Credit: Sisi Tang
ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)– A Reuters photo of a police officer spraying tear gas into the face of a woman in a red dress in Gezi Park in Taksim Square here has forged the impression of a strong-armed reaction by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward protests around the country that are stretching into their second week.
While Erdogan has agreed to meet today with the protest leaders, many expect the demonstrations to escalate after police entered Gezi Park Tuesday, flinging gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators, despite the Istanbul governor’s promise earlier that the park will not be touched. People continued filing into Taksim Square, which was bellowing with tear gas smoke and reeling from sound bombs as of Tuesday night.
Last weekend, Kalbiye Uzuner, a middle-aged housewife, was among those walking toward Taksim, joining the crowd’s chants calling for the government to resign.
“This is the first time I’ve participated in something this big,” she told Women’s eNews. “Even if the P.M. [prime minister] doesn’t give into our demands, I think we have still won because we have gathered here such a variety of people.”
In the backstreets, older women jutted their arms out of their windows, banging pots and pans and offering the young protesters passing by lemon and vinegar, which they hoped would soothe the bite of tear gas.
These indications of waning support among women concern Erdogan’s loyal female followers.
Eda Yilmaz, a young supporter of Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, has not yet joined the demonstrations. But she said she was incensed by the Reuters image and felt an instant desire to join those in Taksim Square.
“The police violence needs to be investigated,” said Yilmaz, an entrepreneur and industrial engineer, in an interview over the weekend. “It shouldn’t necessarily be about the government stepping down, but about it correcting and checking its mistakes.”
According to a student protestor’s personal account that has been circulated online by his professor, a police officer repeatedly beat a woman inside a police detention vehicle while threatening to rape her and forcing her to shout praises to the police.
Though both men and women have been subject to police violence, videos and interviews showing female protestors in the Aegean metropolis of Izmir being beaten by a dozen or more police have spread like wildfire on the Web and inflamed the public.
A Hovering Question
Will it end with long-lasting political change of any sort?
That’s the question hovering over layers of barbecue smoke, smoldering tear gas, spewing water cannons and the red flags of the Republic and its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The answer depends, in part, on Turkish female voters such as Yilmaz. Women were 54 percent of those who voted for the AKP during the 2011 general elections, according to an AKP-led survey.
The AKP, a party with Islamic roots, has presided over a phase of economic growth but faces challenges sustaining gains on the heels of the global economic slowdown.
There is no sign yet that the prime minister’s response to the Gezi Park protests is costing him female voters. But while his administration can count on female supporters who see his hard-edged ways as a strong, avuncular backing of their religious sentiments, some of those are now seeing his style as edging on authoritarian.
“I’ve always thought his talking style was very problematic,” said Yilmaz. “You can’t just order people that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You should have referendums, communicate with the people.”
Erdogan’s female supporters include young, middle-class, well-educated, cosmopolitan and observant women who share the liberal values being voiced by the demonstrations.
At the same time, they are loyal to the AKP for assisting their religious freedoms, with a prime example being the lifting of the ban on headscarves in universities.
“Compared to older times, I think there have been many improvements in the last decade, especially in economic development and with resolving the headscarf issue,” said Neslihan Ozdemir, 31, an AKP supporter and housewife who said she did not attend what she saw as an overly politicized conflict that has spiraled into deliberate provocation. “This issue is very important for me: freedom to wear what you want.”
In the broader population of women, beyond Erdogan’s supporters, some older women have avoided street protests–and made their concerns known to their children–out of health concerns about tear gas and fears left from the bloody, political clashes of the 1970s, which killed many civilians and culminated in the 1980 military coup that installed military rule for the next few years.
“My family for instance would not allow me to even attend the smallest demonstrations. Everyone is extremely afraid. People have seen torture,” said a 21-year-old law student at Marmara University who asked that her name not be published for fear of backlash. Yet, she has participated in the demonstrations since day one.
Turkey is often analyzed through the polarizing lens of political and religious differences. But these demonstrations, which have swelled up from a small environmentalist protest of plans to raze the leafy Gezi Park in Taksim Square, have become a chance for citizens to share an array of grievances.
For many Turkish women, Erdogan’s public condemnation last year of elective Cesarean births and abortion struck a nerve. So did a draft policy to ban abortion from which he later backed away.
In a recent public speech, he also drew ire for reprimanding a couple for kissing on a public metro.
“In the very beginning I took to the streets because of the abortion issue,” said the university student who requested anonymity. “It was about women’s demands and ownership of their own bodies. We felt that we have been excluded, so in order to be included within, we came to express ourselves.”
Hundreds of elderly and young women marched through Taksim this weekend, uniformly chanting, “Tayyip, flee, flee, the women are coming,” bearing signs that read “We are on the streets for a life without Tayyip, without harassment,” and “Tayyip, keep your hands away from my body.”
‘Much More Oppression’
“Especially during the period when AKP has been in power, there has been much more oppression and violence against women,” said Gunay Demirbas Nas, a coordinator at Imece Kadin Sendikasi, a women’s collective based in Istanbul. “Murder of women has been on the rise.”
She added that she was also angered by the recent merging of the Ministry for Women and Family with the Ministry of Family and Social Policies.
Protestors have called on Erdogan to “stop acting as if he is everyone’s father.” Many perceive him to be an obstinate, authoritarian patriarch prone to meddling in female citizens’ personal affairs.
He has repeatedly advised families to have at least three children, a gesture which his conservative-leaning supporters see as a reasonable economic measure that would also reinforce family values. Opponents, however, suspect an agenda to reinstate religious law, hamper women’s freedom and threaten the nation’s secularist foundations.
“This state does what it wants to do, even with issues related to women’s bodies,” said Rojda Tekin, a spokesperson for the Anti-Capitalist Muslims youth group, based in Istanbul with liaisons all over Turkey.
The Anti-Capitalist Muslims are a group of pious, anti-AKP youths who decry the ruling government for what they see as capitalist policies serving mainly the rich, preferring what they say is a middle way between Islam and socialism.
Headscarved, Tekin huddled with members of her group among the sea of tents and banners displayed at Gezi Park to protest its demolition.
“With women’s rights there are some serious issues. But at least Turkey isn’t a state that directly oppresses women. We can go out and do as we please. Everything that belongs to God also belongs to the civilians, whether it’s women’s rights or other issues,” she said.
Sisi Tang is a writer and traveler based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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