How a women-only beach split Turkish society

The debate on the women-only beach in Antalya hints at the extreme poliarisation within Turkish soci

The debate on the women-only beach is not an issue of women's rights within Islam, writes Akyol [Reuters]

In July 2014, Menderes Turel, the mayor of Antalya, one of Turkey’s top tourism centers, announced that the Sarisu beach would be turned into a women-only beach – open to all women and free of charge. It opened on August 16, but reaction has been mixed, as familiar debates between secularists and religious conservatives were rekindled.

The aftermath of the beach opening brought a flood of vitriolic criticism from both supporters and opponents of the women-only beach, which sadly reaffirmed authoritarian attitudes within groups of Turkish society that claim complete superiority and control over the will of others. It also attests to the constant fear of particular identity groups losing power, and thus their perceived need to push for guarantees of freedoms and security. This is a malignant virus within Turkish political culture which eats away the social fabric.

In other words, the opening of the women-only beach confirmed the state of paranoia in Turkey, the pervasive deficiency of trust, and more significantly, the desperate lack of general empathy and tolerance towards the “others” and their rights.

Women’s comfort or segregation?

To clear some facts: The authorities are not putting any restrictions on beach attire, so women can go there as they wish – in bikini or burkini. Moreover, all women in Antalya are free to go to other beaches where men are allowed. Thus, given that there is a number of mixed beaches, a women-only one should not be such a big problem. 

Yet, female and male members of Antalya People’s House (Halkevi), a leftwing group, were among those who burst into criticism of what they perceive as the government’s continuing efforts to push for gender segregation. On August 24, they swam together to protest the city’s new women-only beach. Ayten Ceyhan, the head of the Antalya Halkevi, stated that the opening of the women-only beach “was not an act of positive discrimination for women, but instead isolated women from society on the grounds of protecting them from sexual abuse and violence”.

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On the other hand, there are plenty of people who have applauded the opening of the beach. They see it as s necessary and justified additional choice for a considerable segment of population. The liberal-leaning website Bianet reported that women stated their relief at having such an option and one described how she would be more comfortable in wearing a bathing suit. (Usually, women who wear head coverings don’t enter the sea at mixed beaches or wear hasema, a “conservative” swimsuit that hides women’s curves). A Hurriyet newspaper reporter who went to Sarisu beach confirmed that both women who wear and don’t wear religious attire were among the visitors.

Many of those against the women-only beach would agree with the claims of opposition MP Aylin Nazliaka (from the Republican People’s Party – CHP) that women-only beaches exist in theocracies. She called this “a backward and out of date practice” and accused the ruling AKP government of having hypocritical, dishonest policies on women.

On the other hand, Sevda Turkusev, a columnist for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, lambasted the opponents of the women-only beach, calling them “ignorant and selfish” for wanting everyone to be like them. She challenged her opponents, saying they do not represent all women. Turkusev harshly criticised this rigid secularist mentality, which for years was responsible for maintaining a ban on headscarves in some public spaces.

Clearly, secularists dread the continuation of religious conservatives’ rule, and they, in turn, tremble at the prospect of secularists returning to power.

Inflammatory claims and the segregation of “our mentality” vs “their mentality” precludes any opportunities to reach middle ground and only feeds into Turkey’s already extreme polarisation of society.

Defeating the culture of prohibition

In view of this debate, it is important to emphasise that the state should never assign to women (or men) what they should do or wear, or restrict citizens’ freedoms by making rules about one’s appropriate “moral” behaviours, if such behaviours do not endanger the freedoms of others.

Doubtlessly, all women in one state should have equal rights and freedoms. They should have the freedom to wear headscarves or miniskirts and visit a mixed beach or a women-only one – if there is a considerable demand for it. Sarisu beach is quite popular and a lot of women go there because they feel more comfortable enjoying the sea in a women-only setting.

It is the responsibility of the government to assure its citizens that their freedom of choice is not endangered.

Turkey has a historical heritage of imposing and forbidding. The same mistakes that the Kemalist state made must not be repeated today, even if a certain level of social control falls within the ideology of the ruling political group. Politicians must use conciliatory language that doesn’t scorn differences, but celebrates diversity.

Moreover, whether he purposely or mistakenly did it, it was unacceptable for Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, as a state official of a secular state, to define chastity in public. Many women were right to react in outrage to his statement that a woman should not laugh in public.

Similarly, remarks like those of a Samsun mufti who recently stated “it was religiously impermissible for men and women to dance the horon [a folk dance from the Black Sea region] together” make those who disagree with such views fearful that today’s opinion might become tomorrow’s law. It is the mufti’s right to state his view, as well as of conservative Muslims to abide by such principles. Equally, it is the right of Muslim progressives to challenge such interpretations by using arguments from the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition – and of irreligious citizens to disregard these debates within Islam.

However, it is the responsibility of the government to assure its citizens that their freedom of choice is not endangered.

The debate on the women-only beach is not an issue of women’s rights within Islam. Women-only beaches are indeed present in Muslim-majority countries, like the  UAE, Bahrain and others, and they allow women to avoid frequent harassment at mixed beaches and be able to observe their religious convictions about attire.

However, women-only beaches are not specifically a Muslim “issue” or practice. In 2007, Italy opened a women-only beach between Rimini and Riccione. Another women-only beach in Pedocin has been described by women as an “oasis of calm“. Clearly, women of different cultures and religions flock to such beaches to enjoy the sea and sun in what they perceive as more comfortable setting.

Instead of focusing just on gender apartheid versus human rights debate, maybe we should focus on twisted understandings of masculinity.

The beach controversy in Turkey does touch on a larger debate about gender segregation. There have been quite a few discussions in the West and in the East about segregation in schools and universities. On this one, I agree with Myriam Francois Cerrah who says, “As a Muslim, I oppose gender segregation in universities. But its advocates have every right to their opinion.” But all this falls within an ever broader discussion about the state’s role in limiting and extending freedoms and controlling public space, which is not limited to gender.

Ultimately, those who campaign for extending liberties should be free to do so, but they should also respect the fact that there are people who disagree with them – who cannot be forced into accepting their ideas or lifestyle choices.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @riadaaa