A few weeks ago I glanced out of my window to see a group of bearded men strolling up the hill I live on in central Istanbul dressed in skirts. One wore a kilt. The other a denim number. What cross-dressing japes, I thought.
Wrong. This gang were on its way to protest for women’s rights in Turkey following the news that violence against women in the country was on the rise. In fact, the numbers show a surge – 14 fold – in these incidents over the last decade. This march was in honour of a 20-year-old student in the southern Turkish province of Mersin who had been killed.
As the protesters converged on Istiklal Caddesi – a popular shopping street in the historic Beyoglu district – the chants echoed around the city. And, from where I stood on my balcony, the cries were predominately baritone, bass and tenor.
Many of Istanbul’s most strident feminists are men. Again, this weekend a band of male protesters turned out in Istanbul’s Maltepe district to call for female equality. The skirt-wearers were quickly slammed by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan but that doesn’t mean to say that sexual politics won’t be high on the agenda in the run up to Turkey’s important parliamentary elections in early June.
The question of equality for women is a clear battleground in the cultural tug-of-war this country finds itself in. Here the ideological heave-ho is between traditional religious values and secular liberal ones.
The governing AK party is offering its solution to domestic violence in Turkish society. Yesterday, Erdogan appealed to the country’s network of elected village chiefs (muhtars) to protect women. Women are entrusted to all of humanity by God, he said, and have a value that is beyond equality. His rhetoric uses themes of religion, honour and community.
The liberal secular wing is clearly taking another tack: they are demanding broader freedoms, an end to patriarchy and a right to wear a short skirt without fear of harassment. In this battle for women’s rights the contest between these voices will be decisive for the future of Turkish society.
Meanwhile the country’s polarised political sphere is increasingly defined by sartorial symbols. It’s likely, in the run-up to June’s vote, that the cultural space between the headscarf and the mini skirt will only grow larger.
Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.