The Republic of Turkey has gone through tremendous changes in the economic, political and social fields during the last decades. These were brought about by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP as it is commonly referred ever since it came to power in 2002. A market-oriented party having ideological roots in the Turkish Islamist movement, AKP commands strong political following in the intense religious and conservative middle class of Turkey. The paper highlights women identity, their lives and perceptions under AKP government in Turkey today.
Sweeping Changes under AKP Rule in Turkey
Ever since AKP came to power in 2002, it has pursued sweeping reforms both in the foreign and the domestic fronts. Consequently, that have warmed Turkey’s relations with Europe, the U.S, and Israel. Many analysts in the Middle-East including Islamists believe AKP’ Turkey to be well on the road to becoming an Islamic power and role model for other Islamic states. The success of the Justice and Development Party can well be gauged in 2002 for the first time with 34% popular votes was again voted to power in 2007 with 47% popular support. The Turkish people saw the AKP party as a reformist party and voted it to power discarding the ageing leaders of the Kemalist party. The emergence of AKP has been based on Islamic ideology or Islamic faith (Toledano).
After resounding victory in 2007, the AKP embarked on more ambitious and daring goals for a new and resurgent Turkey. It took steps to restructure relations between the elected civil authority and the military that had been the protector of the Kemalist order and had overturned many governments that contravened Kemalist principles. The military of Turkey took control of the government in 1960, 1971, 1980, and more recently in 1997 indirectly. Hence, a rapprochement with the military was a step in the right direction. The wearing of head-scarf was an issue when on 19th September 2007; President Gul’s wife covered her head with a scarf while on an official visit to an army base. The Chief of Staff General Aslan Guner intentionally avoided a handshake with the First Lady due to her using headscarf publically (Toledano).
Islamic Veiling and Women in Turkey
Islamic veiling of women is a religious practice and a highly contested political symbol within the Muslim societies and the political arena worldwide. The politics of covering or veiling has taken center stage especially in Turkey where 99% population is Muslim. Starting from Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ who was in favor of westernization and modernization, and introduced the principle of revolutionism. It stood for revolutionary and complete transformation of the society and banned the use of scarf by women. Earlier, Ataturk had prioritized gender equality and equal rights for women in his secular cultural revolution. He reformed sharia that imposed serious strictures on women during the Ottoman Empire and provided new opportunities and rights to the women. Women were accorded equal rights and were given the right to vote. Ataturk established the Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet to segregate mosque and state. However, Diyanet has now been interfering with the private life of the people and declared that headscarf-wearing was "an obligation incumbent on all Muslim women". (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam 90).Later Diyanet’s website was replete with features that warned women not to use perfumes and clothes revealed their figure and adornments. It said that it was the responsibility of women to cover themselves, and not stimulate male sexually. It also distributed pamphlets that explained duties of women as housewives and educated them on such issues as marriage and sexuality. However, during the AKP rule, the monumental progress achieved earlier began to weaken (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam).
The vote percentage for a secular state declined from 73% in 2002 to 55% in 2007, and the number of Turks having allegiance to Islam increased from 36% in 1999 to 46% in 2006. The overall percentage of women in the civil service executive positions decreased from 15% in 1994 to 11% in Turkey, as per an Ankara-based women's rights group. Despite 33% of lawyers being women, not a single woman is among the top bureaucrats in the ministry of justice in Turkey. The Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, declared on World Women's Day 2008 that the role of a woman in the society of Turkey is not defined by a career, but "to make at least three babies each". (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam 96). The AKP government took these trends as well as its facile victory as a mandate to pursue a policy of counter-revolution. It began to strengthen Islamization and to restore the importance of Islam in shaping the destiny of the Turkish people including the women. It sought to Islamize Education by discouraging the normal behavior by female students such as socialization with males, viewing non-Islamic TV channels, and female students donning pants. The AKP government encouraged girls to attend to Quran and IH schools to spread Islamic values. The large number of female IH graduates had no job opportunities as they were not eligible to become Imams and Hatips for which they were trained. With no hope of working as Imams, these girls spread Islamic values, married and produced children who would imbibe Islamic norms. The Prophet Muhammad’s birth, a religious holiday, is extensively celebrated across Turkey under the aegis of the various ministries with girls ranging between seven and ten covered in Islamic veil from the head to toe. (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam).
