Authoritarian Governments Are Rolling Back Women's Rights. These Women Are Turkey's Last Hope
In Turkey, secular and religious feminists are joining forces to fight for their freedom
It was after sunset in Istanbul, when women were told to be home, and riot police stood guard on every block of Istiklal Street armed with rubber pellets and tear gas. In front of them: at least 10,000 Turkish women, some with masks and drums, marching undeterred for International Women’s Day. They held up banners with signs of “Women Together Strong” and sang songs invoking the power of female solidarity.
Among those marching on March 8 last year were two women who represent the country’s separate but increasingly connected spheres of Turkey’s feminist movement. There’s the secular İpek Bozkurt, an activist and lawyer, who huddled with her friends to stay warm, her brunette hair untied as she jumped and chanted. And the religious, activist and blogger Rümeysa Çamdereli, her 4-year-old son sitting on her shoulders, a headscarf shielding her head from the chill. The two women shouted in unison — “We aren’t silent, we aren’t scared, we’re not obeying”— despite the fact that their different worlds mean different lifestyles. On March 8, these divisions are forgotten.
“Eighth of March is a night of good times, seeing sisters, getting more power so that you can deal with all the bad stuff you’ll face in the coming year,” Çamdereli said. “Street activism is feeling something that you believe in. As an activist, I want to be on the streets most of the time.”
International Women’s Day is a global event, but in Turkey it holds particularly special meaning. Women from across Turkey’s political and ethnic spectrums descend on Istanbul’s most famous avenue for one of the few large opposition protests still permitted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a democratically elected populist who has been accused of creeping into authoritarianism. Over the past few years he’s consolidated his power by shutting down opposition media, jailing those who speak against him and stifling dissent, particularly in the form of protest. It may seem surprising that the government allows the march, given that it has banned many other protests from opposition groups — Kurds, LGBTQ activists and labor unions. It’s not that Erdoğan has special favor for the feminist movement, which has been grappling with a backslide as Turkey becomes more oppressive. But the fact that women can march together, largely un-harassed, is emblematic of the complicated relationship Turkey’s women have with their president, and with each other. It’s also a symbol for the ways women’s rights can be used as a political tool to serve a leaders’ own ends.
Although secular and religious women have long been seen as natural enemies, the stakes are higher than ever, and figures like Bozkurt and Çamdereli are finding common ground on issues that impact both groups: domestic violence, access to better paying jobs, safety on the streets after dark, and the right to wear what they want. They want public officials to stop telling them to get married and bear children. Most of all, they want to upend a culture that blames women for everything from getting raped to getting a divorce.
For the last three years, I’ve marched with these women as all that rage is released into the night with music, dancing and pride. Even Kurdish women, part of an ethnic minority who have been marginalized throughout Turkey’s history and most recently over the past three years, are allowed to march on this day. Members of the LGBTQ community join the march, but heterosexual men aren’t welcome. It’s meant to be a safe space for women. All of this will be top of mind as the coalition for women’s rights marches once again this year.
The movement cuts across party lines, and includes a swath of society so wide that Erdoğan can’t afford to alienate or antagonize them. But within that coalition there remains divisions between women who support the government and feminists who don’t. The challenge is whether they can set their differences aside to fight an increasingly emboldened government that’s trying to reverse laws protecting gender equality.
“The women’s movement gets its strength because it’s a people’s movement, while the other movements stay along party lines,” Bozkurt said. “So many people’s daughters are subject to violence. We have a wide span of social support, something Erdoğan isn’t willing to get rid of because it resembles how Erdoğan was supported on a grassroots level.”
As Turkey grapples with an authoritarian government slowly wrapping itself around Turkish life, women — despite their differences — are coming together to fight back. But the divide between Turkish feminists has a long history that dovetails with the long-standing tensions between the country’s secular and religious citizens, stemming from the country's constitution, which stipulates a strict separation between religion and government.
