Women on the Front Lines of Turkey Protests

Protesters say Erdogan's conservative policies — like urging them to have three children — threaten their lifestyle

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Two ladies, one in red, the other in blue — that two iconic early images of Turkey’s uprising flashed around the world were of women now seems no coincidence. Of the tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters who daily throng Istanbul’s occupied central square — now on Day 12 — about half are female. Women have been at the forefront of a movement against what demonstrators say is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing attempts to shape personal freedoms.

Dressed in a red cotton dress, academic Ceyda Sungur went to Istanbul’s Gezi Park in her lunch hour last week to support sit-in demonstrators protesting a government-backed redevelopment scheme that would destroy the trees. Bag slung over one arm, she was captured on film as a masked policeman doused her with pepper spray. The other image, dubbed The Lady in Blue, was of an unidentified young woman, arms outstretched, as she absorbed the full impact of a water cannon during street fighting that raged last weekend.

(MORE: As Turkey Protests Continue, Attention Falls on Failures of Turkish Media)

Protests began last week over the violent police intervention in the park and soon turned into an outpouring of public frustration with Erdogan’s government. Fighting riot police, demonstrators in Istanbul last weekend seized the city’s central square, including the park, and set up a colorful “free zone” that resembles the Paris Commune in spirit. Demonstrations have spread to 60 other cities.

Women say they are concerned that the conservative policies of Erdogan’s government threaten their lifestyle. “The reason there are so many women out here is that this government is antiwomen,” says Sevi, a 28-year-old sociology student camping out in Gezi Park. “They don’t want to see women in public spaces. They want to see them in the home. And women have had enough.”

Grievances include Erdogan’s repeated call for women to have three children, his attempts to pass abortion restrictions, turning the Ministry Responsible for Women into the Ministry for Family and Social Policy (the minister, Fatma Sahin, is the only female Cabinet member), and not doing enough to tackle violence against women. (According to a 2011 U.N. report, 39% of women in Turkey have suffered some form of physical abuse, compared with 22% in the U.S., and 3% to 35% in 20 European countries.) Prominent in business, social and academic life, Turkish women are underrepresented in more traditional Ankara politics.

(PHOTOS: Protests in Istanbul After Police Crackdown on Activists)

“The Prime Minister’s rhetoric about women is simply humiliating,” says Sevi’s friend Zeynep. Standing up, Sevi proudly shows me her hand-printed neon green tank top: “Mr. Prime Minister! Would you like 3 children just like this one?”

A new Turkish protest movement is being forged in Gezi Park, and where it differs from earlier ones is in its tolerance. Old fault lines seem to have shifted. The park is now home to several thousand encamped protesters, most under the age of 30, and most with no previous political affiliation. Secularists, Kurds, conservatives, gays and anarchists share the same space and miraculously, there have been no scuffles.

“Women are ahead of the rest of the population on this one,” says Deniz, a university research assistant who wears a headscarf, a symbol of Muslim piety. “We know how to coexist.” She was part of a group of several dozen women — some headscarf-wearing, some not — who say religious differences don’t matter in their struggle against what they see as the government’s disregard for the environment. Even the sight of their mixed group is new to most people in the park.

(MORE: Turkey’s Erdogan Visits the U.S.: Four Problems That Won’t Be Solved)

“There is a lot of hope here in the park,” says Deniz. “But there is also the risk of deepening polarization among the broader population.” She says that since the protests began, she and her headscarf-wearing friends have been heckled and harassed in Istanbul’s strongly secularist neighborhoods. On the other side, the protests have angered Erdogan supporters who amassed by the thousands to greet the Prime Minister at the airport on Thursday night and chanted slogans like “Say the word, let’s go crush them.” Whether that rift is peacefully managed will determine how events unfold in the days to come.

65 comments
AlfredBierman
AlfredBierman

GamalMubarak, this widely used IMF rhetoric hides the actual fact: it's true that the debt was settled. However, Turkey's external debt was 130 billion USD in 2002 and it reached 337 billion in 2012! You fail the to see the authors point, she's talking about women. Your sentences give  the feeling that you're a government employee. No educated peaceful protestor ever used violence neither they are vandals or thugs. They are innocent young people who were staging a silent protest in the Park before they were attacked by the police.

