Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tanktops at Galata: Protesting Patriarchy and Double Standards

From Nicole Pope in Today's Zaman:
Recently, while on my way to Tarabya, I was stuck in one of the perennial traffic jams that have become a feature of Istanbul summers. Next to the road where vehicles painfully inched forward swimmers were noisily frolicking in the Bosporus, obviously having a wonderful time. All of the 15 to 20 bathers were male -- teenage boys and men. Some of them had stripped down to their Y-fronts to enjoy a refreshing dip and were sunning themselves on the pavement.

Contrast their careless enjoyment of summer fun with the story of 28-year-old Gülcan, who went fishing on the Galata Bridge wearing leggings and a light blouse. She did not strip down to her underwear or harass anyone, but her summery attire was deemed "immodest" by the men standing nearby. Soon the police got involved and a court case followed. The verdict was recently handed down: Gülcan was sentenced to six months in prison, later reduced to five months and suspended for good behavior during the trial.

The ruling prompted a loose coalition of women's rights activists to gather on the bridge on Saturday, some of them in tank tops and shorts, to protest against state interference with women's dress code and behavior. Stating that "our bodies are ours," they demanded the abolition of Article 225, which carries prison terms of six months to a year for "indecent exposure."

What constitutes "indecent exposure" is of course in the eye of the beholder. There have been countless examples of judgments reflecting the traditional notion that women should dress modestly and stay at home if they want to avoid trouble. Unlike in Gülcan's case, the uncouth troublemakers who were filmed harassing foreign female revelers during the New Year celebration at Taksim Square were only fined YTL 57.

Turkey is of course preoccupied with weightier judicial matters at the moment, but highlighting these legal double standards is far from frivolous. Interpreting the law through such a narrow lens has serious implications, especially when dozens of women are still killed every year in the name of honor.

In October 2007 for example, a court in Adana reduced the sentence of a man who had killed his 17-year-old wife because she was "wearing white leggings and a white T-shirt." He saw it as proof that she was having an affair, and the court accepted that he had been provoked by her behavior. In İzmir the following month, another tribunal rendered a similar judgment. This time, the killer's excuse was that his wife, normally covered, had worn jeans against his wishes and had been "flirtatious" when she asked the time from a group of men in a shopping center. "She was constantly hurting my male pride," her husband argued, successfully avoiding a life sentence.

Women, under pressure from all sides, are restricted to a narrow band of socially acceptable behavior. If they wear a headscarf, the law prevents them from studying at university or holding a public job but, on the other hand, traditional social mores still put them at risk if they wear short dresses or sleeveless tops beyond Bebek or Nişantaşı.

Although the "turban" remains a divisive issue among women's groups, the gathering on Galata Bridge included activists wearing headscarves as well as secular feminists. The women were all defending their right to make their own choices.

There seems to be a growing awareness among democrats in Turkey -- be they male or female -- that the powers-that-be should not be allowed to drive a wedge between them. This is creating new opportunities for people to work together to challenge the status quo, bypassing the usual secular/religious divide. In these troubled times, this is a welcome development.
Although the AKP-led revision of the Turkish Penal Code undertaken in 2004 was a huge step in the push for gender equality, the positive end-result is largely a result of the coming together of women's groups to protest an attempt by Erdoğan to re-criminalize adultery. The proposed law against adultery had been removed in 1996 for men and 1998 for women, but some AKP politicians argued that the law was necessary to protect social values and also to protect women. Many women's groups vehemently disagreed and pointed to the patriarchy inherent in the idea of "protection," further arguing that the laws would in practice be applied to women and only further contribute to discrimination. As a result of pressure from women's groups, the Turkish Penal Code provided for tougher sentences for those convicted of honor killings and increased the penalties for rape, including marital rape. Additionally, significant reforms were made to Turkish family law that declared women and men equal partners in marriage, made the legal age of marriage the same for both sexes, and did away with the legal concept of "illegitimate children" while assuring women the right to take custody of children born outside of marriage. Most significantly, sexual crimes were treated as crimes against individuals rather than social norms or mores. (For a summary of the revisions, click here.) However, as Ms. Gülcan's case attests, there are still a number of laws on the books that facilitate discrimination against women.

Luckily, the repression of women has not been without dissent. As Pope argues, it is a very good thing indeed that women are mobilizing to respond to this discrimination and exert pressure on the state through dissent and raising consciousness about the plight of Ms. Gülcan. Additional evidence of women's ability to effectively mobilize and influence politics came about last fall. Proving to be an integral part of civil society, last fall women's groups came together to protest the new draft of the constitution. The constitutional draft removed a clause pertaining to the government's obligation to assure the equality of all Turkish citizens and replaced it with language that describes women as a vulnerable social group in need of protection.

An added dimension to the struggle for women's rights in Turkey is the hope for European membership and just as other traditionally repressed social groups risk being further alienated by the deterioration of EU-Turkey relations, namely the diminishing diplomatic leverage of Europe, women are no exception. For more on the influence of the EU on the mobilization of women's groups and the advancement of the status of women during the drafting process of the Turkish penal code, click here.

Also, see reportage from BIA-Net.

1 comment:

Gordon Taylor said...

Thanks again for these summary updates. They make an excellent resource for those who want to keep up.

FYI, I've been checking your site every day for many days now, and until tonight the last post that showed up was the one about the Madimak Hotel. Tonight all of them came through. (???)

And of course, thanks for the comment at I haven't gotten around to posting a link yet at "The Pasha and the Gypsy," but I will soon.