This article was published in partnership with Al Jazeera America.
ANKARA, Turkey — On an ice-cold January morning in Turkey’s monochrome capital, Aylin Nazliaka marched into the city’s boxy concrete courthouse in a burst of graceful rage. A crowd of cameras descended on her — a reception more fit for a pop star than a Turkish parliamentarian.
“She’s our champion for women,” a gushing 26-year-old explained, while deliberating on an Instagram filter for a selfie with Nazliaka. “She’s our soldier.”
But Nazliaka, a parliamentarian for Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was not just there for a flip-of-the-hair photo opportunity. She was about to wage the latest battle in her protracted war against Turkey’s patriarchy.
Her opponent was Nureddin Yildiz, a popular Islamic scholar who recently voiced support for arranged child marriage. Nazliaka and her allies filed a lawsuit against Yildiz for his remarks, which followed his assertion that women working outside the home encourage their husbands to be unfaithful.
“I could be at this courthouse every day,” said an exasperated Nazliaka, amid exchanging niceties with courthouse guards whom she has come to know over the years. “I could file court cases against psychopaths using religion, against Turkey’s patriarchy every day.”
She has struck a chord in a country where few women display her distinct style of fierceness. Last summer the firebrand made local headlines when she launched a tirade during a session of parliament, lambasting the country’s ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) for failing to aggressively tackle domestic violence, a rampant issue in Turkey. She became so incensed that she threatened to throw one of her high-heeled shoes at her fellow deputies.
The exchange birthed a Twitter hashtag, “My slipper is coming,” in which Turkish women posted pictures of shoes and rallied for equal rights.
“Women aren’t facing a glass ceiling in Turkey,” Nazliaka said, shuffling between her cellphone and court documents while picking up her 6-year-old son from school. “It’s concrete.”
The charismatic Nazliaka represents a high-octane, largely secular approach to women’s rights in a country that defies simple categorizations of modern and conservative, Western and Islamic. Over the past decade, Turkey’s city centers have transformed into dynamic hybrids of social conservatism and cosmopolitanism, teeming with shiny Range Rovers, chic organic eateries and high-end designer boutiques. The country is 98 percent Muslim, is a European Union aspirant and is often lauded as a model for its more contentious Muslim-majority neighbors in the region.
A main driver of these successes has been the AKP, which since coming to power in 2002 has worked to provide social services such as education and health care to an underclass that felt oppressed under previous governments. Until this year, when unemployment hit its highest point in five years and the currency plunged, the party won a string of elections, running mainly on its record of economic stability. But women such as Nazliaka tend to see the AKP — and especially the man it orbits around, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — as an autocratic, Koran-wielding obstacle to gender equality.
Turkey ranks 124th out of 140 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality report. That’s only slightly above Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Only a quarter of Turkey’s women participate in the labor force — one of the lowest rates in Europe and the Middle East. About 40 percent of women are believed to have experienced domestic violence, and according to local reports, almost 300 women were killed and more than 100 raped last year alone. Honor killings, in which women are murdered by family members for perceived damage to the family’s reputation, still occur in rural parts of the country.
Though Turkey was hardly a bastion for gender equality before the AKP came to power, the party has been blamed for rolling back the status of women and moving the country toward Islamic conservatism. In 2012 the AKP adopted a domestic violence law that criminalized marital rape and addressed the old penal code’s gender-biased language, but that year Erdogan announced that the AKP would draft a law completely banning abortion. The idea was eventually shelved, but his patriarchal rhetoric continued, with a call for women to have at least three children each and a declaration that men and women aren’t equal but “complementary.”
“With the AKP, everything was. You must speak in the past tense regarding progress,” said Özgül Kaptan of the Women’s Employment and Labor Initiative. “There’s no equality. There’s no democracy.”
But for many Turkish women who felt disenfranchised under a previous era of forced secularization — which included a ban on women’s wearing the Islamic headscarf in some public spaces like universities — the president is a kind of savior.
At the AKP’s Ladies Leadership Academy in Istanbul one Saturday afternoon, 19-year-old Feyza Yildirm praised the party’s 13-year rule. “Women’s visibility has increased under the AKP,” she said. “We now have anchors on TV who wear headscarves … We now have women leaders who represent us.” Sporting a Chanel handbag and a stylish trench coat, she is the personification of the urban Muslim bourgeoisie, a demographic that has ascended and wildly prospered under the AKP’s rule. “We feel we finally have a place in society … That’s democracy.”
Turkey’s parliamentary elections this month indicated a potentially significant change in the contours of that democracy. The AKP won the most seats but lost its majority for the first time in 13 years. The outcome has been interpreted as a referendum on its rule and especially its record on gender and minority issues. Nazliaka’s CHP won 25 percent of the vote, and the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), which passed the parliamentary threshold for the first time by winning 13 percent, widened its base by running on a platform for expanded minority rights. The HDP had more women on its tickets than any other, and a man and a woman share every leadership position in the party. In coming weeks, the AKP will be obliged to form a coalition government with one of these groups — a development that could be a boon for gender equality in Turkey. Yet improving the status of women is a problem that runs deeper than party politics.
“Women’s rights as a concept doesn’t really have resonance for people in Turkey,” said anthropologist Jenny B. White. “Turkish women have always been seen not as individuals but family members … as sisters and wives. The main thing that’s needed isn’t necessarily political or entirely the AKP’s fault. You need to change public attitudes about women.” And the hardest part about changing attitudes toward women might be changing their attitudes toward one another.
One late winter evening in Uskudar, a conservative district on Istanbul’s Asian shore, scores of young Turks gathered at a café tucked behind historic mosques for live rock music. Clad in a headscarf and thick black-rimmed glasses, a young musician sat in a corner strumming an electric guitar as big as her frame.
