Sexist attacks against women in Turkish politics reveal resistance to social change

https://www.dailysabah.comby Şeyma Nazlı Gürbüz

Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) group deputy chair, Özlem Zengin, makes a speech at the Turkish parliament, Oct. 21, 2019. (AA)

Turkish society’s insistence on clinging to outdated mindsets and gender roles rather than accepting key changes fuels toxic masculinity and fosters attacks on women in politics, especially on social media

Women in Turkish politics along with the wives and daughters of politicians have become targets of sexist attacks on social media over the past couple of weeks. Although women in politics tend to receive backlash based on their gender rather than their actions, especially on social media, the recent intensity of such incidents with repeated attacks on women from different political movements has raised concerns in the country regarding toxic masculinity – to the point of regulations being placed on social media to curb the onslaught. According to experts, the constant targeting of women in politics is actually a sign that Turkish society prefers to cling to traditional values and gender roles rather than accepting change, with constant resistance from men against women’s involvement in politics.

“Women are a cultural soft spot for Turkish society,” said Melek Arslanbenzer, a psychologist, referring to an old saying on the values of a Turkish person: “horse, women, weapon.”

According to Arslanbenzer, as this saying suggests, since women are seen as “sensitive” belongings of men and society in general, when one wants to hurt someone, the target’s womanhood and/or women in their lives are usually the easiest and most efficient targets.

The latest series of attacks on women in politics started with Başak Demirtaş, the wife of former co-chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, who is currently imprisoned on terrorism charges. A sexist insult made by a fake Twitter user against Demirtaş a couple of weeks ago caused a domino effect in Turkish politics. Although there have been a series of condemnations from all sides of the spectrum, including from the justice minister himself, the attacks against the women in politics continued. The head of the Good Party (IP), Meral Akşener, and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) group deputy chair, Özlem Zengin, were among the next targets insulted based on their gender. The last stroke was, however, against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter Esra Albayrak, who was subjected to a sexist attack just after giving birth to her fourth child. The attacks against all these women included sexual innuendos, insults targeting their femininity and comments on physical appearances, even to the point of objectifying how they sound, as well as attempting to insult their family by insulting them.

Revealing how far people can go when it comes to targeting female politicians and the wives and daughters of politicians, these attacks drew Turkish society’s attention to the issue. Apart from their main common characteristic of being women, all of these aforementioned victims come from different backgrounds, ideologies, societal groups and political movements, showing that rather than one group or another, society, in general, has a problem with women in politics.

Society resists women’s empowerment

“Women are seen as an ‘easy target,’” said Oğuzhan Bilgin, a sociology and politics academic, adding that in his opinion, Turkish society fails to accept the fact that women are now a societal actor.

In Bilgin’s opinion, even though Turkey is now mostly an urban-based society, women still tend to be defined through their husbands, fathers and sons.

“Urban society means a societal structure in which women are active within society and able to earn their own livelihood by not depending on men. As women gain their economic and social strength, they, naturally, also demand political power. However, this demand is mostly being resisted by men,” he underlined.

In 1934, Turkish women were among the first in Europe to gain the right to vote and run for elected office through a constitutional amendment. In 1930, Turkish women were granted suffrage in local elections held that year. Since then, women have been active in national politics and founded the National Women’s Party of Turkey in 1972 and the Women’s Party in 2014.

There has been an increase in the number of women elected to Parliament in recent decades. While in 1935 only 4.5% of lawmakers were women, this share increased to nearly one in five legislators in 2019, even with the number of lawmakers rising from 401 to 600. Today, there are 102 women lawmakers in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, just about 17% of lawmakers. Although women have a relatively larger presence in Parliament, only four out of 81 provincial mayors are women.

In a nutshell, though there have been improvements in women’s representation, politics is still a man’s game in Turkey, which reflects society’s perspective on female politicians as well.

Joni Lovenduski, a politics professor, says in her 2014 article titled “The Institutionalisation of Sexism in Politics” that: “Female marginalization is hardwired into the traditional institutions within which politics takes place.” Similar to Lovenduski’s remarks, although more women are entering politics in Turkey, the fact that they still carry the burden of gender roles determined by a patriarchal society and in addition to those roles, try to survive in an environment like politics built by men in accordance with male priorities, creates obstacles for women to be a part of the decision-making processes. This masculine structure of the politics and the obstacles it creates for women lead to the devaluation of women in politics and eventually fuel toxic masculinity.

“In Turkey, female politicians still have a lot to face as challenges. They are mostly seen as numbers to meet a gender quota. This is valid for all the political parties,” Bilgin said, adding that the insignificance imposed on female politicians also makes them an easy target in the eyes of the public.

“Men in politics cannot be attacked this easily,” he underlined.

Although the political realm seems to be collectively condemning the insults targeting women, regardless of political affiliations, one thing that came to the forefront during this period was women’s support for each other.

Following each incident, most victims of the attacks called each other for support, as well as other women in politics. For instance, Albayrak received a call from Selvi Kılıçdaroğlu, the wife of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, while receiving support from Demirtaş as well.

“You will find all women side by side in the face of attacks targeting women,” CHP’s Istanbul head Canan Kaftancıoğlu also said on the attacks, while Akşener expressed: “It is shameful and immoral to turn spouses, children and grandchildren into subjects of politics. Politics cannot be done like this. It has nothing to do with humanity.”

