Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"The women did not accept the flowers"

My second reaction after reading a reportage in the March 5th edition of Turkish daily Sabah on a women protest in Istanbul was that the title of the article ("Çiçekleri almadılar", "The women did not accept the flowers") should figure in my next blog post. My first reaction was, of course, that I should seize the opportunity to discuss yet another facet of Turkey, one that surely affects politics but primarily speaks volumes of the society itself.

What brought 500 women in Çağlayan and another 3,000 in Kadıköy was not only the upcoming Women's Day; it was an urge to denounce discrimination and abuse of women. "Honor killings" and sexual abuse are, sadly, present in portions of Anatolia and further to the east, particularly in the countryside. Often embedded in cultural norms and traditions, such practices are in violation of both the major international human rights texts, to which Turkey is a party, and the legal foundations of the Turkish Republic as established by M. Kemal Atatürk in 1923. But Turkey epitomizes contradiction; suffice here to say that Turkey has been an early proponent of women's emancipation introducing bold social and political reforms including women's suffrage as early as 1930, much earlier than France (1945) or Belgium (1948).

Earlier, I spoke of women in the streets of Istanbul as constituting one facet of Turkey: this is because I align myself with the view that Turkey's unique combination of different and at times contradicting streams requires a cautious approach, one that acknowledges particularistic elements and thoughtfully places them in the historical and cultural context. Otherwise one risks being overly superficial. It is only wrong (and dangerous) to see just the face value of such incidents as the protest and much worse to pass judgments on Turkey's respect of human rights or lack thereof based just on fragmentary evidence.

In Turkey there is a strong kemalist secular legacy and at the same time a religious pro-Islam faction that was muted in the early years of the Republic but has successfully re-emerged in the last decades. At the same time, the cultural norms are holding strong and they vary substantially based on the region and the composition of the population. The European endeavor that Turkey has been pursuing since the signing of the Ankara Agreement for accession in 1963 has increased the scope of the European (or Western) influence: partly represented by the secular pro-modernity faction, this stream is also an entity of its own in the form of media, governmental and non-governmental institutions and monitor groups with offices in the Bosporus or the capital.

Turkey of 2007 is a state that is at the eve of presidential elections (with parliamentary elections to follow in the fall), with a moderate Islamic party, Erdoğan's "Justice and Development Party" in power, that in the view of many has failed to rise to its true potential, and yet might also win elections, and with the military still present and "watching". This is the context within which women demonstrated but one should also be mindful of legacies of the past that are echoed today: the headscarf controversy, the rise of right-wing parties, the 1997 return of Kemalists. Women demand a responsible approach to some arguably crucial issues and most importantly make their commitment clear. The symbolic gesture of not accepting the flowers that were being handed by the police emphasizes the very core of the notion that reforms must be deep, not just a "face lift". In addition, such a protest is also important because it denotes a certain sense of national unity, a concept that itself has been challenged lately: women in Istanbul called for the rights of all women even if it is clear that women of urban areas suffer less.

Having said that, it is clear that the issues that bring women in the roads this time are much less controversial than, say, the headscarf debate. The difficulty here lies not so much in mustering support -for no one really opposes such demands- but in bringing about change. And change is a difficult and lengthy process. Raising women issues -from very basic to second-tier- requires a greater "opening" that political elites and civil society must be willing to undertake and allow. Most importantly it requires going above and beyond the traditional course of action by introducing bold reforms primarily socially and legally, and later by implementing them. And this is much easier said than done, for to undertake the strenuous path of reform requires challenging at the same time established norms and respecting culture, it requires assuming political cost without jeopardizing one's power base, it requires "confronting" the people and yet engaging them in the struggle.

If Turkey in the 1930s achieved great strides with its innovative reforms, the same does not apply today when reforms are not even an option. Can women and their protest instigate and sustain the much-needed change or is Turkey, yet again, in deep need of a charismatic leader?


The original article: "Çiçekleri almadılar"
A translation in English: "The women did not accept the flowers"


Pixie said...

Apart from Turkey the situation of women in the Islamic world is difficult.For change to occur drastic changes should happen in society something that it is difficult because of the religion.I am sure that women also preserve the situation as they accept men's behavior or even justify them because of the religion.Its nice to hear that in some parts of the Muslim world women are rethinking their place in society!Nice article!

El Bebo said...

I totally agree with you. Just let me tell you that what you wrote about and some of the examples you produced were the same I gave in a kind of discussion I had some days ago with colleagues, in the place I work (EU Commission).
Nice blog!

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