Photographs of the “woman in red” being tear-gassed by a police officer at the protests in Turkey have called attention to the role of women in the Middle East. The protests in Turkey have drawn comparisons to the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, especially in terms of how the outcome will affect women in Turkey.
But despite surface similarities, Turkey is not in the political situation Egypt was in two years ago. In Egypt, protesters called for the fall of a secular dictatorial regime and what they got was a democracy dominated by an Islamist party that can’t be trusted to advance women’s rights. In Turkey, protesters are trying to curtail the power of the democratically elected Islamic party that has taken things too far. If anything, the protests in Turkey will help women get their voices heard.
Egyptian women stood alongside men in the Arab Spring calling for freedom and democracy. Two years after the revolution, women’s rights in Egypt are not certain, and problems like sexual harassment of women on the street is rising. A new constitution has removed recognition of women’s equality, and many rights that women were handed by the Mubarak regime are in danger of being rolled back, like the right for women to initiate divorce, protections against underage marriage, and the ban on female genital mutilation.
How did this happen? Throughout Mubarak’s rule, he had championed women’s rights as a strategy to get the West to look the other way as he suppressed civil rights and held sham elections. The Egyptian people learned to associate the cause of women’s rights with authoritarianism, and resented the suppression of Islamic parties. When the revolution brought Mubarak down, the backlash against dictatorship became a backlash against women’s rights tainted by Mubarak. Now there is the beginnings of a democracy, but women have been set back decades.
This isn’t the pattern we’re seeing in Turkey right now, in part because Turkey is on a different part of its timeline. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, secularized Turkey in early the 20th century and women’s roles and opportunities changed as well. A pious Muslim middle class has risen in the past few decades, and the Islamic Justice and Development party has held power democratically since 2002. The protesters in Turkey right now are not calling for the downfall of a secular authoritarian regime in order to put in place a democracy. They’re calling for the democracy they have to liberalize.
The women active in the Turkish protests are concerned about Erdogan’s attempts to return women to the home, citing legislation to ban abortion and limiting support for working mothers. Women’s rights is just one more area — alongside heavy-handed development initiatives and repression of free expression — that has driven people to protest. Erdogan’s government was already on the path to limiting women’s freedoms. If the Turkish people get their demands answered, they might be able to turn it around.