. The creation and regulation of the ideal, sacred mother that would breed the future pious generations of Turkey was crucial. During his presidential campaign, Erdogan stated that he had established the Ministry of Family and Social Policies to regulate and ‘rescue’ the institution of the family from crumbling, undermined as it had been by previous republican elites. He claimed this as one of his greatest achievements and openly stated that as president, he would monitor this ministry closely, and that he envisaged a new ‘pre-marital’ education programme geared towards educating young women in particular:

“Pre-marital sensitivities are key. For this, we need an education programme that is initiated in both secondary and high schools. These [pre-marital] sensitivities should not be initiated in the university years, and excuse me, from time spent on the streets. This process needs a regulated education” (8 August, 2014).

Being far from clear regarding what is meant by ‘sensitivities’ and certainly ‘streets’, I would argue that his careful choice of words, nonetheless, ought to ring some warning bells for gender-sensitive citizens, women/LGBT organizations, NGOs, opposition MPs, and so forth. Erdogan’s ideal woman citizen seems to be a mother with an experience of sexual intercourse confined to a heterosexual state-regulated (within an education programme) marriage institution. The docile female body, as Foucault might put it, is exposed to bodily controls: see Tremblay on abortion bans, the public discouragement of Ceasarean sections, and Muezzinoglu (Turkey’s Health Minister) openly stating that the state should not compensate public funds for abortions. Additionally, young women must be educated on marriage, the right kind of sexual intercourse, and of course, discouraged from divorce. With these compulsory marriage therapies, heterosexual state-regulated marriage must become the norm in Turkey’s conservative democracy programme. Erdogan did not hesitate before he called up Recep Koral, an MP in his party, upon learning that he was contemplating filing for a divorce, to say, “This does not look appropriate [for you]. Of course, it is your decision, but you can be sure you won’t find political advance easy under the roof of my party if you go down this path.”

Know your place!

Meera Nanda, in Economic and Political Weekly has analyzed in her timely fieldwork how the new Hindu right, and the paradigm of an alternative modernity mindset can also serve to defend, “the claims of indigenous modernity, against the imperialism of high modernity. The problem with such… is that it allows the existing stock of [traditional] knowledge to go unexamined and uncorrected" (p.1483).

My concern is similar to hers, and both raise the question of how to deal politically and judicially with the challenge of post-secular alternative modern political programmes – i.e. how modern ideas might find a toehold in a society, which involves a negotiation with its traditions. What democratization involves in Turkey, must sooner or later lead to a critical stance with respect to western secularism as a product of top-down (or colonial in some states) modernity, banning women who live under an Islamic dress code from participating in political and intellectual activity. However, one needs to ask if this counter position breeds an anti-democratic, culturalist framework? Does the very critique implicit in the  secular Enlightenment project, of ‘bringing religion within the limits of scientific reason’ as Kant argued, in fact pave the way for an uncritical acceptance of traditional knowledges, one that confers legitimacy on the cultural values involved in the Islamic control over women’s sexuality, their bodies and their schooling?

It is worth noting that women (and also LGBT politics for sure) continue to be the first victim of control, regulation and the exercise of power in any situation of rising religious extremism (e.g. ISIS, consolidating their control), political Islam or Hindu right/eclecticism. Those who defend hybrid modernities, and the alternative democracy models of the New Right – a helix of democratization and moderate religiosity – need to engage in a more careful analysis of the thin line between the critique of secularism/reason and a democratic model that does not compromise with freedom of conscience, religious as well as personal, or with our sexual liberties. We will see how Mr. Erdogan will proceed with his alternative modernity programme as president, while he procures for himself the strongest possible executive position.

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