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.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.