Normally my mom would lock me in the car as she briefly stopped at a grocery store nearby home to grab some vegetables and meat for dinner. But this time I protested! I hated it when our car’s alarm went on every time I put the radio on to kill time.
She gave in. I was going to come with her despite it meant that I was going to get lost on purpose and waste time in the aisles filled with shiny packages of candies. I was especially excited about visiting my favourite section where they sold hair dyes presented with pictures of women of every hair type and color.
As we entered the supermarket that day, I thought my race to run inside and explore had started. But right when I was about to disappear, my mom whispered:
“Meltem, do you know who she is?”
“I don’t know. Some friend of grandma’s?”
My guess was based on the fact that the lady my mom was pointing at was wearing a headscarf. The only people I had seen around me who used headscarves were almost exclusively those who came to visit my bedridden grandma for Friday prayers. To attract them into her home, she offered excess Kebab supply to them along with Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Back in those days, these ladies were picky about drinking one or the other. Grandma didn’t want to offend them.
My 6-year-old mind figured that because this lady was wearing a headscarf, she, too, must have been one of those who joined grandma’s prayer network. But then, those ladies lived in slums of Istanbul that we called gecekondu, places where people inhabited in houses they never completed constructing. They aimed adding more and more floors up. Therefore, in my head, the image of headscarf was inevitably linked with the poor, gecekondu culture. So I had a problem: How come this lady was shopping in our neigborhood? While we weren’t living in Beverly Hills, it was still an upper-middle class community filled with Armenian and Greek minorities and Turks that considered themselves educated and secular.
There was something fishy about this situation...
I first looked at my mom and then directed my attention to this mysterious lady who was selecting pears. After a moment of silence, mom said:
“She is Emine Erdogan, the wife of our mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
Whoa! All of a sudden headscarves moved from symbolizing poverty and bigotry to leadership in decision making; representation of political institutions; and success that came with hardwork.
Back then, I didn’t know much about Erdogan, Turkey’s current prime minister and the president of Justice and Development Party. Yet, I remembered seeing slogans diffused in Istanbul that said Büyükşehir Çalışıyor (The Metropolis is at work). I felt that they were gaining more and more power.
But wasn’t it that each successful man had a woman who watched his back? Then, I speculated, Emine was the key reason behind Erdogan’s achievement...
Yes, indeed I saw her potential from the way she was picking fresh vegetables and fruits for her family! Of course she -as the wife of the mayor- could have had people in charge of buying groceries and cooking. Yet, she wanted to make sure that her children and husband got the best nutrients, eating only what was fresh and in season. I respected her for taking care of her household in person. In fact, I still do.
Actually, later in life, the more I was intrigued by Erdogan’s success (whether I liked his ideology or not, it was hard to deny that he was unrivalled in Turkish politics), the more I studied the elements behind the organizational skills of his Justice and Development Party. How on earth they grew so strongly and quickly?
While I am sure that men like Erdogan himself worked day and night. Nevertheless, it was actually the women’s branch of the party that made or broke the results. Justice and Development Party’s core female members divided up and visited households in variety of neigborhoods, most of which were low-class. In those domicilaries, they contacted the “Ministers of Interior” of families: wives without official titles; wives that cooked, cleaned, and raised kids.
Convincing such women to vote for the party went a long way towards persuading their husbands as well. After all, women -even if they appeared as though they were simply following their husbands (i.e. in Turkey husbands are traditionally referred to as evin direği: columns of houses)- had unique bargaining powers. Holding off sex; not cooking desired dishes; and nagging during mensturation period were but a few features of such talent. Then, after facing such obstacles, who could blame men for doing what their wives order them to do in order not to experience such hell in his household?
In summary, although it might sound like a ridiculous idea, initiatives such as organizing informal weekly gatherings with housewives (i.e. Fridays are ideal since they are sacred in Islam) and befriending them with offerings of food such as Kebab and baklawa might hold slightly more political power than we might initially accept. Such activities could show social psychology at work, making a case study that exemplifies the rule of reciprocity in politics of persuasion. Consequently, we might notice that what women like Emine practice in political domain could be a form of subtle, compassionate leadership, a feminine gentility that makes people feel valued and encourages them to vote accordingly.
As a matter of fact, two summers ago, I had an opportunity to dine with a media leader who was also an active player in Turkish politics as a consultant of a minister. While he didn’t meet Erdogans in person, he was close friends with those that knew them well. I don’t think it is fair to expose this man’s name now. But I can’t help but to quote his words that came with the encouragement of four glasses of our traditional alcoholic drink raki:
“Ohooo. You shouldn’t buy Emine’s opressed looks. Ne yere bakan yürek yakandır o (she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing). I heard she practiced dictatorship at home. Nobody else has a voice. She is quite active in politics too. Congressmen do a somersault in front of her to become ministers.”
Really?! Could Emine and women like her be that powerful?
Today, in the middle of Gezi Park protests -the hardest challenge Erdogan has encountered in his political career- I cannot resist thinking that maybe deep inside, our prime minister is not like what our protesters like to believe. He is their target and this situation gives the impression that Turkey would be the ideal country on earth only if Erdogan changed or better yet left. But what if he is not a villain, an insensitive leader but actually someone who had suffered through hardships from jailtime to poverty and found strength in the image that his wife has deliberately projected on him? Would it be that Emine told a story of him to him in which he was all powerful and world-wide respected? Maybe she also elaborated a tale with details that informed him on how to behave; what to do; and who to become to transform into the person who he so desired to be?
At the end of the day, Emine knew that in her lifetime, a woman of traditional backgroud in Turkey didn’t have the tools (i.e. education, experience, and support) to become a political party leader herself let alone a prime minister. Although we have had a female president Tansu Çiller before as a role model, she belonged to a priviledged minority with Turkish and American dual citizenship and international education that differentiated her from women like Emine. So maybe, Emine thought that with the determination she had, she could become the true leader behind the scenes; someone who influenced the leader who attracted the most attention while in fact she was the source of the emotional motivation and force behind his actions and decision making process.
I remember how during one interview, Erdogan was asked how he met and married his wife Emine. His answer to this question was something along the lines of “Oh, I don’t know. It was the right time. She was suitable so we got married.” Whereas, when Emine was asked the same question in another occasion, what she told to the journalist was:
“A night before seeing him in a social gathering, I saw a dream in which God revealed my future husband. A day later, I saw Erdogan and I knew that it was him! He was my destiny.”
Well, Emine made him not only her own destiny, but also our fate, the kismet of Turkey.