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Female politicians of the AKP: Gendered Uses and Ambiguities of Conservative Party Ideology

Lucie Drechselová


Studies on women’s political inclusion in conservative parties often examine the role of ideology. This article seeks to demonstrate that the role of ideology is best understood by considering its uses by and against female politicians. It does so by looking at multiple layers of conservative ideology: considering first conservatism as a discourse, the paper shows that women adhere to the AKP’s conservative gender ideology in order to ensure their political survival. Looking then at conservative ideology as a practice, the paper concludes that locally-sensitive analysis is necessary in order to identify how the constraining intra-party processes play out in women’s political exclusion. Depending on the constituency, exclusionary party mechanisms can be reinforced or undermined. Finally, the paper identifies the uses of conservative ideology by female politicians. While this aspect is often disregarded, women manage to make use of the party ideology and to navigate the narrow social and political space through a series of adaptation practices. The paper uses qualitative data (ethnographic and interview material) collected within Turkey’s conservative-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) between 2014 and 2019.

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  • 1 These statistics are from the official account at the relevant office at the Court of Appeal in 201 (...)

1Women in conservative parties are faced with what has often been termed a paradox – that of seeking public office on behalf of parties that incite women to devote themselves primarily to their roles in the private sphere (Celis, Childs 2018a). In these conservative parties, politics and gender create “cross-pressures” on female politicians, which then compel scholars to ask how women navigate between party ideology and their gender identity (Shames, Och, Cooperman 2020: 2). An important body of literature dealing with women in conservative parties thus focuses on the role of parties’ ideology in women’s political inclusion. Another body of literature, feminist institutionalism, focuses on women’s careers in order to uncover the workings of (conservative) party institutions with regard to gendered exclusionary mechanisms (Bjarnegård, Kenny 2015; Kenny, Verge 2016). This article seeks to contribute to these two traditions by addressing how conservatism impacts the limited women’s political inclusion at the intra-party positions of responsibility and in the elected offices in Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP). It considers how women in the AKP craft their political careers and what strategies they deploy to succeed, thereby evaluating the impact of the party’s conservative ideology on women’s political careers. The case of the AKP, as will be argued further, is interesting because the party displays very high levels of female membership (up to 4.5 million members according to its own statistics out of the total of 10,200,000 members1) while also being marked by women’s political underrepresentation when it comes to party positions of power and the electoral offices.

2While the majority of scholarship addresses the classical paradox of why women choose to engage in parties that champion their domestic role, this article doesn’t illuminate the “why” but rather the “how” of women’s involvement in conservative parties. As such, it provides insights into the multiple uses of conservative party ideology by female politicians themselves as well as against female politicians by their male colleagues. Most importantly, the article introduces a localized focus since the AKP’s conservative party line is intertwined in intricate and dynamic ways with the characteristics of local constituencies. Indeed, the conservative sensitivities of a constituency acquire great importance in local politics because of its day-to-day proximity to the voters. This is why the article sets the objective to articulate the social pressures within a constituency with the role of conservative party ideology.

Literature on Conservative Ideology and Women’s Political Careers

  • 2 Descriptive representation refers to the physical “standing for”. It considers the numbers of elect (...)

3Even though conservative right-wing political parties have taken some steps to include gender-sensitive measures in their manifestos and to increase women’s representation (Campbell, Erzeel 2018; Celis, Childs 2014; 2018b; Geus, Shorrocks 2020; O’Brien 2018), they still appear to lag behind left-leaning parties, which tend to favor women’s representation, adopt gender quotas, and be closer to the feminist movement (Lovenduski 2010; Young 2000). Right-wing and conservative ideology is considered one of the key explanations for women’s underrepresentation in those political parties (Caul 1999). The growing scholarly attention to women in these a priori constraining environments reflects a paradox of women’s political success in parties which venerate motherhood, care, and domesticity (Celis, Childs 2018a; O’Brien 2018; Shames, Och, Cooperman 2020). Indeed, studies have shown that ideology matters in shaping the ways in which actors navigate formal and informal rules within their parties (Erzeel, Celis 2016; Taflaga, Beauregard 2020) and has the potential to impact all aspects of women’s representation – descriptive, substantive, and symbolic.2

  • 3 While this body of literature mainly deals with women who access the electoral offices, this paper (...)

