Unchain my vote: Handcuffs and sexism in Parliament

Unchain my vote: Handcuffs and sexism in Parliament

Nazlan Ertan - nazlanertan@gmail.com
Unchain my vote: Handcuffs and sexism in Parliament

AP photo

Minutes after independent deputy Aylin Nazlıaka handcuffed herself to the rostrum during the ongoing constitutional debate, I took a small poll on what my friends thought of the protest. The first reaction, based on the fleeting images of the deputy handcuffed to the mike, were mostly negative. Many thought Nazlıaka was engaged in yet another mediatic act that prioritized showmanship over content. 

But the reaction changed quickly as the message became clearer. Nazlıaka was giving a message to National Movement Party (MHP) deputies who were “chained to a position” that was against their campaign promises.

“How can you put your head on your pillow and sleep? How can you look in the face of the people around you, your wife and your children, as you shake the roots of our republic?” said the independent deputy, who was recently expelled from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The handcuff gesture was one that aimed to mimic the MHP deputies so-called forced “yes” votes and also show the frustration of the “No” bloc, which claims that their efforts to express their opinions and lobby are being thwarted. 

But then this gesture, neither violent nor novel, created the first female brawl in the Turkish Parliament.

Other deputies started forming a ring around her, first in an attempt to remove her from the rostrum, then to start a scuffle. What ensued was a fight among the female deputies from different parties – one that resulted in Şafak Pavey of the CHP being thrown to the floor on her artificial leg. Another photo was that of a Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy, Gökçen Özdoğan Enç, running with her hair in the air as she prepared to attack other female deputies. Many of the AKP supporters, including the mayor of Ankara, congratulated her on “her bravery.”

The photos of the scuffle, both on television and on mainstream media, display a scene that raises a strong sense of disgust in me: women pushing each other and men jeering, encouraging, taking photos or making jokes or tweeting with sexual innuendos.

It has been a long time since parliaments, in Turkey and elsewhere, lost their respectability as “temples of democracy and the will of the people” – if indeed they had ever been viewed with respect and awe. In the last few decades, we have not only seen and heard fighting words but fistfights and gunfights in parliament in Turkey and abroad. In the course of the last few years, we have often been reminded that our elected deputies are no better than most of us and that they express much less restraint before the cameras. 

Yet, the scenes of Thursday night, when the independent deputy handcuffed herself to the rostrum, goes one step further. It shows us that abuse against women, in speech and in action, is not limited to the parks, streets and public transport, as we have been reading for weeks and weeks. It finds a place in parliament. In the words of Nuriye Kadan, the chair of the Women’s Center at the İzmir Bar Association, “perhaps the training we give to fight violence and abuse against women should be held in parliament.”

The scenes also show how the male deputies of the ruling party encourage, guide and push women to the forefront and that the women obey readily. One of the good things from 2016 is that women of different political beliefs have united against various issues, such as early marriage/child abuse and violence against women. This fragile unity among women’s groups has clearly bypassed parliament, the symbol of our polarization, inability to compromise and the impositions of all- most powerful. So much for the well-wishes of my friends, well-educated women of the middle class who have been showering MHP deputies with a steady flow of SMSs that Turkish women will “save the republic that was given to them by Atatürk.”  

What is most offensive is not the criticism about Nazlıaka’s protest, but the sexist and patronizing way she has been criticized. Like all political protests, it can be criticized as too showy, or too inefficient, or too self-important. Some of Nazlıaka’s protests – such as dancing against violence on Valentine’s Day; wearing a rather ridiculous gown and hat with the photo of Atatürk, or telling a deputy that she would like to throw one of her high-heeled shoes at him but that the shoe is too expensive – are highly debatable. Yet, many of her actions, such as the way she stood in front of the police in Gezi Park, carries real courage. The handcuff protest occurred after she was denied permission for a speech in parliament on the grounds that there was no time for an independent deputy.

No, it is the sexist remarks on social media, some from the mouth of politicians, which irk me. “Nazlıaka’s henna party,” said one tweet, while an AKP politician, Şamil Tayyar, said Nazlıaka should only be admitted to parliament after gets her head examined. Social media users immediately posted pictures of Tayyar in a handcuffed pose during an interview.

The unimaginative sexual references to women and handcuffs were also retweeted over and over. “You have brought the handcuffs as your fantasy,” said one tweet. “Bring a man with a whip next time.”

Ah, but the man with the whip is already there, watching to make sure enough votes are going in the right place, isn’t he? Or is that just my imagination?