Özlem Zengin is a parliamentarian from Tokat province, the first female vice chair of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and also the first female lawmaker who was sworn into Parliament while wearing her headscarf back in 2015.
As a lawyer, media producer and long-running AK Party politician, Zengin has known the AK Party since it was first established in 2001. So who better to ask about the ins and outs of Turkey's ruling party, including the emphasis it puts on women and the transformation that has taken in recent years.
In an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah, we discussed all these questions and more with Zengin, who gave insight into the AK Party's inner workings.
The representation of female lawmakers in Parliament reached its highest level in Turkey as a result of the elections in June, signaling that the influence of women in politics will be increased in the new era of Turkish politics.
Since 103 female lawmakers were elected in the elections, a development that has been welcomed by all, the reasonable expectation is that the voices of women politicians will be heard more in Parliament.
Once we take a look the visibility of women in Turkish politics, we can immediately see that it has a long history. The right to run and be elected was given to women in Turkey in 1934, making it one of the first countries to grant this right.
By having 17 women parliamentarians in the 1935 Parliament, Turkey had a quite remarkable start in terms of welcoming women into politics. Since then, in the past few decades, the percentage of women's representation has steadily increased.
In 2007, the percentage of women represented in the Turkish Parliament was 9.1 percent. This number increased to 14.7 percent with 81 deputies out of 550 in the Nov. 1, 2015 elections. Finally, in the latest elections, this number has reached 17.1 percent.
While only 24 women served in Parliament in 2002, that number increased to 81 in 2015. Ahead of the last elections, political parties released their candidate lists, revealing that a total of 904 women from seven political parties were running to become parliamentarians, a record high in Turkey's history.
In addition to the increased amount of women's participation in politics throughout the years, women who wear headscarves and thus banned to be present in public offices, including universities and state institutions, gained the right to be parliamentarians in 2015.
Meanwhile, the highest number of woman deputies was elected from the AK Party, which won 295 seats in total. Approximately 126 of AK Party's lawmaker candidates were women and 53 of them won spots in the 600-seat Parliament. Women will make up almost 19 percent of AK Party's lawmakers this term, up from 12 percent.
Most of the elected female lawmakers for the 27th Parliament are lawyers. They are followed by academics and engineers.
Expressing that there are two different approaches to women and that they are being diversified, Zengin underscored the need for a new political understanding of women. She talked about the emphasis AK Party puts on women and their participation in the political life, while adding that women have transformed and restructured the party, rendering AK Party a female entity.
She added that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's personal efforts have increased women's participation in politics and has ensured their presence.
AK Party a feminine party
Expressing that 19 percent of AK Party's deputies are female and this is a record high for the party, Zengin stated that she finds this percentage insufficient.
"We want women to constitute 50 percent of politics, just like they constitute 50 percent of Turkey's total population," she said.
She also stated that the party's interaction with women transformed women and their demands, adding that it also increased women's active participation in politics.
Zengin, who was the head of the AK Party Istanbul Women's Branch when 2014 municipal elections took place, said that women wearing headscarves were elected to the city council in Istanbul and women serving in neighborhood branches were elected to district councils and some even to Parliament.
Highlighting that women and AK Party are a whole, Zengin added, "As you know, there are masculine and feminine forms of words in some languages like French and Arabic. If this had been the case in Turkish, AK Party would be a feminine word because the AK Party's own story overlaps with the women's story in Turkey."
"On one hand, women serving in the AK Party restructures the party itself; on the other hand, the AK Party transforms women with its policies. There is a mutual transformation, a balance which makes this political movement very real. Women's lives are transformed. Being a party that employs many women, understands what women feel, knows women's traumas and stories, the AK Party has created a political movement, bolstered it and transformed women with this movement," she said.
Zengin stated that women in the AK Party have an extended political résumé, especially in the women's branch. She linked women's tenacity in politics with their maternal instincts.
"I believe politics overlaps with our nature; it's resolute, creates its own energy, never gives up, allows its child to move along while always embracing and being a part of it," she said.
President's personal efforts empowered women of AK Party
Underscoring Erdoğan's personal efforts in increasing women's participation in politics and ensuring their presence, Zengin gave her personal story as an example.
"While we were working on our candidate lists in Istanbul for the 2014 municipal elections, we were looking at the lists to check them for the last time with Mr. Erdoğan, who was serving as the prime minister at the time. He expressed that there should be a woman among the top three candidates for each district and even at the very top of the list in certain districts. However, there were certain female candidates who were at the bottom of the list. He said it wouldn't fit the party's principles. Even though I told Mr. Erdoğan that one woman wouldn't be elected, he insisted. He asked us to move her at least one rank up."