4Most studies focusing on women’s recruitment to public office attribute gender-based discrimination to the characteristics of the electoral system or intra-party mechanisms (Cipullo 2021).3 Less attention has been accorded to women’s actual experiences within political parties and even less to uncovering their strategies for political survival and success. When women’s behavior in politics is studied, the aim is often to provide insights into the gendered workings of political institutions. For example, Taflaga and Beauregard seek to uncover “what institutional factors may retard or promote women’s representation” by investigating “how women inside Conservative parties take advantage of party structures and opportunities to solve the contradictory pressures imposed by party ideology and a desire for increased women’s representation” (Taflaga, Beauregard 2020: 2). Thus, the authors link the levels of women’s representation to party ideology and strive, as does the present paper, to uncover women’s intra-party strategies to navigate their political careers.

Situating the Justice and Development Party (AKP)

5The AKP represents a compelling case for Gender and Politics scholars. Given that the party has been in government since 2002, it has – for a considerable period –shaped opportunities for women’s political involvement as well as the level of their political representation in Turkey. Even though the party is far from being a champion of women’s representation, in the 2018 legislative election 18.21 percent of its deputies were women while the equivalent proportion for the center-left secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) was only 12.14 percent (Dokuz8Haber 2019). The AKP features much more significant women’s representation than its coalition partner the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP), only 8.5% of whose parliamentarians were women. However, it also considerably lags behind the pro-Kurdish leftist Democratic Peoples’ Party (Halkların Demokrasi Partisi, HDP), over 40% of whose parliamentarians were female.

6The AKP constitutes an interesting case study for women’s political inclusion because its women’s branches membership amounts to 4.5 million members according to official party statistics (Selva Çam 2018). Historically, the AKP emerged from the Islamic parties of the National Outlook (Millî Görüş) and inherited their reliance (especially from the 1990s) on women’s branches as a motor for increasing the party membership and for conducting electoral campaigns (Arat 1999; 2005; 2016; Saktanber 2013). The AKP perfected these mechanisms of women’s involvement and managed to establish the largest female organization in Turkey, a powerful electoral machine permanently campaigning and distributing charitable goods. Indeed, such high numbers of female members in the party do not translate into the percentage of its elected politicians who are female. While not being the only factor, this article will show to what extent conservative ideology might be considered one of the key explanatory variables of the limited political inclusion of women on the party candidate lists and in the intra-party positions of power in the AKP.

  • 4 It should be noted that the party labels itself as “conservative-democratic.”

7It might be a matter of debate whether the AKP is best characterized as a conservative party. Political scientists might prefer other labels, such as (ultra)right-wing or Islamist.4 In the first years of the AKP’s existence, the adoption of the conservative label served the purpose of avoiding judicial closure for endangering the secular character of the Turkish Republic (Ciftci 2013; Dagi 2008). The present paper bases the conservative label on the ranking by the Manifesto Project, a dataset analyzing the policy preferences of hundreds of parties across the world. The Manifesto Project ranks the AKP as “conservative” in a number of policy domains, including “equality” (MARPOR 2009). Other elements might also be supportive of such a label, such as surveys conducted in Turkey showing that the party’s support base mostly identifies as “religious conservative” (Cinar 2016: 1222). Crucially, feminist research concurs that it is the AKP’s discourse on women that crystalizes the party’s conservative ideology (Acar, Altunok 2013; Aksoy 2018; Cindoglu, Unal 2017). The recurrent accent on maternalism (a woman who refuses to become a mother is portrayed as deficient and incomplete) and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rejection of gender equality (reported by Aksoy 2018: 101) are among the indicators of the AKP’s conservative positions on gender equality issues. The conservative gender ideology of the AKP does not stand alone; it intertwines with neoliberal and patriarchal values and shapes women’s status in contemporary Turkey (Coşar 2019; Coşar, Yeğenoğlu 2011; Kandiyoti 2016; Parmaksız 2016). It is indeed the party’s conservative stance on gender issues that appears highly relevant for the analysis of women’s political representation in the present paper.

