Apr 14

Berkin Elvan Protest on Children’s Day

berkin protest

Today is Çocuk Bayramı in Turkey, or Children’s Day. It is a national holiday – offices are closed, flags unfurled, sweets dispersed and official events held to celebrate children and their place in the Turkish bosom.

The footage below is of one such event in Istanbul, at which three children protest the killing of 15 year old Berkin Elvan. Berkin was 14 when he was shot by a tear gas canister fired by police last year during the Gezi protests, and died in a coma last month. The children shout “Berkin Elvan won’t be forgotten” and are swiftly carried off by police, their mouths muffled, while journalists are waved away. Meanwhile, the ceremony continues unabated, and two of the children are now in custody.

Photo and footage from the Doğan News Agency

Apr 14

Turkish Feminists: Fighting Macho Legs and Pink Buses


As reported in the New York Times last week, women in Turkey are fighting the invasion of their personal space on public transport. The Twitter topics #bacaklarinitopla (“keep your legs to yourself”) and #yerimisgaletme (“don’t invade my personal space”) have been trending over the weekend, accompanied by a variety of damning evidence: photographs of men sitting with their legs akimbo, awkwardly squashing adjacent female passengers. These photographs strike a chord with anyone (male or female, I should add) who has ever been inconvenienced by this most obnoxiously macho of poses on public transport in any city.

What is interesting about the problem of men and women rubbing shoulders or knees in Turkey is the puritanical angle; a couple of years ago, the Islamic political party Saadet campaigned to introduce pink buses in Istanbul exclusively for women. This is such a stupid idea, for so many obvious reasons, that I cringe from listing them but here goes:

Women should not need a pink bus. We should not need a bus of any particular colour. The problem lies with passengers who insist on exercising their capacity for spreading their legs, a capacity sadly not shared by respectable women in public. “Solving” the problem by laying on a psychedelic, infantilised bus service for women is insulting and totally misses the point; the stipulated pink is the offensively saccharine icing on the cake.

The annoyances of commuting in big cities are universal and myriad. There are obvious ways of getting round them, of varying levels of success – on a smelly bus, we open a window. On the metro/tube we collectively glare at passengers with loud headphones. In a dolmuş (a Turkish shared taxi-minibus, its name literally meaning “stuffed” because it is usually full to bursting point), it is an unspoken convention that women share one row (usually the back) and men share the other(s), in this most intimate of public conveyances.

The dolmuş example is significant, because it is an acknowledgment of the tendency to segregate male and female passengers in Turkey, even if informally. Who feels more comfortable for it, the men or the women? I would argue the women, many of whom might be devout Muslims who would not feel comfortable sitting squashed up next to a strange man – either in principle, or in practice. Muslim men might feel equally awkward. Fair enough. We do not all ascribe to religious scruples, but I for one would choose to be squashed next to a women rather than a man. The dolmuş system is not unfair, if we overlook for the moment the significance of women taking the “back seat”. What’s more, it protects us from the leg-splayers, a luxury we do not enjoy on the metro, and hand-wanderers.

The difference between the informal segregation of the dolmuş and the strategic introduction of a special pink Ladies’ Bus is clear. The former is natural for a country with a largely conservative population and a laissez-faire form of public transport. The latter is not only offensive but worrying, because it opens the way for endorsed segregation, more artificial, po-faced and inauthentic “protection” for Turkish women, many of whom are routinely beaten by their husbands and ignored by the authorities. It makes women the problem.

Lastly, I can’t help thinking that the magical pink bus, ostensibly a service laid on for women, is in fact a service for men – it makes me think of the segregation in mosques, where women sit in a smaller section at the back so as not to sexually distract praying men.

Perhaps Twitter has got it right – a popular, light-hearted but heartfelt campaign to embarrass repeat offenders on public transport might be just the ticket for change that we need.


Apr 14

A Ballot Monitor’s Tale

A woman casts her ballot inside a polling station during municipal elections in Istanbul

Deniz Derviş volunteered on Sunday as a ballot monitor in Okmeydanı, Istanbul. I interviewed him about his experience and his views on the elections – whether they were conducted fairly, what they show about the current state of the country and what they spell for the future…

“I volunteered as a monitor in Okmeydanı [a poor, mixed district of Istanbul which was the site of the Berkin Elvan funeral protests three weeks ago]. The ballot box I monitored had 120 AKP votes, 95 CHP [main opposition] and 53 HDP [leftist, pro-Kurdish opposition], while the ballot box containing my vote had 245 CHP and 25 AKP votes.

Yes, there may well have been vote rigging during these elections, in particular in Ankara. But I don’t think the total rigged votes could exceed 1% for the whole country. So we are faced with the fact that after Gezi and the 17th December corruption tapes at least 40% of people are still happy with the AKP. We should also note that the voter-turnout was 90%, whereas it was 85% in 2009. Erdoğan mobilized his voters by spouting nationalistic madness to secure his few percent above 40%; if he had less than 40%, it could be considered a decline in his votes.