Women's rights are part of that, so long as it made the country seem liberal and modern—the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, believed women had the right to vote, work and be involved in politics. And Turkey would eventually become one of the few Muslim majority nations where abortion and sex work would be legal. But women who wore a headscarf were discriminated against and, starting in 1982, wearing one in public institutions was banned.
And so, although it’s a trope that the sharpest divide in Turkey is between secularism and religion, the majority of the country's citizens fit somewhere between the lines of these two ideas. At home, families with contradictory beliefs live in relative harmony, and that’s one reason women from different ideological sides have been able to join rank in the women’s movement, said Gülsüm Kav, the co-founder of We Will Stop Femicides and a secular feminist. “In many Turkish homes, we have both religious and secular living side by side. My mother memorized the Quran, but I was encouraged to become what I wanted,” said Kav, who’s also a doctor.
Bozkurt, the lawyer, comes from an educated secular, leftist family with a mother who encouraged girl power in the house. She believes in God, she said, but she doesn’t allow religion to restrict her dress or beliefs. She doesn’t really practice Islam either: “I find it rather oppressive and patriarchal,” she said. And yet, around the time of the march last year, she grew interested in the ideology of Islamic feminists. How did they reconcile their faith and feminism?
Bozkurt had started reading fellow marcher Çamdereli’s blog Reçel (or Jam), which she launched as a destination for religious women to commiserate over their daily struggles. Çamdereli is part of a new global movement of Muslim women, which bases its ideology on a feminist reading of religious scriptures. The two women met when Bozkurt decided to attend a Reçel-related meeting.
“When I meet with these Islamic feminists, their understanding of faith and independence is very attractive,” Bozkurt said.
Çamdereli wears the headscarf, plays the guitar professionally and believes Islam gives equal rights to women, LGBTQ people and other minorities. Like Bozkurt, the 30-year-old also grew up in an educated leftist family, but her father was an observant Muslim. He supported Çamdereli in her religious quest and fight to wear her headscarf when it was banned.
“The first thing I did in my life was believe, and I can’t imagine living without God and faith,” Çamdereli said. “I felt that I had a mission in terms of changing the society, and the society is Muslim. If I can help them understand the religion the way I understand it, many things can change dramatically.” About 330 women now write for Reçel, exploring a range of topics from their sex lives to physical abuse.
Çamdereli is also part of a women’s group fighting for equal space in the mosque. I witnessed men yell at them while they tried to pray in the main hall at one of Istanbul’s historic mosques. “Go to the back and pray. You don’t belong in the men’s section,” an old man shouted at them. They stayed silent, stood up and continued to pray.
Çamdereli sees no contradictions with Bozkurt’s more secular values, and right now, they share a common adversary: a government that’s trying to revoke their rights.
Erdoğan was elected in 2002, and during the first years of his reign, Turkey’s desire to join the European Union moved the government to change outdated constitutional laws against women, according to Reyhan Atasu-Topçuoğlu, a professor at Ankara’s Hacettepe University who researched the country’s women’s movement. The EU demanded better women’s and human rights from Turkey. In response, the Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, updated the penal code in 2004 to recognize women as individuals and give women equal rights in property. Men were no longer considered head of households but equal partners in marriage. The marriage age was raised to 18 to reduce the number of child brides. The headscarf ban was gradually lifted. In 2012, Turkey signed the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty that protects women from violence. The treaty spurred laws that gave longer jail sentences to abusers and gave women the right to get restraining orders without physical proof.
“During this time, there was strong communication and alliances between feminist groups and religious women’s groups,” Atasu-Topçuoğlu said.
But once it was clear the European Union would not extend membership to Turkey in 2006, it gave the government more incentive to roll back many of women’s gains. It’s a similar trend that we see across the globe, as documented in Peter Beinart’s piece, The New Authoritarians Are Waging A War on Women, in the Atlantic. It has happened in Brazil, Hungary and Philippines. According to the piece, authoritarian regimes regularly use women’s rights as a playing card: first to get votes and legitimacy from the West, only to roll back rights once their authoritarian impulses become stronger.