Nebiye Ari, 26, adroitly weaved through the crowds, serving tea and meeting with members of the group she founded, Muslims Against Violence Toward Women.
“Since I was a child, I grew up with warnings like ‘You’re a girl … You have to be this way … You have to think this way,’” she said, recalling a strict upbringing in Konya, a conservative city in central Turkey. “I grew up with so many expectations, I often wished I were a boy.”
Ari moved to Istanbul for university but had difficulty enrolling in a state-recognized school because of the national ban on headscarves in universities, which the AKP lifted in 2008. As a result, she said, her options were severely limited. She married at 23 but divorced two months later. The couple simply didn’t get along, she said, noting that he “didn’t like [her] activist life.”
For women like her, reconciling religious identity with an interest in gender-based activism can be a juggling act in a country so politically and culturally polarized. “As a Muslim, I look at things through an Islamic perspective,” she said. “Many groups, especially feminist, don’t do this.”
Two years ago, Ari started her organization to amplify the voices of those like her — women “inside the Muslim community.” Her group is writing a more gender-inclusive text for Friday prayers and has campaigned in conservative districts such as Uskudar to increase the number of domestic abuse shelters for women. They have met with resistance from some conservative factions of society, which have criticized them for ruining the image of family — the go-to defense against gender reform in Turkey.
Yet she and her group believe the pushback they have encountered has less to do with religion than it does with culture. “This isn’t a problem with Islam,” she said. “Islam has been interpreted by men for their own gains since the death of the prophet. We are looking for interpretations where women have more rights.”
While Ari and her friends said they grew up feeling disenfranchised under the previous secular governments, they also resent Erdogan for capitalizing on the chasm between Muslim women and the country’s more secular, feminist groups. The president, she said, cares only about women of his kind — that is, veiled and pious.
During the Gezi Park anti-government protests in 2013, Erdogan repeatedly referred to the danger facing “our sisters in headscarves,” as if to distinguish between veiled women and secular female protesters.
In a separate incident before the demonstrations, he speculated about whether an arrested female protestor was a kiz (a girl, her virginity implied) or a kadin (a sexually experienced woman). Turkish language is packed with layers of such categorization; the AKP’s Lady’s Leadership Academy specifically uses bayan (ladies) because kadin (women) connotes sexual experience.
Critics say these attempts to play on religious differences are politically motivated. “The AKP ultimately divides the women’s movement in hopes to destroy it,” said Banu Paker, a leader of Turkey’s Socialist Feminist Collective. “Building solidarity among women is difficult.”
Ari agreed. Because she doesn’t subscribe to a “Western feminist approach,” she has found it difficult to find allies among secular feminists. “We join [feminist] protests and support them, and they patronize us,” she said, adding that secular women see pious, veiled Muslim activists “as though we’re foreigners or aliens from a different planet.” When she participated in the anti-government Gezi Park protests two years ago, she said, she feared that demonstrators might attack her because of her veil.
“We’re stuck in the middle,” she said. “We’re people between, neither for nor anti-Gezi. Both sides put pressure on us. Both sides think we’re traitors.”
Finding common ground
While bringing these women’s groups together has proved difficult, White sees the increasingly visible issue of violence against women as a unifying point. Every political party included it in its campaign platform last year, and demonstrations surrounding the issue have mushroomed over the past year. Just last week, hundreds gathered in the Aegean province of Mugla to protest the death of a young girl who was found dead in a canal on June 17. Such momentum suggests that greater collaboration across Turkey’s ideological divides might be possible after all.
In February, news reverberated across the country of the brutal murder of a 20-year-old student, Ozgecan Aslan, who was stabbed in a minibus in southern Turkey while resisting a rape attempt. On a gray afternoon that month, a sea of women descended on one of Istanbul’s busiest streets, Istiklal Caddesi, which winds into Gezi Park.
Feride Erap, 25, led a demonstration of hundreds in demanding justice. She screamed Aslan’s name into a microphone — and the names of dozens of women who were murdered at the hands of men over the past few years. Passersby looked on, some briefly engaging in solidarity with a cheer or smile, before returning to life uninterrupted.
In Ankara, Nazliaka joined the One Billion Rising demonstration, a global day of action in protest against violence against women, founded by activist Eve Ensler. Photographs of Nazliaka dancing soon flooded the Internet as part of an alleged smear campaign by state-run Turkish media, implying she and the opposition CHP were having fun instead of mourning Aslan’s death. Erdogan even lambasted the protesters in a speech, saying they should have been saying a prayer for Aslan instead. “These are people so away from their own country, the values of their own people, that they protest by dancing,” he said.
In Istanbul, Erap’s mother, Nukhet Sirman, a renowned anthropologist, stood across the boulevard, which had transformed into a veritable who’s who of Turkish feminism, a close-knit community that has been protesting together for years. Sirman acknowledged that the lack of cooperation among various segments of society is an issue that impedes progress for the country’s women.
“I’ve been here for 30 years,” she said, looking at Erap with a mix of pride and anguish. “To watch my daughter today, fighting the same fight, it is not something I wanted for her.” Sirman looked at the street, now returning to its normal flow of Sunday shoppers and bright-eyed tourists. “And I wonder, if she has a daughter, will she also to have to join the same fight?”
Ari soon arrived, one of the few veiled women in a crowd of hundreds. When asked why veiled women were distinctly in the minority, she rolled her eyes, tired of the question or perhaps tired of complexities entangled in the answer.
“Maybe you should ask them,” she said with a shrug.