Cycling through Turkey...

...an ambivalent country.

About 200 miles separate the Greek border from Istanbul. I knew before I reached them that I planned to ride quickly and get back to some of the comforts of a settled life. In Greece and Croatia I would regularly talk EU with those I met... it’s topical, comes up in conversation. I knew before I got to Turkey that I wouldn’t mention it once, and neither would anyone else. Perhaps when I lived here four years ago it might’ve been different, but even then approval for accession was faltering... nowadays the matter has become completely irrelevant. On too many occasions the EU exposed the reality of its supposed inclusivity. We had Sarkozy openly opposing Turkish accession, Austrian politicians at least have the clumsy decency to be honest and admit they see the EU as a Christian affair, Germany finds it easier to welcome Turks as workers than as citizens. A year ago I asked a Turkish friend if she thought Turkey still wanted to join the EU. She laughed... “I think that soon the EU will ask to join Turkey.” Turkey is not at a crossroads. This may come as a disappointment to cliche enthusiasts all over the world. People love the “east meets west”... Istanbul as a city straddling two continents... Europe and Asia. All that hokum is the lifeblood of tourism here, but the reality is that Istanbul is no more a meeting point of cultures than Bradford, Leicester, or the Edgware Road... and as a city it’s much less diverse than London or Paris. Turkish politics is charged, it always is... but it doesn’t involve the EU, not anymore.

For some time Turkish horizons have been broadening, looking as much to the south and east as to the west. The Turkish economy is dominated by a handful of enormous holding companies enjoying significant control of media outlets, not to mention relationships with government that are far too close. From this domestic stronghold Turkish construction in particular has spread outwards, $20bn worth of Turkish projects were interrupted when Libya went into civil war, everything from airports to roads and ice rinks are being constructed by Turkish firms in central Asia. The economic push has its cultural counterpart, a Turkic brand of Islam is taught by Turkish-backed schools known as the Gülen Movement, the schools are not without controversy, but nonetheless have seen a Turkic vision of Islam being taken to nations such as Pakistan. In 2009 I was cycling through Kazakhstan, where oligarchs who emerged from a falling Soviet Union have holidays in the south of Turkey and send their children to be educated in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey exports soap operas all over the Caucasus, now and then I would be with families in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, amazed to find teenagers in particular glued to images from Ortaköy and the Bosphorus. In the Caucasus, Istanbul has developed the same sort of prestige a European might lend to New York.

How does all that convert to the streets of Istanbul? Outside, the world media depicts Turkey as a rapidly developing economy... a story of boom every bit as simplified as the Greek story of bust. The Economist, who should really write children's stories rather than news articles about Turkey, have spoken of the country as Europe's China, and yet domestically people still talk more about high unemployment and inflation. In the Galata district, south of Taksim, I talk to a graduate student of Bilgi University. She tells me the once renowned state institution has been sold to the American Laureate Education Inc, one of the world's biggest retailers for private education. She tells the same story as others I know at private schools in poor countries... 'most students don't want to learn... always tapping at iphones... but because their parents pay such high fees it's almost impossible for teachers to fail them.' Nobody told the UK's coalition government how education works when you make money its central component.

Looking for optimism, we talk instead about the quality of Turkish fruit and vegetables. In response I hear of the urban migration underway in Turkey, with villages sucked dry to provide workers for overcrowded cities. I listen to the story of the Turkish banana... "always grew really well in southern Turkey... but now Turkey has started importing more bananas from South America. People say they're better quality, which isn't true... and part of the reason for the change is the economy here is doing well, and there's employment for farmers in the textile factories..." she places her hands on the table... "the problem is when the currency goes down, or the textile factories move somewhere with cheaper labour... then there's nobody left growing food, and we'll have no money to buy any."

If that's the outlook for rural poor, urban middle classes look to be having a better time of things. In the affluent district of Levent I cycle by the newest of the city's shopping centres, still as busy as when I first saw it two years ago, and me still just as amazed that you can see Harvey Nichols in Istanbul. Inside you find Wagamama waiting to be joined by Carluccio's, and outside a security guard tells you there is a policy of no bicycles on the forecourt... the whole arrangement a nice tribute to the fact that Turks do privatised control of public space as well as any Briton, and Muslims know how to worship consumer gods as ardently as any Christian. I wonder if I'm looking at the future of humanity... with core economies holding cultural and economic control of the entire world, whilst the third world - be it Africa gobbled up by the Chinese or the Caucasus by Turks - is left as scraps for the second world, and middle classes everywhere are given Harvey Nichols and katsu curry to make it through seven disempowered decades on the planet. In each of these countries - from Britain to Kazakhstan - the world's poor sink below the radar, drop out the bottom.