In Turkey, the government changed the name of the Ministry for Women and Family to Ministry of Family and Social Policy right before an election, it tried to limit abortion beginning in 2012 and started siding with men who want to stop paying divorced women alimony just last year.
“I supported the AKP in the beginning. They showed that they were progressive,” said Berrin Sönmez, a columnist for the leftist paper Duvar and a member of Capital City Women’s Platform, an Islamic women’s organization advocating for gender equality through Quranic teachings as well as civil law. “The AKP has changed for the worse. Erdoğan is making decisions by listening to his most conservative male advisers.”
Erdoğan’s female supporters disagree that women’s rights are regressing. They point to Erdoğan’s daughters Esra Erdoğan Albayrak and Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, who play an important role in his circle of influence. In 2013, Sümeyye co-founded Women and Democracy Association or KADEM in Turkish, and it’s arguably the most well-funded Turkish women’s organization, with programs throughout the country that facilitate job training, aiding women with entrepreneurship and working with poor women and refugees.
Hilal Kaplan, a prominent columnist for the pro-government Sabah newspaper, who played an instrumental role in fighting against the headscarf ban, protesting on college campuses, said the AKP has made leaps improving women’s rights within Turkish cultural norms. She lists the many reforms women gained under Erdoğan at the beginning of his presidency: recognition of marital rape, giving mothers priority in custody battles as well as subsidized child care, and making it illegal for companies to fire pregnant women, among other issues.The government has pronounced zero tolerance for domestic violence and in March 2018, Erdoğan admonished a popular TV cleric who condoned men beating women and said there needed to be reform within Islam to treat women better.
Because of all these reforms, Kaplan doesn’t see the point of ongoing protests, and doesn’t plan to attend the March 8 protest this year. “Erdoğan isn’t harsh on women. He’s harsh on men who persecute women,” Kaplan said, referring to how he stood up to the cleric. “He’s a unique guy.”
Feminists vehemently disagree. They say since the last decade, Erdoğan and other conservative officials are promoting an aggressive, masculine culture against women, pointing to televised speeches in which Erdoğan blames violence not on men but women’s behavior. Kav, the doctor and activist, said We Will Stop Femicides formed after a 17-year-old girl named Münevver Karabulut was killed by her boyfriend in 2010. Erdoğan and the Istanbul chief of police at the time blamed her family for allowing her to visit him at night. There’s been a steady rise in femicides over the last decade–men have killed more than 2,000 women, and Kav said this is in part because of the government’s rhetoric blaming women. Feminists say AKP’s female members are stepping on their own rights when they side with anti-women policies.”They legitimize a system against women, causing the biggest harm to themselves,” Kav said.
The laws, also, don’t necessarily reflect reality. I observed a peaceful feminist protest on November 25 last year—the day women across the globe protest violence against women—and riot police blocked, tear gassed and harassed the women protesting in Istanbul. After rogue members of the military attempted a coup to oust Erdoğan in 2016, the AKP raided and shut down Kurdish women’s media and aid organizations, imprisoned thousands of women and accused them of terrorism. “The Kurdish women’s movement includes fighting patriarchy everywhere—at home, with the police and with the government" said Asiye Kolçak, a member of the Kurdish Free Women’s Movement. “But we also believe in the idea that if women are not free, society isn’t free.”
The coup gave fuel to the AKP’s right wing that’s pushing to revoke women’s rights as well as minority rights. When Turkish women like Hüda Kaya, a parliamentarian with the Kurdish-backed Peoples Democratic Party or HDP, stood up for the Kurds, they became targets of hate. She said members of the AKP have called her a traitor; police imprisoned and beat one of her sons who protested with her party. Kaya, 58 and an ardent women’s rights supporter, said her daily life is a constant battle to remain free.
“There’s been a backlash against our efforts,” Kaya said, her voice calm but with a tinge of anger. “In the last few years, they’ve attacked women [in the opposition] brutally. We in the HDP are paying the price. Our mayors are in jail. Some of us face government lawsuits.”