Research Material, Interview Sample and Methods

  • 5 Most of the interviews were carried out as part of my PhD research. I also conducted several inform (...)
  • 6 All the names used in this article are pseudonyms. The article avoids presenting extended personal (...)

8This paper builds on qualitative data collected between 2014 and 2019. This data includes fifty semi-structured sociological interviews focusing on the biographical testimonies of local female politicians and nine months of non-participant observation within the AKP municipalities and party structures in the cities of Izmir and Trabzon.5 Most interviewed women were representatives of women’s branches, members of local party headquarters, or municipal councilors. All data was pseudonymized for the purposes of this article.6

9In the Turkish context, the qualitative studies on women in politics have multiplied since 2000 but focused mainly on the parliament (such as Çakır 2014). Thus there is still a dire need for locally based data (such as that found in Cindoğlu et al. 2011). Another gap this paper seeks to address is broadening the view beyond the restricted group of women elected representatives to also include women in position of power within the party. Beyond the Turkish context, few scholars have put into the center of analysis the relationship between the social pressures in the constituency and the conservative ideology, a gap that this paper also aims to close.

  • 7 This article uses quantitative data from the 2014 municipal election because at the time of writing (...)
  • 8 Women were best represented in the central district of Trabzon, Ortahisar, where women’s representa (...)
  • 9 The differences between the cities show how the national average of female municipal councilors (10 (...)

10The two cities to which most of the cited references relate are Trabzon and Izmir. They exhibit divergences in terms of the local distribution of political power as well as the gendered aspects of the local social order. Trabzon, a city with 750,000 inhabitants on the Black Sea coast, is renowned for its high proportion of conservative-religious and nationalist voters (together, the AKP and the Nationalist Action Party, MHP, receive almost 90 percent of the vote). This vote pattern is also indirectly revealing of the dominant social values which makes of Trabzon a privileged context for a study on conservatism and social pressure. Izmir, on the other hand – whose 4.2 million inhabitants make it the third-largest city in Turkey – has a reputation as a progressive and liberal city. The Kemalist center-left party (Republican People’s Party, CHP) comes first in the polls there but the AKP is systematically the first opposition party. The two cities display differences in women’s political representation. In the aftermath of the municipal election of 2014,7 two women made it onto the metropolitan council in Trabzon alongside 66 men, amounting to 3% of female representatives (Trabzon Büyükşehir 2014).8 However, at that time, there were no female councilors in ten out of eighteen district councils. In Izmir, the overall proportion of women on the metropolitan council was 16.8 percent (Izmir Büyükşehir 2014) while in several district councils more than 25 percent of the councilors were women.9 In these two cities, the AKP is dealing with two different contexts – in Trabzon it is by far the dominant political force, while in Izmir it is the main opposition party and it adapts to the standards set by the winning CHP.

  • 10 This includes both elected councilors and women in the intra-party position of power.
  • 11 As my doctoral research revealed, this general description applies to the center-left CHP and natio (...)
  • 12 While for men the proportion of university graduates is not strikingly higher (25% of men over the (...)

11Sociological profiles of female local politicians are rather similar in both constituencies. A typical female municipal politician from the AKP10 is in her forties, well-off, with a university diploma and a developed professional career. She is married and has two kids.11 The prevalence of university diplomas seems to be more than an identity marker that sets female politicians apart from the social category of women (less than 20% of women over the age of 25 have a university diploma in Turkey)12 (Türkiye Istatistik Kurumu 2022); it seems to be a precondition to be considered for political office. Women elected in Trabzon’s central municipal district in 2014 come from professions that are recurrent also among male councilors and are generally overrepresented in the councils: among women, there was one lawyer, one architect, one accountant, one economist, and one councilor without profession but with associational background. There is a relative absence of public servants and teachers among the AKP’s female politicians while they are overrepresented in the CHP. In terms of employment too, female politicians differ from women in general, for whom the employment rate stagnates below 30% (Türkiye Istatistik Kurumu 2022). It is important to note that while the party’s ideology values motherhood and assigns women predominantly into the domestic sphere, the reality of its female politicians is very different: they are mostly professionally active women with dense associational involvement.

