Face me if you are a man! Turkish political masculinities

In Turkish politics, ‘masculinist necessity’ – a taken for granted construct that has systematically and historically pervaded expectations for conducting politics – has established its discursive practices because it has found new voices and bodies in adversary political camps. In this framework, this paper aims to analyse different representations of masculinities in the Turkish field of politics that have never been estranged from, first, depictions of this specific culture and, second, language that glorifies a particular cultural understanding of ‘manhood’

Turkey’s 2009 Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, raising his finger as he speaks at the microphone at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He is a light brown-skinned man with greying hair and a moustache and wears a grey pinstriped suit, white shirt, yellow tie and red pin. He is in front of a dark blue backdrop with 'Meeting 20...' and 'World Economic Forum' (repeated) in white lettering.

As a panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009 came to a close, a watershed moment made international headlines around the world. Red-faced and grasping the arm of the Washington Post columnist David Ignites, who was moderating the session, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan directed several sharp comments towards the former Israeli President Shimon Peres. Mr. Erdoğan, who was being silenced by the moderator, angrily shouted: ‘One minute!’ Incensed at being interrupted, his attempt to speak became progressively louder, before he finally accused the Israeli President:

‘When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill’ He then gathered his papers and left the stage, adding, ‘And so Davos is over for me from now on’ (Bennhold, 2009). [1]

This charged incident was coined the ‘Davos crisis’ and created a major diplomatic row at Davos 2009. The unusual and unexpectedly terse response of Erdoğan spurred a discussion about the boundaries of proper conduct in foreign affairs, both in Turkey and worldwide. This so-called crisis further caused a rift between Erdoğan, leader of the then governing AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Justice and Development Party) and Turkish diplomats. Erdoğan responded to those who found his manners repulsive, mortifying and macho in comparison to Turkey’s well-mannered traditional foreign diplomacy, by arguing, ‘I do not speak the same language as mon cher did in the past’ (Özerkan, 2009). [2]

While mon cher literally means ‘my dear’ in French (referring to a man), it figuratively refers to a Western wannabe who is very polite, elegant and highly cultured in his manners. However, the term also took on a double meaning in this incident, where it has also connoted ‘unmanly’ and ‘feminine’ manners and ways of speech that were historically deemed as ‘unconventional’. This political and discursive rift has found different interlocutors from various political parties and has been a puzzle for those defining the boundaries of ‘manly politics.’ Erdoğan’s roughnecking style of conducting politics has been understood as being different from other actors in the conduct of foreign policy. The historically known pattern for diplomats and politicians has been taken as more ‘accurate’, while Erdoğan appeared to feel justified for what he branded a more ‘authentic’ Turkish tradition of speech and actions. In response, his counterparts within the Turkish political sphere accused him of equating the office of government with that of kahvehane or a traditional lower-class coffee house (Özerkan, 2009).  As has been argued by Damla Aras, this political rift between diplomats and Erdoğan around styles and manners of conducing politics has two roots:

‘(…) To begin there is the perceived class differences between diplomats and the right-wing political parties (such as nationalist and Islamic movements) which have their roots in and represent mostly the rural areas and the urban working class and which view the diplomats as an elitist group that looks down on the common citizen. (…) The second source is ideological. Several retired and serving ambassadors are wary of the AKP government since its leadership comes from the Islamic political movement (Aras, 2010, p.47).’

The resulting discussions from this vignette offer a crystalised snapshot of Turkish political masculinities that are contoured by domination, attestation of ‘manliness’ and, most importantly, deep-rooted binaries, namely secular/Islamic and Western/Oriental. This marks discursive practices that have originated from, and are nourished by, Turkish political history and political cultural elements. This historical internalisation has reproduced a climate that pre-emptively constructed masculine domination as self-evident. This has necessitated the promotion of masculinist values as a norm. For the purpose of this work, I define ‘masculinist necessity’ as a taken-for-granted construct that has systematically and historically pervaded expectations for conducting politics.

In Turkish politics, ‘masculinist necessity’ has established its discursive practices because it has found new voices and bodies in adversary political camps, despite their different and historically opposing ideological backgrounds. In this framework, this paper argues that rightist, leftist and Islamist leanings have all reproduced different masculinities but constructed similar points of resilience that have been anchored in history. In parallel, it is significant to analyse the constructions of different political masculinities to reveal the codes serving as stepping stones of masculinist necessity.

The aim of this paper is to analyse different representations of masculinities in the Turkish field of politics that have never been estranged from the depictions of this specific culture and language that glorifies a particular cultural understanding of ‘manhood’. This work aims to undertake a retrospective reading of masculinities in Turkey and trace different paths of masculinities in the Turkish political arena. There is also an intention to incorporate the discursive practices of masculinities into the current political context, with a focus on three political parties: the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Justice and Development Party), CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/Republican People’s Party) and MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi/Nationalist Action Party). [3] The paper analyses these parties, representing deep-rooted political stances in Turkey and their politics of gender and concentrating on the main determinants of political masculinities in the first decade of 2000s. It also looks at the shifting political discourse in the Turkish political arena, both historically and through the lens of masculinities.

Building from the vignette, the structure of this paper is as follows: first I offer a brief analysis of Turkish political development with emphasis on deep-rooted dualities. The section that follows provides the analytical map that this retrospective reading is based on. The paper then progresses to consider the main pillars of political masculinities in Turkey and a juxtaposition of the main resilient points that have contoured them. This is followed by an analysis of the boundaries of masculinism.

