Turkey: Bridge to the Melting Pot at a Crossroads

...And Still Not in the EU, Not Even Close

(written for Strangeland magazine)

A celebrated inspiration for some of the world's most precious cliches, Istanbul is renowned as the place where East meets West meets Europe meets Asia meets Muslim meets Christian meets kebab meets burger meets miniskirt meets headscarf meets some other portentous symbol diametrically opposed to some other semiotic exaggeration to create yet another banally juxtaposed, superficially thought-provoking, unity-through-contradiction catchphrase.

It’s all very daedal as chewing gum for tour guides soothing nervous visitors and baling twine for hung-over travel writers on deadline. But those same clichés become comic in their inaccuracy and grotesque in their whitewashing of reality after an extended stay in this “Meeting Point of Civilizations.” That’s how the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism would like everyone to think of the country. We Turks are very eager to erase any Midnight Express associations lingering in the minds of foreigners. Just click or surf over to CNN or BBC to drink in commercials that portray Turkey as the epitome of tolerance, concord, and diversity. You’ll see handsome moustached dervishes and sloe-eyed beauty queens spinning and floating, respectively, across Istanbul’s famous dome-and-minaret-crowded skyline, lush images filigreed with sensually spiritual quotes from our famous Sufi poets. The message: we have cool old stuff that you can’t find anywhere else and our own version of the cool new stuff. The subtext: please don’t be scared to visit, Mr. and Mrs. Hard Currency.

Turkey presents itself as the planet’s only democratic secular Muslim country, aggressively tilted to the West by our revered national hero Kemal Atatürk after the dissolution of the sumptuous silken dreamscape that was the Ottoman Empire. We’ve done away with our autocratic sultans and toothless caliphate, but we’ve retained the bejeweled palaces and the mournful call of the muezzin. We’ve managed this trick for more than eighty years thanks to state restrictions on religion applied under the vigilant watch of a military always ready to step in and run the show (three coups, in 1960, 1971, and 1980) when the civvies are deemed inadequate to the task of keeping the Islamic genie stopped up tight in the mosques.

So don’t confuse our secular boasting with U.S.- style separation of church and state. There’s a Religious Affairs Directorate originally established by Atatürk to remove what were deemed to be unseemly non-modern displays of religion from public life. The long-standing prohibition on women wearing headscarves in public schools and government buildings is the most notorious, controversial, and widespread example of this policy. Same as in the West, the idea was that our religion be heard (your tolling church bells to our quavering sing-song of God-is-great five times a day) but not seen. It’s basically the French model and it has a fancy French name: Laïcité, which turns out to be as hard to spell as it is to apply. The state is required to safeguard religious freedom but also charged with actively preventing religion from taking a conspicuous part in public life and government... which necessarily requires a curtailing of religious freedom. That would be fine except for the small demographic detail that, unlike in laique France, 99% of us Turks are Muslim, and most of us identify ourselves as such when asked, as our censuses often do.

Secularism? Yes, God willing!

So freedom of religion? Sort of... And as for secular, well, the current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is still seen as an Islamist party in all but name. It came to power in 2007 campaigning hard on the promise to overturn the headscarf ban. They haven’t quite managed it, but they adamantly defend compulsory religion classes (a.k.a. “How to be a good Sunni Muslim”) in all public schools. There’s a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol in all government-run social facilities in AKP-administered municipalities, and talk of rusticating all alcohol-serving establishments to “Red Zones” on the outskirts of towns and cities.

This hasn’t yet stopped most Turks from enjoying the national tipple, raki, or the ubiquitous Efes beer. But vigilantism is on the rise. It’s most often seen in the form of passive-aggressive “neighborhood pressure (mahalle baskisi),” whereby those who are deemed to have an un-virtuous (read un-Islamic) lifestyle (i.e. alcohol drinkers, girls who don’t cover their heads, girls with boyfriends, etc.) are bullied and harassed by a network of housewives, shopkeepers, and municipal officials who use gossip, rumors, and dirty glances to ostracize “undesirables.” Foreign journalists miss this phenomenon because it’s subtle and very local. But the pressure can also take extreme and violent forms, viz. the (Alevi) shopkeeper who was beaten to a pulp last year by (Sunni) municipal patrolmen for selling alcohol after the prescribed hours, or the mob that attacked and beat a couple flirting on a public bench. Both incidents occurred in suburbs of Ankara controlled by the AKP, in one of which there is a giant billboard that proclaims “Alcohol is the Mother of all Evil.”