Women with headscarf under fire

Speaking on the attack on Albayrak, Zengin told Turkish news channel A Haber that she does differentiate between people when it comes to such attacks and tries to support whoever is at the receiving end.

“I have been attacked for a week now. A week before, there was an incident about Başak Demirtaş. We do not differentiate between people regarding their political affiliations when it comes to such attacks,” she underlined. However, Zengin, who wears a headscarf (hijab), also added that in her opinion, she did not receive enough support for the insults she faces, unlike other women.

Many studies show that although the number of women in politics continues to increase in many corners of the world, when it comes to their publicity, mostly there appearances are a topic of discussion rather than their policies. For instance, back in 2016, The Washington Post received major criticism for mentioning Hillary Clinton’s – who was a senator at that time – neckline as sitting “low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape,” rather than referring to her education policies. Similarly, The New York Times also made headlines for criticizing the U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for aiming to achieve reasonable price points for senior citizens while “looking preternaturally fresh, with a wardrobe that, while still subdued and over-reliant on suits, has seldom spruced the halls of Congress.”

Turkey’s women in politics have also been objectified according to their appearance rather than their policies. However, in contrast to the U.S., many arguments on women’s appearance in public spaces in Turkey revolve around the long-debated headscarf.

“I believe such incidents (insults against women) do not make the headlines at the same level for every woman. For instance, in my opinion, conservative female politicians receive more backlash than others. There are hundreds of victims such as Özlem Zengin and Esra Albayrak,” Bilgin expressed, pointing at the different levels of publicity and backlash that headscarf-wearing women and other women face in Turkey.

Bilgin expressed that since many people still have the opinion that successful headscarf-wearing women do not deserve to be in the positions they currently hold, they feel like they have the right to attack them and consider this offensive behavior normal.

The issue of the headscarf ban held an important place in public and political debates in Turkey throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The headscarf ban in Turkey was first implemented widely in the 1980s but became stricter after 1997 when the military forced the conservative government to resign in an incident later dubbed the Feb. 28 “postmodern coup.”

It was gradually lifted for students in universities after 2010, while the ban for public employees was lifted in 2013.

The AK Party government led by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a pioneer in terms of resolving the country’s headscarf dispute, which forced millions of Muslim women to choose between their faith and their education or career.

Conservative men fail conservative women

However, the recent debates on insults targeting women in politics also showed that, unlike the common assumption that opposition or secular segments of society are the ones who leave women with headscarves unsupported, conservative men, especially their fellow male politicians, were also hesitant to back the women. The issue led to widespread disappointment and reactions among conservative women, most of whom were among the circles close to the AK Party.

Fatmanur Altun, head of the Turkish Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), accused conservative men of being the “first ones to leave” when it comes to defending conservative women, while many others stated that most conservative men who rightfully supported Demirtaş against the attackers failed to do the same when it came to conservative women.

“This is not something new,” Bilgin said. “It has been the same since Feb.28, 1997. At that time, when women were not allowed to go to universities, men from the same circles did not hesitate to receive their education. This problem still persists in conservative political groups,” he said, emphasizing that women with headscarves still tend to be seen as second class citizens, even by conservative men.

Pointing out that, according to statistics, the AK Party receives more votes from women than men, Bilgin expressed that the lack of support for women from their own circle is worrying for the party’s future since women would eventually resent that.

“Still, I believe that Erdoğan is aware of this situation and would take measures to prevent it,” he indicated. He also criticized the opposition circles for having a “colonialist” attitude toward headscarf-wearing women since they position themselves as the “Westerners,” which results in hate crimes.

People harsher on social media

This series of incidents has also become one of the underlying factors behind the AK Party’s newly released social media regulation. The regulation, which was announced by Erdoğan Wednesday, suggests social accounts based on real personalities, avoiding the use of fake accounts while urging social media companies to open offices in Turkey. The regulation aims to hold social media attackers accountable for their crimes with more efficiency in taking action against them.

“People are more comfortable on social media. This is a fact,” Arslanbenzer said.

“It is not a public space. You do not have a physical appearance. Besides, there is a difference between real accounts and fake accounts,” she continued.

In Arslanbenzer’s opinion, there is a major difference between having a face-to-face relationship and having a social media interaction.

“Since there is no real encounter on social media, people feel free to express whatever goes through their minds. This makes ideological differences much more apparent in social media,” she continued, highlighting that most people would not express their thoughts in such a harsh manner in real life. Besides, since there is no face-to-face interaction there are no emotional expressions available to ease a possible debate, instead, disagreements are fueled through harsher words. There are also almost no repercussions for any assault on social media, which makes attackers more confident.

When social media first emerged as a concrete platform, mainly through Facebook, many pundits believed it could be better for democracy since it connects people. However, today’s social media proves that online political debates are far from civil discussions, with views expressed in more extreme ways.

Social psychologist Mark Leary introduced the concept of “sociometer” to define anxiety related to how we are perceived by others and claimed that rather than self-esteem, people are looking to become more “desirable” by receiving peers’ approval. When in everyday life, this approval can come from a few people around us; on social media, there are millions to dole it out. Many studies show that, though small circles in real life will label a person “undesirable” for his or her inappropriate behavior, as the number of people increases, the possibility of gaining approval for your inappropriate behavior also increases. A 2017 study by Pew research center shows that posts with more radical disagreements receive twice as much engagement from social media users, urging many to act in an extreme manner on social media platforms for the sake of gaining the approval of others.


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