Friday, November 8, 2013

A Debate on Co-ed housing places new limits on Turkey's Prime Minister

A protest poster by the newly formed HDP party
protesting attempts by government to interfere in
private lives  
During the last few days, a new controversy has been brewing in Turkey. Following a closed meeting of the government, reports were leaked to the press that the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had ordered an investigation into co-ed housing in the country’s university dormitories. This was despite the fact that university dormitories as it is are not co-ed and that such an incident had been reported at only one university, which was as the result of a shortage in space. While the Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, denied that such a discussion had taken place, it took less than 24 hours for news to break that the story indeed was true (and exposing a divide on how the incident should play out in the public).

Anyone that has a small sense of how Erdogan reacts to any criticism could have forecasted how the controversy would play out. Rather than trying to calm fears that the Turkish government was intervening in the private lives of its citizens, and trying to impose its religious conservative values on the overall population, Erdogan did the opposite. Fiercely defending his crusade to save the young from such evils, the Prime Minister stated that: “Nobody knows what takes places in those houses [where male and female students live together. All kinds of dubious things may happen [in those houses]. ... Anything can happen. Then, parents cry out, saying, ‘Where is the state?' These steps are being taken in order to show that the state is there. As a conservative, democratic government, we need to intervene.”

If this was not enough, he further stated that he would make sure legal measures would be implemented to enforce this not only in the public dormitories but also in private residences, which is a blatant violation of Turkish law and invasion of one’s private life. To make matters worse, he called on private citizens to report the immoral behavior, which led to reports of harassment of female students in private homes in Istanbul, and even one police raid on a house. The tenant in this case, received support from the owner of the apartment and her neighbors, despite their conservative lifestyle; however, concerning other raids, the tenant stated: “another student who said his house was raided was told by his neighbors that associations in Tophane had made complaints about student houses to the prime minister’s office. This is more worrying than the raids themselves…”

This sent the Turkish news media and social media into a frenzy, and was upped a notch when the Interior Minister, Muammer Güler,  issued a chilling (ridiculous) statement referring specifically to mixed housing that “we are considering the issue from the viewpoint of a fight against terrorism. Particularly apartments, student residences and lodging houses where university students are living are places that terror groups and other illegal groups are seeing as a resource for gaining support and finding new members.” You heard right. Mixed housing leads to terrorism (the same claims made against the Gezi protesters, earlier this year).

If the Prime Minister had expected party members and supporters to fall one by one in line supporting his offensive statements concerning the lifestyle of a certain sector he was wrong. Some of his previously greatest supporters came out quickly to condemn his statement. Such criticism was voiced by long time public intellectual and former politician, Nazlı Ilıcak, who served as a MP in the Islamist Fazilet party (Erdogan’s former party). Ilıcak was shocked over the Prime Minister’s behavior and stated on CNN Turk that she was ashamed of this act despite her being a staunch supporter of the AK Party in the past. However, only today did we learn what a rift it has caused, when Bulent Arinc, the above mentioned Deputy Prime Minister, came out and stated his dismay over this week’s controversy. 

In a press conference this morning, Arinc issued a statement, hinting that he is close to resigning over the scandal.  It is important to point out the rift between Arinc and Erdogan was first made public on a wide scale following the Gezi Park protesters when he took a much softer stand than Erdogan. Frustrated at being undermined by Erdogan, Arinc stated, “I am not responsible for the prime minister's remarks. I am not responsible for this situation. I am not only a minister, I have my own weight...I never want to be turned into the punching bag of some…” The highlight of his talk was that even if he personally agreed with Erdogan over the issue of co-ed housing, he was critical of Erdogan’s wishes to place this into law.

Unfortunately, this comes just after Erdogan was applauded by the Turkish public at large for partially lifting the headscarf ban just a few weeks back (see my former article, Whats in a Headscarf), with four women parliamentarians entering the parliament, crushing one of Turkey's taboo. Despite this major step forward, Erdogan's wish to ban co-ed housing introduces just more trouble for women who already face discrimination when trying to rent apartments, due to their single status. In other words, it just another case of male hegemonic discourse. Over the last decade, in Turkey's major cities and liberal neighborhoods, women are increasingly living on their own. Together with this, co-ed housing is becoming quite the norm among some sectors. Now with the Prime Minister's taking a stand it will certainly cause some apartment owners to think twice about renting to these communities. 

This case is also just another clear signal that secular lifestyle is under threat. While it differs with the case of alcohol, where Erdogan can claim the government restrictions are in sync with some European countries laws restricting sale of alcohol, banning co-ed housing in private sphere is a blatant violation of even Turkish law. Nevertheless, it is similar to the case surrounding alcohol as it shows the Prime Minister's zero tolerance to other lifestyles; let us not forget that he has stated in the past that anyone who drinks should be considered an alcoholic. Also, while alcohol is legal, and no threat to it ever being banned, he has done his utmost to minimize drinking by taxing it to such an extent that it is cheaper to buy Turkish alcohol outside of Turkey; simply, for many Turkish citizens, even drinking beer can be seen as a luxury.  

Turkey is a dynamic country and any interference by the government, whether secular or religiously conservative, into one's lifestyle should be condemned. The current case once again reiterates that Erdogan has lost touched with a large part of the Turkish population, including his moderate base. While Turkey faces municipal and presidential elections next year, and parliamentary ones in 2015, Erdogan's constant polarizing actions can only be a sign that his party's support will decline. However, whether the CHP and other parties will be able to benefit from this stills seems far from reality. Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: even the Prime Minister's own party seem to becoming weary of his escapades.