By Elif Shafak
November 14, 2014
After a talk I gave in London a woman in the audience approached me: middle-aged, tall, and wearing a designer dress. Although she agreed with me on various issues she could not understand why I was critical of military takeovers. “In the Middle East a coup d’état is the only way forward,” she said. “If it weren’t for [Egypt’s president] General Sisi, modern women like me, like yourself, would end up in a Burqa. He’s there to protect the likes of us.”
As I listened to her, I recalled scenes from my childhood in Turkey. I remembered my mother saying that we should be grateful to General Kenan Evren, who led the coup d’état in 1980, for protecting women’s rights. After the military seized power, a number of pro-women steps were taken, including the legalisation of abortion. Yet the coup would eventually bring about massive human rights violations and systematic torture in police headquarters and prisons, particularly against the Kurds, maiming Turkey’s civil society and democracy for decades to come.
Female adulation of male autocrats is widespread throughout the Middle East. I have met Syrian women who have tried to convince me that Bashar al-Assad is the best option for modern women. The Syrian regime seems aware of this rhetoric, recruiting hundreds of so-called Lionesses for National Defence , who are said to be fighting against Islamic fundamentalism and defending women’s freedom.
Turning to autocrats for protection is a response born of fear. So why are Middle Eastern women so scared? Extremism and political violence can create a state of perpetual anxiety, in which patriarchs take on idol-like qualities for the seeming stability they offer, and women may turn a blind eye to human rights violations under their noses. After all, the alternative – Islamic fundamentalism of the kind propagated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – is scarier. In the areas where Isis holds strong, sexual violence is a war strategy. Hundreds of Muslim, Christian and Yazidi women have been subject to slavery. Women’s bodies are an extension of the battlefield.
In this context, gratitude towards high-handed leaders that offer some level of order can make sense. Yet there is a contradiction in cheering the protection of women’s rights under someone like Mr Assad, while ignoring his violations of basic human rights. If we believe in one, we should fight for both.
A different female glorification of authority is taking place in Turkey today. Many headscarved women talk about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with gratitude, after he lifted the ban on wearing headscarves in public life. While the ban was unjustifiable, what is equally disturbing is the repetition of an old pattern of thought: like my mother vis-à-vis the generals, many women feel obliged to leaders for “giving them their rights”. A modern, tolerant society should of course allow women to choose whether to wear a headscarf. The problem is that while Mr Erdogan talks about promoting the rights of women on this issue, he has chipped away at women’s rights elsewhere.
In 2012, he announced that every abortion was an “Uludere” – a reference to the 2011 massacre of 34 Kurdish civilians by Turkish military pilots. He has also opined on how many children women should have (at least three, preferably five) and said that a woman’s primary role is as a mother and wife. “I don't believe in equality between men and women,” he said. In July, the deputy prime minister declared that women should not laugh loudly in public.
In this kind of discourse, the female body is a different kind of battleground – an ideological one, used by men to advance their political profile. Women’s own views on their bodies and rights are neither sought nor heard. This is the case all too frequently in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, women still cannot drive. In Iran, a 25-year-old was jailed for protesting the law against women attending sports tournaments. In Egypt, more than 80 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, married women need the permission of their husbands or guardians to travel. Spousal rape remains an unspoken taboo.
We should not have to rely on authoritarian male leaders to advance our rights. It is incredibly sad that we, women from Muslim backgrounds, have come to this point. Because of our fears, we have stopped believing in ourselves. If we want to thank someone, let us instead thank the women – and men – of past generations who fought hard for women’s emancipation and gender equality. We must not forget how our grandmothers and great-grandmothers toiled to achieve the right to vote.
We must also come together to bridge unnecessary division. In Turkey, some opponents of the Justice and Development party (the AKP) have struggled to relate to headscarved women who felt oppressed for decades, while AKP-supporting women have yet to criticise their leaders’ patriarchal attitudes, or show public empathy towards less conservative women worried about losing basic freedoms. Fractured along party lines, Turkey’s women have yet to develop an inclusive feminism.
As long as we allow such divisions to stand, all women in the Middle East will be weaker. What we require is a network and awareness of sisterhood that goes beyond national, ethnic, class, religious and sectarian boundaries. The whole world needs feminism, but at this moment in history, the Middle East needs it acutely.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist based in London and Istanbul