Understanding divisions in Turkey one award at a time

Image by Jovan Vasiljević. Free to use under Unsplash License.

There is no better way to explain divisions in Turkish society and politics than by using a recent speech delivered by Merve Dizdar who won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in the film directed by acclaimed Nuri Bilge Ceylan, “About Dry Grasses.” After thanking the film's crew and its director, she read a short, moving speech dedicated to the women of Turkey:

The character of Nuray, whom I portrayed in the film, is a woman who struggles for what she believes in and for her existence and has to pay the price for this cause. I would have liked to spend time getting to know and understand my character, but unfortunately, being a woman in the geography I live in, means that the feelings of Nuray and Nurays like her, are engrained within me, from the day I was born. I dedicate this award, to all my sisters who do not bow down to those who are deemed worthy of them and take action to strengthen the struggle of Nuray and women like her, who risk everything for this cause and do not give up hope no matter what, and to all rebellious souls in Turkey who are waiting for the good days they deserve.

But the speech did not sit well with supporters of the ruling government or its members.

One member of the ruling party, and the party's associate director for public and media relations, Emre Cemil Ayvali, went as far as to claim Dizdar was nothing but a terrorist and described Dizdar “a pathetic slave of the West” in a tweet.

Dizdar said in an interview with Gazete Duvar that she refuses to accept such criticism. “As a woman, this was the most serious award one could get. This is why I wanted to dedicate it to all women. This was a speech about my life. It is sad to see that it was received from that kind of angle. I accept constructive criticism, but this I don't accept as criticism,” she said.

Ibrahim Uslu, the deputy chairman of Turkey's Supreme Radio and Television Board, accused Dizdar of disrespecting Turkey in a tweet:

First, you must learn to respect your country Merve Dizdar. Only then, can you expect congratulations from the citizens of this country for the award you have received. When you disrespect your country, it is not worth congratulating you for the award you have received.

But Dizdar was defiant. Returning to Turkey after receiving the prestigious award, she spoke to Reuters shortly after casting her vote in the presidential election on May 28, saying, “The country where I was born, the women here, we all have a struggle. It is present here and all over the world. We know how hard it is to be a woman, and I made a speech about it.”

There were many other Justice and Development Party (AKP) members who criticized Dizdar, including Serdar Cam, the deputy minister of culture. According to reporting by Nazlan Ertan, Cam accused Dizdar of  ”cursing her homeland,” while conservatives “urged that shows on state-run TV stations that feature the actress should be pulled from the air and any state subsidy for her films be dropped.” Cam and others like him seem to have failed to notice the countless women who have been killed or committed suicide as a result restrictive environment imposed on women under AKP leadership. One of the most recent victims was 20-year-old Kübra Ergin, who committed suicide two days after the first round of elections. In a note Ergin left behind, the young woman said, “I'm tired. They stole my youth. As a woman, I have never felt free. Because of the people of this country, I could not live my childhood, and I could not live my youth.”

Women under AKP leadership

The AKP has taken a number of controversial stances against gender equality in recent years. The ruling party has proposed limiting abortion rights, the morning-after pill, and cesarean sections. And while pregnancy terminations are still legal in Turkey until the 10th week of pregnancy and up to the 20th in cases of medical risk, finding hospitals to carry out the procedure has become practically impossible.

In 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused feminists of not understanding motherhood. Speaking at a summit in Istanbul, he reportedly said, “Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.” He has also said that gender equality was “against human nature” and that working women were “deficient.” Most recently, in January 2023, Turkey's state religious body, which has targeted women in the past, said that women cannot travel alone.

In the run-up to the election, the AKP and its leader made alliances with numerous parties looking to dismantle women's rights in the country, including lifting Law 6284, which protects women against domestic violence. Alarmed by the alliance, imprisoned former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, said in an article penned from jail that if the coalition, which he describes as the “most right-wing and the most reactionary bloc in the political history of Turkey,” wins, it is likely the last election in which women could vote “because the Taliban Alliance will roll up its sleeves to usurp the rights of women.”

Even the AKP's own female members protested against scrapping Law 6284. In a tweet Minister of Family and Social Services, Derya Yanık said, “Law No. 6284 was one of the most important legal regulations that we (AKP) undertook in the struggle against violence towards women.” Joining Yanık was Özlem Zengin, the group deputy chairperson who also spoke out in defense of Law 6284. Both women were targeted over their statements in support of the law and were largely sidelined by their own party members.

According to Anit Sayac (Turkish for “monument tracker”), a platform that documents cases of violence against women, 397 women died as a result of violence in 2022.

Messages of support

Dizdar's recognition received accolades and support from artists, opposition politicians, and journalists alike. Guvenc Dagustun, an opera singer, praised Dizdar's success in a column he wrote for BirGun newspaper. “Merve Dizdar's success was the only thing that made me smile after the election period we left behind. It filled me with hope. I personally thank Merve Dizdar for making me feel this proud and happy,” wrote Dagustun.

Veteran actor Kadir Inanir also defended Dizdar, “I heartily congratulate Merve Dizdar, who won an award for her performance at the Cannes Film Festival, the second largest film festival in the world, and the creators of the film. My warning to hung-up, greedy people: be respectful, stand up and applaud.”

The Mayor of Ankara, representing the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Mansur Yavas, tweeted:

Dizdar is not the first artist to be criticized in Turkey, where under the twenty-year leadership of the ruling government, scores of well-known artists, singers, songwriters, and comedians have faced intimidation, crackdowns, and threats over their work. There have also been plenty of examples when the ruling government tried blocking television seriesshows, and foreign music. The justifications are often broad, with accusations that the material promotes terrorist propaganda, encourages drug use, insults the president, offends local family values, or even offers cultural disinformation.

Most recently, the drama series “Kızılcık Şerbeti” (“Cranberry Sorbet”) found itself in hot water over an episode about violence against women. The scene prompted the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), the country's chief censor, to fine the series TRY 1.5 million (USD 77,800) and order a broadcast ban over what the country's main censor described as encouraging violence against women.

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