The AKP portrays its political agenda as reforms meant to “expand freedoms,” primarily the freedom for women to wear headscarves in universities and government buildings, which to non-religious Turks like me sounds a lot like the “freedom” for women to be considered first and foremost as sex objects who must hide their alluring bits so as not to incite impure thoughts and acts in men. Then there is the “freedom” to teach creationism in public schools, something that the former Minister of Education, Hüseyin Çelik, defended adding to the official curriculum based on the argument that a majority of the Turkish population (75% according to polls) believe in it. That the majority’s belief in creationist fairy tales is due to a lack of education is a golden irony willfully lost on the learned grandees of the AKP. Their reforms include the banning of over a thousand internet websites by the Turkish Telecommunications Directorate, including YouTube, the website of atheist scientist/writer Richard Dawkins, and at one point Blogger and Wordpress. Add to that a government-imposed $2.5 billion (yes, billion) tax fine on Dogan Holding—the only media conglomerate that is still independent and critical of the AKP—and it appears that the government’s avowed commitment of democratization and pluralism is just talk.

So, sure, besides all the de facto meddling of politics in religion by secularists, and the mixing of religion in politics by Islamists, Turkey enjoys at least nominal separation of religion and government—in theory anyway... French theory. But wait! Have you checked out our whirling dervishes and beauty queens? How ‘bout them Sufis!

Tolerance for all. (Except maybe you over there)

The same sorta/kinda caveat applies to the endless official lip service promoting our tolerance for other faiths and ethnicities. OK, compared to post-Bush Iraq or medieval Europe or Darfur, Turkey might as well be Sweden. But tell that to the Catholic priest who was stabbed to death in Trabzon in 2006, or the three Christian missionaries whose throats were slit and bodies mutilated in Malatya in 2007. The 2009 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report placed Turkey on its Watch List, along with Afghanistan, Cuba, the Russian Federation, and Venezuela. Then there’s the sad case of the Armenian writer Hrant Dink, who was shot dead in the middle of a busy Istanbul street in 2007 after repeatedly doing what no good Turk must ever do—speaking and writing about the great Turkish bugbear known officially as “the alleged Armenian Genocide.” After his arrest, Dink’s assassin was treated as a hero and cops posed with him for souvenir snapshots as they proudly brandished the Turkish flag.

This is troubling, especially given Turkey’s long history of acting nasty toward religious and ethnic minorities, a history the state is constantly trying to sweep under the carpet with a whistle and a wink. There was the pogrom of Greeks and Armenians in September 1955 in Istanbul; we’re (sort of) allowed to talk about that one. The Alevi Muslims’ houses of worship (Cemevi) have never been officially recognized, despite Alevis (a sect closer to Shiites) representing 20% of the population. The Kurds, who represent anywhere between 15% and 25% of the population (depending who you ask: just don’t ask too often), have revolted violently against the Turkish state 26 times. They were prohibited from speaking their mother tongue and officially referred to as “mountain Turks” until the 90’s. And then there’s the gigantic taboo concerning any discussion of whatever happened to the million, maybe two million, Armenians who resided in Eastern Turkey 90 years ago, and who are now, well, conspicuously no longer there. Draw your own conclusions… but you better keep them to yourself if they contradict official state doctrine.

Even animals aren’t exempt from our peculiar version of tolerance. In 2007 various indigenous animal species with subversive names—like the red fox known as Vulpes vulpes kurdistanica, or the wild sheep called Ovis armeniana, or the roe deer known as Capreolus capreolus armenus—were deemed to be abetting treason and secession by their very existence. That has now been resolved by an official decree of the Turkish Environment Ministry which erased all that separatist Kurdish- and Armenian-inspired nomenclature. Now we have the more palatable Vulpes vulpes, Ovis orientalis anatolicus, and Capreolus cuprelus capreolus. It’s like taxonomy by Stalin. So except for those minor tears and a few gaping holes in our big inclusive tent, and the recurring news footage of Kurdish children throwing rocks at Turkish Army vehicles in scenes reminiscent of the West Bank Intifada, Turkey is somewhat tolerant and discernibly democratic... ish.

And so it must be if Turkey is ever to fulfill its dream of joining the European Union, which would be worth a thousand cheesy P.R. campaigns as far as Turkey reeling in deep-pocket tourists and a dragon’s horde of foreign investment. Geographically, Turkey is part of both Europe and Asia (Meeting Point! Meeting Point!), but we might as well be in the head-chopping, torture-house-condoning Middle East as far as the EU is concerned. Human rights guarantees, which unfortunately for Turkey also extend to religious and ethnic minorities, are embedded in the stringent EU standards that sprout from Brussels and now stretch from Iceland to the eastern border of Poland (beyond which lie the wild frontiers of Putinland, where huge energy reserves allow the commissars and oligarchs to play by their own rules—just ask the Chechens!). Since 1987, Turkey has been taking baby steps to comply with EU standards and many experts think it will take at least another twenty years, if ever. Not exactly the fast track, but a track nevertheless… a gravelly, pot-holed, tortuous track growing ever fainter until it finally disappears into the poor, scrubby Anatolian wilderness crawling with those swarthy, scowling Muslims that most Europeans today can’t imagine ever letting into their precious political play pen.