Islamism and Women
The famous social scientist, Yesim Arat, revealed that "propagation of patriarchal religious values that sanction secondary roles for women, both through public bureaucracy, the educational system, and civil society organizations." (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam 91). It further showed that political leaders with sexist inclination infiltrated the political system, and some other earlier banned religious organizations have been establishing schools and dormitories that promote religiously sanctioned secondary roles for women. Not only that AKP leaders have been introducing Islamic norms into daily life, but also numerous women have been coerced to change their way of leading their lives. During the AKP rule, the number of women wearing headscarf has increased significantly. Tarhan Erdem, the famous pollster, found in a survey conducted in 2007 that the number of women wearing scarf has increased fivefold in Turkey during 2003 to 2007 from a paltry 4.1% to mammoth 19.7%. The percentage of scarf wearing married women tripled during that period from around 25% to 75%. These statistics suggest that women in Turkey are compelled to wear the scarf by their conservative husbands. The wife of President Gul, Hayrunnisa, married at the age of 15 with the 30-year old husband in an arranged marriage, quit school and donned scarf. The Deputy Prime Minister's wife, Zeynep Babacan, had been studying in a university when she married him in an arranged marriage, and immediately quit her studies and started wearing a scarf. Many of the AKP leaders' wives had similar experiences (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam).
Under pressure from the Islamic circles, even young girls are forced to use scarf long before their marriages. The wife of Prime Minister Erdogan, Emine Erdogan, once confided that when she turned 15, her elder brother instructed her to cover herself from then onward. She was at that time attending a school of arts and pursuing fashion curriculum. The dictate of her brother had been so disgusting to her that she had planned even suicide. She had ultimately to bow to the wishes of her brother, and being indignant quit the school. The increased wearing of headscarf during the AKP’s rule coincided with a decline in the quality of Turkish women’s life, particularly in the case of gender equality. Ever since its advent on the world stage in 2006, the World Economic Forum has observed continuously down sliding of the economic conditions of women in comparison to that of men. Turkey was placed at 129 among 134 countries even lower than Iran and Oman in terms of allocation of opportunities and resources to men and women. It also ranked 130th-fourth from the bottom in case of female participation. Hence, the percentage of women in the workforce of the country has come down in Turkey from 34.3% in 1988 to 21.6% in 2008. The reports revealed a growth rate of 6.5% during 2003 to 2007 in the GNP, and an increase of 1.1% in overall employment rate, the women employment rate decreased by 0.8%. The women participation in the national politics has declined during the AKP’s rule. Women got the right to vote in 1934, and in the next year 18 women were elected to the parliament that constituted 4.6% of all deputies. In the year 1999, women captured 23 seats and in 2002 women had 24 seats. However, under the rule of AKP, the number of women deputy has decreased to 9. Under the AKP rule, out of the 81, the number of women provincial governor is nil. Among 900 heads of regional districts, there are only 15 women, and out of the 81 cities only two have women mayors (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam).
The sharia norms are in vogue for the treatment of girls and women even at home particularly in rural areas. Although no systematic investigations have been initiated, the newspaper reports indicate a significant increase in the child marriages and also polygamy based on the premise that multiple wives facilitate stamping out of prostitution. An incident of sexual assault to a fourteen-year-old girl by the well-known writer Huseyin Uzmez was vociferously defended by Islamists by a reference to sharia and marriage. The Institute of Forensic Medicine under the Ministry of Justice tried to play down the incident by declaring that the girl had suffered no psychological damage due to the sexual molestation. It is different that due to the women's organizations and secular doctors, the culprit was convicted for rape and sentenced to prison for 13 years.
