Turkey's women movement upcoming challenge
When the young pianist Büşka Kayıkçı qualified this week to be among the young musicians to perform during the Istanbul Jazz Festival, she received both praise and disapproval on social media. Her headscarf drew criticism both from seculars and the pious. Paradoxically, these two segments were unified in their incomprehension of a Muslim women performing a music style which is attributed to the (Christian) West. Had a pious, or conservative man been qualified, we would not have had this discussion, since we would not have known this person’s social or political leanings.
Muslim women have long been fighting one group of seculars whose restrictive approach to their outfits have forced the limits of freedom of conscience. Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been in power, Muslim women, especially those coming from the ruling party’s constituent base are waging a fight on a second front: Against those men and (sometimes women) in their conservative neighborhood.
According to Islam, music is forbidden, reacted one to the young artist. “Women cannot work where men work,” wrote another on social media. For the extremist men among the pious, women have categorically a second place in life, not just in daily life, but also even in performing religious duties.
For some time, a group of Muslim women has been complaining about the place they have been given to pray in the mosques, which are usually the farthest or darkest corners of the places of worship. Traditionally women are expected to pray at home, because they are expected to stay at home to be mothers and wives. But for those working, having a better place in the mosque becomes a pressing demand.
Next to pious women, other women who want to simply visit a mosque are also discriminated. They are asked to exit the mosque by security officials when prayers start.
In that respect, to what degree will the Hagia Sophia reopen to Muslim prayer in a women-friendly way remains to be seen. Will we see women participating in the Friday’s prayer on July 24, when the first prayer will take place since the conversion decision was taken two weeks ago?
The Friday prayer in Hagia Sophia as well as the debates over the Istanbul Convention, a key Council of Europe instrument for the fight on violence against women will remain high on this week’s agenda.
It is fair to say that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has succumbed to pressure from a small conservative segment on Hagia Sophia, since only a year ago he was on the record to object the reopening of the historic structure to Muslim prayers. No doubt, converging an important symbol of Christianity to a Muslim worship place and thereby reversing the decision of secularist Republicans into a museum highly pleases the president. His initial objections were more to do with pragmatic reasons and the conjuncture than pure conviction. His latest decision therefore was not one taken halfheartedly.
The same extremist group is also putting pressure to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, arguing the document is against Turkey’s “family values.”
Those who are not specifically fond of opening Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayer both within secular and conservative camp did not think objecting to the decision was a war worth fighting for.
That would hardly be the case with Istanbul Convention, since the debates have revived especially after President Erdoğan instructed to look for ways to withdraw from the international treaty.
It would not take too much effort to convince the president to withdraw from the Convention in terms of its substance since despite the weakness in the arguments against the document, President Erdoğan tends to favor family values over the individual rights of women.
But women’s organizations are up in arms and they will stage a fierce struggle in favor of the convention, drawing support from different segments of society. Unfortunately, it took the atrocious murder of yet another woman, Pınar Gültekin, allegedly killed by her former boyfriend, for important institutions like the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) to come only yesterday in defense of the Istanbul Convention. But, more importantly, a significant portion of conservative women are also in favor of the convention.
At the end of the day the outcome will be determined by two factors, the strength of women’s organizations and the calculations that will be done by President Erdoğan. The first will be a litmus test in terms of how women’s organizations will make their voice heard despite restrictions that have been brought to dissenting views.
In terms of the second, while the decision on Hagia Sophia is based on the assumption that it will bring votes rather than the opposite, the same equation might not be valid especially in terms of conservative women, who so far outnumbered conservative men in voting for President Erdoğan.
But even the calculations on Hagia Sophia may not work as calculated. Two decades of AK Party rule has created a conservative middle class, which is more interested in the solution of Turkey’s burning problems like the economy than symbolic cultural gestures.