Funda Tanrıverdi, a stay-at-home mother-of-three from Istanbul, has a clear political hero: Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“His attitude and rhetoric are powerful. He is able to remain strong in every situation,” the 33-year-old enthused. “Erdoğan is good at ruling the country and managing problems, regardless of their nature – be they economic, political, or social.”
Tanrıverdi represents a demographic that may have been crucial in ensuring the Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ongoing success.
A total of 51 per cent of all stay-at-home mothers voted for Erdoğan’s AK Party in last year’s June 24 general election, according to the Turkey-based research and consulting company KONDA.
Stay-at-home mothers voted in much smaller numbers for other parties: 11 per cent for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), six per cent for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), five per cent for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and five percent for IYI Party.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, there are around 11 million housewives in Turkey. For the more religious among them, they can be confident that they will not be discriminated for wearing hijab as long as Erdoğan is in power.
When the AKP was founded in 2001, it promised to bring liberal democracy without discrimination in terms of religion, language, race or gender.
Their founding statement promised that “Fundamental rights and freedoms must be respected… Religion is seen as a unifying force in our society, not a dividing one.”
Turkey’s secular government outlawed the hijab in schools, public universities and government institutions in 1980 to emphasise the separation of state and religion. Many religious women chose to stay at home rather than remove their head coverings, fueling a sense of isolation and discrimination. The ban on headscarves was finally lifted in 2011 in most public institutions.
AKP’s policy particularly resonated with more conservative women, a fact not lost on the party itself. Even in their early days, AKP activists went door-to-door to explain their programme and promise women an opportunity to actively participate in politics.
At a meeting held last April at AKP’s Ankara headquarters ahead of the general elections, Erdoğan himself instructed women party members to go door-to-door to recruit more female voters.
The AKP’s Women’s Branch has 4.5 million members; they are expected to have a key part in local elections scheduled for March this year.
Tanrıverdi, who lives in Istanbul’s conservative Ümraniye neighbourhood, graduated from Kadıköy Ahmet Sani Gezici Kız Anadolu İmam Hatip High School, one of the religious establishments that opened in the 1975 to promote Islam as a counterpoint to the power of the secular left in Turkey. Erdoğan’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan, attended this school at the same time as Tanrıverdi, and they both participated in protests against the headscarf ban.
“We were exposed to things that we, as high school students, shouldn’t have been,” recalled Tanrıverdi. “We were met by the riot police in front of our school every day. They were there only because it was a religious school.”
Tanrıverdi says that life has changed for the better under the AKP.
“Freedom is very important and everyone should enjoy it. Thank God we have that freedom now. I am very pleased with the current situation in Turkey,” she said.
“If one day Erdoğan and AKP lost power, the economy in Turkey would collapse. Without AKP, there wouldn’t be one single party strong enough to rule the country, and weak alliances would have to be formed. But that would be the end of Turkey,” she said.
Serap Yıldız, 36, who is pregnant with her fourth child, is another dedicated supporter of Erdoğan and the AKP.
Yıldız, who also lives in the conservative Ümraniye neighborhood, believes that women’s political participation and economic power have significantly increased since AKP came to power.
“There is no one in Turkey who could rule the country better than [Erdoğan] right now,” she said.
If anything, the normalisation of the hijab has been too successful, Yıldız continued.
“Too many women in Turkey wear hijab these days only as an accessory, without fully understanding its spiritual value,” she said.
She would still like to see more action on women’s rights, in line with what she says are Islamic principles.
“Many women still complain about being mistreated and not being able to speak to anyone about this, or seek their rights. Violence against women should not happen in any country, especially in a Muslim country like Turkey,” Yıldız concluded.
Not all stay-at-home mothers support AKP. In last year’s general elections, 33-year-old Nihan Çetin Daimagüler was one of the six per cent of housewives who voted for the HDP.
The stay-at-home mother of a three-year-old boy describes herself as secular and liberal, and disagrees with Erdoğan’s policies on education, health, and economy. She also says that as a woman who does not wear hijab she feels unsafe on a daily basis.
‘Walking on the street is becoming more difficult everyday. It is so sad that I have to be cautious when I am walking with my kid, even in daylight,’ she said.
“A few years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, I was on a bus and a woman gave her seat to another woman wearing hijab, not me, although she could see that I was pregnant,” she said.
And she argues that religious women’s supposed liberation under AKP rule had been only superficial.
“Women with hijab are not allowed to decide on matters about their own marriage, education and even whether they would wear a headscarf or not,” she said.
Sociologist Sevinç Doğan agreed that while female activists have mobilised large numbers of conservative Muslim women to vote for the AKP, the party’s top positions remain reserved for men.
Doğan researched AKP’s relation with conservative housewives for her 2016 postgraduate thesis.
“Not every woman wearing hijab voted for AKP, but many of them did and a headscarf is now AKP’s political symbol that represents power,” Doğan explained.
Doğan believes that Turkey’s president is very good at manipulating his voters, which is one of the secrets of his success. Ahead of the crucial referendum in April 2017 that transformed Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, Erdoğan sensed that female voters were unhappy with earlier statements that men and women were not equal. Just before the vote, he began to talk about the importance of equal opportunities for both men and women.
“Erdoğan convinced his supporters that if he loses, people who voted for him would lose, too. AKP voters believe that being pro-government gives them a privileged status that they might lose if Erdoğan is overthrown,” Doğan said.
“It is not easy for them to give up on Erdoğan, even if they do not agree with all his decisions,” she said. “But in the end, it is the women voters who seal his fate.”