Several women have come to chat in an apartment in the city of Kayseri and are greeted at the entrance by lavishly by framed verses from the Koran. Kayseri is located in the heartland of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the pious women gathered in the living room are core voters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party. They enjoy sweet tea and cake but the stories they share are full of bitterness.
Kayseri is an historical trading center and a stronghold of Islamic conservatism. Giant posters of Mr. Erdoğan line the road into the city center. In the last presidential election, almost 70 percent of the city voted for him.
We are traveling through Anatolia for a week to learn why so many inhabitants steadfastly support their president and how they will vote this Sunday in the referendum on the presidential system he is seeking to introduce. Our trip includes Kayseri where Mr. Erdoğan’s most loyal supporters live, Şanlıurfa on the border to Syria where the focus is on attracting Kurdish voters and in the capital Ankara where, almost a century ago, the secular country was founded and whose constitution may undergo a radical change.
One of the women – a lawyer who, like everyone here, wishes to remain anonymous – recalls the start of her professional career. She repeats what a powerful public prosecutor once told her: "Either you take off that scarf and wear your hair openly, or I won’t issue you an internship certificate." She remembers all too well this violation of her rights that she had to endure as a young lawyer. Although 17 years have since passed, she is still distressed and angry. She consented to remove her headscarf to be certified as a lawyer. "I always had to take off the headscarf when I entered a courtroom," she says. "Imagine my hair that had been under a headscarf for hours. Imagine how it felt to enter the room to defend a client with my hair in that condition. And what that does to your self-confidence!"
The way these women tell it, Mr. Erdoğan restored the self-confidence of these pious Anatolians. They consider him to be one of them – the first leading politician who respects their way of life and doesn’t humiliate them like the old, secular elites. They believe people will stand behind Mr. Erdoğan and vote yes in the referendum.
The conversation is tense because the women don’t trust the press, especially a journalist from a German newspaper. Yet one senses their curiosity. The women want to know how Turkey is seen in Europe and they want to send a message. "You Europeans still see Turkey as a sick man," says one of them in her mid-60s. "Europeans believe that they command and we obey. But we are savvy, which you find hard to digest." Their host adds: "We believe we’ll be rid of all the naysayers when we vote yes. Then they won’t be able to block our path anymore." The naysayers are not only the old elites in Turkey but also the West and Europe, which can only be held at bay by Mr. Erdoğan.
For these women, the headscarf remains a fundamental issue. All of them have experienced exclusion and humiliation – whether in school, at the university or in their professional lives. As pious Muslims, they have not been able to pursue careers in state institutions. The lawyer says she’ll never forget how female students were required to individually enter a so-called persuasion room where they were pressured to uncover their heads. Whoever refused was threatened with expulsion. This practice only changed in 2002, when Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP gained power. "Today, I can wear the headscarf and work anywhere without being forced to act against the tenets of my faith," the lawyer says.
During her years as a student, the conflict between the Kemalists – the proponents of secularism and hence of the prohibition against headscarves – and the Islamic conservatives reached its peak. That was during the 1990s, and the pro-Western government was disturbed by the political gains of the Islamic conservative parties. In 1997, the military threatened to stage yet another coup, which, however, never happened. But as a consequence of this threat, the basic rights of Islamic conservative citizens were reduced. Wearing a headscarf in public was no longer allowed, and the state-sponsored İmam-Hatip schools favored by religious circles were closed.
Neither the Erdoğan government nor the residents of Kayseri have forgotten those days. From conversations with these women, it becomes clear when the foundations for Mr. Erdoğan’s present power were laid.