A video that began circulating on social media on July 29 has put Turkey’s liberal women on alert. The dark, grainy clip, shot on a cellphone at dusk in Istanbul’s Maçka Park, shows a chaotic scene in which a crowd of people have gathered around a woman who is obviously incensed about something.
“I’m going to go crazy! I’m going to go crazy!” the woman, dressed in short shorts and a light white blouse, can be heard screaming as the camera sweeps left and right. “This is not your business! You cannot disturb me like this!”
According to witnesses, trouble started when someone complained about the way the woman, Burcu Şenturk, was dressed. “You cannot go around like this in the park,” another woman, who was conservatively dressed with a headscarf, reportedly said.
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The situation escalated when one of the park’s security guards arrived. He sided with the conservative woman, telling Şentürk he could not allow her to be in the park dressed the way she was, “like he was my grandfather,” she later told Turkey’s DHA news agency.
Earlier that day, Şentürk had joined a demonstration in Istanbul’s staunchly secular Kadiköy district protesting the growing violence secular women in Turkey face for the way they dress. Hundreds of women, waving placards and chanting, “Don’t mess with my outfit!”, had marched to condemn Turkey’s emboldened conservative class after a spate of attacks against women wearing shorts.
Women’s rights have increasingly come under pressure in Turkey. On May 29, the country’s constitutional court struck down a law that forbade couples from cohabiting if they had only performed a religious marriage ceremony. The law, rooted in centuries-old Ottoman tradition, also required a civil service and was originally intended to protect women from abuse, including child marriages.
Supporters of the court decision claimed the original law discriminated against believers. “There is no punishment for those who are not married and living together but there is punishment for those who have a religious marriage,” Mustafa Sentop, deputy chairman of the Islamist-leaning AK Party, said. “Such logic is unacceptable.”
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Women’s rights activists argued the decision needed to be taken in context. Under the rule of the AK Party, they said, Turkey has experienced a steady decline of secularism. Gender equality is under threat as Turkey’s religious conservatives, energized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s open declaration of war against liberalism, take it upon themselves to impose their moral codes on society.
Recent AK Party changes to Turkey’s education system have offered proof to the conservatives that the government is on their side. On July 18, Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz announced the theory of evolution would be eliminated from the high school curriculum, arguing such a sensitive topic is too complex for young, impressionable minds.
At the same time, he announced the addition of jihad to the elementary school curriculum. The concept, Yilmaz said, would be taught as “love for one’s country” and would offer a counter-narrative to the extremist use of the term.
But jihad-cum-nationalism doesn’t sit well with many secular Turks, nor does it arouse the sympathies of Turkey’s religious moderates. Islam in Turkey has historically been a heterodoxy of beliefs ranging from mysticism to moderate orthodoxy. Fundamentalism has always occupied the fringe in Turkish society and politics. The harnessing of such a loaded term as jihad for a nationalist agenda has some people worried.
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish commentator and author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, sees it as a government-sanctioned colonization of secularism by religion. In Turkey, a state institution, the Diyanet, set up at the behest of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is tasked with overseeing Turkey’s religious space. The Diyanet sets the tone for the role of religion in Turkish society. It hires and fires preachers and approves their sermons. Under Erdogan, the Diyanet has grown into one of Turkey’s largest institutions, raking in more funding than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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On July 31, the head of the Diyanet, Mehmet Gormez, a reformist academic who was supposed to retain his position until 2020, was fired, setting off speculation of a power struggle within Turkey’s religious leadership. Akyol reads the move as a victory for the more radical conservatives, who have been critical of Gormez’s reformist tendencies.
Those conservatives have increasingly made their presence known in Turkey’s public spaces. They have formed neighbourhood associations that regularly target secularists for perceived slights to Islam, attacking people for drinking alcohol in public or eating food in the daytime during the fasting month of Ramadan. They permeate Turkey’s pro-government news outlets, condemning critics with a vehemence that borders on incitement to violence.
Women are now in their crosshairs and rights activists worry if a hardliner is appointed to head the Diyanet, it will only get worse. But on the bright side, some women inside the AK Party have started to voice concerns over the direction Turkish society has taken. Two, Ayşenur Bahçekapılı and Ayşenur İslam, expressed their opposition to the changes to Turkey’s marriage law, a rare instance of dissent among AK Party parliamentarians. And in November 2016, a pro-government women’s rights organization overseen by Erdogan’s own daughter opposed a draft law that would have allowed rapists to marry their victims to avoid prosecution. The proposal was withdrawn.
Turkey’s slide into religious intolerance, led by men, appears to be accelerating. But it may very well be women who put an end to it.