  • 13 I would hypothesize that on average this is even more true for women than for men who tend to come (...)
  • 14 Based on Turkey’s Bar Association, women accounted for 46% of lawyers in Izmir and 40% of lawyers i (...)

12Even a superficial look at the demographics of AKP local female politicians reveals that they tend to be part of the local elite.13 The similar profiles, however, correspond to a different level of selectivity in Izmir and in Trabzon. Trabzon is a smaller city with fewer opportunities for higher studies and with bigger hurdles for women who wish to pursue a professional career. Based on the membership of Turkey’s Bar Association, in Trabzon, being a female lawyer means even higher selectivity than it does in Izmir.14 In the former, women are also less likely to be secondary and higher education graduates or to be employed by the municipality (Demirdirek, Şener 2014; Kavas 2018). Nevertheless, in both cities, the AKP’s female politicians are members of the local elite.

Structure of the Paper

13Conservative ideology is not only a discourse but also a practice. That is why, for analytical clarity, the article considers the impact of conservative ideology on two levels which in reality are closely linked: the level of discourse and the level of implantation within local constituency. The first part of the paper looks at the conservative discourse both directed at and adopted by female politicians. The second part articulates the party ideology and the local socio-political context (i.e. the social pressures female politicians experience in a given constituency). This perspective is particularly relevant since studies often disregard the role that local constituencies play in the salience of conservative party ideology. The impact of conservative ideology on women’s political inclusion can truly be understood only if social pressures within a concrete constituency are considered. The article concludes that women adhere to the AKP’s conservative gender ideology and develop series of adaptation strategies in order to ensure their political survival.

The Discursive Uses of Conservative Ideology

14Party programs and manifestos are a great source of information about conservative gender ideology. While some programmatic elements are not necessarily acted upon, most are very likely to be spoken about. The male leadership of the party reiterates its conservative stance on motherhood, family, and women’s status. Women embody the party’s ideology through a variety of means, and the headscarf is one of the contentious, gendered (because there is not a male attribute of comparable significance) elements of such embodiment. This section discusses the underpinnings of the significant compliance of female politicians with the party program and the leadership’s claims about gender. The second part of the section discusses instances of slight divergence from the official party line and the limited conditions enabling these.

Strategic Discursive Adherence to the Party Program

15In its official texts, the AKP doesn’t use the concept of gender, nor does it refer to equality among women and men. The title “Woman” is part of the Social Policies Chapter in the program (AKP 2015). It mentions – among other things – the themes of employment, the social security of housewives, and the prevention of violence against women. In a policy document called “The 2023 Political Vision,” women are included in the section “Society,” which opens with the following statement: “As a democratic conservative party, we attribute great importance to family” (AKP n.d.).

  • 15 Even though this measure was announced by the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs in 2013, beyond (...)

16Being a mother is not only a defining feature of femininity in the AKP documents but also appears high on the party’s policymaking agenda. Young couples are encouraged to marry in the year following their graduation in exchange for forgiveness of their student loan debt (Cindoglu, Unal 2017: 6).15 Women are encouraged to have at least three children. However, not all women are equally invited to reproduce. In 2010, the Ministry of Health stipulated that assisted reproduction would be stopped if the receiving couple got divorced (Acar, Altunok 2013: 17). All these elements show that the AKP deals with issues impacting women’s lives but these can at best be classified as “type II claims” – claims that “address women’s concerns and perspectives in ways distinct from traditionally understood feminism” (Celis, Childs 2014: 11).

  • 16 In 2011, the ministry was renamed “the Ministry of Family and Social Policies” amid the opposition (...)

17The AKP’s female politicians reproduce the party’s conservative discourse with remarkable fidelity. Their display of party ideology takes the form of a strategic discursive adherence to all that is said in the program and by the male leadership. For instance, in 2004, Güldal Akşit, the AKP’s Minister of Woman and Family,16 defended the governmental project to re-criminalize adultery, arguing that it was in line with Turkish traditions and reflected the wishes of the majority of women (Çitak, Tür 2008: 461). Unsurprisingly, the minister reproduced the official discourse. However, an overly strict adherence to the official party line and to the statements of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the party and country president, is not the appanage of women who already hold elective office but also for those who want to succeed within the party, both at local and national levels. Conservative discursive homogeneity is strengthened by the elimination of discordant voices along the way because, as Delphine Dulong underlines, subversion has a price and this price is often the blockage of one’s political career (Dulong 2010).