I meet Turkish friends who seem little more positive about the future of their society. People are sad about the rise of gated communities, the inequality, exclusion and ugly portrayal of affluence this belies. Turks are amongst the world's top users of Facebook, and my friends lament that this is the medium through which the middle classes now live. They reproach themselves... "of course I could go to a protest... I care... I care so much... but I don't want to be hit with a policeman's gun." I tell them that although for the most part less brutal, kettling protesters has the same effect on activism in Britain.

The hesitations might be the same, but the protests are different. The Turkish protest movement is levelled almost exclusively against an Islamic government. Since the 2002 election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey's secular and republican middle classes have felt increasingly threatened. There is no disputing that AKP were democratically elected, the concern is that democracy has allowed Islam retake a central place in Turkish society, but that once that position has been consolidated, Islam will never extend democracy the same courtesy. The fears seem justified, and even though The Economist maintain a strict code whereby it's impossible to read the name AKP without the prefix 'moderately Islamist'... both the New York Times and The Guardian have begun to talk about the erosion of democracy, with Turkey now the world leader for journalist arrests, and the government having acquired the power to appoint judges in the constitutional court. The electoral strength of AKP helped Turkey move away from a dark history when democratic governments were intimidated and toppled by military coups. The concern now is that the AKP are weakening that same democratic process in the name of their own power.

You have to wonder what took the outside world so long to start cottoning on. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once expressed regret at having played football in his youth because shorts were immodest. In a recent blunder, a low ranking minister said that a woman without a headscarf is like a house without curtains, either for sale or rent... and yet such comments have leaked from the party ever since their 2002 election. The party's keynote Islamic policy, lifting the ban on headscarves in universities and other state buildings, has been used by foreign media to represent the party line, when in reality it's more like the tip of an iceberg. By far the most troubling factor, which has again gone unnoticed, is that the headscarf ban was lifted more in the name of Islam than in the name of freedom and equality of expression. It'll be interesting to see how The Economist reconciles its 'moderately Islamist' with a proposed outlawing of abortions .

Worse is what the tone of religious rhetoric has done to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially women. Secular friends talk of being looked at with disdain by covered women in cafes where everyone once would have sat unconcerned by theology. In retort I've heard it said that women in full, black niqabs look like cockroaches... I'm assured it's a joke, but joke or otherwise it shows the low ebb to which relations have fallen. Most distressing is the incidence of domestic violence, specifically honour killings of a woman or teenage girl who resists her family's marital decisions. Although statistics are haphazard, there is general agreement that the practise has increased during the ten years of AKP power, particularly amongst Kurdish communities. Ironically enough, the last decade has also seen an improvement in legislation to protect Turkish women... apparently words on paper don't go very far when the government helps to create a culture in which the greatest abuses and misuses of Islam are committed.

Across the last four years I've spent the best part of eighteen months living in Turkey. I can still wax lyrical about the flavour of the tomatoes and peaches, the grilled meat and fish, the richness of the language and the fact that Turkish has a word for the reflection of moonlight on water. I love the respect for the universe that is implicit to the culture here, a spirituality thanks in no small part to the holism of Sufi Islam. I still love the way that Turkey remains broadly uninfected by the west's evil, media-infused culture of fear... the way strangers will talk to one another, that a man will pick up someone else's child and ruffle his hair without any thought that such an innocent act could ever be the precursor to something sinister. On a crowded Istanbul bus, when someone gets on at the middle door, they sometimes pass their akbil, the equivalent of their oyster card, through the crowd towards the front of the bus. Complete with the owner's keys, the akbil will make its way through the strangers to the front of the bus, where a stranger swipes it and sends it back through the strangers to the original owner. Turkey will always be a special place to me, but any idiot can wave a flag... if you really care about a country, it's no less important to criticise it.

Turkish cycling slippers. Photograph: Getty Images.

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.