It is under these conditions that Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), sent a representation of six female MPs to the southeastern city of Sur on the 25th December 2015 to observe the difficulties faced by the local residents. The visit was widely reported in Turkey’s media. With the sound of gunshots echoing in the background, the female MPs told reporters that the delegation was there to raise a voice for the citizens of the region, “whose fundamental right to life has been taken away, in addition to the difficulties local residents have had reaching food, education and health services”.
In the few months before the visit, the Sur district had been subjected to 6 curfews and was a battlefield of clashes between security forces and local militants with heavy weapons. Since August 2015, life in Sur has been severely disrupted and under tight lockdown. Evidence has shown heavy street fighting, civilian casualties that include children, destruction of homes and private property of the city’s inhabitants, and inability to access health services. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, 5 civilians were killed in Sur between 11–25 December (including 2 children) and 7 were injured (3 children). Since August 2015, the total civilian death toll in seven southeastern cities is 162 (at the time of writing). An estimated 1,377,000 citizens are at risk, and a total of 58 curfews have been imposed. Furthermore, in November 2015, while calling for the end of this conflict, human rights lawyer Tahir Elci- who had worked on cases of torture and forces disappearances during state security operations in the South-East in the 1990s, was shot and killed in Sur.
If the CHP wanted to highlight the humanitarian need in Sur, it could not have found a better way than sending an all-female MP team for a mid-winter visit, amongst the backdrop. The female parliamentarian ‘peace delegation’ was centered on the plight of civilians and thus gave the conflict a much-needed human face. As reported previously by Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a human face of this conflict has been much lacking in the mainstream Turkish media. Due to fear of being perceived as ‘pro-Kurdish’, media coverage has been skewed in favor of the valiant efforts of the security forces, with almost no mention of the civilian casualties. In addition, the governing party’s suppression of the country’s media means that journalists are continually reporting under the threat of raids, arrests, court cases and investigations. Hence, a visit to Sur by female MPs from the mainstream of Turkish politics is markedly distinct from the silence that is commonly observed among the high echelons of power in Ankara. In a climate of fear, intimidation and insecurity, more voices are needed to take on the political challenge of calling for the safety of the civilians and of investigating the number and seriousness of human rights violations, including the possibility of compensations.
Nevertheless, let us look at the all-female character of the visit within a Turkish context. Women in Turkey are significantly under-represented in mainstream politics. Both at present and in the past decades, women have not been included in a politically negotiated settlement of the Kurdish issue, despite it being a central political issue since the 1980s. The few women parliamentarians in Turkey (81 of 550, or 14.7%) are subjected to strict and male-dominated party discipline and are mostly relegated to official roles ‘appropriate’ to their gender. Notably, the position of Minister of Family is always afforded to a woman, and all other ministries are occupied by men. Furthermore, Turkey ranks 130 of 145 in global gender equality according to the Global Gender Gap Report for 2015. This is in fact a deterioration, as the equivalent ranking was 125 in 2014, and 120 in 2013. In light of the above, it is important to discuss why the CHP chose to send an all-female political representation to Sur, instead of a mixed-gender team.
The all-female visit to Sur indicates that the representatives were not sent to negotiate conflict resolution nor attempt any real improvement of the situation. Instead, it framed the visit as a symbolic caring task, where the women’s role was to nurture and support the victims of the conflict. The notion that negotiations on the Kurdish issue necessitates highly important strategic abilities and are thus performed by male officials in Ankara, as postulated by state and military institutions and indeed originally by the CHP, apparently remains as women continue to be absent from the discussions while the conflict in the Southeast unfolds. The role of female politicians on the side of the state appears as a means to further humanitarian, apolitical concerns when these are salient, whereas the role of the male officials is to advance political interests. This reflects widely held gender stereotypes in state politics, regardless of their accuracy, that lead some people to speculate that men fare better than women in protecting and advancing issues of national security.
There is another layer to the all-female character of the delegation. The composition of the team can be viewed through the critical lenses of exclusion, as it was entirely fashioned by female politicians who are not of Kurdish origin and are not veiled. A possible result is that the visit could be seen by the local population as a delegation of ‘state women’, who do not readily share their values and concerns (in the Southeast, equal opportunities and rights with the majority of Turkey’s population is still far from reality), and who show little to no evidence that the Kurdish issue is seen as an important sociopolitical issue in their careers and lives. In contrast, long-standing and respected female human rights lawyers and activists have not been appointed by the mainstream political parties to visit southeastern cities, nor have they been invited to initiate action on addressing the effects of the curfews and urban conflict on the civilian population. This indicates that the visit was intended as an abstract condemnation of humanitarian loss devoid of any independent or sustainable political strength.
The visit of the six female MPs from the CHP to Sur on the 25th December brought knowledge and empathy for the southeastern civilian plight to the public eye, but there are no meaningful lessons to be drawn from their action. The female MPs did not possess any special authority to make recommendations for the solution of this conflict. For many locals, the visit might have even been seen as a tool enlisted in the service of power and bureaucracy. The visit took place rightfully. Nevertheless, compassionate action is not a female, apolitical domain and was never meant to be.