  • 17 The issue of discursive adherence to the conservative elements of the party ideology should also be (...)

18Interviews with local female politicians reveal that even women who stand to be directly disadvantaged by governmental policies adhere discursively to the party line. In 2016, I interviewed Kösem, a member of the local AKP headquarters (il yönetim üyesi) in Izmir. Kösem was a divorcee who joined the AKP primarily due to the party’s promise to secure alimony for divorced women (a promise that the party kept). Years later, the party launched a parliamentary commission to “protect the family” which suggested series of measures to prevent rampant divorce rates in the country. One of them was to limit women’s right to alimony (Tahaoğlu 2016). I asked Kösem about her views on the proposed measure and she replied: “I trust the lawmaker; it is not up to me to judge” (interviewed on 16.6.2016, Izmir). Kösem’s statement may sound paradoxical given her personal experience but it confirms the imperative of female AKP politicians to either discursively follow the party line or to maintain a loyal silence.17

Situational Moldings of the Conservative Discourse

19Below, I bring together the only two cases of female politicians’ divergence from the official party line that I was able to record during the interviews in order to exemplify conditions of discourse production which might be conducive to some level of divergence. As Tina Davids puts it in the life story of a female right-wing politician in Mexico: agency is not all about compliance or all about resistance, there are also micro dynamics of agency (Davids 2011). The discursive situational moldings of conservative ideology can be seen as micro-occurrences of women’s agency.

20The following cases are meant to demonstrate that the degree of adherence to party ideology varies based on the positionality of the speaker and on the circumstances of the speech, taking also into account the positionality of the interviewer. The first case in point is that of female quotas in politics. In the words of the AKP’s leader R.T. Erdoğan, quotas are an insult to women (Karakuş 2007). While overt disagreement is hardly ever found, in one-to-one interviews with a European, unveiled young woman, some level of nuance appears in women’s statements. Arsun, for instance, who stood unsuccessfully for candidacy (aday adayı) for parliamentary office, offered a critical outlook on women’s political inclusion and concluded our exchange with a call for quotas:

Arsun: The party only includes women on their lists for the image, to pretend. ̎There needs to be a woman so that we are not told that we haven’t put any. But there is no woman vice-mayor. The Law on Political Parties needs to be amended, the quota needs to be introduced. Without the quota, I don’t think women can advance much in local politics.
Me: But many women consider quota as an insult to them…
Arsun: I don’t think quota is an insult in the phase in which we currently are. Without the quota, women do not get elected at all. We do not get a chance to prove we are competent. […] I used to be myself against the quota but now I see it is a necessity.
Me: When did your opinion change?
Arsun: When I got actively involved in politics and I saw the true face of things. (Arsun, 45 years old, lawyer, candidate to the candidacy to the Parliament, AKP, Trabzon, interviewed on 21 March 2016)

21It could be argued that Arsun’s openness came both from the sense of intimacy in a one-to-one interview and from the fact that she was criticizing an order that rejected her and which, in turn, she felt no need to uphold.

22Secondly, the interviews allowed some space for the evolution of one’s opinion. I experienced this on the issue of abortion with Tijen, a lawyer in her 40s and former municipal councillor from Trabzon who went on to work in a think tank. In 2012, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan compared abortion to murder and a possible ban made it onto the political agenda for the first time since the 1980s (Kılıçdağı 2012). Tijen first agreed completely with the governmental line and argued that such a view reflects the opinion of the Turkish majority, then our conversation continued:

Me: If the opinion corresponds to that of the majority, shouldn’t the ban be decided in a referendum?
Tijen: Yes, why not, that would be an option.
Me: Should then men be allowed to vote on this question?
long silence) Tijen: One would need to think this through well.
(Tijen, lawyer, in her 40s, former municipal councilor, AKP, Trabzon, interviewed on 5 April 2016)

23The one-to-one setting gave Tijen the space to be uneasy and to consider an option that was not a part of the generally defended party line. Arguably, should the question ever be the object of a referendum, men wouldn’t be excluded from it but suddenly, their opinion on women’s reproductive lives seemed even less relevant than that of overwhelmingly male policymakers. Tijen’s uneasiness and long silence could be interpreted as an expression of her implicit understanding that abortion is first and foremost a women’s issue, something that her party leadership would strongly disagree on.

