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Turkish Airlines, Fashion and Feminism

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Turkish Airlines, named the best airline in Europe for 2012, has also drawn its share of negative national and international attention in recent months.  First it faced vociferous criticism for the conservative look of its proposed new uniforms for flight attendants.  Then it was reported that the airline would ban bright colors of lipstick and nail polish.  Both of these incidents provoked accusations that the airline was imposing conservative Islamic values on its flight attendants.

Turkish Airlines is just the most recent focus of accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey.  Though some examples used to prove the thesis that Turkey is sliding toward Sharia are gender neutral, like restrictions on alcohol, most often critics focus on real or perceived restrictions on women, and more specifically women’s appearance.  The most civil criticisms of the proposed Turkish Airlines uniforms deemed them too “conservative.”  There is no denying that they are a departure from the bright pink mini-dresses worn by the company’s flight attendants in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  However, what most likely caught the attention of Turkish critics of the uniform were the long coats worn by some of the women in the pictures from the company’s fashion show.  In Turkey long overcoats are part of the everyday outfit of religiously conservative but fashionable young women who also choose to wear a headscarf.  Women who cover their heads have long been banned from state jobs including teaching, law and even serving as an elected official.  Though not officially excluded in the private sector, many face discrimination and often were unofficially excluded from working with the public.  The first “covered women” began working for Turkish Airlines just in September of last year.  These long overcoats most likely were designed to cater to the fashion sensibilities of these women specifically as most of the other styles shown, while modest by most standards, show too much leg for the vast majority of covered women.  However, since the coats were shown without a scarf, some may have interpreted this as a sign that women who do not cover will be forced to dress like those who do.

Seemingly unaware that Turkish Airlines had backed down on the red lipstick ban, yesterday the Ukrainian feminist protest group FEMEN posted a statement and pictures to its website in protest of the ban.  FEMEN’s trademark protest is publicly bared breasts, symbolizing their demand that women be able to control their own body and appearance.  Lately they have made the international news for protesting against what they perceive as Shariazation in the Arab Spring countries.  FEMEN is an extreme example, but its stance that by definition nudity is freeing and modesty is oppressive is an intellectual current that runs through mainstream secular feminism.  While the right of a woman who chooses to dress in revealing clothing to be free from harassment has been championed by mainstream feminism, the right of a woman who chooses to cover her body and hair to work or go to school has been largely ignored.  For example, there was no similar media frenzy when rectnly a Turkish lawyer in a headscarf was dismissed from a courtroom by a male judge, despite the fact that the ban on female lawyers wearing such attire had been lifted.  Turkey’s entry into the EU has been stalled for years, in part due to Turkey’s illiberal record in areas like freedom of the press.  However, in 2005 the European Court of Human rights upheld a ban on students wearing headscarves in public universities (the ban was lifted by the government in 2010).

Those that consider themselves liberals and feminists need to realize that in liberal, secular societies women should have just as much right to cover as to uncover themselves.  If the right to wear red lipstick to work is inalienable, then the right to wear a red hijab should be too.  Organizations like FEMEN that campaign against Islamic inspired dress distract from the deeper and universal issues of domestic violence, pay discrimination and access to maternal and reproductive services.  Turkish Airlines has received a lot of negative press over its recent fashion faux pas, but it has also benefited from the fact that these controversies have also served to distract from more pressing issues facing its employees.  Unionized members of Turkish Airlines began a strike early this morning.  However, the strike has no connection to the regulations on appearance that have gripped the attention of conventional and social media.  Statements from  Hava-Is union representatives make it clear that Turkish Airlines history of repressing employees right to strike through layoffs and the company’s dubious safety record is a bigger threat to employees than any of the recent proposed changes to their dress code.  Public outcry gave Turkish Airline stewardesses back their right to wear bright lipstick, but it is a hollow victory considering the larger issues at stake.


