Ten days before historic presidential elections in Turkey, the Deputy Prime Minister has brought to the country’s attention the pressing matter of female modesty. “Woman must not act in an alluring manner but must preserve her purity”, said Bulent Arınç, co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party and close ally of the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, who is widely expected to win the election on 10th August. “Women must not laugh in public… Where are our girls, who blush delicately, lower their heads and turn their eyes away when we look at their faces, our symbols of chastity?”
Arınç was speaking on the subject of Turkey’s “moral collapse” at a meeting to mark the Islamic festival of Eid el-Fitr. His advice became, ironically, the source of much mirth on social media and inspired a flurry of photographs of Turkish women laughing, perhaps through gritted teeth. While Mr Arınç took care to provide advice for men, too (“Man will not be a womaniser”), his fixation on the behaviour of Turkish women enraged both men and women who are already deeply resentful of the Justice and Development (AK) Party’s moralistic hectoring. Despite this outraged reaction, however, many Turkish voters will applaud Mr Arınç as the voice of reason, his sermon the tonic Turkey needs. He represents a party which employs Islamic ideals, ever more explicitly and insistently, to appeal to its core base of support among conservative Turks. The timing of the speech so close to elections was not an unfortunate coincidence.
On 10th August, Turks will for the first time vote directly for their President, and as such, the election is effectively a popularity test for Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has been in power for eleven years and is now seeking to continue as a self-styled “active” Head of State. Mr Erdoğan has long claimed to represent the pious working man of Turkey and has overseen landslide victories for his party in three consecutive general elections. He knows perfectly well he has alienated the more liberal and secular of Turkish voters with his religious rhetoric but this is, by now, immaterial. The AKP’s aggressive policy of polarization encourages deep commitment to Erdoğan and creates a stark division within the Turkish population. Almost 50% of Turks vote for Erdoğan: the formula works.
The Prime Minister has made no secret of where he stands in the debate on women’s role in Turkish society: in 2010, he declared that “Women and men are not equal. They only complement each other”. During his election campaign ten days ago, he visited a dormitory of female university students in order to warn them not to be “too picky” but find husbands as soon as possible. The two opposition candidates in the presidential race have, less dramatically, supported women’s rights; Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party, regretted the lack of female presidential candidates and openly discussed the problems of domestic violence in Turkey in his manifesto. The main opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, responded to Arınç’s comments on public modesty by saying that Turkey needs to hear its women laugh more, not less.
While these views will not get the publicity they deserve, the social media storm created by Arınç’s parochial advice was significant in its breadth and diversity. Some of the women laughing in the photos wore headscarves, others bikins. Many were joined by male friends and relatives – joyous, immodest selfies. Many of Arınç’s intended audience of conservative Turks will have agreed with him, but by no means all.
On 9th August, the day before the presidential election, women will gather in central Istanbul to take part in a “laughing protest”. While admirable, and surreal, this will be sadly fleeting, like many of the protests in Turkey. If all the women in Turkey chose not to vote for Mr Erdoğan on 10th August, however, he would lose, resoundingly. Who, then, would have the last laugh?
This piece first appeared in the Guardian Comment section on 30th July: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/30/turkish-women-laughing-presidential-election.
Since then, Arınç has tried to salvage himself by claiming he was referring to celebrities with “fake laughs” but only succeeded in heaping more ridicule on himself by proceeding to denounce women who go on holiday without their husbands and “cannot see a pole without draping themselves on it”.