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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.