24The third case in point involves both Arsun and Tijen and the issue of abortion as well as a myriad of other policy issues and is highly illustrative of the strictest adherence to party discourse. I met with another female politician in a café in Trabzon and after we sat at the table, another group waved at us. We were invited (compelled) to join the group where, coincidentally, both Arsun and Tijen socialized together. That day’s interview never happened but the general discussion touched both on the issue of quotas and that of abortion, and none of my previous interviewees showed even a slight divergence with the party line. The circumstances of the speech changed and all the nuance was replaced by a bidding competition in which everyone competed to display the most loyal attitude toward the official party line. The more public the environment, the higher the imperative of loyalty and the more faithful the replication of conservative ideology.

Navigating the Conservative Environment within and outside the Party

25Conservative ideology is written in the AKP’s program and is upheld discursively by its female politicians, who rarely deviate from the official party line. But writings and speeches reveal little about the implications of conservative ideology for women’s political careers. How do women overcome the double bind? How do they craft a political career while also navigating the gender stereotypes that their party upholds? (For a study on right-wing populist parties see Bast, Oschatz, Renner 2022.) The internal workings of the political party hold highly explanatory value regarding women’s exclusion from elected offices (Bjarnegård, Kenny 2015; Kenny, Verge 2016; Taflaga, Beauregard 2020) but parties do not exist in a vacuum (Massicard, Watts 2013). The interviews conducted in Izmir and in Trabzon reveal how different the preoccupations of female politicians from the same party can be depending on which constituency they operate in.

26In this section, I am interested in what ideology does to female political subjects and how they navigate the constraining environment. I first underline the interconnection between the conservative local environment and exclusionary strategies by male party representatives. Then, I discuss the strategies women adopt to navigate this constraining space.

Locality Matters: The Mutually Reinforcing Effect of Constituency and Conservative Party Ideology

  • 18 Kavakçı reinvented herself as a conservative scholar in the United-States (Kavakçı 2010).

27The social order is not a gender-neutral environment. It imposes limits on women’s public appearance through what is perceived as legitimate female behavior. The opportunity structures for women’s political careers vary greatly depending on the local context. One highly contentious element closely related to the debate about conservatism and women’s political inclusion is the issue of the headscarf. Wearing a headscarf in public office has historically been a subject of controversy in Turkey, so wearing or not wearing a headscarf is an important variable in female politicians’ success notwithstanding that women wearing headscarves are well represented in the party’s women’s branches. Wearing of a headscarf at the national level has been highly politicized. The 1999 Merve Kavakçı affair which implied a candidate with headscarf elected from the Virtue Party (AKP’s predecessor) entering the National Assembly ended up with her emigration.18

28It is important to note that on the local level, the dynamics were often different mainly because municipal politics is much less exposed to the media. Trabzon has witnessed a politicization of the headscarf in its own terms: prior to the 2009 municipal election, the AKP presented two female candidates in its central district, one with a headscarf and one without. But the day of the first meeting of the municipal council, both elected politicians came without a headscarf (CNN Türk 2009). This created an uproar in the local media, denouncing the betrayal of the electorate, who voted for a veiled woman and got an unveiled politician. The logic of the headscarf scandal in Trabzon was a contrary to the situation in Parliament – in the municipal setting the female politician was criticized for taking her headscarf off.

29The presence of elected councilors with headscarf was not a question in Izmir at that time and there are still higher proportions of AKP female politicians with headscarf in Trabzon than in Izmir. In the former, the pool of veiled candidates might be larger than in Turkey’s third-largest metropole but the relative absence of veiled female municipal councilors in Izmir can also be interpreted as a strategy of the party to attenuate an Islamic appearance – through women’s dress – and to appeal to the local, more secular, electorate. Favoring women without headscarf is only one of the AKP’s local adaptation strategies but it clearly impacts the chances of political success for some candidates. While the headscarf debate has been very polarizing in Turkey, it should be noted that this article doesn’t intend to dwell on it beyond this final point: headscarf, interpreted as a part of Islamic attire, impacts chances of political success of a whole category of female politicians. However, its impact is not only situated in time but also in space and as such it supports the overall argument of this paper.

