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For Turkey’s women the fight doesn’t end with the run-off

by Xanthe Scharff May 26, 2023

Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears poised for victory in a runoff election May 28.

Erdogan’s showing in the May 14 general election defied polls that had placed his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, slightly ahead. Nevertheless, Erdogan fell short of the simple majority he needed to win outright. His conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) also fared worse than it had in previous elections, losing more than two dozen seats from its showing in the 2018 election.

This has been Erdogan’s toughest challenge in two decades of power.

By most accounts, two issues threaten his support among voters: the abysmal economy and the government’s incompetent response to massive earthquakes that struck in February. With inflation hovering around 50 percent and the rising cost of food, energy and essential goods pushing middle class Turks into poverty, Erdogan’s government entered the general election at its most vulnerable point since the populist leader came to power in 2003.

But this campaign season brought another weakness to the fore. Turkey’s women are fed up, including the women in his own party. 

Over 20 years in power, Erdogan’s government whittled away women’s rights, reduced their standing in society, marginalized them politically and professionally, and flat out dismissed them as inferior to men as it promoted a patriarchal culture and cloaked chauvinistic attitudes in Islamic rhetoric.

Erdogan won the support of conservative women early in his first term when he repealed the ban on headscarves in secular institutions, such as universities. Since then, the government has enacted legislation to restrict abortion, remove protections for victims of domestic violence, and mandate religious curricula in schools.

Equality for men and women is “against nature,” Erdogan told the Women and Justice Summit in Istanbul in 2014.

I co-founded The Fuller Project in Turkey in 2015 as a global newsroom dedicated to groundbreaking reporting that catalyzes change for women. Even as news from Turkey made the front page of major U.S. newspapers several times a week, coverage focused narrowly on Erdogan as his policies sparked outrage in the West. It left little room for anything else, particularly the stories of women leading movements for change.

One of my first Fuller Project stories chronicled the mothers in Istanbul who were fighting to ensure that their children had access to secular education. In 2017, The Fuller Project documented the growing scourge of domestic violence that took the lives of more than 414 women from 2015 to 2016 as the government withdrew rights and protections for women. 

The blows kept coming. In 2021, Erdogan pulled Turkey out of the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women, responding to conservative elements in society who claimed Turkey’s acceptance of the convention posed a threat to Turkish family structure, encouraged divorce and promoted homosexuality. Hundreds of people gathered in Istanbul to protest the move. 

In March 2022, the governor of Istanbul banned demonstrations and marches for International Women’s Day. 

In November 2022, Zeki Sayar, a leader in Turkey’s religious affairs ministry, said on television that women should not travel more than 55 miles from home without a male relative.

Turkey now ranks 124th among 146 countries for gender equality and 134th in women’s economic participation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022, which benmarks the current state and evolution of gender parity across four dimensions – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. In 2006, the first year of the Gender Gap study, Turkey ranked 105th for gender equality.

Turkish daily Sözcü reported in April that AKP is losing its hold on female voters. It cited an opinion poll that indicated 16 percent of female voters shifted away from the party when it withdrew from the Istanbul Convention.

Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan’s opponent in the May 28 runoff, is a unity candidate cobbled together with support from five other opposition parties. The opposition parties have little in common but their desire to oust Erdogan and AKP from power, dismantle the powerful executive presidency Erdogan created, and restore parliamentary rule.

That united front pushed Erdogan’s AKP to seek an alliance with Turkey’s New Welfare Party (YRP), whose leader Fatih Erbakan has likened feminism to fascism. In exchange for its support, YRP also demanded the repeal, the Law to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women, enacted in 2012.  The statute, known as Law No. 6284, provides judicial protections for domestic violence in general regardless of gender.

AKP’s acceptance of YRP’s demand stirred a rare display of internal opposition from a female AKP party stalwart, Ozlem Zengin, a lawyer who called Law 6284 a “red line” that was non-negotiable.

AKP also allied itself with Huda Par, a radical Islamist party that also seeks the repeal of Law 6284 and advocates for other measures to further restrict women’s rights, including separate education for men and women and criminalization of sex outside of marriage. 

“They are attempting to erase the place of women and LGBTI+ individuals in society,”  said Dilan Akyuz Selcuk, a member of We Will Stop Femicide Platform Women’s Assemblies, which has fought for full implementation of Law 6284.

By coincidence, the May 28 runoff election falls on the 10-year anniversary of the Gezi Park Protest, another moment when Erdogan’s hold on power felt tenuous. 

Back then, a steady drumbeat of restrictions –  from Erdogan’s public scolding of people who exhibited affection in public to opposition from his party to an extension of rights for LGBT Turks – had prompted growing frustration with the government that began with a protest in Gezi Park and culminated in protests across the nation. The protesters presented a wide range of grievances centered on freedom of the press, freedom of expression, gender equality, and the growing Islamization of public life.

The government cracked down on the protestors with tear gas, water cannons and mass arrests, but the protests continued over months. By August 2013, the protests began winding down without concession from the government. 

A year later, on Aug. 10, 2014, Prime Minister Erdogan won Turkey’s first presidential election with 52% of the vote, expanding his powers significantly.

As he demonstrated then, Erdogan is adept at beating back opposition and quashing dissent. In the past week, as Erdogan sought to shore up his base in advance of the runoff, his party has asserted that anything other than an Erdogan presidency will destabilize the country. 

Cansel Talay, a volunteer lawyer at the Diyarbakir Bar Association Women’s Rights Center, which provides legal counsel and advocacy services for women who are victims of harassment, rape and violence, said government intimidation and family pressure kept many women, particularly in conservative and rural areas, from the polls.

“In many villages, men voted en masse and openly in place of women,” she said.

Ekin Calisir, who has been a contributor to The Fuller Project and is a filmmaker focused on women and justice, says Turkey’s women will continue to push back against any government effort to further curtail their rights regardless of the election’s outcome.

“It cannot crush our quest because we have wide and functioning solidarity networks, which defy even the split between parties,” she said. “But we’re very concerned that Erdogan’s win will make it difficult for women to find justice and get state protection.”

Yet she holds hope. “Please don’t think that Turkey is a lost cause,” she says. “We’re not gone. We are still fighting here.”

For insight into Turkey’s future, I’ll be watching the women.

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