Turkey’s journey to Westernisation: different representations of dualities

In the Turkish context, ‘Westernisation’ has been analysed in the light of the delicate balance between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’. That is to say that, in order to achieve a homogenous, modern nation-state, early Republican reformers tried to reconcile the traditional and the modern through the construction of gendered identities, namely the ‘new man’ and the ‘new woman’, but not by eroding the old, deep rooted face of the Turkish nation (Kandiyoti, 1997).

The modernisation project, encompassing the transition of society from a ‘religious’ and/or ‘traditional’ order into a ‘new’ and/or ‘modern’ way of life, constructed the past as ‘other’ (Arat, 1997; Kandiyoti, 1997). This process included the erosion of old social codes and patterns. In Turkey, this modernisation project aimed to construct homogenous gendered identities, which required constant attempts to reaffirm and represent them in order to establish a new face for Turkish public life. The traditional gender order in Turkey located women within the private sphere, with women assuming the caretaker role, while men were equipped with earning the livelihood for their family, as the breadwinners (Sancar, 2017).

From the perspective of the ‘modern man’, the first and most important component was his role as leader or agent of modernisation. This is not an alien consideration for Turkish political culture. Since the Ottoman period, men were positioned as the absolute leading authority figure (Kandiyoti, 1997). Then, the Tanzimat reform era (1839-1871) fueled a new period marked by modernising efforts at the societal and institutional level. A züppe (dandy) of that era represented a ‘Westernised’, fashionable, snobbish man of the period. For Kandiyoti (1997), generational tension also corresponded with changes in the expression of hegemonic masculinity in Ottoman society.

In an era that was already characterised as entailing ‘de-masculinisation,’ the autonomy of the virile elite was not totally lost in that, as Kandiyoti (1997) reports, the Ottoman patrician had his counterpart in the kabadayı (roughneck), who typically lived in the mahalle (local district), where there was a strong sense of communal identity. The kabadayı of the mahalle, household and family defended his honor, meaning he was the guarantor and protector of the normative order. The power interplay between dandies and roughnecks was pronounced when the Ottoman Empire experienced an extended period of military conflict, including World War I and, most importantly, the War of Independence. This period validated a powerful masculine image equipped with the task of protecting the country from any threat and simultaneously putting dandies on the backburner.

After the War of Independence, in addition to protecting the country, men or ‘Kemalist fathers of the Republic,’ were expected to undertake the duty of civilising the country (Kandiyoti, 1997). Kemalist elites, who were the cadre of the CHP, pioneered the process of the modernisation project, but were unable to fully internalise the top-down project that was proposed within the ideals of Westernisation. It can be argued that this modernisation project did not go beyond the rejection of traditional symbols. This dilemma created a crisis of masculinity and nourished the contradictory character of modernisation efforts. The process reinstated Westernised men into political and social spheres. Such prestige and power were then reified through the diplomats of the new Republic – the so-called mon chers –into the contemporary Turkish political sphere.

Other than being trapped between the above binaries, another major concern for politicians and military officers has been shouldering the responsibility to defend the regime (Yavuz, 2009, p.28). This period of ‘insecurity’ (related to the recently won Independence War) has also served to reinforce the military’s guardian role.

Turkey’s transition to multi-party politics in 1945 nourished another tension between political elites and military officers (Yavuz, 2009), while the CHP – who had taken on the role as guarding Kemalism – did not hold enough power. However, the military’s symbolic position has never lessened, as the conditions of World War II and the Cold War enhanced its power.

The post-1980 period was also crucial for Turkish politics. According to Yavuz, this ‘was dominated by the politics of identity and the search for individual wealth, along with the introduction of a new political language about privatisation, human rights and civil society’ (2009, p. 29). This potent change that took place in Turkey has created social and cultural transformations, especially regarding gendered identities. The revival of the Islamic political identity coincided with this period, which Gürbilek (2011) defines as the ‘return of the repressed’, meaning that the repressed Islamist tone at the institutional and individual levels were awakened again within the Turkish political sphere. In this context, Turgut Özal, the eighth President of Turkey, introduced measures to ease restrictions on Islamic practices and beliefs during his term.

The post-1980 phase provided Islamic rhetoric, something that was not tolerated by the Kemalist state, with fertile ground for the construction of ‘alternative’ identities. For Bilgin, new Islamist identities represented ‘a new form that combines both established gender patterns and modern styles’ (Bilgin, 2004, p.193). Hence, while the paradigmatic changes in political and social life in Turkey have created a shift in discourse, they have also deepened the dualistic nature of Turkish politics.

The 2000s marked another significant period in Turkish politics, as the AKP was formed in August 2001. This has been the ruling political party since being voted into power in 2002. Its aim is to represent a new political perception, discourse, method and culture, and its political identity is articulated as follows:

‘A political identity that we express as [a] conservative democracy represents a very significant approach not only for Turkey but also for world politics’. [4]

The AKP shifted the political discourse to neo-liberal policies and has presented a relatively ‘new’ version of gender politics, known as neoliberal-conservative patriarchy (Coşar and Yeğenoğlu, 2011, p.560). The party has ‘appreciated the role of women in their rise to power, established nationwide women’s auxiliaries (…) and, hence, seemed to encourage their political participation’ (Ayata and Tütüncü, 2008, p. 369). However, the most important ‘activities of the women’s auxiliaries is social assistance to the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped,’ which falls in line with the traditional domestic roles of women (Ayata and Tütüncü, 2008, p. 370).