Baby steps: the Minister of Justice Mehmet Ali Sahin is the first Turkish minister ever to publicly apologize to the family of someone tortured to death in police custody. A generous gesture to be sure, but what about the families of Engin Ceber (tortured to death in police custody), Feyzullah Ete (beaten to death by police while sitting in a park) and the thousands of others who undergo torture and death at the hands of the law on a what can be presumed to be a regular basis? We Turks barely notice. And when we do, we shrug and roll our eyes. Compare this apathy to our feisty Greek neighbors. They raised high hell with Molotov cocktails and flaming barricades in 2008 after a teenage protester was killed by riot police. In Greece, the justice minister didn’t just apologize, he resigned.

Say what you like, as long as we like what you say

The problem is that some reforms can’t be achieved incrementally. For example, amending Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which for decades made “insulting Turkishness” a crime. Violations have led to cringe-inducing CNN-worthy prosecutions and unofficial persecutions of hundreds of writers, including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (who now lives in New York due to death threats), award-winning author of The Bastard of Istanbul Elif Safak (who was heckled and spat at on her way to court), perennial Nobel long-shot Yasar Kemal, and the aforementioned, aforemurdered Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant Dink. Besides being a P.R. nightmare, Article 301 is seen as the greatest obstacle to achieving a legal framework acceptable to the EU. The muscles in Brussels wanted Turkey to scrap 301 altogether, but our parliament opted for a slight tweaking instead. Since 2008 the new law states that it’s a crime to insult “the Turkish nation,”, thus narrowing the “-ishness” of the original.

The result? Same old, same old. Just as Pamuk, Safak, and Dink were prosecuted under Article 301 for essentially using the words Armenian and genocide in the same sentence, since the amendment to Article 301 another writer—Ragip Zarakolu—was prosecuted for the same “crime.” You can still only say what you like as long as your opinions don’t run counter to the state-sanctioned view of things. Hard to take even baby steps when you’re saddled with such an overloaded dirty diaper. Or as the famous 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi, who composed in Persian but lived and died in what is now Turkey, put it: “Most people guard against going into the fire, and so end up in it.”

Maybe Article 301 will eventually commit suicide: the ridicule and disgrace that Turkey suffers for it’s prosecution of citizens under this embarrassing law might itself be considered a breach of Article 301’s own prohibition against insulting Turkey. By this logic, the Constitutional Court could rule that Article 301 actually violates itself and order it scrapped. Unfortunately, any lawyer who put forth this legal argument would risk being charged under the very article he or she is attempting to abolish.

And what about the role of the army in Turkey? I’m not really at liberty to say because of Article 314 of the Turkish penal code, which basically states that the Turkish Armed Forces are always and forever beyond reproach, critique, or even a suspect sidelong glance. So I’ll skip that subject altogether, so as to avoid the fate of, say, author and newspaper columnist Perihan Magden, who went to jail for criticizing compulsory military service in Turkey and “publishing propaganda aimed at dissuading people from fulfilling their sacred duty.” Or if you prefer your chilling effect on free speech with a bit more sparkle, cleavage, and eye-shadow, consider Turkey’s most famous transvestite, singer Bülent Ersoy. She was charged for the same “crime” after saying on live TV (as a judge on Turkey’s music reality show “Popstar Alaturka”) that if she could have a son she would not allow him to do his stretch in the army.

Even while recognizing our country’s shortcomings, it’s clear to us Turks that Europe doesn’t appreciate the buffer zone we represent between their cherished secular humanism and the shouting mullahs and incendiary shaheeds whose fondest desire is to blow the godless West to smithereens. The EU gate-keepers would do well to consider who might be knocking on their door a few years from now if the AKP agenda continues apace. Because contrary to propaganda spread by the government through it’s tourism campaigns and paid advertising “special reports” in the Economist and the International Herald Tribune, there is an intense struggle inside Turkey over which way we should be heading: West or East, towards Europe or away. The news-making polarization between Islamists and secularists reflects an even more profound socio-economic rift in Turkish society. A newly urbanized Islamic and conservative Anatolian bourgeoisie is increasingly challenging the Kemalist/secularist hold on power anchored in Istanbul and Ankara. Like everywhere else in the world, our poor masses like the stability and low-budget solace that religion provides, while our wealthy citizens prefer the freedoms and new sensations that only money can buy. The quotidian dichotomies can be shocking. There’s a Millionaire’s Fair in Istanbul where you can go yacht shopping. But not if you’re one of the hundreds of people waiting in a mile-long line to purchase government-subsidized coal to heat your home in winter. Western Turkey looks like a developed, industrialized, affluent country, while in the eastern provinces there are feudal landowners, endogamy, troglodytes, honor killings, and even a recently-discovered clan of quadrupeds who seem to have devolved back to knuckle-dragging through the Anatolian dust.

