by Didem Unal
The parliamentary and presidential elections on 14 May 2023 mark a turning point in Turkey for gender-equal democracy. As the country enters its second century, AKP (Justice and Development Party), the party in power since 2002, is facing the most consolidated opposition of the last two decades. Turkey’s six-party opposition coalition composed of the major opposition party, i.e., Republican Peoples Party (CHP), the nationalist Good Party (İyi Parti) and several small Islamist parties that parted ways with AKP, and their presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, vow to reverse the policy backsliding of the one man’s rule.
The political arena in Turkey has long been polarized and divided into “us” versus “them” juxtapositions under the populist logic of AKP. The earthquake disaster on February 6 and its devastating consequences have further escalated the antagonisms in the political milieu. The growing public anger at the AKP’s failed disaster response that has never arrived or arrived too late has prompted AKP officials to adopt a hostile language refusing to accept criticism, which signaled what might be awaiting Turkey in case AKP wins another electoral victory. One of the most pressing issues in the midst of the escalating political antagonisms is how the gender regime will evolve after the elections. In this article, I aim to discuss three main points: 1. The centrality of the anti-gender ideology and policy to AKP’s Islamist populist, authoritarian rule, 2. The party’s recent coalitions with the anti-gender mobilization and Islamist fundamentalist parties, 3. The waning influence of the “moderate” actors within AKP and the party’s post-election promise to wage war on “gender ideology”.
Turkey’s last decade has witnessed an alarming reshuffling of the gender regime along religio-conservative lines.[i] A possible electoral victory of AKP on May 14 might mean a fierce discourse institutionalization in which the party’s vulgar populism and its anti-gender politics marked by opposition to gender equality are more visibly reflected in institutional politics. The party’s recent rhetoric and policy initiatives indicate that once it secures a new term in power, it will annul gender sensitive policies in force and introduce new institutional structures such as women’s universities, and constitutional changes to further suppress LGBTI+ rights.
Political Alliances Around Anti-Gender Politics
The recent political alliances that AKP forged with Islamist fundamentalist parties ahead of the 2023 elections gives clues to the possibility of further consolidation of the gender policy backsliding. In March 2023, AKP formed political coalitions with two Islamist fundamentalist parties, YRP (New Welfare Party) and HÜDA-PAR (Free Cause Party) to expand its voter base vis-à-vis the consolidated opposition bloc. Both parties represent an Islamist fundamentalist political standpoint that aims to mainstream the role of Islam in Turkish politics and reinforce the Islamic framework of the national identity.
Gender issues play a pivotal role in AKP’s recent political alliances and the polarizing language used in its election campaign. As a requirement of entering into a political coalition, YRP and HÜDA-PAR pressured AKP to adopt a hardliner position against “gender ideology”, which they vaguely define to link different reactionary agendas against progressive gender politics. They specifically demanded the annulment of Law No. 6284 on the Protection of the Family and Combating Domestic Violence and women’s right to alimony, the closing down of LGBTI+ associations, and the introduction of an Islamist education system and built their election propaganda on these demands. Despite some female AKP actors’ objections, whom I describe as “softliners” and will discuss in more detail in the next part, senior male AKP officials implied that these demands can be met and that AKP has nothing to contradict the political agendas of these parties.
At the current political juncture in Turkey, the upsurge of anti-genderism and opposition to “gender ideology” displays a striking heterogeneity with a wide range of framings and political demands as well as conflicts, contestations, and ideological divergence. The anti-gender mobilization includes a variety of actors and groups such as Islamist groups (Ismailağa community), men’s rights associations (Boşanmış Mağdur Babalar Derneği- Association of Divorced Fathers, Süresiz Nafaka Mağdurları Platformu- Platform for Victims of Permanent Alimony), familialist associations (Turkish Family Assembly-Türkiye Aile Meclisi, Family Academy-Aile Akademisi), Islamist newspapers (Yeni Akit, Yeni Şafak), Islamist public intellectuals (e.g. Abdurrahman Dilipak, Sema Marasli) and pro-governmental women’s NGO’s such as KADEM (Women and Democracy Association). A major fault line in the discourses and frames of anti-gender actors is whether their opposition to “gender ideology” amounts to a complete rejection of the equality of sexes or includes a religio-conservative appropriation of gender equality for a seemingly pro-woman agenda, which Schreiber (2008) calls rightist cooptation of feminism and gender equality. While the former position implies a hardliner opposition, the latter can be defined as a softliner/moderate position that might embrace “gender” as a category of structural inequality, but employs anti-feminist and anti-gender perspectives to construct alternative concepts and paradigms when addressing gender issues. Both hardliner and softliner forms of opposition to “gender ideology” generate negative political effects for progressive gender politics. However, under the grip of AKP’s authoritarian regime, the capacity of softliner actors (e.g. moderate women MPs in AKP circles, KADEM) to influence the state agenda has significantly diminished, while the hardliners have gained strength and managed to further the regime’s crackdown on rights-based politics.