The MHP is another actor playing in the field appointed to protect the country. As a deep-rooted political party, it represents strong nationalist discourse in the Turkish political climate. Founded in 1969, the party has echoed nationalist discourse from moderate to rigid tones (Çınar and Arıkan, 2002; Heper and İnce, 2006) and has advocated the integrity of the nation on the basis of ‘brotherhood.’ As a ‘virile party’, the MHP has continuously emphasised ‘male wolves’ who should protect the country and perform duties deemed to be masculine, such as protecting the honour of asena [5] and showing bravery.

Against this background, the accumulated knowledge on politics in Turkey affirms that the political arena is a field that is dominated by men and masculinism’s attempt to shape and control it.

Analytical Map

In Masculine Domination, Bourdieu (2001) offers analytical support arguing for the importance of the relative ‘dehistoricisation’ of the gender order. He highlights the historical and cultural mechanisms as they provide an instrument for disclosing the symbolic structures of unconscious of gendered identities and labels this the ‘dehistoricisation or eternalisation of sexual difference’ (2001, p. 133). For him, historical mechanisms have accomplished their functions and sexual division, both as objectification in the physical and the social order and as embodiment in gendered dispositions, serves as an organising principle.

This argumentation of Bourdieu is important for the scope of this work. It offers a fertile analytical room for reading the dynamics behind while masculinities within the field of politics are not there, but they are in between, above structures, discourses and networks. Yet, hegemonic masculine norms are resilient to transformations while they are capable of adapting to the necessities of new historical conjunctures. In this framework, tracing the implications of the different paths of masculinities in Turkish political discourse enables an analysis that defines the lines for the construction and internalisation of normative norms. For Bourdieu, social mechanisms and institutions naturalise masculine domination. Hence, the question of in what ways does masculine domination serve as an organising principle is very critical. Moreover, what is significant is not juxtaposing the usages that overtly reference the normative masculine order, but attempting to read crystalised implications of conventional masculinist social discourses.

This study uses an analytical map to unearth such a dynamic field of the masculinist order, which has been anchored in political and cultural history. It discusses different paths of masculinities by using stepping stones of the discursive ground securing the different pillars of understanding er meydanı- the field of politics. The analysis of established meanings – both the analysis of what text says and what it silences – is a tool for examining multifaceted social patterns in Turkey with a gender lens.

As demonstrated in the earlier empirical context section, the central dynamics of the Turkish political arena operate through a careful calibration between ‘Islamic re-emergence’, secularism and the politics of nationalism through ideas of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’. Hence, a conceptual map to reveal pillars of political masculinities marks some resilient elements: father state, militarism and westernisation. This work discusses those pillars before attempting to make typologies of masculinities.

A strong state tradition: Devlet Baba (Father State)

Since Ottoman times, Turkish politics has been persistently characterised by its strong state tradition (Heper, 1992) The Republic of Turkey inherited a strong, centralised and highly bureaucratic state from the Ottoman Empire, which is still one of the critical characteristics defining the country’s politics. According to Altan-Olcay, the state defined itself as the founding father with the ultimate responsibility to elevate daughters, who ‘gratefully obeyed the definition of modernity and their predetermined roles in it’ (2009, p. 176). The Turkish experience of nation-state formation therefore duplicated the traditional role of fathers, where the state acted as an authoritarian father with the responsibility to control the citizen, while the father, as male household head, had the duty to modernise other members of his family. As Rittersberger and Kalaycıoğlu mention:

‘In Turkey, the patriarchal state corresponds to the patriarchal family. The patriarch (…) being assured of his absolute authority position inside the family remains mostly outside the personal spheres of the family members, as long as they do not question the existing order (1998, p.78).’

Hence, since the establishment of the Republic, the role of the father has been glorified as the leader of both the family and the country. The notion of devlet baba (father state) is a product of this glorification of the relation between manhood and the state. The Turkish model has attempted to construct a new national culture and citizens, with the image of civilian manhood being tightly woven into the fabric of patriotic citizenship. This overlapping and mutually constitutive discourse has developed over the years to become a prevailing cultural element in Turkish society: the father state protects its citizens and subsequently has the duty of providing welfare and offering solutions in cases of emergency and, in turn, the right to demand obedience. This culture has been elevated by Atatürk’s image. This word translates as ‘the father of all Turks.’ Atatürk’s heroic role as the founder of the state has fostered the legitimisation of male control over resources, as a commander and protector against any threat. [6]

The headline of the TAN newspaper published on the day following Atatürk’s death is pink with a black and white picture of Atatürk, a light-brown skinned man in a white bow tie and black jacket, looking into the distance. The translation of the headline is ‘We lost our father’ (Babamızı kaybettik).In addition, according to Bilgin, the omnipresence of Atatürk’s face on posters and buses personify the nation he created, as well as the victory behind it. Simultaneously, Turkish citizens invoke his authority in several instances in everyday life by being reminded of the victory of the Independence War and the leader of it. Such an iconography not only embodies the War and victory but also institutionalises Atatürk’s masculinised authority during the founding years of the Republic and single party era of the CHP. Voters, parliamentarians and leaders of the CHP have been reproducing the rhetoric of the father state with reference to Atatürk via common sayings such as, ‘We are the party of Atatürk’ and ‘We are his children.’

