Turkish Women Rally for the Right to Wear Both Miniskirts and Head Scarves

Activists march in Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul in effort to keep the momentum of last week's feminist protest alive: 'women should be free to wear what they want'

Activists protesting violence against women and conservative dress codes, Istanbul, July 29, 2017.
Murad Sezer / Reuters

ANKARA – Hundreds of feminist protesters descended Thursday evening on the largely secular seaside city of Izmir, waving miniskirts and chanting “we will wear want we want” as they kept last week’s momentum going.

Smaller initiatives by the movement also took place at Kugulu Park in the capital Ankara, and in Istanbul, where a thousands-strong march rocked the Kadikoy district last week.

The name of the group, Kiyafetime Karisma, also translates as “Don’t meddle with my outfit,” a slogan that’s usually accompanied by the image of a clothes hanger.

“We insist that women should be free to wear what they want with no interference,” the movement’s leader Gulsum Kav, a 45-year-old doctor and longtime feminist, told Haaretz. She says recent acts of aggression against secular women in Istanbul were the “symbolic last drop” convincing the women to act.

Earlier this summer, university student Asena Melisa Saglem was slapped on a bus by a man who considered her outfit “shameful,” while a woman named Cagla Kose was told to leave an Istanbul park by a private security guard for wearing “immodest clothes.”

Still, the activists say they want to avoid polarization and hope to bring together women from all walks of life in the name of the “right to wear a miniskirt and a head scarf.” The initiatives in Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul have all featured a minority of veil-wearing women and girls.

“We are socialists and nationalists, atheists and religious, left- and right-wing women, all united to claim our empowerment in the public sphere,” says the movement’s communications officer Ozden Oz, who reaches most of her university-aged activists through social media.

Social engineering via government rules and guidelines on dress is an old battlefield in Turkish politics, as is the societal unrest that follows. After Turkey’s War of Independence in the early 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk revolutionized Turkish society by trying to emulate Western customs and norms. His decrees outlined what people should or shouldn’t wear, ushering in an era where the head scarf was castigated as a sign of backwardness and was eventually banned from the public realm.

Historic ambassador

Now secularists feel that the tables have turned and accuse the government of creating an atmosphere where secular outfits spark abuse. To extend the reach of their protest, the women seek the support of their conservative sisters.

“I appreciate all efforts to come together by women to claim equal opportunities and freedoms in what is still a strongly patriarchal society,” says Ravza Kavakci Kan, a prominent deputy in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party.

The significance was clear last week when Kan’s sister, Merve Kavakci, was appointed Turkey’s ambassador to Malaysia. In 1999, Kavakci was stripped of her citizenship and accused of “insulting the dignity of the state” for wearing a head scarf at her swearing-in at parliament in Ankara.

Now, after a successful academic career in the United States, Kavakci has become the first veiled ambassador in Turkey’s history. The diplomatic corps, a traditionally Kemalist bulwark, was mocked by the Erdogan faithful as “the realm of out-of-touch mon cheries,” an allusion to the diplomats’ Westernized manners and knowledge of French.

In her 2010 book “Headscarf Politics in Turkey,” Kavakci argued that secular Turkish elites “colonized” the country for decades espousing an “Orientalist” framework whereby Turkish women were deemed unworthy unless they were “modernized in a Western fashion.” But toward the end of the book, she outlined a growing tendency of progressive feminist groups to work alongside conservative women, in a way anticipating the spirit of the “Don’t meddle with my outfit” movement.

Still, there are women at both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum who feel uncomfortable with acting as one in the struggle.

“If there is one thing I cannot agree on with conservative feminist organizations it is the dress code,” says Cigdem Cidamli from the socialist-feminist group Halkevleri. “For us the head scarf is a symbol of oppression, but we can find common ground on pressing issues like child brides, equal opportunities and domestic violence.”

All kinds of feminists

According to a report by the organization We Will Stop Femicide, on average, more than one woman has been murdered every day in Turkey this year, often by a man she knows. Moreover, the issue of child brides has sparked joint advocacy among feminist organizations before: last autumn, when protests against a bill that would have softened punishment for sexual violence on minors.

The feminist organization KADEM, which is run by Erdogan’s daughter and is very close to the government, proved decisive in blocking the law amid street protests by feminist activists of all stripes.

Starting from radically different premises from those of left-wing activist Cidamli, the former head of the AKP’s women’s branch in Istanbul, Jane Louise Kandur, also supports common action on anything but the outfit issue.

Kandur says she’s outraged at how Kiyafetime Karisma tries to suggest a comparison between the repression of women who covered themselves yesterday and those who uncover themselves today.

“Secular elites were using state violence against the over 67 percent of Turkish women who wear the head scarf, preventing people like me from teaching in public schools,” she says. “Today the government allows for all sorts of outfits, and the Kiyafetime Karisma are turning a few isolated cases into a cause célèbre.”

Kandur contends that the rise of Erdogan and the AKP liberated women rather than the other way around. And she feels uneasy about the not-so-subtle anti-government undertones of the Kiyafetime Karisma campaign.

But for Kav, the doctor, and her followers in the movement, the joint demonstration in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district last week and Thursday's in Izmir showed that there “is strong enough common ground.”

“Between 5 and 10 percent of the women were wearing a head scarf, and they marched alongside those waving their mini-skirts towards the sky without the blink of an eye,” says Oz, the communications officer. She says that “our protest has just begun.”

The campaign’s demands range from better implementation of laws protecting freedom of lifestyle to prosecution for domestic violence to the creation of a ministry for women’s affairs in Turkey.

Ending the phenomenon of child brides is another matter on which different strands in Kiyafetime Karisma usually converge. According to Prof. Erhan Tunc at Gaziantep University, one in three marriages in Turkey involves a minor.

“But the biggest challenge for us is to keep together, then the rest will come,” warned an activist in Ankara as she put up banners to advertise the march in the capital’s Kugulu Park on Saturday.