The figures showing a decline in gender equality and the imposition of sharia laws, isolation of girls and women, and the likes do not disturb AKP leaders who hardly ever show concern for the same. On the contrary; they try to justify such trends by accusing women organization of exaggerating the issues. As for an example, Finance Minister held job-seeking women responsible for aggravating the unemployment problem during the economic slump between 2008 and 2009. With Diyanet propounding sharia and suggesting women not to remain alone with men who are not relatives, the women's equality at the workplace has been seriously affected. It also discourages women from taking up employment. Those in authority and their supporters favor second rate status for women and are not comfortable working with women in the public. The AKP politicians and bureaucrats treat women administrators with disdain and patriarchal attitude and resent the presence of women without a headscarf in public places. The AKP activists advocate withdrawals of women from the workforce to take up societal roles exclusively. Even the Prime Minister, Erdogan, declares that women should concentrate on begetting three children. Local government bodies constantly distribute pamphlets advising women to be subservient to their husbands (Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam).
Veiling and Women Subjugation
The Islamic veiling is a religious practice and social symbol of Muslim women, and a highly debated issue. Turkey banned the use of headscarves in public as well as private universities, and government offices in 1982, and since then the issue of the headscarf is being debated upon fiercely. Various courts in Turkey have turned down appeals to repeal the ban, as courts observed that it did not infringe the religious rights of women. As per the masculinities theory, the headscarf is not merely an issue of individual rights or liberty, but a social practice shaped by and between women and men including the state and social institutions. Gender being constructed relationally, masculinities theory should consider women as active agents capable of negotiating their identity in a certain historical and social space. However, certain groups of women such as urban, young, and migrants from rural areas prefer to cover themselves and pose problems for secular forces (Vojdik 661-685).
Sura XXIV, Verse 31 of the Quran instructs women to cover their bodies and hide their beauties and bosoms from public gaze (Vojdik 666). The verse also delineates to which relatives they can display their beauties. Another verse forbids women from displaying their beauties as, it warns; it will induce males to molest them. Quran, however, does not prescribe any particular dress for women. In Turkey, only 3% women use Burqa and instead use several forms of dresses to cover their beauties depending upon time and place. These include simple headscarf to traditional scarf called bosortusu that covers loosely the hairs and is tied below the chin. There are several other forms like just a tunic over pants or jeans. There have been several legal battles against the ban of scarf, and legal pronouncements have favored ban rather than its use (Vojdik 661-685).
Despite state efforts, the use of scarf did not disappear, and presently more than 70% women as a whole wear headscarf in Turkey. It is still a hot topic for academic debate whether the use of scarf is related to the Muslim women’s emancipation (Vojdik 661-685).
Hence, it is pertinent to examine the journey of the destiny of women under the AKP’s rule in Turkey. In the opinion of Human rights groups, there has been a significant increase in the incidents of violence against women during the rule of the present president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has termed violence against women "a bleeding wound of Turkey", and expressed his resolve to start a new campaign against it. However, he is credited with the view that women are not equal to men. Professor Karen Barkey said in an interview to BBC that when he grew up, Turkey was secular, and boys and girls were considered equals in schools. He further added that lots of people are migrating from rural areas to urban areas in search of shelter, job, and opportunities. There is a new conservatism, the religious conservatism, had developed which had made the lives of women in the contemporary Turkey all the more difficult. He added that several positive changes took place on AKP's assuming power in Turkey in 2002, but all these came at a cost of increased conservatism. Erdogan has been vehemently criticized for the close down of the freedom of speech and the crushing of dissents in Turkey. A huge demonstration was organized in 2013 against the government that was attended by around 3.5 million people. However, Erdogan was still powerful and popular, he said. Erdogan had divided the country into two-one the secular while the other religious (BBC News).