The relationship between the state and the father has also become visible in the hyper-importance of the dominant male figure in Turkish politics, namely, through party leaders. The personal attributes of these leaders have become more important than the parties themselves. The authoritarian or oligarchic structure of party organisations is a critical characteristic of Turkish political parties, which has led to those political parties being reduced into one single figure in the public perception.

Several examples of this eternal leadership exist within Turkish political culture. In the framework of this study, the MHP and its leaders exemplify the existence of such a culture in the 2000s.

The MHP has glorified the personality of its leader through the statement that ‘Devlet (state) will head the State.’ [7] This has been a very popular aspect of their discourse since Devlet Bahçeli was put in charge of the MHP in 1997. Bahçeli’s life and his devotion to the nationalist movement explain his popularity among party members and their lasting call that ‘Devlet, will head the state.’ In this expression, ‘Devlet’ refers to both the state and Bahçeli’s assumed competence to lead it, which falls perfectly in line with masculine and statist norms of Turkish social and political life. He uses this rhetoric, attributing his own leadership as the only way of protecting the party and the nation from any threat.

The MHP has always been identified as a traditionally virile party, or the party of men, as its culture of nationalism is constructed to emphasise masculine themes. The heroic masculine image of the party is reified in the form of grey wolves (bozkurtlar) that must protect female wolves (asena). [8] The grey wolf is the totem of original Turkism and symbol of the party. Although Bahçeli abandoned several party gestures and symbols (moustaches [9] and the special Ülkücü greeting [10]), despite the powerful principles and doctrines of the Ülkü Ocakları, the party is still reproducing a deep-rooted traditional discourse on gender.

The nationalist discourse and its moralism suggest a close relationship between nationhood and manhood, as well as alluding to the gender politics surrounding the masculine themes of honor and duty, where men are the main agents who conduct politics and women are obedient sisters who ought to follow the path shaped for them. The programme of the party subscribes to an endemic understanding of gender that strictly emphasises women’s role within the family, normalising their absence in the political sphere and naturalising men’s domination within it. The party programme states, ‘The family institution is of great importance in protecting and maintaining national and moral values and passing them on to the next generations and also solidifying solidarity.’ [11]

These covertly patriarchal references become more visible, as Bahçeli has not abstained from praising the party’s nationalist masculinist discourse. This discourse of protecting the country from any threat is a very resilient construction. and the understanding of father state and head of the state, as realised in the image of the grey wolf, reproduces it. Bahçeli is even quoted as saying, ‘The grey wolves will breathe down the AKP’s neck. You will definitely pay for the lives of martyrs and supporting separatism.’ [12]

As nationalism and its emotions have always nurtured masculine themes, it might be argued that, especially in nationalist politics, the grey wolves are hard to distinguish as either nationalistic or masculinist, since they seem so thoroughly tied both to the nation and to manliness’ (Nagel, 1998, p.252).

Militarism: I am the guardian of the Republic!

The military has played a crucial role in Turkish politics since the early days of the Republic, and military officers in Turkey have taken power into their own hands on three different occasions (1960 –1961, 1971 –1973 and 1980 –1983). In this regard, they have intervened in democratic politics, a sphere that was intended to be dominated by political parties. The guardian role of the military has shaped a political culture, mythologising a benign political role for the armed forces in national politics (Cizre, 1993). In Turkey, the nation has been considered by many to be indivisible from its armed forces. The common saying ‘every Turk (male) is born a soldier!’ is the most apparent reification of this symbolism.

Militarism is a multifaceted network of metaphors and symbols that provides a sense of manliness. Altınay argues ‘the myth of the military nation’ is constitutive of Turkish culture and has also become intertwined with the characteristics of normative masculinity. In a similar vein, Enloe notes, ‘masculinity has been intimately tied to militarism, yet the two sets of ideas are not inseparable’ (Enloe, 2000, p.235). Completing the military service, albeit mandatory, is considered a marker of being a ‘real’ man, with service to state defining proper masculinity and, for many young men, joining the army is the most honourable event of their lives. The farewell ceremony given as a young man departs his family to serve in the military is especially important, as it becomes a public celebration of an important step in becoming a ‘real man’. [13]

In keeping with the status associated with being a soldier, the notion of martyrdom glorifies dead soldiers, who are identified as the brave men who died for the sake of the nation. [14] However, Mehmetçik (an anonymous soldier) is also idolised, even if he does not die for the country. The military service is seen as a precursor to manhood, marriage and serious employment, making it inseparable from masculinity, nationalism and citizenship. The formula is very simple: being a man is confirmed by soldiering and being a soldier verifies not only your civic responsibility but also your patriotism. Hence, being a brave soldier and protecting the nation has significant implications for the blueprint of Turkish masculinities within the field of politics. Accordingly, politicians and leaders are also expected to have the characteristics of ‘real’ men, namely to have completed military service and to be courageous while protecting the country. As military officers were the guardians of the newly-formed Republic after the War of Independence, they also became the first generation of political elites. Hence, the characteristics of a statesman started to be matched with the characteristics of a soldier.