Opposition to “gender ideology” has always been a key part of AKP’s religio-conservative value system but especially, in the post-2019 period, there have been a proliferation of the securitization discourse on gender with claims that “gender ideology” has become an alarming threat on the “national” moral fabric defined over Islamism and “sacred familialism”, namely, reconceptualization of family along religio-conservative lines and prioritization of women’s care work as “devoted care providers and blessed mothers” (Akkan 2018). This securitization logic connotes an extreme and strategic version of politicization that implies existential threats and calls for emergency measures. It occurs when policy makers engage in attempts to persuade the public to accept that an immediate policy action is needed to ward off the existential threats regarding “gender ideology”. Manufacturing politics of fear, AKP’s securitization processes politicize gender as a part of the upsurge of religio-conservatism, populist nationalism and authoritarianism, and aim to justify extraordinary measures enacted through top-down decision mechanisms to protect the referent object (nation, culture and family). In the new executive presidency system, which came into effect in 2017 and in which Erdoğan personified the state in his persona, expanding his powers over the judicial, legislative and executive branches, the party needed to generate a strengthened ground of legitimacy for one man’s rule by exacerbating its populist logic and its savior role against the “corrupt” elite. AKP’s recently growing anti-gender discourse based on securitization of gender and its coalitions with hardliner anti-gender actors should be understood in the context of the intensification of the party’s populist antagonisms and its juxtaposition of “us” (“good” people) versus “them” at ideological and strategic levels.
In the post-2019 period, AKP has shifted towards a fierce performance of anti-genderism. The party embraced the political demands of the hardliners of the anti-gender mobilization and utilized political homophobia as a tool for social polarization. A significant policy issue at the center of the growing anti-gender mobilization has been the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence) (IC). Especially since 2019, anti-gender groups have increasingly mobilized to campaign against the IC with slogans such as “stop the Istanbul Convention,” “Istanbul Convention kills”, and “family above everything”. Using Islamic references to cultural authenticity, they create a “moral panic” in society with the claim that the “gender ideology” of the IC is a Western imposition, which allows gender identification independently of the biological sex, promotes homosexuality, and dismantles the “ideal” family.
Anti-gender groups’ negative campaign has been successful in influencing AKP’s policy stance, providing the party an excuse to suggest that “demands from below” communicate rising concerns in society over the “perils” of the IC. On different occasions, AKP officials addressed the anti-gender demands in civil society as the “true” will of the nation that need to be attended on policy level. Erdoğan’s unilateral decision leading to Turkey’s withdrawal from the IC in 2021 can be seen as a clear indication of the increasing incorporation of the anti-gender circles’ demands into the state agenda. Similar to other contexts such as Hungary and Poland where the demands of anti-gender organizations and religious conservative actors are incorporated into the policy processes of the illiberal RWP political parties in power, in Turkey, the AKP government takes the lead role in the opposition against the IC, using the state power and institutions to annul it.
In AKP’s strategic collision with the anti-gender movement, policy backsliding and crackdown on gender equality takes various forms and covers a broad agenda. Looking at the party’s recent anti-gender interventions, the following forms of policy backlash can be detected: 1. dismantling gender sensitive policies (e.g., IC), 2. vilification of policies still in force and preparing the ground for their annulment (Law No. 6284, women’s alimony rights), 3. campaigning for new anti-equality policy frames (e.g. legalizing underage marriage), 4. constitutional arrangements to introduce constitutional barriers against same-sex marriage, 5. plans to establish gender segregated higher education institutions (e.g. women’s universities) and family research centers to suppress the field of gender studies, and produce alternative knowledge counteracting “gender ideology”, 6. crackdown on feminist and LGBTI+ activism.