These extremes aren’t surprising when you consider that Turkey ranks among the top countries in Europe for billionaires, while at the same time being one of Europe’s poorest nations, consistently among GDP per capita bottom trawlers like Bulgaria and Romania. If anything, Turkey seems to be Mexicanizing rather than Europeanizing. The Western way of life feels exclusionary to many Turks; not just the EU’s snobbish sniffing at our old world ways, but the implications that globalization, gender equality, free markets, and secularism have for our strong traditions of family and community. By comparison, the Middle East’s culture seems comforting, inclusive, and non-threatening. Clannish isn’t a slur here. There are no velvet ropes at the mosques.

East or West, which is best?

But how to bridge the gap? The ulema (Muslim scholars) gripe about the degeneracy of our upper classes. The sunbed-orange, rhinoplastied rich chicks and their Rolex-wearing, iPhone-tapping consorts are too busy drinking twenty-dollar cocktails at seaside nightclubs to notice. The egalitarian (in terms of class, if not gender) and community-providing attraction of Islam has emerged as an alternative world view to the aggressive, winner-takes-all ethos associated with the West’s capitalism and free markets. Atatürk would not be pleased; his ideological descendants clearly are not—an alleged coup conspiracy was made public in March 2007 when Nokta, a large-circulation magazine, published the diary of the head of the Navy. There seems a tacit threat in Turkey’s persistent demand to join the EU—if you let us in our people will prosper and become immune to the siren call of jihad; leave us out and Sharia-ville here we come. Some wags claim the military tolerate the AKP’s Islamic agenda as a strategy to scare the EU into letting us swim in their pool (which further hinges on the enormous can of worms called Cyprus being resolved as well—good luck with that!)

So what kind of crossroads is this? The bridge more often resembles a giant dividing wall with Turks smashing their heads against it on either side. The melting pot has been left untended on the stove too long and is boiling over with conflict and animosity. And the “Crossroads” itself? Well, that might soon be deemed too Christian an expression and changed to “Crescentroads,” which would actually be a more apposite metaphor considering the Islamists are convinced they can follow their own parabolic path around modernity while eroding the secular state bit by bit. Our storied intersection of cultures has become an inner suction of xenophobic paranoia. This “Meeting Point of Civilizations” I supposedly live in has become a city of estranged elements, divided between haves and have-nots, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between pious orthodox Muslims and secular Muslims, between nationalists and traitors, between jingoistic anthem-chanters and nervous minorities who can’t forget history even if the government decrees amnesia. Surely a nation that aspires to be a bridge between cultures, faiths, and ideas must first build those bridges within. It should be more important to us Turks to convince ourselves that we’re a tolerant and secular mosaic than to try to persuade the rest of the world when there’s so much that contradicts the propaganda.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. This year Turkish state television launched a Kurdish-language channel, TRT 6. When Hrant Dink was murdered by ultranationalists two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Turks poured into the streets with placards that read “We are all Armenians” without getting tear-gassed and beaten by our infamously zealous riot police. The prime minister himself has described the gradual disappearance of Turkey’s minorities to be the product of a “fascistic attitude.” Author Nedim Gürsel, accused of insulting Islam in his novel Daughters of Allah, was recently acquitted by an Istanbul court. And most recently, the Turkish government has started the long-overdue process of finding a political solution to the Kurdish problem; the aim is to formulate a national strategy that would finally put an end to a bloody 25-year conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. It’s early days yet, but these are all promising steps in the right direction—which is to say, West.

Who knows, maybe someday we Turks might even begin to believe in our own clichés. Maybe we’ll even live up to them. Or to quote Rumi again for a kicker: “Appear as you are, Be as you appear.”


Ten reasons why Istanbul is great

Time to stop complaining and start focusing on all the good things that Istanbul has to offer.

All some people do is poo-poo Istanbul. Month after month, year after year, whining and ranting on and on about how this sucks and that sucks. Some of these chronic gripers are even given their very own magazine columns to go on and on about everything that doesn't suit their precious little standards of excellence. Nagging on and on and on and on and on and on. Nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag nag.

But there must be stuff that's good about Istanbul because lots of people live here, and not just people who don't have any choice because they were born here and have to deal with it because Sweden or New Zealand won't accept them, but also people who actually choose to live here. That means there are some good things in Istanbul. So this month let's focus our rant on all the positive things that this city has to offer, things that make you feel like there's no other place you'd rather be... except maybe the Bahamas (but that doesn't count, because the Bahamas must always seem like a better place to live than anywhere else).