GemalMubarak
GemalMubarak

According to a recent survey, few days before these plotted riots, sprung up... a poll was conducted according to which almost 64% of the people in Turkey support Erdogan's government and government reforms while 51% are supportive of government policies and their ambitions for the country. These protests, doesn't make a sense... a peaceful protest started against cutting some trees turned into bomb throwing at public property and law enforcement vehicles. How can it be justified ? Don't you think its illogical, how come few educated peaceful protesters turn into violent law-breakers as if they r protesting for a change in rule i.e. from dictatorship to democracy. Turkey is by far, THE MOST democratic MUSLIM country in the world.

GemalMubarak
GemalMubarak

Unfortunately, people watch Fox News, BBC, CNN and Reuters or read Guardian and make up their mind. The story that has been portrayed on most of the Western media is false. Erdogen has won last three elections, despite a strong planning and unlawful plots used by the military establishment. He took Turkey to unprecedented reforms and progress. He cleared Turkey off of its IMF debt and he is more popular among common people of Turkey then what is portrayed on the media. This is a big conspiracy against an elected government that has a mandate of the people as per the norms of a true democracy. These people represent a minority; most of the people of Turkey, like myself and all my family and most of my friends, don't support this.

VISHWACHARYA
VISHWACHARYA

@TIME @TIMEWorld WOMEN ARE THE ONLY HOPE OF HUMAN RACE. AS LONG AS THE MOTHER IS WILD, THERE IS NO HOPE FOR BETTER GENERATIONS.

azirlazarus
azirlazarus

The fact is that Kemalism is not a prominent power within this unrest. We (Gezi protestors) are freedom-seeker people, while Kemalists are there only to provide ground to a possible coup d'etat. Atatürk's images do not represent us. Just saying...

Yvonmoua
Yvonmoua

Muslim style use the ladies to do human shield. 

ainulaizat
ainulaizat

@syahirahsj kalau kita hantar Ustaz Azhar Idrus ke Turki mesti ramai balik ke rumah lepas ceramah dia dlm himpunan itu.

betagamma
betagamma

women heroes on the Front Lines. The men are afraid?

firmsoil
firmsoil

If your freedoms were being confiscated by medieval barbaric religious men, you would be protesting too!!!

stowevt024
stowevt024

Most of these people will soon be crushed by tanks.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

....Not exactly sure why this qualifies as "headline news," given that women are inevitably a part of every protest which occurs.

Nothing like appealing to the female demographic, Time Magazine!

solangelaortiz
solangelaortiz

@lilithefickle y corrupción tenemos solo una salida para 5 municipios y sus respectivas y están enfrascados en peleas. Políticas .. Pueblo

solangelaortiz
solangelaortiz

@lilithefickle señores no se escribir en inglés pero por favor una mirada a un pueblo en la cordillera central que esta llenó d politiqueria

ececan
ececan

Let stir the world!

http://occupywallst.org/

You see how they spark and direct the events so that they can manage the whole world. My dearest Turkish people you are being played!

youngturk
youngturk

@azirlazarus If it wasn't for Ataturk, you would never have had the freedoms you claim you were trying to protect. If there is still a bit of democracy left after 10 years of Islamist rule in Turkey, its only because Ataturk was such a great statesman to leave you a republic as opposed to a reign or a dictatiorship like Erdogan is trying to establish.  

chlooch
chlooch

@Volontonto @Zarzosa pero no lo se hacer. Voy ir a esa tienda y comprobare si es cierto y les dare informacion de quien se trata

chlooch
chlooch

@Volontonto @Zarzosa a la mejor sospecho que llego a manos equivocadas. En la foto dond no esta con el cerdito y tiene cara de do u swallow?

chlooch
chlooch

@Volontonto @Zarzosa ya se va a suecia??? Dice erandi que vio en una tienda de regalos por providencia un marco con la foto del demonsobrino