The Waning Influence of Moderate Actors
As mentioned above, the AKP regime has recently rearranged its political coalitions around gender and shifted towards a hardcore anti-gender performance, while excluding the moderate AKP actors who may oppose “gender ideology” and reappropriate gender equality perspectives by bending them towards religio-conservative lines, but still operate within the framework of women’s human rights discourse. An example of the waning influence of moderate actors was the response of Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), a pro-governmental women’s organization, to Turkey’s withdrawal from the IC. KADEM initially stressed the importance of the IC and opposed Turkey’s withdrawal, arguing that “the gender terminology of the IC does not clash with our culture”. However, upon the uproar from Islamist anti-gender circles, KADEM revised its position and embraced AKP’s decision to withdraw from the IC, suggesting that “there is a need for a new legal framework since the IC has become “too controversial”.
Another example was the reaction of female AKP MPs, Özlem Zengin, and Derya Yanık to AKP’s promise to annul Law No. 6284 as a part of the political bargains with Islamist fundamentalist parties. In a public statement, Zengin stated that “Law No. 6284 is our red line”, while Yanık declared that “it is undebatable”. Upon this, Yanık was accused by senior AKP officials for harming the political coalition between AKP and YRP. On the other hand, Zengin became the target of the negative campaign of Islamist fundamentalist circles and was not supported by her party. Islamist fundamentalists urged AKP to outcast Zengin from the candidate list in the 2023 general elections and even threatened the party not to vote for it if Zengin runs as a candidate for the parliament.
As a result, both KADEM’s and AKP’s moderate female actors’ attempts to restrain the party’s fierce anti-genderism have proven to be politically ineffective. This political ineffectiveness stems from Muslim women’s organic ties to revivalist Islamist politics in Turkey, which renders their autonomous agencies conditional upon the trajectory of political Islam. Having assumed critical roles in the AKP rule, they have built a public persona entangled with the history and fate of Islamist politics. Thus, they fail to maintain a healthy distance from AKP’s authoritarian polices and adopt nonconfrontational attitudes, especially in articulating their demands in the field of gender. Their case is a reminder that effective struggles to counteract the AKP regime’s gender policy backsliding can only be fought from a critical distance to the authoritarian and patriarchal elements of political Islam.
AKP’s Election Campaign Promises a War On Gender
AKP’s campaign for 2023 elections testifies that anti-genderism features as a useful rhetorical tool for the party to reinforce populist antagonisms juxtaposing “us” versus “them”. Erdoğan’s recent election rallies center on blaming and vilifying the opposition bloc by labeling it “LGBT”. “14 May will be a day to teach a lesson to those who support LGBT”, he says in an election rally in the province of Gaziantep on April 22. While Minister of Interior, Süleyman Soylu echoes Erdoğan, targeting the LGBTI+ community as a “terrorist movement”, pro-governmental media channels also joins in this anti-LGBTI+ election propaganda, defaming the opposition bloc as the “Rainbow Table”. In this narrative, besides the LGBTI+ community being securitized as as “terrorists” and “perverts”, the category of “LGBT” is used as a tool of smear campaign to defame the opposition political figures and place them in the category of “enemy”.
For all the reasons discussed above, the elections on May 14 represent a defining moment for the gender-equal democracy in the country. The results will determine whether we will witness further polarization, gender policy backsliding, and an institutionalized “culture war” around gender in Turkey, or an alternative political rule committing to the reversal of the gender policy decay of the Erdoğan regime.
Didem Unal is Academy Research Fellow at the Faculty of Theology of University of Helsinki. Previously, she was Thyssen Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies of Central European University (CEU) and a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Gender Studies of Stockholm University. Her research interests focus on gender politics, right-wing populism, and women’s movements. Her publications have appeared in various journals such as Women’s Studies International Forum, Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, European Journal of Women’s Studies, Politics & Gender, Religions, and Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org