AK Party is a political movement with almost 5 million female members
Zengin affirmed that AK Party Women's Branch has 4.6 million members and that it's higher than any other political party.
"This grants a significant power; all political parties in Turkey need the support of women to win parliamentary, municipal or presidential elections. Without women, it's impossible," she explained.
Women's priority is always the country
Expressing women never prioritize themselves over their country, Zengin asserted that all demands for change pertain to the country's future for this reason and that demands evolve toward a more participatory direction.
Zengin, having worked for years at various posts in the AK Party, stressed that unlike men, women prioritize the country first, while linking this difference in prioritization with the maternal nature of females.
"For both female constituents and women of AK Party the priority has never been themselves. Their priority has always been their party. I believe this is related to maternal instincts and being sated spiritually. Women's priority is first the country, then their family and children."
Asserting that women's demands and discussions are always about the future of the country, Zengin said she extracted her observations from the field.
"During my field visits, women mostly brought up issues about education. They weren't only talking about their children's conditions, but about the future of the country. Women prioritize the future of education. Education, terrorism and employment – when you consider these topics, you can see that these are concerns regarding Turkey and its future. Meanwhile, when you talk to men, you see that they are concerned with their own issues," she said.
Women want to carry their ideals to politics
Zengin stated that women's demands have changed over the years and that they want employment in occupations where they can express their ideas as they now have dreams and ideals. Correlating changing demands with the election process, Zengin asserted women think that they "might realize what they have experienced and envisioned when they are elected."
Need for a new political understanding of women
Expressing that there are two different approaches to women and that they are being diversified, Zengin underscored the need for a new political understanding.
She asserted that discussions on headscarves are still ongoing and that the prominence of it shouldn't be forgotten. She explained that the lifting of the headscarf ban bolstered women's self-esteem.
"This matter shouldn't be forgotten as it has inflicted deep wounds on us and what has happened after the headscarf ban was removed. In addition, everyone should remember who has resolved this matter; it was the AK Party led by Erdoğan. The abolishment of the headscarf ban has bolstered women's self-esteem immensely," she said.
Affirming that a generation was raised with the AK party, she said they are looking to work on their dreams and politics is an apparatus to realize them. She added that because of this generation women's demands have become increasingly diversified. Zengin stated that youth over the age of 18 can become members of the Parliament and that two young women have already been elected. She described the long-term representation of women in Parliament as extremely significant and even more meaningful.
Zengin continued to talk about the prominence of transformations women have gone through and their importance in regards with the AK Party and politics in general.
"A new political understanding of women is necessary. We need to analyze and comprehend Turkish politics and create new policy for women over this analysis. I believe the previous templates aren't adequate anymore; these templates should be diversified and developed further."
Women want to create a message rather than narrate one
Asserting that women's individual gains in politics should transform into a collective action, Zengin said, "There should be more space for women to express their demands. Women want to create a message rather than narrate one. They want to create ideas, to be in these ideas and to build them from the ground up; while doing all of this, they want to be original and without constraints. I find women very dynamic and resolute in this respect."
Politics is life itself
Zengin expressed that she believes politics is life itself and the necessity of dynamism to be successful in politics.
"I believe politics overlaps with life itself. If you ask me what politics is, I would say life. Politics is another facet of life; politics is expressing issues of life within a political discourse. It encapsulates all. Just like life, it's full of surprises and it's dynamic. I believe being successful politically is more about understanding the dynamism in life. Human beings are dynamic and fluid; the better you understand them, the more successful will you be as a political movement."
Turkish constituents resolve their issues through politics
Claiming there is a tendency to resolve issues through politics in Turkey as it's the life itself, Zengin said, "Turkish constituents have always resolved their most fundamental issues through politics. The call to prayer being reverted to the original Arabic version, the implementation of a multiparty system, the prevention of coups and the abolishment of the headscarf ban have all been resolved through politics; so, the people believe life itself is politics and vice versa."
"For this reason, people in village coffeehouses talk about politics and appreciate President Erdoğan. After the cover to cover recitations of the Holy Quran, people pray for the president. This is truly amazing; you can't force people to do such things," she added.
Constituents demand 'change' from the AK Party
During their electoral campaign, Zengin affirmed that they have heard the constituents' demands for change.
"People have voted yes for Erdoğan, but they also conveyed a message for change. The election results show this demand, while President Erdoğan has acknowledged that he is aware of this message. There is a voter base which continues to support AK Party; it's the reason the party is still present and strong. Without a doubt, the AK Party is the front runner of Parliament. Yet, we have to heed the demands and change certain aspects of our policies," she explained.