1. Built-in bidets in toilets
Those ass-washing water pipes at the back of commodes are what everyone secretly loves the most about Istanbul... and probably wants to read about the least. So moving right along...

2. Nobody caring about money
If you go to the store and buy something and find that you're short of money, the shopkeepers often won't even care. They'll just give you what you need anyway and say that you can pay them later - which you always will, because it makes you sick to even consider not reciprocating such a nice attitude. Everyone wins because both shopkeeper and customer feel good about themselves for showing how honorable they are to each other. You could also try doing this in Europe (that was sarcasm).

3. No law and order
Whoa, how great is no laws?! Anyone can do anything anywhere anytime and usually get away with it. This is what we dream of as kids, and here in Istanbul those dreams come true. To test this: rent a jackhammer and a hard hat, light up a cigarette, go to the middle of any street, and start carving a big hole in the middle of the road while your friend diverts traffic. I bet you could totally do it.

4. No libraries
That's right, here there's none of those big obnoxious ivory towers where snooty bookworms can sneer down at you as they spit on your ignorant pin-sized head with their big-word-infested saliva. Here we have kebab restaurants instead. Which reminds me...

5. Kebab restaurants!
A gratuitous calorie binge of salt, heat, grease, hair, fat, sauce, sweat and sugar. Everything mammals have ever craved since the dawn of time.

6. The Bosphorus
I can't believe it took me till number six to think of this one. After all, it's a gazillion cubic tons of water running through the middle of a city with giant ships floating on it. How could that not be awesome?

7. Nightlife
I know, it sucks that alcohol is so expensive, because we're governed by religious zealots who think it's their God-given right to impose their belief that alcohol is evil on everybody else by taxing the living shit out of it and bringing in all sorts of cunning legal and monetary impediments to being able to get a liquor license, but despite that - and also despite all the smart-ass waiters and wanky bartenders and douchy bar owners and overcrowded venues crammed with self-important poseurs... wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, I was saying nightlife is still pretty good in Istanbul (as long as you stay in Asmalimescit). See? I'm being positive.

8. Flags
This city is a dream for vexillophiles (yes, that's the word you get if you Google 'flag lover' - unless you happen to commit an unfortunate typo, in which case you don't want to know what you get, at least not here) because there's probably more flags here per capita than there are in post-9/11 U.S.A. (Question: why doesn't America sell its old used flags to Iran where there's such a high demand for them for burning and dancing around while chanting curses? America makes a much-needed buck and Iran gets real American flags that have been made in China or Taiwan instead of the shabby ones they put together locally with twenty-three blotchy stars and sloppy stripes that look like they were painted on by epileptic kindergartners? This could be the beginning of direct trade ties between the two countries, upon which you could grow further trade in the future, like in rocks - Iran needs them to throw at adulterers while America has a whole mountain range named after the stuff just sitting there... but I digress)

9. Starbucks
This is the name of a great coffee shop-slash-cafe located just near my house in Beyoglu. But they don't just serve coffee they also have special types of tea (called 'tchai'), edibles, and even CDs. They also have wireless Internet access (a.k.a. 'Wi-Fi' - not pronounced 'wifey' but 'why fly' without the 'l' in 'fly', or like 'hi-fi' but with a 'w' instead of the 'h'). They sell different kinds of coffee from all over the world, all of which are delicious. Although it's a little expensive, it's a lot better value for money than Gloria Jeans, who suck and have no shame. In fact, I predict they will even open another branch in some other part of Istanbul at some point. Who knows, maybe they could eventually even become a global brand?

10. Pretty things to make money off of tourists with
E.g. Haghia Sophia, Topkapi, the Grand Bazaar, Dolmabahce, the Underground Cisterns, Galata Tower, Istanbul Modern, shiny bracelets, etc.

There's probably a bunch of other stuff that doesn't immediately come to mind, but I'll end with number ten, because that's how many fingers and thumbs I have, and that fact in turn has had a huge impact on the preference for the decimal system in human civilization (with the exception of the ancient Mesopotamians, who had a sexagesimal system, but we only use that for time and geometry, not Istanbul), which in turn has meant that lists are commonly expected to be written and presented with ten items or factors of ten (i.e. 'Ten golden rules', 'Top Ten with David Letterman', 'Ten Things I Hate About You', TKOs, space launch countdowns, most articles in Cosmopolitan, etc.). Also, the title of the article is 'Ten reasons why Istanbul is great', so that doesn't leave much room for flexibility either. The end.

P.S. I also really like those kiosks that sell freshly squeezed juices.


The Sacred Sex: women in Turkey

The sanctification of women is also the source of their oppression.

