[Part one of this article can be found here.]
So far, this essay has illustrated how political actors have addressed the family in their discourse as a part of their strategy to keep the protestors under control, and how protestors and their mothers have turned the discourse on the family on its head by appropriating the family as an integral part of their resistance. Whether to conform to the status quo or to subvert it, due to the notions of sacredness attributed to it, motherhood is used by politicians and dissidents alike for their respective ideological purposes. The second half of this essay explicates another instance of how the sacredness of motherhood has been evoked by politicians as part of their efforts to delegitimize the protests. It also discusses how the family is utilized as a category to define the function and the extent of the public sphere.
The Assaulting of a Hijabi Mother and Erdoğan’s Family Honor
In a press conference held a couple of days after the Gezi Park events escalated, Prime Minister Erdoğan claimed that the protestors were not peaceful environmentalists but Islamophobic thugs who attacked women wearing Islamic headscarves. Erdoğan reported that a group of protestors insulted and harassed the daughter-in-law of an important acquaintance of his, not because they knew who she was, but simply because she was wearing the hijab. Reportedly, they grabbed her by her headscarf, dragged her along the ground, attacked her and her baby, and urinated on her in front of the ferry stop in Kabataş, right next to the prime minister’s office.
Although the assailants most probably had no clue about the woman’s affiliation with the prime minister, it is noteworthy that Erdoğan chose to bring up the fact that the victim was his distant relative. In Erdoğan’s speech, what is highlighted about this woman’s identity is not just her Islamic headscarf, but also her marital status, her motherhood, and her fictive kinship ties to Erdoğan through one of his friends. Thus, the attack is framed by the prime minister not only as the signification of the secularist hatred toward the Islamic headscarf, but also as a vendetta against Erdoğan and his extended kin. By removing her headscarf, it is implied that the protestors violated not just the honor of the woman in question—because of her relation to Erdoğan, they also injured the national honor embodied by Erdoğan, the patriarch of the national family.
Fatma Şahin, the Minister of the Family and Social Policies, followed Erdoğan’s lead and condemned the attack in her Facebook account, in a statement superimposed on a non-identifiable image of a hijab-clad woman. Şahin stated that, as part of its mission to fight violence against women and children, the Ministry of the Family had proposed to intervene in the legal case dealing with this assault at the trial stage, as a third party in support of the victim. Considering the high rate at which violence against women and children occurs in Turkey, why has the ministry chosen this particular court trial to be directly involved in? I would argue that it is not just because the woman in question wears the hijab. After all, there have been several allegations about headscarved women being harassed by radical secularist protestors who equate wearing the hijab with being an AKP supporter. I believe this example has been brought to the public’s attention selectively, in an effort to discredit the legitimacy of the protests in the public consciousness by showing the protestors’ disregard and disrespect for motherhood, one of the most significant untouchables in Turkish society and in Islam (as in other societies and religions, of course). Early in her statement, Şahin claimed that this particular assault had a much wider significance and resonated with the national consciousness. She stated: “these people assaulted not only a mother and her baby but also democracy, our national values, and humanity.”
Şahin also asked, “How are these assailants any different from those who attacked Şehit Kamil’s mother ninety-three years ago?” With this question, the minister makes an allusion to an event recited in nationalistic history schoolbooks, in which the violation of the nation’s honor by occupiers during the Turkish War of Independence is symbolized by a Muslim mother being assaulted by foreign soldiers. Şahin thus likened the assailants to those who attacked the mother of Mehmet Kamil, a fourteen-year-old boy killed in 1920 by occupying French soldiers for trying to prevent them from forcefully removing the veil from his mother’s head and publicly disgracing her in the vicinity of Gaziantep. Since he died to protect the honor of his mother (and that of the nation embodied by his mother), Kamil was declared a national hero and given the honorific title “martyr”; a district of Gaziantep was named after him.
Thus, in the minister’s formulation, the assault on this mother in Kabataş is equated to an attack on national honor and moral values, signified by the veil of the mother. With this brief rhetorical question, Şahin also alludes to the conspiracy theories being circulated in AKP circles about the protestors’ being pawns in the hands of heinous foreign powers that aim to obstruct Turkey’s economic growth. It is implied in her rhetorical question that it would be impossible to imagine an authentically Turkish person attacking a mother and dishonoring her by removing her headscarf.
While most Gezi Park protestors (including many feminist organizations) condemned the assaulters as a disgrace and dissociated them from the Gezi movement, some individuals and groups with anti-AKP sentiments voiced their disbelief regarding the details of this event on social media. According to them, this was yet another political ploy used by Erdoğan to agitate his supporters and divert the public’s attention. Elif Çakır, of the pro-government Star newspaper (Çakır is a female journalist who also wears the hijab), came to the rescue and published an interview with the woman assaulted by the protestors. Upon her request, Çakır did not reveal the woman’s name and referred to her by the initials Z. D., but mentioned that she is the daughter-in-law of the mayor of the Bahçelievler district in Istanbul.
In this expose, Çakır’s insistence on highlighting the victim’s motherhood, as opposed to her other qualifications, is astounding. There are many descriptions in Çakır’s piece in which she compliments (“She is such an elegant, such a naive, such a young mother”) or pities (“Not even looking at my face because of shame, the young mother says, ‘Do you know that they didn’t show any mercy for my baby?’”) the mother. To be more precise, the word “mother” is repeated ten times throughout the article; however, nowhere in her expose can one find words such as “woman,” “person,” or “individual” to describe the victim. In the photo used by the newspaper, one can see the interviewee from an angle that only shows the back of her headscarf. Despite the expose, Z. D. remains a faceless and nameless figure, whose existence matters only in terms of her Islamic headscarf, her motherhood, and her indirect kinship to Erdoğan.
