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A crucial element for President Erdogan’s party hold on power remains its appeal among a majority of Turkey’s 11 million housewives, many of them conservative.by Gokce Cicek Kosedagi 27 February 2019
As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, for the last few months, we have been making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.
Funda Tanriverdi, a stay-at-home mother of three from Istanbul, has a clear political hero: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“His attitude and rhetoric are powerful. He is able to remain strong in every situation,” the 33-year-old enthused. “Erdogan is good at ruling the country and managing problems, regardless of their nature – be they economic, political, or social.”
Tanriverdi represents a demographic that may have been crucial in ensuring the ongoing success of Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, there are around 11 million housewives in Turkey. A total of 51 percent of all housewives voted for the AK Party in the general election held on 24 June last year, according to Turkey-based research and consulting company KONDA.
Housewives voted in much smaller numbers for other parties: 11 percent for the Republican People's Party (CHP), 6 percent for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and 5 percent for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The secular government outlawed the hijab in schools, public universities, and government institutions in 1980, to emphasize the separation of state and religion. Many religious women chose to stay at home rather than remove their head coverings, fueling a sense of isolation and discrimination.
When the AKP was founded in 2001, it promised to bring liberal democracy without discrimination in terms of religion, language, race, or gender.
Their founding statement promised that “Fundamental rights and freedoms must be respected … Religion is seen as a unifying force in our society, not a dividing one.”
The ban on headscarves was finally lifted in 2011, in most public institutions.
The AKP’s policy particularly resonated with more conservative women, who can be confident that they will not be discriminated against for wearing a hijab as long as Erdogan is in power – a fact not lost on the party itself. Even in their early days, AKP activists were going door-to-door to explain their program and promise women an opportunity to actively participate in politics.
At a meeting held last April at the AKP’s Ankara headquarters, ahead of the general elections, Erdogan himself instructed women party members to go door-to-door to recruit more female voters.
The AKP’s Women’s Branch has 4.5 million members; they are expected to play a key part in local elections scheduled for next month.
Tanriverdi, who lives in Istanbul’s conservative Umraniye neighbourhood, graduated from Kadikoy Ahmet Sani Gezici Kiz Anadolu Imam Hatip High School, one of the religious establishments that opened in 1975 to promote Islam as a counterpoint to the power of the secular left in Turkey. Erdogan’s own daughter, Sumeyye Erdogan, attended this school at the same time as Tanriverdi, and they both participated in protests against the headscarf ban.
“We were exposed to things that we, as high school students, shouldn’t have been,” recalled Tanriverdi. “We were met by the riot police in front of our school every day. They were there only because it was a religious school.”
Tanriverdi says that life has changed for the better under the AKP.
“Freedom is very important and everyone should enjoy it. Thank God we have that freedom now. I am very pleased with the current situation in Turkey,” she said.
“If one day Erdogan and the AKP were to lose power, the economy in Turkey would collapse. Without the AKP, there wouldn’t be one single party strong enough to rule the country, and a weak coalition would have to be formed. But that would be the end of Turkey,” she said.
Serap Yildiz, 36, who is pregnant with her fourth child, is another dedicated supporter of Erdogan and the AKP.
Yildiz, who also lives in the conservative Umraniye neighborhood, believes that women’s political participation and economic power have significantly increased since the AKP came to power.
“There is no one in Turkey who could rule the country better than [Erdogan] right now,” she said.
If anything, the normalization of the hijab has been too successful, Yildiz continued.
“Too many women in Turkey wear a hijab these days only as an accessory, without fully understanding its spiritual value.”
She would still like to see more action on women’s rights, in line with what she says are Islamic principles.
“Many women still complain about being mistreated and not being able to speak to anyone about this, or to seek their rights. Violence against women should not happen in any country, especially in a Muslim country like Turkey.”
Equality to a Limit
Yet not all housewives support the AKP. In last year’s general elections, 33-year-old Nihan Cetin Daimaguler was one of the 6 percent of housewives who voted for the HDP.
This stay-at-home mother of a three-year-old boy describes herself as secular and liberal, and disagrees with Erdogan’s policies on education, health, and the economy. She also says that as a woman who does not wear a hijab, she feels unsafe on a daily basis.
“Walking on the street is becoming more difficult every day. It is so sad that I have to be cautious when I am walking with my kid, even in daylight,” she said.
“A few years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, I was on a bus, and a woman gave her seat to another woman wearing a hijab, not me, although she could see that I was pregnant.”
And she argues that religious women’s supposed liberation under AKP rule had been only superficial.
“Women with a hijab are not allowed to decide on matters about their own marriage, education, and even whether they wear a headscarf or not,” she said.
Sociologist Sevinc Dogan, who researched the AKP’s relations with conservative housewives for her 2016 postgraduate thesis, agrees that while female activists have mobilized large numbers of conservative Muslim women to vote for the AKP, the party’s top positions remain reserved for men.
“Not every woman wearing the hijab voted for the AKP, but many of them did, and a headscarf is now the AKP’s political symbol that represents power,” she explained.
Dogan believes that Turkey’s president is very good at manipulating his voters, which is one of the secrets of his success. Ahead of the crucial referendum in April 2017 that transformed Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, Erdogan sensed that female voters were unhappy with earlier statements that men and women were not equal. Just before the vote, he began to talk about the importance of equal opportunities for both men and women.
“Erdogan convinced his supporters that if he lost, people who voted for him would lose, too. AKP voters believe that being pro-government gives them a privileged status that they might lose if Erdogan is overthrown,” Dogan said.
“It is not easy for them to give up on Erdogan, even if they do not agree with all his decisions,” she said. “But in the end, it is the women voters who hold his fate in their hands.”
We would like to invite you to meet Kathryn Thier, a recognized expert and instructor of Solutions Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
Join us to learn more about the connections between investigative reporting and Solutions Journalism and discover the impact that bringing the “whole” story has on communities. Kathryn’s keynote speech will be followed by a panel discussion on bringing the solutions perspective into reporting practices with Nikita Poljakov, deputy editor in chief of the business daily Hospodářské noviny. Nikita is also head of the project “Nejsi sám” (You are not alone), which uses the solutions approach to tackle the issue of male suicide. The main program will be followed by an informal wine reception.
The event will take place on Monday, 25 March at 5 p.m. in the Hollar building of the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences (Smetanovo nábřeží 6, Praha 1). The event will be in English.
Attendance is free upon registration - please, fill in the registration form.
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