There’s a belief in the conservative segment of our society (i.e. the overwhelming majority) that 'Woman is sacred'. You’ll find that slogan expressed almost solely by men - most conspicuously by our very own prime minister who stated that 'motherhood is sacred' and urged his countrymen to procreate and have at least three children per family. Surely you would think the espousal of the sanctity of women must be a good thing, but it isn’t. In fact that mindset is precisely the reason they are still de facto (if not de juris) second-class citizens in our country.

Sanctified apartheid
By saying that women are sacred - rather than 'humans are sacred' - we’re effectively saying that the difference between women and men is sacred, i.e. their sexual difference. After all, the sexual difference is the only difference. By ascribing sanctity to that difference, we effectively state that what is the same between men and women (their intellectual capacity, their ability to work, study, learn, conduct business, have a career, create art, lead companies, rule nations) is secondary to their ability to give birth. And that in turn means that we’re saying that the primary importance of a woman is as a child-bearer before all else, and that her 'sacred duty' is motherhood. And once we (read: Men) have made that sacred, we have thereby stated that it is not only imperative but 'God’s will' that women forsake their multifaceted human potential and focus solely on the task of child-rearing, child-bearing and the home.

Therein lies the source of an ongoing sexual apartheid in our culture. The men’s domain is the public sphere (society, politics, business, the local coffeehouse, the street), the women’s is the private sphere (home). This segregation was particularly profound before republican times, when the average Ottoman household was divided between the men’s sanctum 'Selamlik' (literally 'the place of greeting', where guests would be brought into the house to interact with the paterfamilias) and the women’s private sanctum, the 'Haremlik' (Harem being from the same Arabic root as the word 'haram' which means 'forbidden', and even 'sinful'). Today, of course, this effectively institutionalized sexual apartheid has been legally abandoned, but in the large conservative segment of our population it still persists in some form.

Public/private dichotomy
The headscarf ('turban') which is essentially just an item of clothing, has today become a heavily signified symbolization of sexual apartheid. Today, wearing the headscarf is a sign of religiosity, piousness and virtue. But beneath that, it is also an affirmation (and in many cases, the imposition) of the 'privateness' of women. The rationale behind it is the need to cover up the sexually defining parts of the female body when in the public sphere, which is deemed dangerous because it excites the male - who is master of the public sphere. In other words, the headscarf is the public manifestation of the woman’s privateness, her sanctity, her 'harem' (haram)-ness, her belonging in the home when not at home. When you consider that more than half of the population of women in our country wear a headscarf of some form, you’ll see how pervasive this sense of sexual division is.

So how could this symbolization of the sanctity of women also be considered a factor in the curtailing of women's freedom? After all, even though the headscarf can often be a male imposition on the part of fathers, brothers, husbands, and overall neighborhood pressure (in the form of surveiling eyes and gossip), it is also readily adopted by women themselves. In fact, ironically, it has become a symbol of freedom for many women in a country where aggressive secularism bans the wearing of the headscarf in public offices and universities. It is a backlash against Westernization, against the increase (or perceived increase) of sexual promiscuity in society, and especially against the exploitation and fetishization of female sexuality on the part of an unscrupulous media and entertainment sector (which itself takes advantage of a sexually repressed society by offering the public photos and clips in newspapers, magazines, and on TV that verge on soft porn). In such an environment, the wearing of the headscarf is like a declaration on the part of pious girls that says "I am a virgin" - an important thing to show in order to attract a potential husband in a conservative country like Turkey.*

Class and politics
There's also a political dimension to the headscarf that reflects shifting class dynamics in Turkish society. The headscarf has become the rallying symbol of a recently urbanized conservative Anatolian rural class who feel that they have been left out of the benefits and advantages of socio-economic development and political power that has for the most part been the exclusive domain of a Westernized secular Turkish elite. It's the symbol of a class that has felt alienated from that elite and has thus reaffirmed a more introverted "traditional" identification that more faithfully reflects their own lifestyle and values - which differ decidedly from that of the Westernized elites in terms of education, identity, and overall world-view. This new-found political manifestation of cultural identity has of course been bolstered by the fact that this vast segment of urbanized Anatolians have been moving up and out of the working class for the past 10-15 years and have now become not only a vibrant and prosperous part of the Turkish middle classes, but also an alternative kind of middle class - a pious, religious, outwardly and politically Islamic middle class - to what was once the exclusive domain of a secularized and westernized bourgeoisie. Now not only has a vibrant and prosperous alternative Islamic Economy emerged, with major corporations to its name, but this economic emergence has also been reflected in the political sphere: a fact that is manifest in the Islamic-oriented AKP which enjoys a huge 46% mandate from the 2007 elections and has been dominating the Turkish political scene for the past 7-8 years. Today, the president and the prime minister of Turkey are both members of this newly urbanized Anatolian strata, and both their wives - the first and second ladies of Turkey - wear Islamic headscarves.

