The attack on a woman for wearing shorts

The attack on a woman for wearing shorts

During the relatively calm days of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), an unpleasant incident made Turkey’s breaking news. A young woman, working as a nurse in an Istanbul hospital, was physically attacked in a public bus merely because she was wearing shorts. The attacker, who denounced her supposedly immodest dress, yelled at her, called her a “devil,” and then kicked her in the face. The woman luckily survived with nothing more than a bruise on the chin but she was understandably traumatized.

Also understandably, this ugly attack rallied many Turks, especially women, about the threat they feel toward their lifestyle. Social media mobilized against the attacker and for his victim, while demonstrations were held in a few major cities. The common feeling was that this was not an isolated incident, but one of the many alarm signals about an increasingly “Islamized” Turkey, where women would be forced to dress “modestly,” as defined by intrusive men who have no modesty about their own desire to reshape society.

Things got worse when the attacker got caught — only to be released. The man proudly said, “Her dress was against Islam. I beat people who walk around like that.” It turned out that the man was “bipolar,” in other words had some mental issues. But when the prosecutor who questioned him opened an investigation into him only based on “simple injury” before letting him go, many thought there were “issues” with the state as well. In a country where more than 100 journalists are kept in jail for months merely over what they have written, it really looked maddening that a man who kicked a woman in the face in public can just walk out freely. 

So the public uproar only increased - and rightly. Fortunately, it did have an impact on the state, unlike usual. Only hours after releasing the attacker, prosecutors took a new decision to arrest him again, this time not for “simple injury” but for “provoking hate in the public.” In other words, they understood that this was not merely a random act of violence but a “hate crime” targeting a specific identity or lifestyle. Moreover, the only female minister of the government, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, called the attacked nurse on the phone to express regrets and solidarity. Having herself been demonized for her dress, referring to her Islamic headscarf, Kaya told daily Hürriyet that this let her empathize even more with the victim.

What does this all mean? Is Turkey rapidly becoming “another Iran,” as some people think? Will Turkish women not be able to wear shorts in the streets, and even be forced to cover their hair?

I believe things are not so simple. On the one hand, there is certainly intolerance within the Islamic camp toward what they see as “immodest” life: Alcohol, shorts, or bikinis. This intolerance may be expressed as physical violence only by a half-crazy man, but it has deeper roots and wider appeal. 

However, in the same Islamic camp there are also more enlightened, civilized views, noting that oppression and discrimination are bad regardless of the target. Minister Kaya, I think, gave a good example of that brighter side.

As of the ruling AKP, it includes a mixture of all these bad and good sides of Turkish Muslimness. It also is a catch-all party that attracts votes from more secular citizens as well. This makes it possible to influence the AKP with public action, as we have seen in this case. So those who are worried about the future of secular lifestyles should not give up defending it. Sometimes they may even find the government on their side.