The crackdown on Kurdish women has cut across secular and religious lines—and thus reminds the broader, more mainstream Turkish feminists, who fall across the same fault lines, how these divisions don’t matter much in the face of a government that wants to trample on women’s rights.
But there remains a fundamental ideological difference between women like Kav and Kaplan: are women individuals with rights of their own, or are they an extension of their family, whose individual needs are secondary?
That tension is reflected in KADEM, the organization co-founded by Erdoğan’s daughter. Feminists say KADEM began as a government project but has shown some independence to reject policies that even conservative women can’t bear. In 2016, KADEM supported feminists, and together they stopped Parliament from revoking the 2005 statutory rape law that would have freed jailed men for having sex or marrying underage girls.
But like the AKP, KADEM centers their platform around family values, while feminists, both secular and Islamic, stick to a gender equality agenda that prioritizes women as individuals. KADEM rejects LGBTQ rights like gay marriage; most feminists embrace them. Some KADEM women even say feminists are trying to become men.
KADEM declined an interview, but I attended their “gender justice” summit in November 2018. In one of Istanbul’s nicer hotels, hundreds of women in colorful headscarves cheered President Erdoğan as he praised them. The message from all the speakers, even those invited from other Muslim countries including Iran, echoed the same sentiment: Women may be individuals, but their most important role is as mothers, daughters and wives. “Our primary goal is to minimize and solve the problems encountered by the family and to protect its unity without ignoring the rights of the individuals,” said Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk, minister of the family, labor and social affairs ministry. The minister then said she takes pride in her husband’s last name.
There were indirect jabs at feminists. Esra, the president's older daughter, railed against “hedonistic societies,” insisting that Turkey had its own cultural solutions to solving women’s issues different than the West.
“Men and women are equal in front of God. They have distinct responsibilities and roles,” she said.
KADEM doesn’t show up on the streets to protest. They use their government connections to lobby, and they’re spared the violence that women from other groups face.
March 8th protestors Bozkurt and Çamdereli have found a similar cause in a movement that’s now powered by a diverse group of women. This reality energizes both of them, but in their daily lives, activism can be exhausting and dangerous.
Bozkurt has many lawyer friends who have been jailed, but she’s been lucky. The attorney has been defending victims of rape and winning her cases. “It’s because of the public [feminist] pressure that courts are now convicting more,” she said.
Çamdereli and the Women in the Mosques group continue to meet, but they’ve lowered their profile after a publicized request for equal space to pray inside worship halls provoked conservative trolls, with one man threatening (on Facebook) to cut Çamdereli’s throat. “We froze our social media and campaign. We were trying to be invisible for some time,” Çamdereli said.
Even more than fighting for progress, feminists are simply trying to hold onto laws that were passed in the last two decades. In 2012, they halted a reversal of a law allowing abortions up to 10-weeks (conservatives tried to bring it down to six) by rallying the media and international feminist lobbying groups and holding street protests.
Conservative legislatures are again threatening to place term limits on alimony, something low-income single mothers cannot live without. And they want to roll back the statutory rape law that’s meant to prevent child marriage, the same law women’s groups banded together and fought to keep three years ago. More girls are becoming educated, but some of their secular schools are being transformed into gender segregated Islamic institutions that encourage Creationism and wearing the headscarf .
At the same time, women have become more aware, economically independent and have access to limitless information online. Bozkurt said if they’re not on the streets, they’re resisting in their homes by demanding divorces, which are at a record high.
It’s a slow revolution, one that will demand continued solidarity and grit.
“The women’s movement is really strong. It’s not perfect. There are times when I have different ideas but we’re really working hard against male hegemony,” said Kaya, the parliamentarian.
Kaya promised to keep up the fight in Parliament while Selime Büyükgöze, one of the organizers of the March 8 protest, was preparing for another spectacular International Women’s Day event, not knowing if the women will be safe or attacked with riot gear.
“Everyone’s off the streets, but women are still there, and that’s both nice and a strange position,” Büyükgöze said, her smile triumphant. “I see a backlash against us, but it won’t stop women from demanding. Nothing is offered to us. We’ve fought for everything.”