30The AKP candidate lists reflected party’s reading of the sensitivities of the local electorate. The adaptation to the specificities of a constituency is not only reflected in candidates presented on the lists but also in terms of political activities. In Izmir, renowned for its secular values and dominated by the CHP, women’s branches of the party have very different activities and outreach than in Trabzon. Around 20% of AKP politicians elected to municipal office in this more liberal city are women. Most of them are highly successful career women without a headscarf whose looks and biographical pathways match the progressive image of the city. The nomination of Turkey’s former beauty queen as the head of women’s branches in the neighboring province of Aydın (Hürriyet 2016) most likely corresponds to the same adaptational strategy. The party also proposes very different activities for its members and for women beyond its own ranks, as the head of women’s branches, Fatma, herself an unmarried businesswoman in her thirties, specified during our interview:

I am convinced that we need a special program for Izmir as compared to other provinces. The social fabric of Izmir doesn’t resemble that of Konya or Trabzon. We have to explain ourselves to the people of Izmir who, in reality, don’t know us. We have to show them that we also are humans. That is why, besides the classical home visits, we have different projects as well. […] For example, we organized a symphonic orchestra concert. We also invited the CHP members. During this event, we destroyed the myth that we only listen to religious music. We showed them that we are a party that speaks to all segments of society. For Mother’s Day, we organized a competition called “My mother is my co-driver.” We took our mothers to participate in a car race with helmets and so on. That went against the stereotype that AKP women do not drive cars. (Fatma, businesswoman, in her 30s, head of women’s branches, AKP, interviewed on 21.6.2016, Izmir)

31None of these activities appeared on the agenda of women’s branches in Trabzon. This discrepancy confirms that the conservatism of the AKP is subject to the party’s political strategy, which in turn varies greatly across constituencies. The display of conservatism in Izmir is kept to a minimum in order not to alienate an electorate with secular sensitivities.

32The situation is very different in Trabzon. If local constituency characteristics in Izmir seem to have an inhibitory effect on conservative party values, in Trabzon the conservatism of the constituency and the party are rather mutually reinforcing and this has a direct impact on women’s political careers. As women are routinely recognized on the street, their public appearance and behavior are much more closely scrutinized than those of female parliamentarians in the more anonymous setting of Ankara – which amounts to one of the key differences for women between involvement in national as compared to local politics. In consequence, locally, efforts are deployed to project an image of modesty conforming to the dominant conservative values. My interviewee Arsun, a young prospective AKP candidate, decided not to hang her posters on Trabzon’s main square to “avoid mockery” because she walked through the square every day (interviewed on 21.3.2016, Trabzon). I argue that such caution would not be in place for a male candidate to the candidacy for whom poster hanging in the main square would be a welcome additional publicity – increasing his capital of notoriety. For a female candidate to candidacy not only public exposure in and of itself but also its consequences in case of failure have a different meaning, possibly tarnishing reputation, as Arsun’s caution demonstrates.

33Several female politicians experienced limits to their mobility when accompanied by male colleagues and developed ways to overcome them, such as Beyza, an economist in her late 40s, AKP’s municipal councilor who entered the party in 2007 and hold several positions at the district level prior to her election:

In the winter, when we go for visits, it gets dark very early. In a place small as Trabzon, three men and one woman in the car – imagine what people would say if we had an accident. Well, my husband approves of my activities of course, but I feel the same discomfort when it comes to going somewhere alone with a man in the car. I have the right to bear a gun and so I acquired my permit and I have a gun in my car. One day, we went with colleagues to another district and I was driving. They congratulated my driving skills and said “you are a woman like a man” (erkek gibi kadınsın) and I told them that I even have a gun. They didn’t believe me so I told them to look into the front compartment. They saw the gun and said “one should be afraid of you” (senden korkulur). I gained respect even though I think guns are horrible and I would never wear mine on me. (Beyza, economist, in her late 40s, municipal councilor, AKP, interviewed on 4.6.2015, Trabzon)