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May 15, 2013 at 8:31 pm

East and West

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Over the past week, there has been a flurry of reactions from the usual suspects regarding Israel’s surprise apology to Turkey.  The part that President Obama played in bringing about this reconciliation has brought the nearly 3 year old conflict between Israel and Turkey into the Western media spotlight.  Predictably, when Turkey becomes the topic du jour amongst commentators who know little to nothing about the country, the cliches start to fly.  One of the most common of these is some derivation of Turkey being a country that exists in the gray zone between “East” and “West.”  Since the rise of the AK party, it has been fashionable for articles and editorials to warn that Turkey was turning its back on the West.  A simple google search of “Turkey turns east” reveals the prolific use of this cliche.  The Turkey-Israel rapprochement has again led opinion writers to speculate where Turkey’s loyalties lie.  While some have interpreted Turkey’s acceptance of the apology as well as the PKK ceasefire as a “promising shift to the West” others have cited Erdogan’s vociferous (and predictable) gloating as further evidence that Turkey has been taken over by racial “Islamists” and that the “West” must confront it.

This division of the world into the West (read: US and EU) and the East (read: everyone else) is not only overdone but a dangerous rehashing of Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis.  Though Huntington’s thesis has been the focus of a slew of criticism,  it is still indicative of how many people in both the “West” and the “East” view the world.  In his essay, Huntington uses Turkey as the premier example of a country “torn” between East and West.  He concludes that as hard as the elites may try, Turkey will never be able to escape its Islamic roots.  He believes that the “Islamic Revival” that was just then starting to grow in the country (and in which the AKP is rooted) is powerful evidence of this.  Huntington does not simply point out the real differences in history, cultural and belief between different regions, he posits that only Western Civilization (defined as Catholic and Protestant countries of Western Europe and North America) is compatible with the liberal values of “…constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy… and the separation of church and state” among others.  When Turkey’s dealings with it’s regional neighbors are discussed in terms of “looking East” Huntingtonian baggage is implied.  If Turkey is cooperating with “Eastern” states, it is dismissing liberal values in favor of those of the unchanging “Islamic” Civilization.

Ziya Meral has jokingly dubbed Turkey’s current foreign policy “Free Range Turkey,” a groan-inducing but more accurate characterization of Turkey’s actions than the tired East-West dichotomy.  If Huntington’s model were to hold true, Turkey’s democratically elected but conservative Muslim government should have focused on strengthening its ties to other heirs of the “Islamic Civilization” to the determent of those it shares with the “West.”  Of course, this is not the case.  Turkey has perused its long-standing candidacy for the EU while simultaneously attempting to increase its regional standing and heal previous rifts with its neighbors.   Turkey’s leadership may at times show that it has a soft spot for countries with which it has religious or cultural ties, but the laws of Realpolitik outweigh any ties of “Civilization.”

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April 2, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Sevres Syndrome

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The tragic story of Sarai Sierra has been all over the Turkish and American media.  Until the discovery of her body on Saturday, her fate was a matter of speculation.  Some of that speculation ran toward the absurd.  One notable example attempts to prove that she was in fact a CIA operative.  Though this theory is patently ridiculous, similar conspiracy theories are all too common in Turkey.  I myself have been asked half seriously if I worked for the CIA.  Recently, members of the CHP even publicly questioned whether Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian visit to the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey was evidence of a CIA connection.

On the surface, this obsession with American covert infiltration and manipulation of Turkey’s government seems puzzling.  Turkey and America are close allies and have been so since the Cold War.  President Obama, in his address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 2009, praised the fact that, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey had “…freed [itself] from foreign control, and [had] founded a republic that commands the respect of the United States and the wider world.”  Turkey and America’s relationship is not without its problems, but there is certainly no reason to believe that the CIA would feel it necessary to intervene in Turkey’s elections in order to ensure PM Erdogan is reelected (another common rumor in Turkey).

