TREADING THE TORTUOUS PATH TO MODERN TURKEY
The Age, Australia
Jul y 28 2007
LAST year Turkish journalist Ipek Calislar published a biography
of Latife Usakizade, wife of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the
nation. Her book was a runaway hit, selling 90,000 copies, a huge
figure in Turkey.
But in a country that reveres Ataturk’s memory, where children
begin the school day by chanting, "O great Ataturk", an anecdote in
Calislar’s book led to her prosecution for "insulting Ataturk". It
might also have endangered her safety.
Calislar, 60, has been a journalist for 35 years. After the 1971
military coup she was jailed for 2½ years for belonging to a left-wing
group. She was tortured. Last year she faced jail again, and yet
she believes, with some reservations, that her country is on the
Her story says much about modern Turkey: its human rights abuses and
its rising nationalism, mixed with the hope that it is moving towards
full democracy, as last Sunday’s election tentatively suggests. Her
story also shows that in Turkey, the past is never past.
The offending episode in her book took place in 1923. Mutinous
soldiers had surrounded the Ankara home of Mustafa Kemal, leader of
the infant Turkish state (later he would be named Ataturk: father of
the Turks). The troops planned to kill him.
After negotiation, they agreed to free the women and children
hostages. Usakizade had an idea. She made her husband put on her
chador – the head-to-foot Muslim garment, disguising the face –
and leave the house with her sister.
Meanwhile, Usakizade dressed in his uniform and paced up and down on
boxes she placed under the window. Seeing the silhouette, the soldiers
assumed Kemal was still in the house. He returned with reinforcements
and Turkey’s course was set.
The story, which Calislar heard from the daughter of Usakizade’s
sister, had never been told. Calislar wrote it respectfully – she
believes Ataturk’s escape was sensible, not cowardly – but Turkish
nationalists were outraged.
"The idea that the father of today’s secular state a) did not laugh
at death, b) dressed in women’s clothing and c) religious drag at
that, was too much," writes American journalist Andrew Finkel, who
has lived in Istanbul for 20 years.
In August last year, an architect petitioned to have Calislar
prosecuted for "insulting Ataturk", an offence that carries a four-year
jail term. Under Turkish law, the prosecutor had to open a case. After
two hearings, the judge threw it out, saying it was an argument for
historians, not lawyers.
The matter might have ended there, were it not for the murder
in January of Calislar’s friend, Hrant Dink, editor of the
Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos. Dink was a hero of the human rights
movement. Passionate about Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, he wrote
that Turkey had to accept complicity in the mass killings of Armenians
Turkey denies the massacres and says any deaths were a result of
the First World War. It is an incendiary issue, over which some are
prepared to kill.
Determined to qualify for entry to the European Union, the Government
has sought to protect free speech. Leading human rights advocate
Baskin Oran says that while Turkey is still a repressive state, the
huge reforms of the 2004 penal code mean that "we have done in three
years what Europe did in 300."
Yet nationalists in the judiciary and linked to the military are bent
on keeping Turkey out of the EU. They have been able to damage Turkey’s
bid by obtaining prosecutions under the code’s infamous article 301,
which prescribes the offence of "insulting Turkishness" and a penalty
up to three years’ jail.
At least 65 people have been charged under the law, notably Nobel
Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, for discussing the Armenian
massacres (he was acquitted on a technicality).
Three times, Dink was prosecuted under article 301 for his writings
on Armenians. He was convicted in 2005, but received a suspended
sentence. A prosecutor was pressing charges a third time when a
17-year-old ultra-nationalist from eastern Turkey shot Dink outside
his newspaper office in Istanbul.
At his funeral procession, a 100,000-strong crowd filled an Istanbul
boulevard. Mourners walked past the Agos office with placards saying:
"We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians." Calislar, who was there,
says that from that day on, many things in Turkey changed.
For a start, never had so many Turks publicly acknowledged the
oppression of Armenians. The Government hinted it would look at
amending article 301, though to date it has done nothing.
The human rights movement, alarmed at the nationalist threat, pushed
two of its leaders to run for parliament. One, Ufuk Uras, was elected
The murder spurred police to offer protection to Calislar and other
writers. For five months she spent every waking moment with a policeman
by her side. Last month she changed her mind. "It was too boring,"
she says. "I couldn’t live a normal life."
We are sitting on a terrace above the Bosphorus, near Istanbul. The
gracious villas and well-dressed citizens speak of a wealthy, Western
nation, not the sort of place where you might be killed for an article
or a book. But appearances can deceive, she says.
Why, she asks, did police allow themselves to be photographed beside
Dink’s killer, holding a Turkish flag? Why is there no repeal of
article 301, even though it is widely believed that such prosecutions
inflame nationalist sentiment and provoke murder? Why does Turkey
still struggle to come to terms with its history?
She and Dink were on a similar mission: to recover the truth about
Turkey’s past. In her case, it was to give a proper place to Latife
Usakizade, whom official Turkish history scorns and trivialises as
a bossy, shrewish woman but whom she sees as a feminist heroine.
Ataturk met Usakizade during the war of independence, when his troops
used her family’s house. Educated in France, she was independently
minded, the "perfect suffragette". It was brains that attracted
Ataturk, Calislar says. "They had a very modern marriage."
He took her on his trips around Turkey. He listened to her argue
for women’s rights: she persuaded him to allow women to stand for
parliament, something she hoped to do.
Yet the marriage lasted just 2½ years, before quarrels and animosity
led him to peremptorily divorce her. Neither remarried, though he had
other female partners. She lived alone, refusing to speak of her time
The belated telling of her story has been a revelation in Turkey.
Women "keep thanking me for writing something they never knew", says
Calislar. "I hope Latife is happy in her grave, because she had a very
sad life. She had no children. She was still in love with Ataturk,
but she could not be with him."
On Sunday, Turks elected 49 women, 8 per cent of all MPs and double the
previous proportion. Nine are Kurds, a highly disadvantaged minority.
Women still have a long way to go. A recent international study ranked
Turkey 105th out of 115 countries in tackling gender inequality. But
Sunday’s result suggests they are on the road. Latife Usakizade,
and Hrant Dink, might have smiled.