It’s dusk over the Bosphorus. As the sun sets on Istanbul, Zeynep Bilgin shares her fears, just days before the second round for the Turkish presidential elections.
“Politics in this country is dominated by religion, and this election can change the lives and rights of women,” says our interviewee. “Huda Bar’s party declared openly that women should not vote, and that all women should marry before the age of 30. Huda Bar is very strong and I am really worried.”
Huda Bar’s radical Islamist Turkish party embodies her fears. Zeynep Bilgin even asked to change her name for fear of speaking publicly.
Later, a few days later, we were approached by a woman in the Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakir (southeast Turkey), after she had cast her vote in the second round of the presidential elections. The woman who opposes Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said: “It’s the last woman’s vote,” she says in English, speaking softly but firmly. “We may lose our right to vote. They will change everything. We will become like Iran because of thisbar”.
That night, shortly after Erdoğan’s victory and re-election as president, the woman from the polling station kept calling and texting to make sure her name was not revealed or her identity revealed. She had great concerns about the consequences of this election for Turkish women, just as she was sure that the repression of opposition supporters, especially the Kurds, would be harsh.
Across the country, many women who voted for the opposition seem certain that nothing will be the same after Erdogan wins a new term in office.
Perhaps the most important reason is the presence of this Kurdish Islamic party alongside the “President”, although it is secondary and was not much known on the local scene before the 2023 campaign: Huda Bar. The name of the party is an abbreviation of the phrase “Free Cause Party“, which means: “The Party of Free Dawa”, which can also be translated by the phrase: “Hezbollah”.
This party arose out of the war that broke out in the 1990s between secret branches of Turkey’s state security apparatus and an armed Kurdish group. Huda Bar’s party has long been ignored by Turks in big cities, but its powerful rise reveals the perils of ignoring the suburbs in a highly centralized country that has long turned a blind eye to grievances against minorities.
However, things changed in 2023, when the ruling Justice and Development Party announced that it had entered into an alliance with Hoda Bar, which means that the Kurdish Islamic Party will enter the ballot on the same list as the presidential party.
In response to that step, opposition condemnations came swift and strong, which intensified when the legislative elections on May 14, which were held in conjunction with the first round of the presidential elections, allowed four members of Huda Bar to enter the National Assembly (Parliament), which includes 600 deputies. Many are now wondering which aspects of their Islamist agenda the government will embrace as Recep Tayyip Erdogan embarks on his third decade in power.
“Kurds are killing Kurds in a fratricidal war run by the state”
The panic caused by Hoda Bar’s presence under the Turkish parliament’s dome is due to the party’s murky past, which has never been acknowledged or dealt with properly by the Turkish state. Huda Bar’s roots go back to Hezbollah, the Sunni Kurdish group that no longer exists today and has nothing to do with the group in Lebanon that bears the same name.
Experts pointed out that during the 1990s, the Turkish security services used Hezbollah to eliminate members and sympathizers of the PKK. Later, the party transformed into a takfiri jihadi group that would kill anyone, especially women’s rights activists, who disagreed with the group’s extremist interpretation of Islam.
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In this regard, Maşuk Kurt, an expert specializing in Turkish Hezbollah from the Royal Holloway Institute (University of London), explained that “Hezbollah (Turkish) has been infiltrated by the security services and encouraged to carry out attacks against Kurdish activists and civilians. There have been many killings.” , persecution, and torture, especially against women, religious leaders, and activists. It has not been resolved.”
The Turkish state used Hezbollah against left-wing Kurdish groups in a fratricidal war. But when the group attacked the police, especially after the killing of the Diyarbakir police chief, the state finally took action and carried out in 2000 a security campaign during which thousands of Hezbollah members were arrested..
According to Maşuk Kurt, this repression was followed by a “period of silence” that lasted until 2004 when the movement re-emerged in the public sphere in the form of civil society organizations, shortly after the AKP came to power. The opening-up measures taken by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) quickly gave way to Islamist groups that had been operating underground. In this general context, it emerged Huda Bar as a legal entity and set up offices in Diyarbakir.
“They reappeared in the public space through legal entities, with continuity in ideology and through the same social base supporting them, but I don’t see a structural link. What has changed is the embodiment of these values, their methods. In the past, they were very Secrecy, secrecy, and it relied on a solid core willing to engage in violence. Today, it is a legal entity.”
As a political party, Hoda Bar denies any links with Hezbollah, but admits that some of its members previously belonged to the Turkish armed group. In this context, the leader of the party, Zekeria Yabiçoğlu, said publicly that he does not believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist group. Remarks denounced by the opposition and the media ahead of the second round of the presidential elections, sparked protests, including on the stands of football stadiums where ultras (extremist fans) chanted: “We don’t want Hezbollah in Parliament.”
