Today, fundamental freedoms are still defended very selectively in this country. But at a time when every week seems to bring a new ban of one sort or another, the decision not to sell alcohol at the One Love Music Festival held earlier this month at Bilgi University, which was made at the last minute by the organizers, apparently under pressure from local conservative groups, inevitably becomes part of a wider picture of official interference in people’s private lives. Far from expanding individual rights and diverse lifestyles as it had promised, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is in fact increasingly seeking to impose its own political understanding and morality on the public.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just admitted that he personally intervened in this particular case because he believes alcoholic beverages should not be served on a university campus. “They want to turn our youths into alcoholics,” Erdoğan said. His intervention adds a new dimension to this incident. The legal age limit for drinking may differ in various countries, but implementation of existing laws should not be left to individual politicians. These days, a public statement by the prime minister, whether he expresses his dislike of a sculpture, as was the case in Kars in 2011, or his disapproval of C-sections or abortion, seems to dictate the political agenda and mobilize the bureaucracy into immediate action.
For decades, Turks suffered under the heavy hand of “devlet baba,” a harsh paternalistic state that believed it knew what was best for its citizens. Now, state and government are in the same hands, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to become the forbidding paternal figure who dictates what is acceptable, morally and politically.
Morality, however, is a very elastic concept and so, it seems, is the age of personal responsibility. Turks are adults at 18, but they can legally marry at 17. While the prime minister last year justified implementing new rules that set at 24 the age limit for attending events where alcohol is consumed, young Turks are considered criminally responsible at the age of 12 and numerous minors have been arrested under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation.
The prime minister worries about the effect of excessive alcohol consumption on the young, but the recent appointment of a police chief accused of torturing and raping female detainees does not appear to set off moral alarm bells ringing in Ankara. The level of official outrage was also limited when it emerged that jailed teens had suffered abuse at the hands of older prisoners in Pozantı and other detention centers.
And how well does the state protect the thousands of teenage girls who, every year, are still forced into illegal marriages? Not well enough, even if awareness of the issue and of domestic violence has improved.
Melek Karaaslan, whose case has just made media headlines, died in Ağrı province at the age of 24. Only 16 when she married, she apparently succumbed to eight years of ill-treatment at the hands of her husband and in-laws. According to media reports, she was recently found, driven mentally insane by the abuse and weighing only 30 kilograms, in a small toilet where she had been locked up for three months. Her father, mindful of the family “honor” and public morality, had repeatedly returned her to her abusive husband. Her violent relatives were taken in for questioning, but they were later released, having denied wrongdoing. Her case may be extreme, but it is far from unique. She -- and others like her, married at an early age and often abused -- would have needed protection, but the authorities appear more willing to limit young people’s public freedoms than to interfere in family affairs.