So if you ask what is next: the first thing that we must do is stop expecting any help from the cemaat [Gülenist community] or any other actor, and stop hoping for opposition alliances (e.g. CHP-MHP (Nationalist People’s Party, the 2nd biggest opposition)) or any tapes that could shake the AKP. The only time the AKP were afraid was during Gezi. Erdoğan’s biggest fear, I think, is that his voters and dissenters start to empathise with each other. The tape that revealed his fears was the one in which he said to the then- Interior Minister in June: “Don’t let this be another Tekel resistance.”
[In December 2009 the AKP government privatized the state monopoly alcohol company Tekel and sacked 12,000 workers, who occupied a central park in Ankara in freezing conditions for over a month. These workers were widely supported by the community and the strike proved deeply embarrassing for the government.]
“During the Tekel resistance, there was huge societal empathy for those workers, so the government tried to humiliate the workers on the media before police brutally broke up the protests.

There are two winners in these elections, the AKP and the HDP/BDP (the pro-Kurdish party, aligned with the HDP). The main reason behind their success is that they do not change their course to get more votes. They both have their own consistent ways of thinking (of course there are some temporary or local differentiation from time to time) But the CHP [main opposition party] was socialist during the Gezi protests, capitalist with the TUSİAD [organization of the most powerful Turkish businessmen] and grey wolf [militant youth nationalist] in Ankara – the current CHP candidate for Ankara, for example, previously represented the MHP. They say they are social democrats, but they try to reassure their nationalist base by not supporting peace with Kurds.

The AKP and HDP/BDP are not shaping themselves but shaping their supporters. They started as radical groups and they became mass powers. They both get votes from the working class, from the poor. Kurds are one of the poorest social groups and the south eastern region of Turkey, which is densely Kurdish, is the poorest region in the country. In Istanbul, AKP gets votes from poor and crowded suburbs whereas the CHP has over 7%0 votes in rich coastal districts. It is normally expected that poor will support social democrats, but it is the opposite in Turkey.

But since the fall of the social democrats in the 1994 elections, the CHP has been shaping itself according to daily politics. Just imagine: six months ago, there is no way the CHP could have made an alliance with the [Gülenist] cemaat. Now it is the no. 1 party for the cemaat. If you had lived in Turkey during the 90s you would not have believed that the CHP and MHP could make an alliance (there is still no formal alliance between the parties, but there is a strategic alliance between voters). So, parties that are patient and grounded in their basic ideologies are winning. The CHP has not been doing this for a long time, in fact the CHP has not had an ideology for a long time.

Being an elections observer is tiring but very instructive: you can easily see that society is divided into half, not ideologically but merely socially and economically. Most people do not think their freedom is oppressed and feel safe in many ways under AKP rule. And yet many people feel threatened by a quasi-fascist government.

So what should we do? There is no obvious solution, so we have to make one and stop being critical – we have to rescue this country’s working class from the monopoly of the AKP and find a way to live together with Kurds and other minorities. A new constitution is desperately needed because the current social contract won’t held the country together for long.”

Photo above by Murad Sezer for Reuters

Apr 14

Post-elections update: Vote stealing scandal in Ankara

sleeping ballots

Following the municipal elections on Sunday, Ankara has been the scene of an extraordinary backlash against electoral fraud. On Sunday evening, Melih Gökçek, the AKP mayor who has held his seat for 25 years, claimed victory with 95% of the votes counted. The news then emerged that hundreds of thousands of the CHP (main opposition) votes had not been counted or had been transferred to other parties – it seems that numbers entered into the electoral computer system did not tally with the physical ballot papers. Bags of ballots were found binned in the vicinity of the polling centres (mainly schools), and after photographs had circulated on social media, over a thousand volunteers went to track them down and guard the remaining ballots until morning. Cheering images of people wrapped in blankets, asleep, with their arms around sacks of ballots have been circulating illicitly on Twitter (see above). Further confusion was caused by a widespread blackout in the early hours of this morning – the Energy Minister responded to outrage and claims that further electoral foul play had been conducted under cover of darkness by saying a cat had got into a power substation and tampered with the electricity flow.

As I write (15.30 GMT Tuesday), the CHP has lodged a complaint with the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) and hundreds of people are protesting outside the council headquarters in Ankara, despite heavy police intervention. Gökçek, the self-proclaimed victor, has vacillated between accusing the CHP and Gülenists of planning provocations and claiming that, if there has been a “mistake” with the vote counting, the blame lies not with him but with the YSK.

There is some concern that the results of the elections will be officially announced tomorrow at around the same time that the CHP’s complaint is processed by the Supreme Electoral Council, meaning that it could be too late to challenge the result.

Unfortunately, as a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter earlier today, this latest fiasco will fit into Erodgan’s victory speech rhetoric of opposition provocation, foreign plots and “dirty politics”. No matter that the dirty politics appears to be emanating very much from AKP home ground – the millions of Turks who will hear this news on pro-government media news channels across the land will hear it warped and twisted against itself: a perfect example of Erdogan’s special brand of moonshine.

Photo above from Hurriyet News.