By Mina Hamedi
The country I grew up in is not the same country it is now. I was born in the States, I lived in Turkey, and my father brought Iran into our home. I’m American in international airports, and I’m solely an Iranian in Tehran. But the simplified answer to “Where are you from?” will always be “Turkey.” It has shaped my thoughts and twisted the kaleidoscope of qualities that now form my identity.
I don’t consider myself too highly opinionated or argumentative, but when Turkey or my home city Istanbul is involved, my insane nationalistic side, the one that all Turks have in common, is an unstoppable beast. Freshman year at NYU, a random guy asked me if there was a language called Turkish, “Not to sound ignorant,” he added. I exchanged looks with my roommate as his friend defended him, “He takes Advanced Calculus you know; he isn’t stupid.” Disregarding the fact that it was freshman year and I had to be a bubbly college girl open to making friends, I rolled my eyes and walked away. I’ve found that a lot of people can’t find Turkey on a map, and this fact didn’t change when I started college. There’s a certain wisdom you gain from speaking more than one language, traveling and discovering new cultures and people. But it is only wisdom if you accept what other people bring into your life. It was tiring trying to explain that Turkey wasn’t the typical Middle Eastern country everyone thought it was, with camels and tents and weather that doesn’t permit snowfall. “We’re just as liberal, maybe even more, than you,” I wanted to point out. But I soon realized that as long as I knew what Turkey meant to me, all I needed was people interested in learning too. I became very good at filtering people’s comments. It became a matter of which opinion I thought had merit, and which questions I wanted to answer. But I didn’t have the answers for what was happening in my country over the past few years.
Turkey has a colorful history, to put it in plain words. There’s a definite divide between the Southeast and the Northwest, poor and wealthy, Jewish or Muslim. But there’s one thing I’ve noticed that is inarguably embedded within every man, woman, or child who calls themselves Turkish: we love our country. Turkish nationalism is even a term: a political ideology that promotes and glorifies the Turkish people, as either a national, ethnic, or linguistic group and puts the interests of the state over other influences, including religious ones. There’s that one word that carries the entire future of my country: Religion. The Republic of Turkey was founded on October 29th, 1923, with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as its first president. His last name bore the title of “Father of the Turks.” For the next 10 years, Turkey was in the process of becoming secular through Ataturk’s reforms, which included the banning of headscarves and dress, closure of religious convents, adoption of a Turkish alphabet, and secularization in the government. Yet the government asserted the equality of religions and the freedom to worship the rights of citizens in their own private spaces.
Turkey was viewed as too secular and the more religious citizens began claiming that they had a right to religious freedom. Today, we’ve shifted from a country that gave judgmental looks to women in head to toe black sharshafs and headscarves into a nation that believes wearing shorts on a burning summer day is an indecent act. This change is attributed to the current government, known as the AK Party. The AK Party, or the Justice and Development Party, is a right-conservative political party that came into power in 2002 after its establishment in 2001. “Ak” in Turkish means “white” and “purity” and their symbol is a light bulb. In Turkey, the Prime Minister acts as a President; his roles are more important and the President remains as a figurehead. In 2002, Abdullah Gul became the Prime Minister, but a constitutional amendment in 2003 allowed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former mayor of Istanbul, to take his place. Erdoğan is currently serving his third term in office. Since the 2002 general elections, the AK Party holds the majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, or Parliament, which leads a single-party government. In 2007, over two million people marched in Istanbul and Ankara to protest Erdoğan, afraid that if re-elected, he would alter the secular nature of the Turkish state. Since their 2007 elections, they have continued to expand public rights for the Muslim population. Yet Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison, with over 53 counted, who have spoken out against Erdoğan.
