Handshakes involving women have a record of being problematic in Turkey ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. In the early days of AKP rule, the paparazzi had a field day snapping photos of women’s hands left in midair when AKP members would refrain from shaking the women's hands. One of the most notable occasions was when former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s wife, Sare Davutoglu, experienced a moment of surprise when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law refused to shake hands with her; his action was seen as taking place for religious reasons.
The latest handshake controversy, however, is a variation on the recurrent theme, as this time, it was a liberal woman who refused to shake the hand of a man because he is an active supporter of the conservative AKP and Erdogan.
On Sept. 30, Meltem Cumbul, an actress who hosted the 24th Adana Film Festival, refused to shake the hand of filmmaker Semih Kaplanoglu, who won the best director award. Cumbul tweeted a statement explaining the reasons for her refusal to shake hands as a deliberate peaceful political protest. "I refuse to shake hands — which is a ritual of greeting and intimacy between equals — with those who marginalize people who are not like them or those who use the power of the rich against the poor, who side with the powerful and humiliate the weak. My eyes and hands cannot be friendly to those who are enemies of my heart and love," she tweeted, getting more than 7,600 retweets and 29,500 likes.
The reaction to her “peaceful political protest” occupied the mainstream and social media for days. Columnists of the pro-AKP media, unsurprisingly, condemned Cumbul. Daily Sabah columnist Hasmet Babaoglu tweeted, “Cumbul’s [act] is beyond rudeness, it is a hate crime,” urging the festival to publicly condemn her rudeness. In the daily Yeni Safak, Leyla Ipekci, a columnist and Kaplanoglu’s wife, said that greeting each other was a tradition of Islam and that Cumbul's act was one of hatred and polarization. Kaplanoglu, who took the pen himself, insisted that he had been a victim of a hate crime and that Cumbul’s refusal to shake hands was an act of fascism. “Those who want to continue the July 15 coup attempt through their hate crime, I defer those to the conscience of society,” he said in a press statement.
Kaplanoglu is no stranger to political protests. In 2010, he boycotted activities of the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival because Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica was the chairman of the jury. Kaplanoglu wanted to display his disapproval of what he alleged was Kusturica’s political support for Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who targeted Muslims in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
Adding fuel to the fire, AKP spokesman Mahir Unal compared Cumbul’s refusal to shake hands to a list of violent crimes, including the massacre at the country music concert in Las Vegas to the attack that killed three Turks in Mulhouse, France, both on Oct. 1.
Cumbul’s refused handshake was not the only act of resistance at the Adana festival. The winner of the best female actress prize, Basak Koklukaya, said she dedicated her award to "those who have chosen to live honorably," which was interpreted by some press organs as support to two jailed educators who have been on hunger strike for over 200 days demanding their jobs back. Her statement became a trending topic on social media, but was ignored in the pro-AKP press.
These two acts of protest in the entertainment world took place against the backdrop of street demonstrations in Turkey, where thousands of women have been protesting in 13 cities since Oct. 1 against what is called the “mufti marriage bill.” Proposed legislation would allow muftis, or state-employed Sunni clerics, to issue civil marriage licenses. On Oct. 2, hundreds gathered at police barricades in front of the parliament in Ankara. On Oct. 3, representatives of women's rights groups visited lawmakers to voice their concerns against the bill.
This was possibly the greatest women’s mobilization since the “Don’t mess with my outfit” national protests July 30. Women’s rights groups have been present in ongoing demonstrations in Turkey throughout the summer, such as those over the arrest and trial of Cumhuriyet newspaper columnists. Women's groups also supported and participated in the "Justice March" of opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
On the “mufti marriage bill,” women’s rights groups felt a moment of victory when on Oct. 3 the bill was sent back to the sub-commission of internal affairs for review in parliament. However, it was a short-lived relief as in the next two days not only did the commission approve the proposed bill, but also revised the wording to say that members of local religious offices also would be able to conduct marriage ceremonies, according to opposition parties that objected to the change.
Women's rights groups said this legislation, if accepted, would begin a dual track marriage certificate system for Turkey: one secular, the other Islamic. Opponents also worry that if muftis can perform civil marriages, this will make it easier for child marriages to take place.
Yonca Alemdar, a member of the Ankara Women’s Platform who protested the mufti marriage legislation in front of the parliament building, told Al-Monitor, “Since this bill was first brought up in June, we gathered as women’s rights groups, attorneys and other activists trying to understand the proposed changes. The bill is against secularism, it is unconstitutional and rescinds all the civil rights women have won over centuries and fails to meet any of our demands. For this purpose we organized protests nationally and in front of the parliament. We wanted to speak with the lawmakers."
Instead, they faced police barriers, Alemdar said. She and other women told Al-Monitor that when women made attempts to speak with lawmakers, they were forcefully pushed out and escorted all the way to the city center by police.
"If this bill passes, women will have no protection when it comes to marriage, divorce or inheritance. Plus if this proposed bill becomes law, opponents are concerned that state protection of minors’ rights against forced marriages and the ban on polygamy will disappear,” Alemdar said.
Turkish female protesters had succeeded in November 2016 in getting the government to backpedal on a law that would pardon rapists if they married their victims. Given the difficulties related to demonstrations under the state of emergency legislation, Turkish women are resorting to social media and refusing to shake hands at award ceremonies to get their voices heard.
Correction: October 9, 2017. An earlier version of this article misquoted Basak Koklukaya's acceptance speech. She didn't dedicated her award to two jailed educators but to "those who have chosen to live honorably."