Although this reaffirming of Islamic values has been a protest against a (well-founded) perception of having been considered inferior by the Turkish elites for so many decades, it has also now rivaled the accustomed righteousness of that secularized pro-Ataturkist elite with its own righteous and overbearing assumption that moral rectitude and superiority reside in being a pious practicing (and not just nominal) Muslim. That has meant that in this new Islamic middle class there has emerged a whole new range of social pressures to conform to, the headscarf being the most conspicuous of them. And so we are left with the inherent paradox of the Islamic headscarf in Turkey: it is both a symbol of defiant affirmation of one's own class identity **, while at the same time being the source of oppression and pressure on those women who might otherwise not want to wear it, but feel obliged to, because it is considered a religious exigency imposed upon them by the males who dominate their particular (Muslim middle class) social sphere. In a country where two schools of absolutist dogma face each other (Kemalism vs. Islamism) you get this strange situation where one side's freedom is another side's oppression, and where those two seemingly contradictory qualities end up forming two sides of the same coin.***

So, overall, the headscarf is, for the woman who has chosen to wear it, a reaffirming of "traditional" (i.e. religious)**** values and a protest against a dominant segment of society that she feels she is not a part of. But there-in lies an inner contradiction: by focusing on the sexual differences of women (through the need to cover up their breasts, figure, hair, and in extreme cases - as with the chador [charshaf] - the entire face, etc.) and basing an identity around the sanctity of those differences in the public/male sphere, one is essentially stating that woman only has value by what she is in the eye of the male, and that that difference (which is sexual) takes precedence over the woman’s quality as a fellow human being, one with the same (if not superior) capacity to be an equal member of the public sphere alongside men, and one with the same right to represent their nation in parliament, run a business, go as they please and wear what they like without being seen (or indeed, without seeing themselves) first and foremost as sexual objects who should refrain from exciting males, or as merely potential mothers and housewives who are expected to spend their lives doing back-breaking housework for no pay because 'it's a sacred duty'. And that's how the oppression becomes concrete: after all, how can you question and criticize - let alone change - that which is sacred and God-given? To do so - by its very definition - is sacrilege.

Muslims would interject here and say that it is precisely the veiling and covering of women which protects them from being considered sexual beings, and which guarantees that they are seen as something more than just 'sex objects'. But the logic is faulty because it already takes for granted the premise that women are primarily sexual beings in the eyes of males who must be protected from being considered sexual beings by those males. In other words, someone who believes that the veiling of women guarantees them respect already assumes that they are disreputable in the eyes of the world to begin with. It rests on the belief that when a man sees a woman, the first thing he thinks of is sex, not what she has to say or do or think. Therein lies the inherent degradation of women: the assumption that she is born 'sinful' and that only by altering and hiding her natural (ironically 'God-given') form she can become 'respectful' and 'virtuous'. But therein also lies the degradation of men: the assumption that men not only naturally consider women to be sex objects first and foremost, but that they also lack the power and self-control to master their own minds and temper their own impulses and urges, which thereby necessitates that women's rights and freedoms are curtailed to protect men from their own base urges, which in turn supposedly protects women themselves from being subjected to men acting on those base urges. In other words, the veil presumes that men are little better than chimpanzees.

Ladies don't use tampons
But beyond the issue of the headscarf, there are subtler examples of our tendency to perceive women first and foremost as sexual objects. One is the insistence in public to refer to women not as ‘kadin’ (woman) but as ‘bayan’ (lady), even though we don’t refer to men as ‘bay’ (gentleman) but simply as 'erkek' (man). Why is this strange? Because ‘kadin’ in Turkish also refers to a female who is no longer a ‘kiz’ - which means ‘girl’, but also ‘virgin’. In other words, even though we can refer to men as men, we consider it rude to refer to women as women, because ‘woman’ has the additional connotation of ‘sexual being who is no longer a virgin’. And yet ‘erkek’ in Turkish is also used as an adjective to signify male sexual prowess and power (erkeklik - i.e. manliness). Yet we don't consider it imperative to refer to men as ‘bay’. Following on from this, we can also cite tampons as an example. Until recently, you could only buy tampons at pharmacies. Even now they're only found in some big supermarkets. The mere mention of tampons in a store will draw leery glances. Why? Because a tampon user is (in a mistaken way) assumed to be a woman who has had sex and is no longer a virgin. Again, women's convenience takes second place to our consideration of them first and foremost as sexual beings, which means that selling tampons in any old store is rude and immoral. So even in situations where we think we're defending the honor of women (which is patronizing in itself), we are degrading them by thinking of them first and foremost (in fact often completely) as sexual beings.

