They are young, urban and well-educated, and for the past week they have been sleeping in an Istanbul park: meet the women on the front line of Turkey’s mass anti-government protests.
“We are the women Erdogan would like to see staying at home,” actress Sevi Algan, 37, said, referring to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who protesters say is forcing his conservative, Islamic values on the mainly Muslim, but staunchly secular nation.
Many of the women happily admit they are accidental activists who never would have guessed two weeks ago that they would be pitching a tent in the epicenter of a nationwide civil unrest.
Yet now these young Turks, many of them students, lawyers, teachers and office workers, account for half of the thousands of demonstrators in Gezi Park and nearby Taksim Square — and they have taken to their new routine with gusto.
They spend hours under the park’s sycamore trees debating their cause, take part in all-night singing and dancing sessions and, when necessary, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with soccer fans on guard against police action outside the park’s police-free zone.
The protest began after a small campaign to save the park’s 600 trees from being razed sparked a police crackdown with tear gas and water cannon on May 31, quickly spiraling into widespread anger against the government. The unrest has injured more than 4,000 people and killed three across the country.
Many of the female protesters say the time has come to stand up for their rights in the face of creeping infringements on their freedoms by Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan has won three successive elections, gaining almost 50 percent of the vote in 2011 after presiding over steady economic growth. However, critics accuse him of increasing authoritarianism and of polarizing the country.
“Women are on the front line because they are the first victims of Erdogan’s projects,” Sevi said.
Her list of grievances include Erdogan’s proposals to limit abortion rights, tighten the rules for the morning-after pill and ban the late-night sale of alcohol.
Erdogan has also sparked outrage for declaring that every woman in Turkey should have three children.
“Would he like more children like us?” Ozlem Altiok, an unemployed former flight attendant, said as she chatted with friends in Gezi Park.
Sevi said supporters of the ruling AKP consider the demonstrators “bad Muslims,” but she insists they are not against Islam.
“We like to drink, debate, but Erdogan and his people do not have a monopoly on Islam,” she said. “Look at the solidarity on Taksim Square. That’s what it means to be Muslim.”
In the park, where free food, yoga lessons and concerts are on offer, clusters of feminists and gay rights activists are camped out next to veil-wearing anti-capitalist Muslims, the site’s festive atmosphere and a sense of camaraderie outweigh any ideological differences.
While women in Turkey are underrepresented in politics, they figure prominently in universities and in companies, in large part thanks to emancipation reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, after the Turkish republic was founded in 1923.
“It’s not about abandoning parts of our Islamic culture, but about preserving our existing rights,” philosophy student Esra, 21, said, adding that she was not trying to copy the model of “Western women.”