Another social scientist, Deniz Kandiyoti told BBC in an interview that due to the efforts of the women’s civil rights activists several positive legal changes were brought about during the period 2002-2004. However, it became evident immediately that the AKP government had other priorities as it intended to criminalize adultery. Erdogan declared in 2010 that women were inferior to men and that the destiny of women was divinely foreordained. And it was nothing short of a bombshell. The Ministry for Women and Family was rechristened as the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. Thus ending focus on women rights and making women one more group requiring special protection as in the case of orphans and veterans. She added that the conditions of women went on deteriorating as a result of a number of government pronouncements. First, the government made the job clear for women who were first and foremost mothers and had the responsibility of making the nation big. The women were called upon to bear at least three children, and abortion was labeled as genocide. Erdogan condemned atrocities against women by declaring that men were custodians of women, and it created a furor in women who claimed to be human beings having their rights. Kandiyoti inferred from the outbursts of Erdogan that if a male saw a woman not modestly dressed, or in one's opinion, she was not modestly dressed, one had the right to take liberty with her and even rape her. She further opined that the reaction of women against the murder of Ozgecan Aslan created a lot of hue and cry in Turkey, and some suggested segregation of women by asking them to use only a pink bus. Others questioned the suggestion with a query what type of a society it was that required segregation of women for their protection (BBC News).
A journalist, Cicek Tahaoglu said to the BBC in response to violence against women in Turkey that the Ministry of Justice reported 953 murders of women during 2009, whereas the Ministry of Family claimed only 171 murders. The contradiction in the two official figures was palpable and ominous. The journalist added that in 2010, the Ministry of Justice reported 14 times more murders of women than in 2003. However, thereafter government stopped declaring the statistics. They maintained statistics of divorces, marriages, and births, but they did not maintain statistics of male violence against women. Tahaoglu inferred that non-keeping of statistics about violence against women showed the lackadaisical attitude of the government authorities towards the welfare of women in Turkey. His findings revealed startling statistics; the number of murders of women increased by 31% from 2013 to 2014. As per a local report, more than 300 women were done to death by men in a single year last year. The journalist further opined that the most disgusting part of these murders was that the perpetrators had no guilt feeling and thought that these women deserved death. When a woman donned miniskirts, she deserved rape. When a woman did not look after the children well and did not do cooking, she deserved to be murdered. It did not matter who the male perpetrator is; it could be a lawyer or an illiterate when it came to murdering a woman (BBC News)
However, these allegations have been vociferously challenged by an AKP member, Zeynep Kandur, who being among the ruling elite claimed golden period for women during his party's rule in Turkey. He opined that life was becoming better and better day by day during AKP's rule. But for the world at large there are few takers of his opinion about the condition of women during the AKP's rule from 2002 to the present day (BBC News).
The paper examined the destiny of women under the AKP’s rule in Turkey. Human rights groups reported incidents of violence against women during the rule of the current government. The politics of veiling has taken center stage in Turkey that is highly contested political symbol and debatable issue within the Muslim societies. The Islamic norms are in vogue for girls and women as well as an increase in the child marriages and polygamy. The wives of the political leaders have forced to quit their education by getting marriage and started wearing scarf under the pressure of their conservative husbands.
Undeniably, the voting power of AKP in Turkey has been increased since 2002 but at the cost of fundamental rights of women. The gender equality incorporated into a secular culture has been ruled out, and the women have lost their role especially in bureaucracy and politics. The religious conservatism had made the lives of women much difficult in the contemporary Turkey.
BBC News, 'Is Life Getting Worse For Women In Erdogan's Turkey?’ 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31709887>
Cagaptay, Soner. 'Turkey under the AKP.' Mbarchives.blogspot.in. N.p., 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://mbarchives.blogspot.in/2010/10/article-turkey-under-akp.html>
Reshaping Identity by Restoring Islam. Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University, 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2015. <http://www.hooverpress.org/client/client_pages/9780817911447_73.pdf>
Toledano, Ehud. 'The AKP's New Turkey - By Ehud Toledano.' Hudson.org. N.p., 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <http://www.hudson.org/research/9846-the-akp-s-new-turkey>
Vojdik, Valorie K. 'Politics of the Headscarf in Turkey: Masculinities, Feminism, and the Construction of Collective Identities'. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender 33 (2010): 661-685. Print.