On June 11, nearly two weeks into the mass anti-government protests that were rocking Turkey, the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out against the demonstrators yet again. This time, in a fiery speech before lawmakers from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In addition to his well-worn tirades about the protesters being “hooligans” and agents of a global conspiracy, he spoke of the plight of a woman who covered her head Islamic style. The woman in question was the daughter-in-law of “one of my very important and close friends,” he told a rapt audience in parliament. “They dragged her on the streets near my office [in Istanbul] and attacked her and her child,” Erdogan thundered but gave no further details, thereby prompting a flurry of excited speculation.
Two days later, on July 13, the woman — who would only identify herself by her initials Z.D. — went public with her story. She had been standing on a quay with her baby daughter in a stroller, when “all of a sudden” she was surrounded by a group of around a hundred men. “They were naked from the waist up, wore leather gloves and bizarre headbands,” she told the pro-government daily Star. Z.D. went on to claim that they began hitting her and swearing. They repeatedly shouted, “We are going to hang Erdogan, do you understand?” Z.D. says that she fainted, and when she came to she felt the stench of urine on her clothes. The mob had allegedly urinated on her headscarf. Not only that, they had manhandled her child. (In a subsequent interview, the woman denied that she had told the Star that “all” her assailants were “half naked” and “wore leather gloves.”)
Z.D.’s revelations prompted fury amid Erdogan’s pious base. But critics charge that the story was embellished or even fabricated to vindicate Erdogan’s portrayal of the unrest as a continuation of the battle pitting pro-secular “white Turks” against downtrodden, pious “black Turks.” Banned in government offices and in parliament, the headscarf is a political football that has long been exploited by both sides.
So, it came as no surprise when Erdogan made repeated references to “the humiliations endured by my covered sisters,” in a slew of recent rallies. “The prime minister's reference to the headscarf — which remains a divisive issue in Turkey — can be seen as an attempt to fuel his supporters' sense of victimhood,” Nicole Pope, an Istanbul-based researcher on honor killings and the co-author of Turkey Unveiled, told Al-Monitor.
Above all, it’s a desperate stab at regaining the moral high ground in the face of massive police violence against protesters. At least four people have died, 11 blinded and at least 8,000 others injured during the clashes that erupted on May 31. On July 8, a 17-year-old boy was reported to be in critical condition after being hit by a tear gas canister as police broke up yet another peaceful demonstration near Istanbul’s main Taksim Square.
Jenny White, an anthropologist at Boston University and the author of several groundbreaking titles on Turkey, agrees that Z.D.’s story sounds exaggerated. “I don’t see Turkish bystanders allowing a baby or a mother with child to be brutalized in the street unless in a pogrom where the victims aren’t considered to be Turkish or even human,” she told Al-Monitor. Yet, "unreconstructed Kemalists still despise the headscarf,” she added in a reference to militant pro-secularists who idolize Kemal Ataturk.
Indeed, there have been some reports of aggression against covered women that ring chillingly true. Yesim Sonmez, a former business woman, said she was attacked by a group of protesters who wore t-shirts emblazoned with Ataturk and bore Turkish flags, as she walked home with her 9-year-old daughter in Istanbul. “They encircled us and then began hitting me on the head with their pots and pans. My daughter was shaking with fear,” she told the mass circulation daily Hurriyet.
Such incidents remain mercifully isolated and there is a strong whiff of hypocrisy to Erdogan’s claims. Covered ladies are among the first to say so. Why, after a decade in power, many ask, has Erdogan not fielded a single covered woman candidate for parliament? In the runup to the 2011 parliamentary elections, a group of disgruntled women intellectuals — both covered and uncovered — launched a campaign calling on voters to shun the AKP if it failed to nominate covered women. In the event, it did not. Party officials point to the army’s threat to overthrow the government in 2007, when Abdullah Gul became president on the grounds that his wife’s headscarf posed a danger to the secular republic.
But their arguments are wearing thin. The army’s powers have long since been trimmed, and in a further crippling blow to its influence and morale, hundreds of officers remain behind bars on coup-plotting charges in the controversial Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. Besides, Erdogan seems to have few worries about provoking secularist ire when it comes to other issues such as education (Quran classes have been introduced for primary school pupils) or alcohol (a bill restricting its sale was signed into law last month).
One of the lessons of the protests is that younger Turks are far more accepting of each other's differences. This helps explain why there were covered women who marched shoulder to shoulder with anarchists and gays. A group of uncovered women academics and journalists — myself included — recently petitioned the government to scrap any law that prevents covered women from holding elected or bureaucratic office.
Not that it will make a difference. Erdogan’s reluctance to allot power to covered women has less to do with politics than with a deeply engrained patriarchy that cuts across party lines. Only 79 of Turkey’s 550 lawmakers are women. More than half (45) are from the AKP. “Women are twice removed from power,” comments White, “once by their sex, and also by their piety.” And if covered women are fielded by the AKP in the 2014 local elections, she says, “They will end up in ‘the shop window’ — as the Turks say — not in any position of responsibility or power.”
Amberin Zaman is an Istanbul-based writer who has covered Turkey for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Voice of America. A frequent commentator on Turkish television, she is currently Turkey correspondent for The Economist, a position she has retained since 1999. On Twitter: @amberinzaman
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