Earlier this month, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hailed the lifting of a decades-old ban on female lawmakers and civil servants wearing Islamic headscarves. The abolition of the archaic provision, Erdogan said, allowed all women—heads covered or heads bare—to participate as full and equal members of the Turkish republic.
It was a rare moment of advocating for personal freedom by a Turkish leader who’s been dubbed the “Islamist Big Brother” and accused of seeking to micromanage the private lives of Turks in his long-running campaign to reshape Turkey along stricter Islamic lines.
But the moment was short-lived. Last week, Erdogan sparked a firestorm of criticism when he condemned the idea of male and female students sharing accommodations in university dorms operated by the state or private group houses—a move that has thrown into relief the increasing polarization between urban and rural, liberal and conservative Turks ahead of local elections in March.
Among the grounds for government intervention, according to one minister and Erdogan ally, is that mixed-student housing gives rise to depravity, drug trafficking, prostitution and terrorism.
No stranger to stirring up anger among secularists and liberals, to the delight of his religious and conservative supporters, Erdogan is now threatening to enact measures to prevent co-eds from living together—a clear flouting of article 20 of the country’s constitution, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to demand respect for his/her private and family life,” and also promises that “privacy of private or family life shall not be violated.”
For Erdogan’s critics, the move smacks of cynical political manipulation. The prime minister has set his eyes not only on the local elections but the bigger prize of the presidency in summer polls and, they say, he’s seeking to widen social divisions in a demagogic bid to energize his base. “The latest move exposes a politician who has decided to drive polarization to its very dangerous edge,” says Yavuz Baydar, a commentator for the English-language daily Zaman.
Indeed, the Turkish leader’s latest political maneuver is vintage Erdogan—both in the nature of the lifestyle target and how he launched it, with remarks during a closed-door Ankara meeting with officials from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). At the meeting, Erdogan complained that male and female students sharing college dorms “is incompatible with our conservative democrat nature,” and asked provincial governors to do something about the problem, adding menacingly that security forces and municipal officials should mount inspections.
His comments calling for action to stamp out the mixed living arrangements for unmarried students were probably leaked on purpose, allowing him to sidestep more cautious or moderate party colleagues and to force doubters in his ranks to demonstrate their loyalty. His deputy, Bulent Arinc, an AKP co-founder, would appear to have failed the loyalty test—the two are at loggerheads over the move and Erdogan’s deputy has acknowledged there’s an “open contradiction” between them, complaining that he is fed up with being used as a punching bag. (The smart money in Ankara is on Arinc quitting a front-rank role.)
Attempts by AKP moderates to backtrack or soften their leader’s comments have been rebuffed by Erdogan, reminiscent of how he pushed away the criticism of party moderates over his harsh response to the summer protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
Standing by his critique of co-ed housing, the Turkish Prime Minister says national legislation may have to be introduced if provincial governors can’t regulate the practice.
“We never permitted female and male students to stay in the same dormitory and never will,” Erdogan later told a parliamentary group. “In some regions, students stay in houses where there is a lack of space in dormitories. We receive intelligence on what goes on in these houses—very intricate things probably. Anything can happen. Then, parents cry out, ‘Where is the state?’ Steps will be taken to show that the state is there. We need to intervene.”
Career-minded governors and local bureaucrats have needed little prodding to chase the new policy direction. According to the newspaper Radikal, last week police inspected several student houses in İstanbul's Tophane neighborhood, asking neighbors about the habits of the students, including when they come and go, and with whom, and whether they visit their families regularly.
That inspection prompted one opposition politician, Oktay Vural, to remark dryly that perhaps the government should install surveillance cameras in front of student houses. There have also been reports of building managers resorting to the role of morality policemen: one Istanbul manager posted a message in the entrance of an apartment building saying: “Some people in this building are staying together, boys and girls. This is inappropriate. When you see such people, report them to the police.”
Opposition politicians and female activists say that, as with other social conservative efforts by the Prime Minister in the past, women are the primary targets of the new crackdown.
“Everyone, every citizen—women in particular—should be aware of this,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the staunchly secularist Republican People’s Party. Warning that Erdogan’s ultimate dream is to turn Turkey into a strict Middle Eastern country, he said: “Women in Saudi Arabia are struggling to be granted the right to drive. If you come across such a ban tomorrow, don’t be surprised.”
Some commentators argue that Erdogan has over-reached himself in this case, much as he did in 2004 when he was forced by a public outcry and European Union criticism to shelve a proposal that would have made adultery a crime. But the Prime Minister got his way on restricting the sale of alcohol—as well as with the removal of the long-standing headscarf ban for parliamentarians and civil servants.
Other commentators have cautioned that the move is impractical, as any co-ed housing ban or legislation allowing police to storm mixed-gender accommodation would fall foul of several international legal conventions Turkey has signed and would also require a re-working of the constitution.
Those arguments miss the point, maintains Milliyet newspaper columnist Kadri Gursel, who argues while the longer-term objective may well be an outright ban, the shorter-term goal is to provoke a reaction that will further polarize Turkey and consolidate Erdogan’s electoral position, as he crafts Islamic change through harassment and intimidation.