ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish women are on the street protesting as never before as the fight to preserve Turkey’s secular status gives them a louder political voice that could translate into parliamentary seats in this summer’s elections.
Women have dominated recent rallies in Turkish cities against the ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party, fearful of what the party might do if, as expected, it wins another big majority.
“I don’t trust these people. They want to make Turkey like Iran,” said Nilufer Celik, a 42-year-old marketing director, referring to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
“We won’t be able to dress as we want,” said Celik. She said she had never been to a demonstration in her life until she attended a million-strong secularist rally in Istanbul in April, and has cancelled holiday plans to vote in the July 22 poll.
That was brought forward amid a clash between the AK Party and the secular establishment over Turkey’s next president.
Turkish women won the full right to vote under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of the modern secular Turkish Republic, in 1934. By 1935 they accounted for 4.6 percent of deputies -- the highest proportion ever, just ahead of a current 4.4 percent.
“This election will be the year that brings women into parliament ... Now it’s 4.4 percent, perhaps afterwards there will be 10.4 percent, or 14.4 percent,” said Canan Guller, head of the Federation of Women’s Associations.
The centre-right, pro-business AK Party denies any Islamist agenda. Erdogan, a practicing Muslim whose wife and daughters wear the Muslim headscarf, says he is dedicated to Turkey’s secular order that strictly separates state and religion.
But he argues pious women deserve more freedom to practice their faith, including the right to wear the headscarf in public offices and universities. Secularists see this as the thin end of the wedge, fearing it could lead to Islamic Sharia law.
“If there is Sharia law in Turkey, the ones who will be buried away in the dark, the ones to lose all the rights gained, the ones excluded from social life, will be women,” said Senal Sarihan, head of the Republican Women’s Association, one protest organizer whose ranks have swelled in recent months.
In the past five years, the AK Party has presided over strong economic growth and the launch of European Union entry talks, and has adopted no Islamist-oriented laws.
But this record has failed to reassure many secular women, though they often struggle to articulate their fears.
Some say they see more headscarves in government offices now or in private businesses, which makes them uncomfortable.
Others accuse some universities of applying too laxly the headscarf ban. Many were horrified by pictures of headscarved girls in a public sports hall celebrating a recent religious festival which this year coincided with a national holiday.
The women accuse the government of cronyism and point to a bid -- thwarted by the EU -- to criminalize adultery in 2004.
Critics say such women are scare-mongers failing to adapt to a changing Turkey where rural people have moved to the cities, become educated and richer, but kept religious ways.
“Yes, it is fear. But it is the fear of losing social power more than fear of not being able to keep their lifestyles,” columnist Gulay Gokturk wrote in religious-leaning daily Bugun.
The head of one of Turkey’s top courts, Sumru Cortoglu, called on fellow women in May to defend the rights given to them by Ataturk and to take a larger role in politics.
The parties also seem to be listening: some have cut or waived for women a fee charged for being a candidate. The AK Party has said it wants 81 women for Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Work by NGOs and party initiatives to encourage women to run have played a part, but protecting secularism is also a factor.
“We think that in order to protect secularism, women being represented is a very important example,” said Inci Bespinar, who has applied to be a candidate for the staunchly secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Some obstacles remain: internal polls are not held for candidates and voters choose lists not individuals, so women’s success depends on where party leaders put them on the lists.
But activists and politicians say a new momentum has been built, helped partly by the protests which got women noticed as a political force and made them feel they had popular support.
“Women are moving now. It’s new, it’s a big change,” said CHP deputy Gulsun Bilgehan. “(It‘s) fear of losing their freedom and their independence ... Turkey is a lonely single country in the Islamic world.”