FRIDAY FILE – News of the lower court decision at the beginning of July that a construction project in Istanbul’s Gezi Park be halted was overshadowed by the police crackdown on what had started as a small demonstration against the park’s destruction. Larger protests have grown into wider social action against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian style of government.
By Saira Zuberi
A diverse array of civil society groups participated in the occupation of Gezi Park that started at the end of May, and sparked protests across the country. The movement was initially propelled by the city moving ahead with bulldozing trees in Gezi Park to make way for a redevelopment project, despite a court order to the contrary. But the heavy-handed policing and brutality that the State increasingly relies upon raised the ire of people with diverse political leanings. The government’s own estimates of how many came out across the nation to express frustrations with the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Justice and Development Party) state’s policies on a broad range of issues run in the millions. Polling conducted in the park showed that the majority of protesters did not affiliate themselves with the many different parties, unions and civil society groups camped out in Gezi Park, but there were visible and active rights groups such as theLGBT Blok and the Sosyalist Feminist Kolektif.
While some international media have portrayed the Gezi protests as a reckoning between Atatürk’s secularist legacy and the AKP’s Islamist government, this rather simplifies the conflict. Pushing their particular patriarchal views of religion and culture is characteristic of the AKP’s policies and rhetoric, but the lack of a gendered perspective is not peculiar to the AKP. Yet on a broad range of issues the regime shows little interest in democratic engagement or patience for dissent or compromise; for example, the massive building projects supported by the ruling party, such as construction of a third Bosphorus bridge or a third airport in Istanbul, tend to benefit allies of the current regime and show that the regime has little regard for either ecological impacts or public opinion.
The increasingly dictatorial style to PM Erdoğan’s rule after over a decade in office was evident at an AKP rally on the 16thof June, the day after the encampment in Gezi Park was violently attacked and evacuated by police; “the real Turkey is here,” insisted the Prime Minister. Erdoğan spoke in defiant terms, standing between two massive posters of his face before a crowd whose numbers were generally believed to be overstated by government and mainstream media, with reports that attendees were bribed and bussed in for free, and civil servants possibly coerced to attend. Erdogan’s dismissive attitude toward dissent has alienated many social groups for many reasons (including former AKP supporters who feel betrayed by the party’s neoliberal economic policies and started the Anti-Kapitalist Musulmanlar/Anti-Capitalist Muslims, one of the religious opposition groups visibly present in the Gezi Park protests).
Rolling back women’s rights
For women’s rights activists, the AKP’s rule has raised myriad issues that pushed large numbers of women into the ranks of the “marginals” and “looters” that camped out in Gezi Park and joined protests across Turkey. Last year, the government restructured the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs to the Ministry for Family and Social Policies, further reducing the state’s already weak commitment to address gender equality, economic empowerment and violence against women (VAW). Turkey has a very low rate of women’s participation in the workforce since domestic and care duties are overwhelmingly accepted as women’s work, and growing levels of VAW continue to receive insufficient official response.
Erdoğan has publically affirmed he does not believe in gender equality, as “men and women are not equal from creation”. The government frequently relies on rhetoric related to religion, morality or family values, and Erdoğan encourages women to have three to five children to increase Turkey’s population (currently near replacement level), even hinting at possible implementation of a prize for third children. Erdoğan’s rhetorical push for larger families has been backed up by increasing attacks on women’s reproductive rights, most infamously during the spring of 2012 when he compared every abortion with the Uludere massacre. This was followed by news that the government was preparing a bill to reduce access to abortion from 10 to 4 weeks, essentially constituting a ban on abortion for the many women who might not know of a pregnancy or be able to access the necessary healthcare in time. The response from women’s rights activists and allies within Turkey resulted in the government backing down, but barriers to accessing various reproductive health services, including abortion, are now in place. The concept ofconscientious objection has been introduced for medical professionals, and limitations on who can now perform the procedure and mandatory waiting periods have been imposed. Additionally, there are fears that the morning after pill or emergency oral contraception will be restricted and further attacks on abortion rights are feared. Yet the steadily declining birthrate shows the clear disconnect between the AKP’s idealized view of family and nation and the lived realities of women and families in Turkey.
In the area of education, recent amendments allow children to attend religious (imam hatip) schools or be homeschooled after four years of primary education (as opposed to eight years in the past), a move that, it is feared, will further diminish educational opportunities for girls and other marginalized youth. Frustration with weak responses to increasing rates of VAW continued to be expressed during the Gezi protests. In a court decision in the Kurdish city of Bingöl, four of five sergeants alleged to have raped a teenager, known only as EA, for two years were set free. This prompted rallies where protesters held up signs that read “You throw stones at those who hold hands, then let the rapist of a 16 year old go free”.
Ignoring LGBTQI rights
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) people experience high levels of discriminationand violencein Turkey and transgender people are especially vulnerable. Yet the lobbying efforts of LGBTQI groups to introduce gender identity and sexual identity into the Equality Clause of the constitution (Art. 10) and in other laws have consistently been rejected.
But despite the government’s intransigence, there are seeds of hope. The marked visibility of the LGBT Blok in Gezi Park and in other protests was followed by the largest ever turnout for Istanbul’s 11th Pride March on 30th June. The march took place under the theme “diren” or resistance, evoking the Gezi Park diren. Solidarity with the Kurdish cause was also expressed during the Pride March – chants of “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş/Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” gave way to cries of “Her yer Lice, her yer direniş!” to recognize the Kurdish demonstrators who had been killed and maimed in the Lice district of Diyarbakir while protesting the expansion of a military base just the day before the Pride March.
Despite fears expressed by LGBTQI groups about the increasingly aggressive and violent policing throughout the Gezi protests, the Pride March was peaceful. As LGBT rights activist Sezen Yalçın noted, “The day … the different groups settled into the park, the LGBT Blok (as we call ourselves) set up a booth and spent our days and nights … not only distributing food, drinks and other supplies but also making ourselves visible as LGBT people reclaiming our rights. We got in very close contact with different social groups: Muslims, radical leftists, football fans, etc. The more Erdoğan hardened his speech and his use of force against the protestors, the closer we got with different groups. It was important for LGBTs as we became part of a wider public opposition. It is true that in the last couple of years our parades were very crowded and exciting, but we were always by ourselves and once the parade ends, our sovereignty on İstiklal Avenue ended. But this year, starting with our presence at the Park, we knew that we would not be alone at Pride, and this is what happened.”
In sum, for women and sexual minorities, as well as for so many other disaffected sectors of society -whether journalists, academics, Alevis, Kurds, atheists, socialists or other minorities and dissenters – there are many reasons for protesting the government, reasons that have built up over time, and for which the environmental protest against the destruction of Gezi Park was only a spark. Some of the issues relate to religion and culture, as viewed and imposed by the AKP government, whilst others relate to economic and social policies which have alienated broad segments of society.
After the night of June 15th when the protesters in Gezi Park were violently cleared out, numerous committees formed to hold regular community forums in Istanbul’s other parks, and protests and clashes with the police are routine. It remains to be seen whether the diversity of opposition can formulate a clear and comprehensive platform that will unite them. For women and sexual minorities, the key will be to ensure that any Gezi Party or political movement developing out of the direnis focused on the protection of universally accepted human rights for all.
 Erdoğan (AKP) frequently referred to those protesting as “marjinal”, and as “çapulcular” (looters), and even as terrorists. Çapulcu in particular was quickly appropriated by the protesters in many ways (1, 2, 3).
 İstiklal (Indepedence) Avenue is a major pedestrian street that ends in Taksim Square, and is the site of Istanbul’s annual Pride March.