Atatürk and other Kemalist elites have fueled the aforementioned stereotypes. Following their party’s historical role, the politicians of the CHP consider themselves both the guardians of the secular Republic and self-ascribed soldiers shouldering the responsibility to protect the country. As they protected the nation from the enemies during the War of Independence, the politicians of the CHP still insist upon saving Turkish society from the alleged Islamic threat to Kemalist ideals posed by the AKP. To illustrate, ‘We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’ has always been a very popular political statement from party members and its constituents. For instance, in 2007, a large demonstration was held in Ankara, with the aim of protecting Republican values and secularism, and (especially) protesting Erdoğan’s potential candidacy for presidency. The predominant slogans in favour of the military were mainly, ‘We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal’ (Mustafa Kemal’in askerleriyiz) and ‘Down with the hands that encroach on the army’ (Orduya uzanan eller kırılsın). [15] Protecting the country from the Islamic threat has reified itself with a discourse against the AKP.

In parallel, the CHP party programmes and election manifestos highlight its devotion to Kemalist ideals and secularism. Meanwhile, the party’s electorate has also identified it as the party of Atatürk (Kalaycıoğlu, 2008). The guardianship of the CHP has generally been considered as the legacy of Kemalism, and this role epitomises Kemalist masculinities within the field of politics. For instance, Deniz Baykal, the former leader of the CHP, built his leadership discourse upon the legacy of Atatürk by overtly idealising the role of a responsible, well-equipped administrative officer of the Kemalist/statist regime. Particularly in pre-election times, during propaganda speeches, he referenced Atatürk by urging ‘secular’ citizens by asking them to ‘protect Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular and democratic Republic by your votes’. [16]

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the current leader of the party, also continuously references Atatürk and his heritage, along with Kemalism as the founding principle of the party:

‘Our Atatürk, we do commemorate you with great honor and dignity. Your reforms have been our principles and will always be. We will continue to follow the path of contemporary civilisations. I here do bestow your commitment.’ [17]

Reaching the level of contemporary civilisation was the main motivation behind the Kemalist modernisation project in the early Republican period of the 1920s, and a continuous reference to Atatürk and as the founding father and leader of the Republic was prescribed into the functioning of the party. In the same framework, the 2018 party programme well exemplifies this deep-rooted, unquestioned heritage. This begins with the section termed ‘Aim and Priorities: We are the Guardians of Atatürk’s principles and Reforms.’ The section then defines six main principles, as depicted by the party’s logo. Then, each section of the programme starts with a reference to Atatürk.

The CHP party’s long-term use of cherished values has proved to be repetitive. Indeed, it can be argued that deep rooted Kemalist discourse, with its patterns of masculinities, is still alive. In other words, the Kemalist cultural, social and political imagery of men still depicts old norms, as Kemalists continue to insist upon ‘saving society’ and, hence, attribute themselves a heroic role.

Westernisation: Mon Cher vs. Kabadayı

In the Turkish context, westernisation has generally been analysed in light of the delicate balance between the traditional and the modern. Modernity has been conflated with what is considered Western or European, especially in everyday life and public discourse; Westernisation, Europeanisation and even democratisation are each still being used interchangeably. These conceptualisations exclude what is traditional, Islamic and/or Ottoman. The Turkish experience of building a nation-state exemplifies how these antagonisms are reflected in political and cultural lives. From the perspective of constructing a gendered identity, the stereotypical image of the züppe of the Tanzimat reform era was an example that displayed how dualities have been reflected in everyday life.

In contrast to the züppe, who were considered to have de-masculinised behaviours and bodies, another key masculine stereotype was the kabadayı. These were traditionally the guarantors of the mahalle, in particular, and the normative order in general. In present-day Turkey, many people define President Erdoğan as a kabadayı. As a result of his allegedly authoritarian personality and the neighbourhood that he grew up in, Kasımpaşa, there is a popular perception of him as the ‘heroic leader who resists against all odds’ (Yavuz, 2009, p.119).

Borrowing its roots from the early Republican period, the power interplay between the mon cher and kabadayı, as the symbols of modern decadence and the significance of traditions, found its counterpart in the recognised styles of ‘doing politics’ in the 2000s. As mentioned before, in Turkey, both bureaucrats and the CHP’s cadres consider themselves the guardians of the Atatürk’s principles. Meanwhile, the way in which Western-oriented diplomats conduct politics is labelled as mon cher in populist discourse. The so-called Davos crisis has accurately represented the rift between bureaucrats and Erdoğan.

As the current president of Turkey, Erdoğan has differed from his counterparts in terms of his manner and speech. His tough and aggressive conduct in politics has been both legitimised and appreciated in the eyes of public because his perceived manliness is rooted in both his Kasımpaşalılık (Kasımpaşa origin) and kabadayılık (toughness), which is perceived as the only true and authentic nature of Turkish men.

Erdoğan’s roughnecking manner is a common area of dispute among Turkish politicians. On several occasions, Baykal, the former leader of the CHP, has criticised Erdoğan’s way of talking and behaving:

‘It is wrong to imitate the President’s attitude in an obstinate manner, reacting and turning it into an occasion of political hostility, and to challenge him. I advise them to quit such behaviour immediately. It is not appropriate to conduct politics on delicate issues with a kabadayı tone.’ [18]

However, while criticising Erdoğan’s way of conducting politics, Baykal also espouses such rhetoric. For example, he once stated: ‘If this coffee house culture is to be approved, I shall not let go of this coffee house. If this is a merit, then we shall do it too.’ [19] Here, it is evident that being kabadayı is taken as merit for a ‘real politician’. All defining characteristics of kabadayı can easily be legitimised in politics. Courage, strength and self-confidence are characteristics of the kabadayı and are representative of a leading figure who can survive against all danger. This discourse that highlights a strong masculinist norm merges well with the dialogue of AKP’s texts.

