Dressed in a snappy suit in the colors of the Turkish flag, Meral Aksener, the forceful leader of the right-wing Iyi Party, brought a stadium of women to a standing ovation. “They’ll get used to women as political actors,” she pledged, referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
“They’ll get used to women living and laughing freely, devoid of fear.” The all-female audience that filled the stadium in the Turkish capital cheered as Aksener declared that “Prime Minister Meral” was on her way. Her words allude to Turkey’s return to a parliamentary system in which the head of the executive is the prime minister, one of the key promises of the alliance of six opposition parties. Aksener, who is emerging as a kingmaker in determining the opposition’s candidate to challenge Erdogan, repeatedly says she will not be a presidential candidate but will become prime minister once the executive presidential system has changed.
Aksener, whose five-year-old Iyi Party has formed a strategic alliance with the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), rarely plays the feminist card in her political discourse. Therefore, her appearances to all-women audiences are few and far between, mostly limited to March 8, international women’s day. But last week, her party organized the “Great Women’s Gathering,” for which women supporters across Turkey were taken to the capital and non-governmental organizations advocating women’s and LGBT+ rights were invited.
Aksener is not alone in efforts to garner female votes as Turkey approaches elections supposed to take place between April and June 2023. Center-right DEVA, an offshoot of the AKP, also flaunted its women’s policies this week. On the part of the government, Derya Yanik, the family and social affairs minister bruised by last month’s bloodcurdling child abuse case, has been going from city to city to explain the government’s progress on the status of women and children.
Aksener accused the government of discriminating between men and women in life and work, limiting women to the roles of wives and mothers, allowing or even encouraging early marriages and turning a blind eye to femicides. “We’ll write history with women in the days to come,” she added.
Yanik, who also held a meeting over the weekend, argued, “If there is one person in the country who has empowered women to become major political actors, it is our president." Speaking in a meeting in the southern city of Adana over the weekend, she maintained that “no one has any lesson” to teach the government regarding women’s and children’s rights. She argued that violence against women and child abuse declined last year.
Women’s rights groups would find these claims hard to believe. Data from the award-winning We Will Stop Femicides Platform shows that 392 women have been killed so far this year, as opposed to Yanik’s figure of 309. As for child abuse, last month, a young woman came forward to say that her father, the head of a foundation affiliated with the Ismailaga sect, married her off to a 29-year-old sect member when she was 6. According to her testimony, her husband started sexually abusing her soon after the marriage ceremony conducted by her father, then consummated the marriage when she was 8. After more than a decade of repeated rape and physical abuse, she filed for divorce and criminal proceedings against her husband and parents.
The government and its supporters in the media first dismissed the case as an attempt to smear Turkey's religious communities. Yanik said her ministry knew about the woman (identified only as H.K.G.) as she had been under state protection for two years, giving rise to accusations of sweeping the case under the rug to protect the sects.
As women’s groups and the public raged over the fact that the case dragged on for years without a single detainment, an Istanbul court ordered the husband's detention and set the first trial in the case for Jan. 30. Eventually, First Lady Emine Erdogan stepped in, tweeting that she would follow the trial personally and depicting pedophilia as a “perversity,” the word the AKP uses for homosexuality.
The case, however, has put the spotlight on several issues: the abuse of women and girls in religious sects, early marriage/child abuse and domestic violence. Together they form a battleground not only between the government and the opposition but among the delicate Table of Six, a platform of the opposition parties.
Women’s groups have been outraged that the Table of Six has not taken a clear stance on Turkey's return to the Istanbul Convention, a pan-European accord that tasks signatory states with addressing violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, femicides and forced marriage. After Erdogan decided to take Turkey out of the convention last year, Aksener and CHP leader Kemal Kilıcdaroglu pledged a return to the convention. However, they failed to get the promise into the Table of Six program, an omission attributed to resistance by the most conservative group in the pack, the Saadet Party. When the case of the 6-year-old’s marriage hit the headlines, Saadet’s leader Temel Karamollaoglu said that while the case was grave, it should not be exploited to close down religious sects in Turkey.
The testimony of H.K.G. that she thought for years that it was normal for a 6-year-old to get married has fueled concerns that child marriage is common among religious communities. A 2017 report by the Heinrich Boell Foundation found that Turkey has one of the highest rates in Europe, with one marriage out of five carried out before the bride is 18. But this figure might be a conservative estimate as most marriages in which the bride is underage are performed with a religious ceremony — like that of H.K.G. — and therefore not recorded.
On Dec. 28, DEVA, a center-right party founded by Ali Babacan once known as the government’s economic maverick, disclosed its own women’s program, pledging a return to the Istanbul Convention, founding a ministry responsible for women’s rights and a firm battle against early marriage and child abuse.
Babacan, whose DEVA is also part of the Table of Six, invited “all democratic women” to join his party, saying, “We do not use women for a political agenda; we use our political agenda for advancing women.”
Babacan’s words are a veiled reference to the AKP’s proposal for a constitutional amendment enshrining women's right to wear headscarves at work and in daily life. A hugely divisive issue in the officially secular state, critics see it as an attempt to manipulate women’s issues for political gains.
The AKP has gradually lifted a post-1980 ban on headscarves at universities, colleges and then in the civil service, parliament and the police. However, the issue is still explosive, as seen in the Netflix series “Ethos” and more recently, a popular sitcom called “Cranberry Sorbet,” in which a fiercely secularist single parent and a conservative family are thrown together when their children get married.
"Both the secularists' ban on the headscarf and Erdogan's 'democratization package' that lifted it were launched in the name of emancipating women," Agence France-Presse quoted Gonul Tol, Turkey program director at the US-based Middle East Institute, as saying in a report. "In reality, however, they both sought to impose their own version of the ideal woman on society," she said.