by Raphaella Friedman
The elections are everywhere. You can’t walk the streets of Urfa or Istanbul without hearing the songs and slogans of Turkey’s many political parties. Minibuses with candidates’ faces plastered on them bump around city streets, the BOOM BOOM BOOM of the loud speakers breaking even the quiet of Friday prayers. Confident, stoic looking men gaze out from billboards at voters stuck traffic while pedestrians walk beneath colorful banners criss-crossing between buildings. ‘Tis the season indeed.
Yesterday, the Globalist’s Urfa contingency decided to actively participate in the Turkish election experience, attending a political rally for Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP, the current ruling party. Despite the characterization of AKP as pursuing a more conservative agenda, Erdogan’s posters depict him as a man of the people – all people. Businessmen, conservative women wearing hijabs, university students, secular women with uncovered hair, families, farmers, the list goes on. The Turkish population, especially in the East, overwhelmingly supports the AKP.
While I plan to take on the daunting task of outlining Turkish political parties in a later post, I thought I would focus on a different topic for now. Several of the Globalist’s female members had a particularly interesting experience at this rally, prompting me to consider the relationship between gender and public space.
We walked to the rally in a group comprised of both males and females, and heard the reverberations of the AK Parti song long before we saw the thousands of people gathered beneath blue, orange and red flags and banners. It felt more like a rock concert than an election rally. The atmosphere was electric and contagious – I tingled with excitement, and many of us began singing and dancing along with the crowd, the reality of our political ambivalence forgotten. But as we made our way toward the throng of people, I felt the questioning eyes of men upon me. Other female Glo-members approached me, observing similar things. We were all asking the same question: where are all of the women?
A few of us enthusiastically pressed forward toward the stage, holding hands lest we lose each other, yet it soon proved impossible to break through the dense wall of bodies. We were caught in an increasingly unyielding sandwich of limbs and torsos, our faces smooshed against sweaty AK Parti tshirts. The men that had been staring at us began emphatically motioning for us to change course, to move to the side of the crowd. We were confused – did they want us to leave? We noticed a trail of colorful headscarves bobbing along the side of the increasingly boisterous crowd, and instinctively followed the line of women. As we wound our way through the crowd, men miraculously parted, politely, without any prompting. When we neared a wall, a few men formed a bridge with their hands pressing against the concrete, creating an opening and restraining the swelling crowd lest it crush us. Finally, we emerged at the very front of the stage. It was as though we had climbed through the wardrobe to emerge in Narnia: all around us were women!
It was incredible – a far cry from the sweaty madhouse of the men’s section, but equally exuberant. I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me, the sea of waving orange blue, and red flags dense enough to render the stage invisible. The women all wore headscarves, but of such variety. Some wore shiny and floral hijabs, while others were shrouded in black. There were also a large number of Arab-Kurdish tribal women, identified by their trademark lavender head scarves and black facial markings. We sang and danced together. The women were incredibly friendly, far more so than in any other setting in which I had been with them. We all smiled at one another, light danced in our eyes. One young girl handed me her flag.
As I mentioned before, we were not on the side of the stage, or behind the men, but rather somewhat unexpectedly at the very front. Behind us, the men were straining to get a glimpse of Erdogan, pushing forward but blocked by waist level barricades. Perhaps an even greater buffer, however, was the presence of the women in front of them. It was a sacred space, an untouchable island. Still, this was not an island behind closed doors – it was public space for women.
I wondered then, as I do now, what exactly did this placement and separation mean? Even if the separation of women from men was implemented to protect the perceived weaker sex, could the placement of the women in the front be a sign of respect or perceived superiority as well?
In most mosques and Orthodox synagogues, among other faiths that separate the sexes, women pray in separate sections that are either next to or behind the men’s sections, but rarely if ever in front. Here, women were given the best seat in the house, the one closest to Turkey’s premier political power.
I’m certainly not in a position to make any sweeping statements, but the role of female voters in East Turkey has certainly piqued my interest.