As mentioned, the AKP’s policy on gender has offered a new paradigm in comparison with the old state feminism promoted by the CHP. When analysing AKP’s programme, it is easy to distinguish a new approach towards women’s empowerment and it is evident that it promises to improve the condition of women in every aspect of social life. However, the traditional understanding of gender roles has not been fully eliminated. The AKP’s programme pledges to take measures against violence and gain international standards on the rights and freedoms of women. However, despite the egalitarian tone, it also highlights women’s role in the family. In the party programme of the AKP, the following is delineated:

‘Dealing with every kind of problem related to women that has accumulated because of the negligence over the years is a subject that our party prioritises, not only because they constitute half of our society but also because, above all, they are individuals and are primarily effective on raising healthy generations.’ [20]

The programme perceives women in terms of motherhood. This focus is reflected in the programme’s statement that ‘improvements will be made on social security and working conditions while taking into consideration women’s responsibilities regarding professional life, children, and family.’ [21] Hence, it can be argued that the woman’s primary domain, according to the framework of the AKP programme, is the home, with childcare as her main responsibility. This is a repetitive theme in the party’s discourse. Emphasising women’s role as caregivers circuitously accentuates the protective role of men, and therefore traditional gender roles within the family. As the historical map of Turkey shows, a lens on gender reveals that the family has a traditional role in Turkey. Since Ottoman times, the family has played an important part in the solidarity of the community and a ‘joint family cultural system’ has prevailed (Bahar and Duben, 1991, p.10).

Erdoğan’s role as the father of the family/motherland and protector of its citizens against all odds, as kabadayı, exemplifies the party’s position. Moreover, in line with the needs of masculinist strategy during the Turkish elections in 2001, 2005 and 2007, the rhetoric of adam gibi lider (leader like a man) has been utilised. This standard of virility has legitimised itself and also promoted Erdoğan as a protective paternal figure who protects the needy. His successive references to the expected role of women within society accurately exemplify his aspiration to be the father and/or older brother of every citizen, especially women. This is, again, in line with Turkish political culture. The AKP’s family-focused policies position women’s role as that of ‘mother’. In conjunction with Erdoğan’s comments on abortion, caesarean sections and advice for women to bear at least three children, these policies reaffirm that Turkish women’s bodies have become a battleground for political actors (Onar and Müftüler-Baç, 2011). Meanwhile, being a father traditionally endows a man with a natural and legitimate right to control his social sphere and aligns with his kabadayı manner, fuelled by conventional norms and reifies itself into his single man figure, a concept that is so dominant in Turkey’s current political arena.

The field of man: ‘Face me if you are a man!’

With the help of a Bourdieuan lens, it can be argued that the way in which historical mechanisms structure the repertoire of political subjects manifests itself in the reification of traditional gender roles. As the official documents of political parties and the discursive ground underpinning them substantiate such reification and its continuity, despite breaks and shifts in discourse, it is reliant on standardised gendered hierarchies and gives rise to what Bourdieu (2001) calls legitimation and authorisation. In Turkey, the understanding of the field of men, er meydanı, is reified. This means the accumulated knowledge affirms that the political arena is a field dominated by men and masculinism. Although the AKP, the CHP and the MHP represent different political ideologies and approaches, they all do emphasise an attestation of manliness, glorification of the family and the roles within it: men as breadwinners and protectors, and women as housewives and mothers.

For Bourdieu, masculine domination can be defined as the eternalisation of the traditional gender order, which is also naturalised and embedded in political, social and cultural processes and networks (Bourdieu, 2001, p.23). This can be seen in the way that, although all parties define women predominantly in the private realm and within the family: both the AKP and the MHP stress the issue of women under the heading of ‘woman and family’ within their documents. The CHP, as a centre-left party, does not classify women and the emancipation of women under the same heading. However, it defines ‘equality’ with reference to Atatürk, the father and protector of all.

As both the AKP and the MHP are historically more conservative parties, the AKP’s traditional stance is critical when compared to its commitment to democratisation. Çavdar (2010) links such a paradox to the historic legacy inherited from the Islamist movement. Here, as Buğra and Keyder (2006) argue that the AKP offering of ‘an amalgam of neo-liberalism with social conservatism’ has shaped a gender discourse, taking this as an example of neo-Muslim political masculinities. In parallel to Starck and Sauer’s definition of political masculinities, this can be defined as ‘any kind of masculinity trait that is constructed around, ascribed to and/or claimed by political players’. Here, the actors within the party and their political discourses have reinforced a culture that glorifies traditional gender roles within the family and its upkeep: a roughnecking style of conducting politics that exhorts the state as the main protector. In particular, the AKP’s policies on gender draw lines for the participation of women and for underscoring women’s own agency.

In line with this argument, both the AKP and CHP hold a paradoxical stance towards gender equity. Despite centre-left positioning endorsing an egalitarian approach on gender, the CHP has not internalised the principles of gender equity and women’s empowerment. Members of the party, particularly its leaders, have reproduced their own codes and gender patterns in accordance with the ideal of civilising the nation, evoking secularism’s own masculine imagery. Kemalist masculinities, in line with the statist feminism of early Republican era, have coincided with the demands of a Republican patriarchy that has assigned men the role of leadership and guardianship.