Criminalize adultery and abolish domestic violence laws
But the shouts of the ultras groups came too late. After the arrival of four of Huda Bar’s members to parliament, the party began its first legislative body to rebel against the customs and traditions of the Turkish Republic. About two weeks after the general elections, a Turkish media reported that the new deputies had not yet taken the oath, as Huda Bar refused to swear the rest of the Turkish parliamentarians.
According to the Republican People’s Party (secular, opposition), the Islamic party also opposed the employment of women in parliament. The issue of women’s rights is already in the sights of Hoda Bar and so is another radical Islamist party allied with the AKP, the New Prosperity Party (YRP). Both parties are calling for a reassessment of laws to “protect family safety,” which could result in Turkey rolling back laws that protect women from domestic violence.
“Both parties share the same visions of gender equality and the integration of the family into a patriarchal structure. Their attitudes are homophobic and xenophobic, they are very anti-Western and anti-Israel, and quite controversial, especially on the issue of women’s rights and the LGBTQ community,” says Maşuk Kurt.
Hoda Bar suggests criminalizing sex outside marriage, abolishing women’s rights to alimony, and abolishing Turkish law protecting victims of domestic violence.
“Axis for the Conservatives” in the Kurdish regions
The extreme positions of Huda Bar’s party have led many Turks to assume that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position in the run-up to the elections was so weak that he had been embarrassingly forced to back this minor party.
Despite this, Turkish Interior Minister Suleiman Soylu, during a speech on the ruling party’s strategy, described the AKP’s alliance with Hoda Bar as “the most important step taken by the Turkish Republic and Turkish politics” in recent years.
In an interview with CNN Turk,CNN Türk)Soylu pointed out that the “strategic importance” of the alliance will appear within ten years, when “the conservative axis in the policies of the east and southeast will be reactivated with this step.”
In this context, this strategic path of the AKP to expand the “conservative axis” in the Kurdish region in the southeast is well under way, to confront the HDP (HDP) secular progressive, which is still the most popular in that region.
The HDP’s influence on the Kurdish vote, an important and largely coherent component of the opposition’s electoral base, continues to maintain its influence despite President Erdogan’s harsh crackdown on the party.
However, Ma’shuq Kurt pointed out that Erdogan’s party “has tried hard in recent years to win the support of the Kurdish people,” adding that “Huda Bar provides the Justice and Development Party with a base to work on these policies.”
Targeting Kurdish mayors and women’s rights activists
Since the failed coup in July 2016, President Erdogan has dismissed and imprisoned several democratically elected HDP mayors, accusing them of “supporting an illegal organization,” in reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. For human rights advocates, the Turkish president is content to designate all those who oppose him as “terrorists”.
Gulcihan Simsek, the former mayor of Bostanci district (southeastern Van province), was arrested in April 2009. Without charges, she has been imprisoned for five years, in the notorious Military Prison No. 5 in Diyarbakir, in the heart of the largest Kurdish city in Turkey. Turkey.
Once the mayors are dismissed, they are replaced by administrators appointed by the ruling party. “Therefore, the AKP is currently seeking to replace the HDP with Hoda Bar as the legal representative of the Kurdish population, and it is promoting Islamic brotherhood to divert the attention of the Kurds from national aspirations,” explains Maşuk Kurt. The same spokesperson adds: “A lot of aid is being approved for Huda Bar’s supporters and civil society organizations.”
Nevertheless, the AKP faces fierce competition for the Kurdish vote. For example, the Republican People’s Party, a secular opposition party, did not try to obtain the votes of the Kurds, leaving the way open for the Kurdish parties. In contrast, those parties strongly supported the CHP in the recent elections.
In light of this, the strategy of the ruling party in the southeast lies in strengthening the traditional and familial roles of women, in an attempt to broaden and capture the conservative Kurdish vote.. This is done by targeting the women’s movement, according to Gulcihan Simsek.
Since her release from Diyarbakir prison in 2014, the former mayor has been actively involved in the Kurdish women’s movement, which paved the way for the Turkish women’s movement. However, this did not protect her from a campaign of repeated arrests, detentions, and continuous and prolonged trials.
“This government is restricting our freedoms, they are trying to make women stay at home. This is a state policy whose goal is to divide the Kurds. Hoda Bar’s supporters owe the Kurdish people an apology for everything they did in the 1990s. The Kurds are indignant,” says Gulcihan Simsek. Still clinging to hope, Simsek adds, “Suddenly, Huda Bar became a friend of the AKP. But the Kurdish people were not fooled. We will continue our struggle.”