The frequent references to Z. D. as the icon of the protests by AKP politicians and their supporters is significant, in that it is reminiscent of early Republican efforts to establish sacrificial womanhood as the symbol of the Turkish modernization and nationalization project. As the protagonist of many early Republican novels, the sacrificial woman is idealized as a strong, desexualized, sister or mother figure, who has sacrificed her own body and desires to the nation, for the sake of raising future generations who would also dedicate themselves to their nation. Z. D. is being represented as the new sacrificial woman whose veiled body becomes the subject of mob violence in the same way that Aliye, the heroine of Halide Edip Adıvar’s 1923 novel Vurun Kahpeye [Strike the Slut], gets lynched by a mob provoked by a religious zealot. However, Aliye’s body gets trampled for being a single, liberated, and modernized woman who sacrifices her honor and chastity in order to save her compatriots from foreign occupation. On the other hand, Z. D. is depicted as a scapegoat for being a pious mother whose headscarf leads her to be attacked by extremist secularists who didn’t need any more proof than her hijab to deduce her affiliation with the AKP and Erdoğan. Thus, the assault on a pious mother who wears the hijab is represented as an attack on the conservative policies of the AKP, at the core of which lies the sanctity of the family and veneration of motherhood.
In his column published a couple of days after Çakır’s interview with Z. D., Mustafa Karaalioğlu of the aforementioned Star newspaper asked who the real symbol of the Gezi Park protests was. He proposed that the young mother wearing the hijab who was harassed by the protestors should be considered the symbol of the Gezi Park events, rather than “the lady in red,” whose widely-circulated image is considered by many as a catalyst for the uprisings.
[The iconic image of the lady in red being teargased in Taksim’s Gezi Park,
stencil on the ground in Gezi Park, 4 June. Photo by Christiane Gruber.]
The concealment of Z. D.’s face to highlight her humility and humiliation contrasts starkly with the image of the lady in red, whose face is the direct target of the police’s tear gas. With her elegant red dress, handbag, and flowing hair, the lady in red signifies the liberated woman to secularists, whereas Z. D.’s covered head and concealed face represents modesty and humbleness to conservatives. Whether veiled or unveiled, single or married, it is the assaulted bodies of women that have been used as ideological icons for the Gezi Park events.
The Family Is the Public, and the Public Sphere Is for the Family
Taksim’s Gezi Park has been reopened to the public as of 8 July, about three weeks after the police had evicted the protestors from the premises through disproportionate use of force and closed the park grounds to the public. All of the major political actors who were in charge of governing Istanbul during the protests—including the governor, the mayor of Istanbul metropolitan municipality, and Istanbul’s chief of police—attended an opening ceremony. While the governor was re-opening the park, there were hundreds of protestors outside the park chanting, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance!” During his press conference, the governor announced that the park is now open for public use but protests will not be allowed.
What was striking in the governor’s speech was his conceptualization of who constitutes the public and who can claim a place in the public sphere. After announcing that “parks belong to the public,” the governor stated that, “Our people will come and enjoy the park with their families and children...Parks are for children, their families, the old, and the young.” What is implied in the governor’s statement is the notion that public spaces should be family friendly and should serve the sole purpose of providing leisure and recreation for the family. Furthermore, families are implied to be the only legitimate social units of the public that are worthy of benefiting from public services and claiming a place for themselves in the public sphere. Aiming at the protestors who were there to claim their place in the park, the governor added: “If certain groups claim to be the public and argue that ‘This park belongs to us, we’re the owners of this park,’ we will not allow that.”
Implicit in the governor’s formulation is the idea that the public should consist of conformist individuals who could be considered legitimate members of a public only within the confines of a conjugal family with children. Considering that the park has served as the most popular cruising spot for Istanbul’s gay community and the "last remaining `queer` space for working-class folks denied access to the burgeoning `queer` scene of Istanbul," the governor’s attempt to define the parameters of this public space and its limits of inclusiveness is highly significant. Since political demonstrations do not conform to the governor’s idea about the kind of function that the public sphere should serve (that is, family-friendly recreation and leisure), the protestors are also excluded from the park. As a matter of fact, only two and a half hours after the governor’s speech, the park was re-closed and members of the public were ordered to leave. After some protestors tried to enter the park, they were pushed out forcefully by the police; over thirty protestors refusing to leave the park were detained.
By Way of Conclusion: We Are a Big Family
[Prime Minister Erdoğan looking at his family photos, 18 June 2013. Photo by
Harun Sarı-Mesut Yeşil, via the Ministry of the Family and Social Policy’s Facebook Page]
I would like to conclude with the image above, in which Prime Minister Erdoğan is seen looking at his family photographs in front of a sign that reads, “We are a big family. All of Turkey will experience the privilege of being a big family.” This photograph was taken on 18 June 2013, at the end of an opening ceremony for a project initiated by the Ministry of the Family and Social Policies that aims at strengthening family ties by inculcating in citizens the desire to support and spend time with their families. In this project, the entire nation is conceptualized as a big extended family in which every family member supports and helps one another. This event took place just as protests were escalating and spreading to almost every part of Turkey, and the police were using unprecedented amounts of force to put an end to the uprisings. Here, Erdoğan is seen turning his back to the general public and enjoying his moment of escapism in the warm sight of his own family members.
If the nation is to be conceptualized as a large extended family, the question is whether Erdoğan will be a good family man, turn around, and embrace all his relatives, or act like a cranky distant relative who is constantly upset with his family members and holds them responsible for the current state of affairs. Only time will tell.
 Deniz Kandiyoti, "Slave Girls, Temptresses, and Comrades: Images of Women in the Turkish Novel," Feminist Issues 8 (1988).