Against patriarchy and the constitutional reform: Thousands of women in Turkey march for ‘Hayır’

Not afraid, but free and strong: Last week on  8th March - known as International Women’s Day - thousands of women marched across Turkey to gain national and international attention for their current situation. Taking to the streets might not be a big deal for women in most Western countries, but in Turkey the circumstances are different. With an ongoing state of emergency and only about four weeks ahead of a referendum that might result in a shift to a more authoritarian form of government, public gatherings have become a rare sight.

Therefore the women gathered on the streets to protest, they marched and sang, they screamed and danced, they were loud and present. The biggest march took place in the evening on the well-known Istiklal Caddesi in İstanbul. But also in Ankara, Antalya, Mersin, İzmir and many other cities feminists and their friends claimed attention for their agenda. The symbolic character of thousands of young girls, old ladies, women with headscarves as well as trans-people protesting colorfully and peacefully together is important for the women in Turkey who are currently witnessing a worsening of their living conditions.

At least 53 have been killed, 13 raped, 17 harassed, 48 sexually abused, and 51 have experienced violence in the first two months of 2017 alone, according to data published by the news portal bianet. And those are not the only indicators showing that there are problems for women in Turkey: Only 81 out of 550 Members of Turkish Parliament are female, and seven of them are imprisoned at the moment. Only 20 per cent of women are employed and they own only 8 per cent of total property. Turkey ranks 130th among 144 countries in gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum.

Many say that the suppressive atmosphere for women has been exacerbated since the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to office in 2002. In the last 15 years, politicians have increasingly fostered an authoritarian discourse stating that a woman’s role is first and foremost in bearing children. Moreover, not only did the number of working women decrease, but more acts of violence have been committed against women. Even on  8th March during a feminist political event at the liberal Bilgi University in Istanbul up to 20 men attacked women with fists and knifes chanting “Allahu akbar” (God is greater). One female student was injured.

So this year the so-called 8 Mart Feminist Gece Yürüyüşü took place in stormy times. The Turkish version of the Feminist Night March was more political and under more tension than before. For 15 years, on every 8th of March women worldwide stand up against patriarchy, violence, sexism, femicide and for more gender equality. To date, feminists from over 30 countries participated in the International Women's Day.

Albeit this time they were not only fighting patriarchy in general but the potentially coming one-man-regime. Most feminists are saying "Hayır" to the proposed constitutional reform which will be decided on 16th of April. Women's organizations like Women Who Say No, the Pomegranate Women's Solidarity Network, We Will Stop Femicide or The Association for Supporting Women Candidates (KA.DER) seem to be leading the refusal-campaigns among the non-governmental organizations in Turkey. Beyond that, Women’s movement is the only group which is still allowed to demonstrate in public since the government in general bans open political protests directly.

Due to the political situation and the circumstance that the women’s march and the official launch of a lot of "Hayır"-campaigns coincided, the preparations for the day took place under close political surveillance. Ahead of the march on Wednesday, women organized a get-together at the weekend before in the Istanbul district of Bakırköy in order to mobilize for Women’s day.

Far from all women in Turkey support the refusal-campaigns. "Yes! If women are there, democracy is there" is the slogan under which thousands of pro-government females gathered in a sport arena in Istanbul at the same day as the Bakırköy-rally. They were campaigning in support of a "Yes" vote in the referendum.