Lifting the Veil

07.07.134:45 AM ET

In the Shadow of Tahrir, Taksim Simmers

Egypt’s protests have taken center stage this week, but back in Turkey, activists are growing increasingly wary of Erdogan, writes Souad Mekhennet.

“Lifting the Veil” with Souad Mekhennet

Taksim and Tahrir: two squares where, in recent weeks, women stood side by side with men to participate in protests against the ruling party, against the party that won in so-called democratic elections.

While the media coverage is focused mainly on Egypt right now, protesters in Turkey aren’t giving up. There are those who take to the streets, mainly in the evenings, and scream out their anger and fears. Others have decided to participate in silent protests, standing still for minutes at a time. And then there is a type of nightly protest, an increasingly popular one: at 9 p.m., people all around Turkey blow into whistles, drum against pans, or honk their car horns while waving the Turkish flag.

“Democracy” is out. Unlike during the hype of the Arab Spring, many in Ankara and Istanbul have avoided using that word here in Turkey.

“We have an elected oppressor, a man who is abusing human rights and freedom, especially of women,” says Sayfi Sarisülük, while offering tea to a visitor. “Finally the world had to take off their purple glasses and see what kind of leader [Recep] Tayyip [Erdogan] really is.”

Sarisülük is the 52-year-old mother of Ethem Sarisülük, a protester who, according to his family, witnesses, and a video, was shot in the head June 1, hit by a bullet fired by a police. He died two week later in the hospital.

Protesters like Ethem took to the streets because they saw an increasing arrogant and totalitarian style in Erdogan’s government. Critics have been silenced; intellectuals, journalists, and former military officers have been thrown into jail, accused of being members of a plot to overthrow the government.

“Finally now it is the West that can no longer turn away their head and just close their eyes,” Sarisülük says, “and like the people in Tahrir Square, we need to go on with our protests.”

She is still in shock and angry about her son’s death. Pausing for a few seconds in silence, she explains that Ethem was a human-rights activist and had protested the increasing oppression and violations.

“Ethem was also protesting for women to have the right to wear a veil and get access to schools and universities,” Sarisülük says, gazing at a photograph of her son. “But the difference is that the woman should have the right to decide, she should have the option. Tayyip is increasingly oppressing us, especially women, with his beliefs and points of views.”

A woman shouts slogans during a protest near Taksim square, Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, June 6, 2013. Turkish officials, scrambling to contain tensions, have delivered more conciliatory messages to thousands of protesters denouncing what they say is the government's increasingly authoritarian rule and its meddling in lifestyles.
A woman shouts slogans during a protest near Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 6. (Kostas Tsironis/AP)

Sarisülük and her family have hired a lawyer and are suing the police over Ethem’s death. The police in Ankara declined comment. According to an autopsy report from the hospital, Ethem was hit by a 9mm bullet in his head.

Still, not all Turkish women think Erdogan has been bad for the country. The prime minister does have fans, even among the protesters in Taksim Square—like Leila, 25, from Istanbul, who decided to join the demonstrations in Taksim after watching the police’s brutal crackdown. Under Erdogan, Leila says, she saw an improvement in many cities, with new buildings, better roads, more access to health care, and booming tourism. “We did see big movie productions made here in Istanbul,” she says.

But in recent weeks Leila became disturbed by the government’s response to the protests. “Like many other Turks, I thought Erdogan has made Turkey stronger. We thought we were on a way to peace in our country and with our neighbors, but we see it is the opposite now,” she says. “I see Erdogan changing, and he and his government have divided the people in our country further. Since protests in Syria broke out, he has used sectarian language.”

Leila asks not to be identified further as she fears reprisals. It is not only the government she feared, she says, but also the reaction of Erdogan supporters or even members of the Turkish fascist movement, who started filming protesters and journalists.

Sarisülük and Leila have joined thousands of their countrymen and women in the streets, because they want to show the world that Erdogan and his AKP party are no longer a model for Turkey’s future—no matter if the government is democratically elected or not. Their message resonates with those of the activists who called for the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal in Egypt and it poses a tricky question for the West: what happens when a leader has been elected democratically, but uses his position to silence opponents, oppress free speech, and cut off the rights of women and minorities?


The author can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter at @smekhennet.