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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A pillar of Erdogan’s victory: Devout conservative women

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate his victory in presidential elections in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday May 28, 2023.

By Ben Hubbard, Safak Timur and Elif Ince

Ten years ago, Emine Kilic was focused on raising her two children at home in Istanbul when she decided to set up her own clothing company to help support her family.

Her business, started with an interest-free government-backed loan for female entrepreneurs, now employs 60 people and exports to 15 countries, said Kilic, who has an elementary school education. She credited a powerful motivator who inspired her to transform her life — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — calling him a champion for women.

“Thanks to my president, I became the boss of my own company,” said Kilic, 38. She said she had voted for him for years and did so again to help him secure another presidential term Sunday.

To beat back the most serious political threat to his two-decade tenure as Turkey’s dominant politician, Erdogan counted on the fervent support of an often underappreciated constituency: conservative religious women.

Across Turkey, devout women, both professionals and those who don’t work outside the home, not only turned out to vote for Erdogan in large numbers but also coaxed their friends and relatives to do the same. Women are also active across the country in his governing Justice and Development Party, ranging from activists who spread party messages among their neighbors over tea to the dozens of women who represent the party in Parliament.

Uniting these women and Erdogan is a shared conservative Muslim view of female roles in Turkish society, first as mothers and wives, second as members of the workforce. In a staunchly secular country where women who covered their hair were long barred from universities and government jobs, many devout women view Erdogan as their protector because he pushed to loosen those rules.

“Voting in Turkey, especially for our community, is not only about electing someone. It is making a decision about your life,” said Ozlem Zengin, a lawmaker and senior female member of Erdogan’s party.

For many conservative women, the bitterness of having their ambitions limited by public expressions of their faith runs deep, even affecting the children of those who lived through it, she said. That resentment also fuels the tremendous gratitude toward Erdogan.

“Erdogan is loved that much, because he changed people’s lives,” Zengin said.

The electricity between Erdogan and his female supporters coursed through an Istanbul conference hall during a women’s rally two days before the May 28 runoff. Thousands of women, some with babies or children in tow, packed the hall, clapping and waving their arms to campaign anthems and holding up their cellphone flashlights to welcome him onstage.

“Women are the most important heroes in our struggle to serve the country,” Erdogan said, to rapturous applause.

He reminded his audience that he had delivered on conservative causes, lifting headscarf bans and turning the Hagia Sofia, one of Turkey’s architectural treasures, from a museum into a mosque. And he made a new promise to seek retirement pay for women who do not work outside the home, garnering more cheers.

“We will burst the ballot boxes,” Erdogan said. “Don’t just go by yourself. You must make sure your families, neighbors and distant relatives also go to the ballot box.”

“The women are with you!” the crowd chanted.

Erdogan’s loyal following among conservatives is rooted in Turkey’s history.

Although a predominantly Muslim society, the country was founded in 1923 as a secular state. That gave the government oversight of religious institutions and the power to keep open displays of religiosity out of the public sphere.

Some Turks treasure that secularism as a founding pillar of the republic. But it rankled many devout people, including women who felt that it made them second-class citizens. Some women had to remove their veils to attend university. Others wore wigs.

Zengin, the lawmaker, said she had worked as a lawyer for 20 years without being allowed to even enter the courtroom because she covered her hair.

“If you were a defendant or an aggrieved party, you could enter the courtroom, but not as a lawyer,” she said. “It was incomprehensible.”

Since Erdogan arrived on the national stage in 2003 as an ambitious Islamist politician, he has sidelined Turkey’s secular elites and consolidated more power in his own hands. Along the way, he pushed to loosen headscarf restrictions.

The restrictions were lifted on university campuses in 2008, and in 2013, four veiled women from Erdogan’s party became Parliament members, a first. Now there are many more, and conservatives still thank Erdogan with their votes.

“I feel like I have a debt to him,” said Eda Yurtseven, a kindergarten teacher. “I owe him a lot because now I can live freely.”

Erdogan’s vision of the family remains conservative, holding sacrosanct the notion of marriage being only between a man and a woman, preferably with three children. His idea of personal freedom leaves little room for LGBTQ people in Turkey.

“We believe the family is sacred,” he said during the women’s rally. “We must take precautions now against these trends that are spreading like the plague.”

Turkey’s constitution grants equal rights to men and women, and its labor code bars gender-based discrimination. But women still earn 15.6% less than men on average, according to a United Nations report last year.

In 2021, Erdogan shocked rights groups by withdrawing Turkey from an international treaty on preventing violence against women that he had signed in 2011. Women’s advocates consider the country’s domestic violence laws strong but say that physical and sexual abuse against women remains common and often goes unreported or is not properly investigated by authorities.

Female political representation has increased during Erdogan’s tenure, and women won about 120 seats in the 600-member parliament in this month’s election. Still, the U.N. report said, most women work in campaigning, communications or support roles, not in high-level decision-making.

Erdogan has been a pioneer in tapping the power of devout, conservative women in grassroots politics in Turkey, said Nur Sinem Kourou, a professor at Istanbul Kultur University who has studied his party’s women’s groups. Many work in their neighborhoods, she said, spreading party views through informal meetings or religious activities while gathering information to feed back to the party.

“The fact that the women’s branches are on the ground every week, every day means that they analyze society very well,” Kourou said. “That data leads back to Erdogan’s speeches on TV.”

Those activists remain fiercely loyal to Erdogan and consider him key to Turkey’s future, she added.

“We have to protect him,” Kourou said, summarizing their views. “Erdogan protects us.”

That bond means that Erdogan’s staunchest female supporters tend to give him a pass on the country’s problems, including a painful cost-of-living crisis, blaming instead other members of his party or foreign powers.

Erdogan’s foes say he has acquired too much power and accuse him of pushing the country toward one-man rule. But his vast control does not bother his loyalists. On the contrary, they say he needs it to do his job.

Mina Murat, 26, said she voted for Erdogan and his party because they protected her right to cover her hair.

“My teacher used to wear a wig over her headscarf in school,” she recalled. “Women couldn’t attend college and couldn’t get government jobs because of their headscarves.”

Now Murat works in a clothing store geared toward conservative women, with headscarves in a vast array of colors and patterns.

“Now we can dress fashionably and conservatively,” she said.

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