'We have complicated our own challenge'
Expressing that names rather than parties are more important in the new system, in which the president is elected through popular vote, Zengin signified the importance of making more effort for both the representation of constituents and the election of politicians.
"Our work has to be near-perfect now. We should take what the constituents want for themselves, what kind of deputies or mayors they ask for into consideration. More questions are being asked now; in fact, you are refining your policies and politics. Despite being more challenging for our party, it's in people's favor. By comprehending their demands better, you have the chance to build a better Turkey," she said.
Women don't only advocate for women
Reminding that she was one of the first deputies to be sworn into Parliament in 2015 with a headscarf, Zengin stated she is aware of her responsibilities as the deputy floor leader of the party. She asserted that the notion "women only advocate women" is very problematic and that women have ideas about almost all issues and matters.
Despite political polarization, a Parliament that unites on rainy days
Being a lawyer, Zengin expressed the importance of law for society and the world by claiming it's a universal language. She asserted that acting in accordance with the law is a must for building a fair and livable world.
Zengin also said that they expect the solidarity observed in the society to be present in Parliament as well; she signified that the Parliament cast aside differences on rainy days, becoming a singular voice. Zengin gave the collective resistance of the Parliament during July 15 coup attempt and the joint declaration signed by different political parties against U.S. sanctions as examples.
Turkey's suprapolitical efforts against FETÖ and PKK terror
Expressing that Turkey has more vital issues that overshadow political disputes in Parliament, Zengin called all parties to act together to establish better justice especially in regards with crimes against children and women.
She signified that justice is a common ground for all and that a suprapolitical approach is required to resolve these issues.
"For instance, could the concept rule of law or justice be the sole property of a particular party? It can never be. Justice cannot be owned by, say, the opposition. I think it's highly problematic to believe that the opposition has more stakes in rights and freedoms than the government. We believe that rights and freedoms, justice, women's issues, children's issues, terror, international law and the issues of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and PKK are common values and issues of Turkey. Every party might have a different approach for each of these issues; yet, the application of these approaches shouldn't hinder each other. We have to find a common ground in the Parliament to resolve these issues. I believe it's meaningful. There are signals indicating that this will be the case. The Parliament should reconcile and carry itself to the next level," she said.
Zengin affirmed that the new system offers an improved constitutional framework which allows for better efforts and that this facility should be evaluated.
She also stated that the political representation and performance burdens of ministers have been transferred to the president.
"In this respect, the responsibility and burden of the president is increased; yet, if it happens to be everything the people has dreamed of, it will usher Turkey into a new transformation," she added.
Stereotypical approaches to Turkey are amusing
Underscoring that there are certain stereotypes about Turkey abroad, which are constantly reiterated, leading the people not to see the reality, Zengin said, "These stereotypes are baseless. It's not derived from the societal reality. All countries have to see each other better. Considering the U.S. sanctions against our interior and justice ministers, the whole world doesn't perceive the U.S.' outlook as reality. Yes, the U.S. is a prominent country; yet every country has its own unique comprehension along with interests and relations."
Every country has its own reality to comprehend
Zengin stressed Turkey's sovereignty while adding that the country has its own approach toward the matters. She asserted that defining the country by its relations with the U.S. and NATO would be lacking as Turkey's own approach and discourse should be taken into consideration.
"As a sovereign country, Turkey expresses its own approach. While the country is still a part of the West and Western values, it's also a part of a larger entity. Turkey's own values and approaches are not only for Turkey; it also offers a new approach derived from the country's own experience. For instance, isn't the July 15 coup attempt an important event for the world as well? For the first time in history, unarmed civilians thwarted a coup. Isn't this a tremendous success for the world? I believe it's a success for Turkey as well as the world," she said.
Worried about FETÖ members but not their victims
Asserting that other countries should stop reading about Turkey through terrorist organizations and lies, Zengin said, "If they have any objections to Turkey, they should try and comprehend Turkey's reality. It shouldn't be through stereotypes or narratives of terrorist organizations. For instance, they don't want to understand the FETÖ issue. They always ask about FETÖ, 'What will happen to Gülenists? Are they being beaten? How will they get out of jail?' What about the lives they have taken, stolen? What about the dreams they have stolen when they stole the questions of a public examination in 2010 and gave it to their members? I'm asking; what should we do about all of those people who passed the exam but were stripped of their success because FETÖ cheated? Turkey is facing significant issues and it's creating realistic resolutions for these issues. They should approach Turkey with an open mind instead of slander propagated by terrorist organizations. They should see Turkey as it is."