On the other hand, the MHP meets ‘expectations’ as a nationalist party subscribing to traditional gender roles by using a protective approach. Women’s roles in the making and maintenance of the nation as mothers have been explicitly enshrined in the MHP’s official party documents. Hence, it indirectly positions men as the head of the family to protect women, promoting patriarchal family forms. In a country where nationalism is one of the ‘most critical defining parameters of society’, it is important to question how nationalist discourses have affected the construction of masculinities and how masculine ideals have served to popularise nationalism (Bora, 2011). The Turkish experience of nation-state formation contains an active gender politics centred around masculine themes such as bravery, duty and strength. The party has historically promoted the nationalist typology of masculinities, with an emphasis on the unity between a nation-state and a potent politician who can conduct this honorary duty.

The second prominent theme in the analysis of political masculinities in Turkey marks the boundaries of masculinism. The leaders of the political parties have been socialised in diverse environments and developed different ideological stances. In parallel, they each have a different position in society and have experienced the practices of being men in a multi-layered manner. In a Bourdieuian framework, that which is practiced is the accumulation of different kinds of capital, the habitus, within the field. Therefore, the mutual relation between habitus and the field, namely politics, has shaped individuals’ practices. From this perspective, it may be hypothesised that, despite their different habitus in the same field, all leaders have reproduced masculinism. The struggle for power – in other words male rivalry – is the main motive behind the construction of masculine identities and it can also be said that, ‘[u]nlike ideologies that appeal to men’s minds, hegemonic masculinity taps into the deepest recesses of men’s psychosexual, social, and political identities’ (Kann, 1998, p. 28).

The trappings of hegemonic masculinity are embedded in the dynamic structuring of habitus, including political identities. Even though leaders of Turkish mainstream political parties have experienced different paths of masculinities and accumulations of capital, they all hint to known boundaries anchored in the past. In other words, they have all toyed with masculinist norms, and ultimately reproduced similar trajectories.

The invitation of ‘Face me if you are a man’ (Erkeksen çık karşıma) is not to be ignored by the interlocutor or other politicians. As it is very common among political leaders to invite their opponents to er meydanı for a test of manliness and strength, the political arena is being inundated with exclusively and extremely masculine connotations. Metaphorical confrontations continue through invitations to undergo tests of courage in which men are expected to display manly bravery, as opposed to being fragile or sensitive ‘like women’. Alongside a discourse shaped by an understanding of politics as er meydanı, masculinist necessity has justified its means and ends through a discourse centred on protecting the country and wider society (particularly those members perceived as needy, namely women).

As a sticking point, the perception of threat has been reproduced in different historical contexts, manifesting itself against Islam, the unity of the state or Kemalist ideals. It has found new voices and new bodies. Hence, it can be argued that the normalisation and glorification of normative masculine codes limits the flexibility of any alternative masculine spheres that could shape Turkish political masculinities. The taken-for-granted understanding of politics as the field of men either welcomes actors who are adaptable or has already been adapted into the heteronormative rules of the game fueled by dichotomies. This is in line with Kandiyoti’s view that:

‘…a moratorium should be declared on focusing on the binaries of religious vs. secular, western vs. non-western or global vs. local in favor of more rigorous institutional analysis that will give a better understanding of the politics of gender’ (2011, p.10).

The field of politics, aroused by virile games and an understanding of masculinity as a source of power, attunes itself with naturalised gender norms. In addition, as rather than serving as a myopic lens on Turkey, uncovering the dynamics of neo-liberalism and the naturalisation of masculinist agendas is very significant for a global reading of gender inequalities. As Lindisfarne and Neale aptly argue, ‘gendered culture and thus of course all kinds of masculinities has become more evident, more emphasised and more debated’ under neo-liberal rule (Cornwall et al., 2016). Under such a framework, this study is a step towards describing the boundaries of analysis of normative masculine norms and the resilient points anchored in the history of any given country. It also opens a discussion for future research analysing the politics of masculinities that transgresses longstanding traditions. Through this retrospective enquiry into the climate of political masculinities in Turkey, several questions also emerge for possible spaces of elaboration.

To conclude, given the overbearing emphasis on masculine power and bravado, the question of what spaces are open and accessible to women within this political space has well-preoccupied feminist research in Turkey. In a parallel, though understated way, the limits of masculine styles within Turkish politics explored in this paper lead us to ask how spaces for men themselves might be curtailed or opened up in the future.


Selin Akyuz, a red-haired woman with a light blue shirt and black shoulder bag, stands in front of a green door and green wall.Selin Akyüz is a Research Fellow at Ihsan Doğramacı International Advanced Studies Centre of Bilkent University. Akyüz obtained her Bachelor’s degree from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Bilkent University and her Master’s degree from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Hacettepe University. She completed her doctoral studies in 2012 in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University. During her doctoral studies, Akyüz recieved a research fellowship from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) and completed her research as a visiting PhD student to the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Oslo.

Akyüz also conducted her post-doctoral research on gendered perceptions of migration as a visiting research fellow to the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, between October 2014 and July 2015.  She also participated in ethnographic research on gender equity, women empowerment, localities and post-migratory experiences. Her journal publications appeared in Turkish Studies, Women’s Studies International Forum, Journal of Conflict Transformation and Security, and Masculinities. Her major research interests centre on critical studies on men and masculinities, political sociology, Turkish politics and migration.


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[1] Bennhold, K. 2009. Leaders of Turkey and Israel Clash on Davos Panel. New York Times. February 16, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/world/europe/30clash.html (accessed January 22, 2018).