It gets worse
But if we leave the relatively modern urban scene to delve into the semi-feudal southeastern and eastern regions of Turkey, the situation of women goes from a subtle kind of apartheid to one that becomes downright appalling, to the point where they are generally considered commodities - like cattle or a bucket - that can be exchanged at a price (the bride price, or bonnet money, which is paid by the potential husband to the prospective bride's family). They are often not considered worthy of education, nor of being in any way equals of men in society. They are basically the possession of men (first the father, then the husband, and in case of death of either of them, the eldest brother or brother-in-law respectively). They must be delivered untainted (virgins) to a man, otherwise it is often considered acceptable - indeed 'honorable' - to kill them. Hence the phenomenon of 'honor killings'. In some cases, men who lack the resources to pay a bride price, kidnap a girl, and even - in extreme cases - rape them, knowing that no other man would want her once she's lost her virginity. The real atrocity is that often their tactic works, and the family of the rape victim often have no choice but to consent to her marrying her rapist.

Woman has labor value, not human value
So why are we men so zealous about maintaining our grip over women, of controlling their movements, their appearance, their behavior, their freedom, their sexuality? Just like other commodities like land or gold or arms or oil, we always have a hard time letting go of something precious, something that is valuable and profitable to us. And that's what women are - especially in a semi-feudal area. Where wage-labor doesn't exist, the labor itself is what is valuable. Woman produces: offspring (more notably male offspring), food, agricultural work/tilling, and sex. When you control a woman's sexuality, you control who she can be given to, who you can form an alliance with, how much you can make from her sale (in terms of a bride price) and whether you can't give her to a family that is already part of your own extended family so as to use her services for the common good, and also keep the bride price within the extended family. All of this explains why endogamy is so common in Turkey, since the marriage of first cousins keeps the bride price from going to 'strangers'. Therefore, letting a woman be the master of her own destiny (i.e. choosing her own spouse, or choosing not to marry at all, giving her the freedom to travel, work, in short: choose) means relinquishing a valuable commodity which the man has ownership and power over. And as we know from the history of other valuable commodities, we are not immediately willing to let go of that which is profitable and lucrative that easily. In other words, the ongoing oppression and slavery of women is as much an economic issue as it is a 'cultural' one.*****

In the relatively modern urban environment, especially among the former rural migrants from Anatolia who now form a large swathe of the overall urban population, we find a continuation of this control over women in new forms. Women no longer till fields, obviously, but men still control who they can and can't marry, if/where they can work, and also what they can/should wear, do, and how they should act, with religiosity and piousness (or at least the outward signs of this, in the form of the headscarf) being synonymous with 'virtue'. While the economic factors have softened out, the cultural stigma persists, to the detriment of women in Turkey. The statistics speak for themselves. The cases of abuse, beatings, outright torture, and murder of women from husbands (and also fathers and brothers) is among the highest in the OECD, while the number of women representing their fellow citizens in political office is not only the lowest in the OECD, but lower than even many other predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries.

But enough ranting about women from yet another Turkish male. It's time to let women speak for themselves.

* To demonstrate the level of paranoia and stress on girls regarding the virginity issue, non-virgin girls often have their hymen stitched back up by a doctor before marriage.

** The political symbolism of the headscarf is now so powerful that its original utility value has in many cases almost disappeared. After all, what was once an item of clothing that was intended to cover-up a woman's beauty is now often worn with no such function in mind. It's now common to see headscarved girls wearing tight clothes that reveal - indeed show off - their figures, along with the fashionable big bulge of tied up hair bunched inside the headscarf that is suggestive of long, flowing, seductive locks. This shows how the headscarf has evolved to become more of an expression of identity than something merely functional - or even merely religious.

*** The headscarf (on the Islamist side) is a good case in point: what is essentially a symbol of subservience and the woman's not belonging to the public domain on an equal footing as men, is paradoxically also a symbol of freedom and defiance in the face of secular bans against the wearing of the headscarf in public offices and universities. On the other hand, a secular, pro-Western system that supposedly stands up for freedoms in the name of progress and women's equality ends up seeming like a form of oppression because it bans tens of thousands of headscarf-wearing women from going to university, effectively depriving them of a tertiary education, all of which paradoxically has the opposite effect of safeguarding women's equality.

**** We generally confuse "religious" with "traditional", as if religious dogma is a more natural part of our culture than, say, democracy or brimmed hats, and that it has been corrupted by a "foreign-imposed" and "unnatural" process of Westernization. But more on this in another essay.

***** This isn't a problem of just backwardness or Easternness or religiousness. Even among the modern Westernized classes of Turkey -- indeed even in the most developed, modern and Western countries of the world -- women are expected to raise children, cook, clean and do housework for no pay, relying only on their husbands' handouts.