Turkey is a longstanding member of NATO and is seen as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. However, in the past few months the country has experienced intense riots that show little sign of letting up. The riots began as a challenge to government plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim Square but quickly escalated into a broader challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). The conflict was exacerbated by the heavy-handed response by police and many protesters have been severely injured in clashes. The Turkish government has experienced international backlash for its treatment of protestors including criticism from Germany which has stalled EU membership talks. The protests in Turkey include a robust female contingent with approximately half the protestors being women; a protestor demographic that mirrors the Arab Spring. One particularly harrowing image of a young woman in a red dress being blasted with tear gas has become the de facto symbol of the Turkish protest movement.
Women have been particularly active in the Turkish protests for a number of reasons. The breadth of the gender gap, in terms of literacy, income, and political representation, is considerable in Turkey, with the 2010 World Economic Forum Report ranking the country 126 out of 131. For this reason alone, the governing party must enter into a dialogue with Turkish women and recognize the legitimacy of their collective voice and message. On top of that, women in Turkey perceive that their rights are being systematically eroded. Turkey has been a historically secular state and Prime Minister Erdogan has been steadily erasing that legacy. Erdogan’s promotion of the Islamic headscarf and vocal opposition to a woman’s right to control over her own body have alienated Turkish women. He recently declared that all Turkish women ought to have three children and has also instituted measures to curb late-night sales of alcohol, to make it more difficult to access the morning-after pill, and to limit abortion rights and access. He has called abortion “an act of murder” and has campaigned for limits on Caesarean births, calling them “a procedure to restrict and square the nation’s population” due to his belief that many women who use this method cannot have more than one child.
These changes represent a challenge to the secular legacy established by Mustafa Ataturk. Turkish women are fairly educated and are a substantial demographic in both universities and business. However, what is also interesting about the Turkish case of female protest participation is the specific character of their demands. Many of these women are Muslim; yet they seek to depose the AKP regardless of their faith. One protester asserted that for her, the protests weren’t about achieving a western conception of female identity, saying “it’s not about abandoning parts of our Islamic culture but about preserving our existing rights.” For other women protesting in Taksim Square, their purpose is more broad and reflects a desire to have “a future here in Turkey, a career, a freedom to live my life”. Such ideals have been threatened by Erdogan.
The outcome of the Turkish protests remains unclear. An impasse exists between the protesters and the government as neither are willing to make substantial concessions. Prime Minister Erdogan finally met with protesters on June 12, 2013, after previously refusing to do so, and agreed to halt development of the park. However, the scope of issues driving the protests has expanded dramatically. What began as a protest against the conversion of urban green space into a shopping centre has become a challenge to Erdogan’s dictatorial attitude in the face of opposition and his regime more broadly. Police have used excessive force against protesters, spraying them liberally with tear gas and water cannons, as well as burning their tents down. However, what is more disturbing about Erdogan’s reaction is his rhetoric. In announcing plans to finally meet with protesters, the Prime Minister warned“those who attempt to sink [the stock market] will collapse […] If we catch your speculation, we will choke you. No matter who you are, we will choke you.”
Erdogan’s authoritarian bent also goes beyond his refusal to consult with citizens before developing the park. He has put forth a constitutional reform to transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government, which would give him unprecedented authority and allow him to dissolve the legislative assembly. This change would be“the most extensive refashioning of the political system since the establishment of the secular republic in 1923.”
The fact that protesters in Taksim Square have been coming from every part of the political spectrum is significant. Turkish citizens are loudly speaking out against deep changes to their social, political and cultural fabric. This is clear in a statement from the Taksim Solidarity group that they“will continue [their] resistance in the face of any injustice and unfairness taking place in [their] country.”It is precisely Erdogan’s lack of dialogue with protesters and authoritarian response to their original demands, which has initiated this large-scale opposition to his government and its policies.
A more expansive dialogue with protesters must now take place for dissatisfied citizens to air their grievances in a democratic manner and feel represented. State-sponsored violence against peaceful protesters has no place in a democratic society, particularly one that purports to espouse NATO’s goals of peace and security.