[2] Gündem, H. No cease-fire in Israel Turkey ties after Davos. February 16, 2009. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/domestic/11009397.asp (accessed January 22, 2018).

[3] In Turkey, Pro-Kurdish political parties represent another major party family. Evolving from a factional movement within leftist parties, pro-Kurdish political parties have been active in the Turkish political arena since 1990s. Although they have been continuously banned by the Constitutional Court and reopened, these parties represent an important stance in the political arena in Turkey. However, a gendered analysis of pro-Kurdish political parties requires a different approach that integrates ethnicity and regionalism. Pro-Kurdish political parties’ feminist agenda (i.e. the representation of women, their quota and co-chairing policies) differs from mainstream Turkish political parties and offers a different paradigm for an analysis of their constructions of political masculinities.

[4] From the speech delivered by the party leader R. Tayyip Erdoğan at the International Symposium on Conservatism and Democracy, January 10, 2004. http://www.akparti.org.tr/siyasivehukuk/dokuman/ing.%20başbakan%20konuşma%20UMDS.doc

[5] Asena is the female wolf in Turkic mythology that is commonly used in the MHP’s political rhetoric.

[6] 11 Kasım 1938 Tan Gazetesi. Turkish Media. November 10, 2012. http://www.turkish-media.com/forum/gallery/image/2756-11-kasim-1938-tan-gazetesi/ (accessed December 20, 2016).

[7] “Devletin başına Devlet gelecek,” Hürriyet, November 5, 2000. http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/ShowNew.aspx?id=-195481 (accessed November 10, 2016).

[8]Asena is the female wolf in Turkic mythology that is commonly used in the MHP’s political rhetoric.

[9] The MHP moustache has a particular style and two ends extending downwards characterise it. It is different than conservative style of mustache that is called badem. This moustache is small and neatly trimmed.

[10]Ülkücü greeting is particular by its style. It is simply touching the sides of the head instead of cheeks.

[11] Millî ve manevî değerlerin korunması, yaşatılması ve gelecek kuşaklara aktarılmasında millî bütünlüğün ve dayanışmanın pekiştirilmesinde aile kurumu büyük önem arz etmektedir. (MHP Party Program, 2009: 61)

[12] “Bozkurtların nefesi AKP’nin ensesinde olacak,” Hürriyet, August 6, 2006..http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/ShowNew.aspx?id=487850 (accessed November 10, 2013).

[13] Family, friends and relatives accompany the soldier to the bus station or airport. A convoy of relatives in cars follows behind the car carrying the new soldier in the passenger seat, ‘waving Turkish flags and chanting nationalist songs’ (Navaro-Yashin, 2002, p.117).

[14] The state recognises two kinds of martyr. One is a martyr of duty who defines a soldier who died in an accident while on duty. This martyr’s families cannot obtain all the rights of martyrdom. The other is a martyr of terrorism who defines a soldier who died during a terrorist attack. The families of these soldiers receive salaries, housing and job assistance.

[15] %65’in yüzbinleri. Hürriyet Gündem, 15 Nisan 2007. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/65-in-yuzbinleri-6335051 (accessed December 18, 2016).

[16] “Vereceğiniz oyla Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’e, laik, demokratik cumhuriyete
sahip çıkın.”(30.10.2002) from http://hurarsiv.hurriyet.com.tr/goster/ShowNew.aspx?id=106626

[17] Sana içten bağlıyız. Hürrriyet Gündem. 03 Temmuz 2011. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/sana-icten-bagliyiz-18161620 (accessed December 18, 2016).

[18] Baykal, “Cumhurbaşkanı’nın tavrına karşı bir inatlaşma, tepki gösterme, siyasi husumet vesilesi haline getirme, meydan okuma yaklaşımları yanlıştır. Öyle yapmaktan bir an önce vazgeçmelerini öneriyorum. Kabadayı üslubuyla hassas konularda siyaset yapmak doğru değil. Cumhurbaşkanına saygımız var ama, Türkiye’nin demokratikleşme doğrultusunda atmış olduğu adımın sonuçlandırılması gerektiğine inanıyoruz” dedi. (23.12.2002) from cumhuriyet.com

[19] Baykal, “Eğer bir kahvehane kültürü olumlu görülüyorsa, kahvehaneyi ona bırakmam. Marifetse o zaman biz de yaparız” (31.12.2005). From hurriyet.com.tr.

[20] Kadınlar sadece toplumumuzun yarısını oluşturdukları için değil, her şeyden önce birey ve sağlıklı nesillerin yetiştirilmesinde birinci derecede etkin oldukları için, yılların ihmali sonucu biriken her türlü sorunlarıyla ilgilenilmesi, partimizin öncelik verdiği bir konudur (AKP Party program, 2009: 28).

[21] Kadınların çalışma hayatı, çocuk ve aile sorumlulukları dikkate alınarak sosyal güvenlik ve çalışma koşullarında iyileştirmeler yapılacaktır (AKP Party program, 2009: 29).

Figure 1: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, at Davos Word Economic Forum taken from the Wikimedia Commons site. By Copyright by World Economic Forum, swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler – originally posted to Flickr as Recep Tayyip Erdogan – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Figure 2: The headline of a newspaper published in the following day of Atatürk’s death. ‘We lost our father’ (Babamızı kaybettik).
Figure 3: Image of Selin Akyuz taken from the Bilkent University website.
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