Turkish Protests Rattle Erdogan’s Female Loyalists

By Sisi Tang

WeNews correspondent

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Turkey‘s anti-government protests are troubling for some of Erdogan’s female supporters, who dominate his voting base. For other women, the protests are an outlet for anger at current policies and a break from the political repression that followed the 1970s mass unrest.

Hundreds of women marched toward Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 8, 2013.
Hundreds of women marched toward Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 8, 2013.

Credit: Sisi Tang

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)– A Reuters photo of a police officer spraying tear gas into the face of a woman in a red dress in Gezi Park in Taksim Square here has forged the impression of a strong-armed reaction by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward protests around the country that are stretching into their second week.

While Erdogan has agreed to meet today with three protest leaders, many expect the demonstrations to escalate after police entered Gezi Park Tuesday, flinging gas canisters and shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators, despite the Istanbul governor’s promise earlier that the park will not be touched. People continued filing into Taksim Square, which was bellowing with tear gas smoke and reeling from sound bombs as of Tuesday night.

Last weekend, Kalbiye Uzuner, a middle-aged housewife, was among those walking toward Taksim, joining the crowd’s chants calling for the government to resign.

“This is the first time I’ve participated in something this big,” she told Women’s eNews. “Even if the P.M. [prime minister] doesn’t give into our demands, I think we have still won because we have gathered here such a variety of people.”

In the backstreets, older women jutted their arms out of their windows, banging pots and pans and offering the young protesters passing by lemon and vinegar, which they hoped would soothe the bite of tear gas.

These indications of waning support among women concern Erdogan’s loyal female followers.

Eda Yilmaz, a young supporter of Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, has not yet joined the demonstrations. But she said she was incensed by the Reuters image and felt an instant desire to join those in Taksim Square.

“The police violence needs to be investigated,” said Yilmaz, an entrepreneur and industrial engineer, in an interview over the weekend. “It shouldn’t necessarily be about the government stepping down, but about it correcting and checking its mistakes.”

According to a student protestor’s personal account that has been circulated online by his professor, a police officer repeatedly beat a woman inside a police detention vehicle while threatening to rape her and forcing her to shout praises to the police.

Though both men and women have been subject to police violence, videos and interviews showing female protestors in the Aegean metropolis of Izmir being beaten by a dozen or more police have spread like wildfire on the Web and inflamed the public.

A Hovering Question

Will it end with long-lasting political change of any sort?

That’s the question hovering over layers of barbecue smoke, smoldering tear gas, spewing water cannons and the red flags of the Republic and its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The answer depends, in part, on Turkish female voters such as Yilmaz. Women were 54 percent of those who voted for the AKP during the 2011 general elections, according to an AKP-led survey.

The AKP, a party with Islamic roots, has presided over a phase of economic growth but faces challenges sustaining gains on the heels of the global economic slowdown.

There is no sign yet that the prime minister’s response to the Gezi Park protests is costing him female voters. But while his administration can count on female supporters who see his hard-edged ways as a strong, avuncular backing of their religious sentiments, some of those are now seeing his style as edging on authoritarian.

“I’ve always thought his talking style was very problematic,” said Yilmaz. “You can’t just order people that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You should have referendums, communicate with the people.”

Erdogan’s female supporters include young, middle-class, well-educated, cosmopolitan and observant women who share the liberal values being voiced by the demonstrations.

At the same time, they are loyal to the AKP for assisting their religious freedoms, with a prime example being the lifting of the ban on headscarves in universities.

“Compared to older times, I think there have been many improvements in the last decade, especially in economic development and with resolving the headscarf issue,” said Neslihan Ozdemir, 31, an AKP supporter and housewife who said she did not attend what she saw as an overly politicized conflict that has spiraled into deliberate provocation. “This issue is very important for me: freedom to wear what you want.”

Lingering Fears

In the broader population of women, beyond Erdogan’s supporters, some older women have avoided street protests–and made their concerns known to their children–out of health concerns about tear gas and fears left from the bloody, political clashes of the 1970s, which killed many civilians and culminated in the 1980 military coup that installed military rule for the next few years.

“My family for instance would not allow me to even attend the smallest demonstrations. Everyone is extremely afraid. People have seen torture,” said a 21-year-old law student at Marmara University who asked that her name not be published for fear of backlash. Yet, she has participated in the demonstrations since day one.

Turkey is often analyzed through the polarizing lens of political and religious differences. But these demonstrations, which have swelled up from a small environmentalist protest of plans to raze the leafy Gezi Park in Taksim Square, have become a chance for citizens to share an array of grievances.

For many Turkish women, Erdogan’s public condemnation last year of elective Cesarean births and abortion struck a nerve. So did a draft policy to ban abortion from which he later backed away.

In a recent public speech, he also drew ire for reprimanding a couple for kissing on a public metro.

“In the very beginning I took to the streets because of the abortion issue,” said the university student who requested anonymity. “It was about women’s demands and ownership of their own bodies. We felt that we have been excluded, so in order to be included within, we came to express ourselves.”

Hundreds of elderly and young women marched through Taksim this weekend, uniformly chanting, “Tayyip, flee, flee, the women are coming,” bearing signs that read “We are on the streets for a life without Tayyip, without harassment,” and “Tayyip, keep your hands away from my body.”

‘Much More Oppression’

“Especially during the period when AKP has been in power, there has been much more oppression and violence against women,” said Gunay Demirbas Nas, a coordinator at Imece Kadin Sendikasi, a women’s collective based in Istanbul. “Murder of women has been on the rise.”

She added that she was also angered by the recent merging of the Ministry for Women and Family with theMinistry of Family and Social Policies.