The frequency and quotidian nature of these conspiracy theories in Turkey inevitably leads one to wonder what is fueling this paranoia.  Though there are certainly more recent events that come into play, such as the United States’ invasion of Iraq, I posit that the primary cause of Turkey’s collective fear of foreign interference derives from the division of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in the Treaty of Sevres.   Despite the fact that the Turkish War of Independence effectively annulled the Treaty of Sevres and replaced it with the Treaty of Lausanne, the fear of territorial division and loss of sovereignty remains deeply imbedded in Turkish politics and culture.  Now it is the US that has the power to interfere with and overthrow  foreign governments and Turkey’s Sevres Syndrome now manifests itself as CIA centered conspiracy theories.

Given the heartbreaking outcome of this story, the above analysis may seem beside the point.  Indeed, I don’t believe ingrained cultural paranoia justifies the lack of basic human empathy exhibited by the article in question.  However, part of the aim of this blog is to acquaint English-speakers (read: Americans) with the history and culture of Turkey in order to dispel some of wide-spread myths created by America’s own historical and cultural baggage.  At the very least, if Turk accuses you of being a CIA agent, you’ll have a better understanding of why.

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February 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Insulting Turkishness

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Television in Turkey has become a hot topic over the last few weeks.  First, PM Erdoğan decided to inform the world of his dislike for the immensely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl.  He based his disdain in the program’s depiction of the Sultan Süleyman I convorting in his harem and drinking wine instead of fighting and conquering.  Erdoğan went on to make a barely veiled call to ban the show.  Now a member of parliament has taken up the cause and is introducing a bill that would restrict the depiction of historical characters in a “humiliating” manner.

In a separate incident last week, the Turkish television and radio regulatory agency fined a Turkish television channel for airing an episode of the Simpsons which they found offensive.  The episode is describe as insulting God and religion by the agency.  They claimed to be acting in the interest of “protecting children, not God” from subversive material.

It would be easy to dismiss the public uproar over this incidents as overblown.  After all the programs in question are merely a soap opera  and a foreign cartoon.  However, the the censorship of these shows is part of a larger trend of the Turkish government quashing of freedom of speech.  The Turkish press is unhealthily restricted.  Notoriously, Turkey currently has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world.  Websites such as blogger and youtube have been periodically blocked and Turkey has the dubious honor of lodging the most requests for content bans with Google.  In the beginning of 2012, Twitter agreed to censor insulting remarks aimed at Ataturk and any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.

Some media outlets, especially those which subscribe to theories of “creeping Islamization”, have interpreted the recent acts of television censorship as proof that Erdoğan and the AKP are out to create an Islamic state.  Out of context, it may appear as if Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons were targeted because of their glorification of practices and beliefs that go against some of the teachings of Islam.  However, the actions taken by this current government fit into the long history of state censorship in the Republic of Turkey. As Dov Friedman puts it “the AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots.”   The first three leaders of the Republic, Atatürk, Inönü and Menderes, all restricted the freedom of the press in the interest of advancing their own agenda.  Previous to the 1998 soft coup, Turkey also led the world in number of imprisoned journalists.  The new law created in response to Muhteşem Yüzyıl would in effect be an extension of the already existing bans on insulting both “Turkishness” and Ataturk.  Law 5816 About Crimes Against Atatürk has been in effect since 1951 and article 301 of the Turkish penal code regarding insults to “Turkishness” was passed under the current government in 2005.   Despite being passed under an “Islamist” government, Article 301 has all the features of classic Turkish secular nationalism.  There is no mention of Islam, only the “sacred” institutions of the Turkish Republic: the branches of government, the military and the Turkish “nation”

Having been born, raised and educated in a society which accepted and even welcomed  a certain level of state media control, the leadership of the AKP has now begun to echo their secular predecessors, almost in spite of themselves.  After all, Erdogan himself spent nearly a year four months in jail for a speech crime.  The censoring and/or banning of Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons is disturbing not because it is a sign that the AKP government is becoming more “Islamist” but that they are returning to the bad old days of Turkish secular authoritarianism.

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December 11, 2012 at 5:15 pm