Women on the streets

Observations on Turkey

Selma and Zeriha were happily timing the length of their prayers when we met in Istanbul on an Izmir-bound flight. The stopwatches they produced every five or six seconds supplemented their long coats and covered heads. Gesturing, Selma made clear the devices would be computing all the way to Jeddah, where they were headed for the hajj.

"Mecca," she said with a little giggle, before confiding that neither woman had left Turkey before.

Three hours later, at about the same time the pair were alighting in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of thousands of their female compatriots, many flaunting tattoos from low-cut jeans and skimpy T-shirts, were heading into Izmir on a mission to protest.

Members of feminist groups, a fair number had spent days organising what would turn out to be one of the biggest pro-secular rallies in modern Turkish history. But that, they said, was a small price to pay for pulling off the feat of forcefully displaying what secular women in Turkey can no longer hide: their fear and loathing of the likes of Selma and Zeriha.

Turkey is now a nation divided. For women who see themselves as the upholders of the spirit of Kemal Atatürk, the soldier-statesman who founded the republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Islam's increasingly visible face has become so disturbing it has propelled them on to the streets.

Internationally, the role of women in organising and fomenting the demonstrations that have rocked Turkey in recent weeks has gone almost unnoticed. But in Turkey, commentators describe it as nothing short of a "women's revolution". Demonstrations in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir have drawn millions of women appalled and frightened by the prospect of a president with a hidden Islamist agenda. Though they try not to say it openly, many women have come out on the side of the generals, approving of their threat to intervene if Turkey's Islamic-oriented government attempts to raise the influence of religion.

"Women have emerged as the biggest defenders of secularism and democracy because they directly affect their daily lives," says Selma Acuner, a political scientist at Ankara University. "They don't want to go back to the dark days when they were forced to have a secondary role and wear certain clothes. Yes, of course they are scared."

Although a catch-all group that has liberals and leftists within its ranks, the ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to engender trust among the country's more secular-prone female population from the outset. A bungled attempt by its devout leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to outlaw adultery less than two years after assuming power in March 2003, confirmed fears that his conservative Muslim government had hidden motives.

His nomination of the genial foreign minister, Abdullah Gü, for the post of president proved the tipping point because, like Erdogan, he has a background in political Islam and a wife who insists on being covered.

Erdogan, a despotic figure with an iron grip on the AKP, has done little to dissipate these fears or appease critics convinced he is an Islamist bent on demolishing the separation of state and religion.

Turkey has one of the strongest women's movements in the world - some 40 per cent of its top university academics are female. Over the past decade, women have won a host of civil rights, not least the amendment of the country's penal code that, until last year, sided with those who committed honour killings. "Despite these victories, their representation in parliament is 4.4 per cent - lower than it was in Atatürk's day - and that's another reason why women are screaming and shouting on the streets," says Selma Acuner.