Protestors have called on Erdogan to “stop acting as if he is everyone’s father.” Many perceive him to be an obstinate, authoritarian patriarch prone to meddling in female citizens’ personal affairs.

He has repeatedly advised families to have at least three children, a gesture which his conservative-leaning supporters see as a reasonable economic measure that would also reinforce family values. Opponents, however, suspect an agenda to reinstate religious law, hamper women’s freedom and threaten the nation’s secularist foundations.

“This state does what it wants to do, even with issues related to women’s bodies,” said Rojda Tekin, aspokesperson for the Anti-Capitalist Muslims youth group, based in Istanbul with liaisons all over Turkey.

The Anti-Capitalist Muslims are a group of pious, anti-AKP youths who decry the ruling government for what they see as capitalist policies serving mainly the rich, preferring what they say is a middle way between Islam and socialism.

Headscarved, Tekin huddled with members of her group among the sea of tents and banners displayed at Gezi Park to protest its demolition.

“With women’s rights there are some serious issues. But at least Turkey isn’t a state that directly oppresses women. We can go out and do as we please. Everything that belongs to God also belongs to the civilians, whether it’s women’s rights or other issues,” she said.

Sisi Tang is a writer and traveler based in Istanbul, Turkey.


Pro-Choice Faith Group Goes Beyond Roe V. Wade

New Hempstead Presbyterian Church, near New Ci...

New Hempstead Presbyterian Church, near New City, NY, USA. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as English Church and Schoolhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


By Frederick Clarkson

WeNews correspondent

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is redefining its mission and methods. While vowing to never lose sight of abortion rights, the group is shaping a more holistic health-justice agenda and turning to movement-building at the grassroots.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The country’s leading pro-choice religious lobby is rolling out a profound re-visioning of its mission and method in light of the changing climate around reproductive rights.

This week, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice also hired a new president to lead it into the new era.Rev. Harry Knox, previously best known as a national gay rights leader, will take the helm as president and CEO in July.

The Religious Coalition was founded in 1973 to organize religious groups to defend the gains in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that protected abortion as part of a woman’s right to privacy. But the group has recently broadened and deepened its agenda under the rubric of reproductive justice, since access to health care and education, economic security and a safe environment profoundly affect meaningful reproductive choices. The Religious Coalition says it sees this as a necessary response to the wave of state-level anti-abortion legislation in recent years and as a way of building powerful alliances across a range of concerns.

“This is a new phase of a justice movement that has been in process for years,” the group’s board chair, Rev. Dr. Alethea Smith-Withers, told Women’s eNews. “The best way to turn the tide is with faith communities and this new justice paradigm will enable us to do that. I do think we will see some pay dirt in the very near future.”

“Pay dirt” may mean a higher profile for the Religious Coalition in the media and in state and national coalitions.

“This is important,” said Communications Director Marjorie Signer, “because we are a religious organization and religion has been seen as the enemy of women’s reproductive rights.”

Challenging Misconceptions

The Religious Coalition intends to challenge that idea, stressing that anti-choice groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council do not speak for the majority of people of faith in America. The group will also be telling some liberals that matters of reproductive health and rights must not be marginalized.

“Too many social justice efforts,” Signer said, “are dominated by groups that exclude women’s reproductive health issues. That will stop!”

The group has always included such issues as infant and maternal mortality rates, sexually transmitted diseases and access to health care in marginalized communities, especially among African Americans. But listening and responding to other aspects of environmental, gender and economic justice is now also part of the task.

“Justice movements require you to be able to hear the voices and the needs of people who have the least,” said Smith-Withers.

The Religious Coalition has also embraced a stronger organizational identity to drive its new approach. As a coalition, it comprises some large institutions such as The Episcopal Church, with more than two million members, while some groups are much smaller. Other members include such major protestant and Jewish bodies as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, Union for Reform Judaism and The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism.

Since each coalition member has its own decision-making processes, emphases and policies, however, it’s sometimes been difficult to find more than narrow agreements amidst such diversity. The Religious Coalition’s solidified organizational identity, the group says, will allow it greater flexibility in balancing taking broader stands and implementing an ambitious organizing agenda, while also fairly representing the pro-choice religious coalition on areas of agreement.

Taking the Plunge

While the group has long embraced the idea of reproductive justice, it is only now taking the plunge into creating a program to fully integrate the idea at all levels of the organization, including its 21 state affiliates.

Angela Ferrell-Zabala, whose staff responsibilities for the Religious Coalition include field organizing, describes a renewed effort to increase the organization’s clout by shifting its emphasis from the “grasstops” to the grassroots.

“We had been advocacy-oriented, academic, doing legal work and working with legislators etcetera,” said Ferrell-Zabala, explaining the group’s shift to a holistic, bottom-up approach to movement-building. “We try to really hear what people have to say about the challenges they are facing in their lives and communities. I think that is the most authentic way to do it.”

Following the principles of influential organizing theorist Marshall Ganz, she emphasizes building relationships among people and building movement capacity.

“It is not about bringing a message or talking points to them,” Ferrell-Zabala added. “We are not giving or creating strategy in the sense of one size fits all. People are creating it and owning it themselves.”

To jump-start the process, the Religious Coalition recently held a three-day conference in mid-April in Washington, D.C., for grassroots leaders who were trained in organizing techniques such as public narrative, creating effective leadership teams and building local and national organizational partnerships.

“We will be using our considerable grassroots power,” Signer said, “to bring religious people and groups that are pro-choice into the broader social justice movement.”

Frederick Clarkson is an independent journalist and author. He is editor of “Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America,” IG Publishing, 2008.



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