Upon learning that nearly 600 women were running for the Turkish parliamentary election, a coalition of Turkish women’s groups called for unity in an effort to push forward women’s rights. In the opening speech at an ad hoc gathering called by a coalition of women’s groups under the name of “Hakl? Kad?n Platformu” (Righteous Women Platform), Vuslat Dogan Sabanci told the story of a farmer who won a prize for having the best corn seeds. Right after his award he went ahead and shared his corn seeds with all the other farmers. When asked why he did this, the farmer said, “the wind we all share will share the seeds with other farmers anyway. So I might as well distribute the seeds myself and together we can all have better corn.”
Dogan-Sabanci’s call was for solidarity among women, regardless of their political parties, in endorsing women’s rights as they pertain to education, violence, and economic participation. Women candidates and voters from all parties attended the meeting and participated in the gathering, with the exception of women from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s leading political party, which embraces political Islam.
The AKP did not merely block attendance at this united gathering of women, but is openly hostile to Western oriented women’s rights concepts in Turkey. It has passed laws that formally acknowledge child and polygamous marriages; has stated that when women work they are taking away jobs from men; and answers to a leader, Mr. Erdo?an, who has been behind some of the most derogatory remarks any politician has publicly made about women. Only last week, women turned their backs on him in protest during one of his speeches in a Turkish province. His shocking, sexually suggestive response to their actions was to quip: “As a gentleman I cannot say what is it that we do when women turn their back on us, but no worries, we know what to do.”
On Monday, the AKP lost its majority leadership in the parliamentary election for the first time in 13 years. Other parties, including the new, Kurdish led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which advocated for the rights of women, gay people and all minorities, won an unprecedented victory. But while the AKP lost the majority election, the division in Turkey and in the larger Muslim world between those who support political Islam and those who see religion as a private matter is neither resolved nor concluded in this election. Women play a major role in this ideological divide.
The last decade has witnessed a major mobilization of women by political parties who are advocating for political Islam not only in Turkey but also throughout the Middle East and in North Africa, with the Brotherhood party in various Arab countries. Their position on women’s issues is very clear. They want a return to the traditional gender relationships of a patriarchal society. That includes women’s retreat from the work force. The first lady of Turkey recently stated that when women work, they deprive men of much needed jobs. As a matter of fact, there are more data points than ever before showing that women’s full participation in the work force leads to growth in the economy at large. Also a few months ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdo?an, said that her political camp is not asking for “women’s rights,” but for “women’s justice,” as she defended the gender inequality in inheritance rights in Islamic law. And not so long ago, a man who is a follower of political Islam told me that the “long term vision is for all women to wear the headscarf within 20 years period. We know we cannot enforce that in a short period of time. But we do aim at getting there gradually.”
The headscarf is nothing but a symbol of political Islam as the ruling ideology in the Muslim world. The headscarf gives women neither rights nor protections. At the same time, the wearing of it does not take away their rights—as long as it is a woman’s personal choice, reflecting her own beliefs and values, there is no problem with the headscarf. But when it is a symbol for a larger political identity and direction, when it is seen as representing women’s core obedience to a certain interpretation of the religion, and when it is used to define women’s values and role in the society, it is certainly problematic.
This is not the first time in history when women have become advocates for the patriarchy that oppresses them. Amazonian women, a nation of all-female warriors in Greek mythology who are believed to have lived in Pontus, part of modern-day Turkey, were defeated and destroyed by an army of women raised and supported by the patriarchal political establishment. Today, the tension between women who are supporting patriarchal ideology and those demanding equal rights and treatment in all sectors of life seems to signal a return to the ancient past. Why is society being dragged back instead of progressing?
One reason may be insecurity. In an unstable world, where unemployment is higher than it has been in contemporary history, a return to traditional values, to women taking on domestic roles and men dominating the public sphere, may help defuse some of the pressure on women to “do it all.” These days, both women and men have to work. Only a handful of the rich can afford for one partner in the relationship not to work: this is a matter of realpolitik in modern Turkey, the Middle East, and most of the world.
Beyond security, I would dare say feminist groups and women’s rights organizations also bear some responsibility for this division between women pushing forward and those pulling back. Some progressive women have drifted away from any connection to the women living simply in villages, to the value of religion in an individual’s life. Some have become elite secularists, more attuned to intellectual discussions than to the reality of the poorest women. Most women’s rights advocacy groups are operating from a place of anger and alienation from the idea that religion plays a meaningful role in people’s lives. But they might benefit from trying to understand that reality and connect to women from all socioeconomic backgrounds, values and beliefs. In short, they ought to be establishing a common connection among women.
Vuslat Dogan-Sabanci’s story of the farmer with the winning corn seed was a message to all women in Turkey. Feminists groups are risking a further loss of connection to conservative women, who are joining patriarchal ideology in greater numbers than anybody anticipated. The election in Turkey may have raised the profile of the party that advocates for women’s rights and equality for all the minorities. But this is not the time for a victory lap. Better to take advantage of this moment and distribute the corn seeds for all, to create dialogue and collaboration to advance all women and the society itself.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoirBetween Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.