The election held in Turkey on November 1 holds major implications not only for the country but, arguably, for the larger region. The winning majority of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) tilts the balance of power and ideology at a critical time in the region. And it is four sisters who are holding the space for freedom of the press as the balance of power shifts in the country.
Tension has long been building between those who adhere to political Islam and those who want to maintain the separation of politics and religion. Political Islam embraces a very particular, traditional definition of women’s roles and is antithetical to the concept of equality. In Turkey, it also is at odds with checks and balances within the legal system and freedom of the press. On the other side are nationalists, pro-Kurdish groups, and others in favor of pluralism, religious diversity and women’s rights. They belong to a variety of parties, from the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Central to this conflict is the press freedom that will allow democracy to continue in Turkey. The Dogan sisters –Begümhan Doğan Faralyalı, Hanzade Doğan Boyner, Arzuhan Doğan Yalçındağ and Vuslat Doğan Sabancı — have been trying to protect that liberty. They lead various press outlets from Hurriyet Newspaper, the leading newspaper in the country to CNN Turk. Their shared goal is to uphold objective coverage of news and opinion, but that has been no easy mission in Turkey lately.
On a daily basis, Hurriyet Newspaper (its name means “freedom” in Turkish) has withstood assaults that turned from verbal to physical in recent months. Mobs attacked Hurriyet’s office with stones twice, as journalists were covering the attack live on CNN Turk and asking for help from the police. Another incident was first conveyed on Twitter by some AKP party members who argued that journalists on the liberal side deserved beating. Shortly after the tweets circulated, a leading CNN journalist was taken out of his car and beaten so violently he ended up in critical condition in the hospital. The objection to the Dogan sisters’ media outlets is that they don’t cover the news according to the AKP party line.
While engaged in this battle for democracy, the sisters have also been reaching out for unity amongst women regardless of their political tendencies or affiliations, and pushing for more rights and protections for women in Turkey regarding domestic violence, education, and employment. In a call they issued for a gathering of all women in politics, all parties showed up except members of the AKP.
While Vuslat Dogan was giving a speech about sharing resources and skills for women, to unite them and push for better employment and education opportunities for women from all walks of life in Turkey, AKP members were sending a different message. The wife of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the leader of the AKP party), EmineErdoğan, was encouraging women not to take jobs away from men by working. His daughter Summeye has espoused similar views, stating that it is acceptable for women not to be treated equally at various stages of their lives, and defining gender justice as the male responsibility to care for women. Erdogan himself has been known to make derogatory comments about women who oppose his politics, such as a group of women who turned their backs on him at a public appearance a few months ago as a sign of their objection to his policies. Instead of commenting on their political statements, he used sexual innuendo to disparage their gesture.
Four sisters are fighting for a democratic press, but the question of whether or not Turkey will be able to uphold a free media, or sustain what has been accomplished so far towards women’s rights, will be seriously examined in the months and years to come. In a time of volatility, wars and ideological conflict, Erdogan’s election victory through the dominant rule of one party adds fuel to the political fire. The world needs to show up, to protect the voices upholding simple freedoms: being able to express views in the press, through political engagement, or in any other form without being physically beaten, insulted and shut down.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.