I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t understand the AK Party’s significance when they had just begun. I didn’t know what to think of the man whose face was in every public square of Istanbul. With each election and re-election, my parents came home from voting and somberly admitted defeated. My father sat in the living room watching the news, shaking his head and mumbling, “I didn’t leave Iran for this.” I hoped it was just gossip and no one was actually worried. We weren’t moving backwards and nothing had to change. An Islamist newspaper called “Yeni Safak” targeted my grandfather, a man who had publicly spoken about his dislike for Erdoğan and his love for Kemalism (the ideologies that Ataturk left behind). The newspaper printed his home address and phone number and for days security stood outside his doors to make sure he was protected. Now three years since I started college, I can only read about new policies and hear people’s comments, watch riots on Istiklal Street, and shake my head in the same manner as the adults. Liquor is banned in many restaurants. You can’t sit outside and drink unless you have a permit. Headscarves are acceptable in universities and high schools.
People ask me, “So why are they still in power? Why do people keep voting for them?” Because they blur the line. They saved our economy, decreasing inflation and unemployment rates. They increased the budget of the Ministry of Education, creating a campaign to close gender-gap in primary school enrollments to provide basic education for all girls, especially in the southeast. I’m not disagreeing with that. Erdoğan himself states, “But foremost I do not subscribe to the view that Islamic culture and democracy cannot be reconciled.” That sounds wonderful. That’s freedom of religion: to wear a headscarf and have the choice not to. Within a liberal democracy, Islamists would have the right to wear their scarves. However, if Turkey turns into an Islamic state, the rest of us would also be forced to wear scarves and our civil rights would mean nothing. When we woke up to vote at the local high school for the 2011 elections, there was a definite divide amongst the voters. We walked over on that hot June morning in skirts and t-shirts, hopeful. The imam (leader) of the neighborhood mosque and his wife walked into the building at the same time. She was in a black sharshaf, her body and hair covered with only a portion of her face in the light; he wore a suit. She looked us up and down, her eyes squinting with disapproval, then surveyed my parents. Laughter echoed from the younger crowds approaching. I looked down at my skirt and decided it was the appropriate length for my legs. The covered young girls in Turkey don’t necessarily wear black sharshafs or traditional scarves tied below their chins. They have colorful shawls and wraps from luxury brands and expose cleavage under long trench coats.
My favorite area in Istanbul is Taksim. It’s where all the artists, freaks, musicians, students, and travelers live in harmony. They perform on the streets, sit at cafes for hours, hunt for records in old stores, and watch modern movies in old theaters. Taksim is the sister to New York; no one cares what you look like or what you do, but in a good way. My parents never comment on what I wear, however; in the past three years I have to check each time before I leave for Taksim or any other area to see if I’m wearing the appropriate clothing. After the results rolled in, “AKP wins by a landslide etc,” my grandfather held a family meeting in his home. He told my two cousins that they needed other passports aside from their Turkish ones because they might be necessary in the future. My grandfather telling us to give up a part of our Turkish-ness was the turning point. I avidly participate in social media, but I’m not allowed to post articles or any comments that have the slightest connection to the AK Party or Erdoğan. This is because, as my mother states, “We’re going to have to do business with these types of people.” I kept thinking “When will I be directly affected by all of this?”, and then I realized I already was.
Surveillance was internal in my case. As a writer, I realized I couldn’t write anything I wanted. That moment of stopping in my tracks to check what I wore, read, or reposted was enough to display their influence. They could reach anyone, they could convince everyone, and the rest of us who still wish for a government that does not place any religion first will slowly lessen in numbers. The national ID’s that we are issued as citizens bear the Turkish flag and a section titled “Religion.” On my card it says “Muslim.” We are identified as Muslims, but we reject the bad associations that have been made with this word. We still wear skirts among the covered women walking down the street. But something is in the air and in the faces of the men on the streets. “You’re doing something wrong. You’re not a proper, God-fearing Muslim.” I refuse to believe this is the future of my home. Turkey is supposed to be the Middle Eastern country that accepts everyone and every belief. It is the country you overlook because you don’t know how much it is loved or fought for.
If I can give you headscarves, will you let me keep my mini skirts?