It’s more than a boy-girl story

It’s more than a boy-girl story

It started with a leak, too. The leak was from a closed-door session of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) latest big event bringing MPs and party organizers together to assess the political atmosphere before the March 2014 local elections. It was exclusively reported by daily Zaman and as part of another political story, not a separate one.

Yet, the news echoed almost immediately not through the political corridors or Ankara, but in universities and almost every house in Turkey with a student at university. The report was about a statement by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, reportedly saying the government would not let male and female university students share accommodation, whether in dormitories or private houses, just because there were not enough one-gender dormitory facilities provided by universities.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç denied the report the same day following a Cabinet meeting, also underlining that it was not only a “made-up story” and that the government had no policy of intervening in the private lives and lifestyles of Turkish citizens. The next morning, Nov. 5, Erdoğan’s chief political adviser, Yalçın Akdoğan, wrote in his column (yes, he writes daily columns for two papers) admitted that the issue was a matter of discussion, but that the government had no intention of intervening in people’s lifestyles and checking private homes, but had the right to inspect unauthorized dormitories, suggesting that that was what the prime minister meant.

It took only a few hours for Turkish people to understand what Erdoğan actually meant. “It’s not clear what is going on in these places,” he said while addressing the AK Parti group in Parliament. “They are all mixed up, anything can happen. As a conservative democratic government, we have to intervene.” 
He said provincial governors and police would act on “intelligence” and complaints by neighbors. “Why are you annoyed about this?” Erdoğan asked, adding that this had nothing to do with intervening in lifestyles.

The answer came from Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), within an hour during an address to CHP deputies. Allocating almost his entire speech to deteriorating women’s rights in Turkey under Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that the PM’s actual aim was to end mixed-gender education in Turkey. Underlining that the government had no legal bases for such inspections unless there is a crime, Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that Erdoğan had a “cliché in his mind and was trying to transform Turkey into a Middle Eastern country.”

Erdoğan’s statement produced echoes within the AK Parti as well. Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek said he did not read Erdoğan statements in full but agreed with what Arınç had said. Arınç, on the other hand, who had denied the story before, said he did not agree with those who think what he said contradicted the prime minister’s words, since he also believed that “it was mostly girls on the losing end of cohabitation stories,” as if sharing student houses meant only being partners without marriage. 

Arınç had a major conflict with Erdoğan earlier this year over the police brutality during the Gezi Park protests, and reportedly stepped back from the brink of resignation only thanks to the intervention of President Abdullah Gül. 

Bekir Bozdağ, another deputy prime minister, said that if he had a daughter, he wouldn’t like her to share a house with male students and a son to share with girls either. As a first consequence, a high school principal in the western town of Isparta divided the canteen of the school into two for boys and girls, signaling more administrative and social pressure for gender segregation in the once proudly secular Turkish education system.

As Turkey gets closer to local elections, it appears that religious and moral values are likely to be a major propaganda tool to win the hearts and minds of mostly conservative voters. The outcome might be a lesser role for already undeservedly underrepresented women in political and social life, something that used to be an example to all other countries with Muslim populations as a unique quality of secular Turkish democracy.