34Women also experience limitations while conducting their electoral campaigns as they are excluded from places such as bars or clubs, where their presence would contradict the legitimate feminine image. I myself witnessed women who accompanied the cortège of a – male – parliamentary candidate remained sitting in the car waiting for him to take a tour in a local bar to present himself. Such a situation is at the intersection of pressures – from society and from the party – with which female politicians have to contend. Both orders, the social and the political, are inseparably intertwined; such as when a party leader told Dilruba (interviewed on 31.5.2015), a president of civil society associations in her 50s, municipal councilor in Trabzon and head of local women’s branches, to always leave the door ajar when talking to a man in the party. Such precautions are meant as a display of modesty – to show that the two politicians of the opposite sex in the same room do not have anything to hide. It is striking that in Izmir, female politicians did not share any limitations to the exercise of their political roles. If they did, these were not specifically related to conservatism, such as financial issues or difficulties to take part at late night meals during Ramadan with small children at home.

35As both the pressures from society and from party are nourished by conservative values, it is not always possible to determine their source – is the political party leader taking into consideration the sensitivities of the constituency by not bringing his female colleague with him to the bar, or are the constituency sensitivities a useful excuse to exclude women from certain spaces? While this section made the claim that the constituency matters, the following section shows how the AKP’s recruiters use the argument of conservatism to exclude women from the candidate lists.

Conservatism within the Party and its Use against Female Politicians

36Conservative social norms have a constraining function and lead women to perform within the boundaries of the acceptable feminine image. How does conservatism play out within the party? During my stay in Trabzon, I was able to have an informal discussion with a male party recruiter, a member of the provincial party headquarters whom I was introduced to by one of the male municipal councilors who got interested in my research. The recruiter was part of a locally-based party team who elaborated the municipal electoral lists before sending them for approval to the party headquarters in AKP. He received me in April 2016 in his office at the municipality where he was a director of one of the units. When I asked about women’s absence from the lists, he directly mentioned the conservatism of the constituency. The considerations to include women politicians were thus left aside in order not to offend the sensitivities of the electorate. The underlining logic was that the party loses vote if more women were on the lists. In this way, the recruiter was concealing any possible gender bias of his own or his party and was using the argument that “people” are not ready for more women on the lists.

37Male politicians within the AKP also readily use conservative gender norms to perpetuate women’s exclusion in day-to-day politics. This time, most of the concrete anecdotes come from women’s accounts. Beyza, AKP’s Trabzon municipal councilor, recalled the practice of sending women home before the end of political events, reminding them that they have a family to take care of. Dilruba, former head of AKP’s Trabzon women’s branches, had the experience of remain sitting in the car in order not to campaign in a bar. Other instances of women’s exclusion occur regularly in the party, as the experience of Adalet, the district head of women’s branches in Trabzon, shows: Adalet realized she was only being invited to the “official” part of the party meetings. When she entered the room, everybody was already there and she was welcomed to join a meeting, which seemed to have already started. She shared her frustration at the impossibility of resolving the issue:

Adalet: I can’t transform the opinions of every man because [in the party] there are very different people, from all horizons. Family education, religious practice… nothing is the same. It is not possible to influence everyone. […] But as a result, men include three women on the direction board of thirty members.
Me: What do men tell you when you ask for more inclusion?
Adalet: That’s the problem, they do not tell you anything. They do their business in silence and you are not informed. But in reality, you always learn about it because most of the time someone else tells you. But you cannot do anything even when you know that a concrete person blocked you on a specific issue. (Adalet, active in the associational field, in her 50s, head of district women’s branches, AKP, interviewed on 13.4.2016, Trabzon)

38Even though most of AKP’s female politicians who are either municipal councilors or hold a position of responsibility within the party have a career and active associational public life, these women are particularly ill-equipped to counter attempts to exclude them from public office. This is linked to the conservative party ideology and the preferred image of womanhood that venerates women’s traditional domestic roles. Two main elements constitute the image of womanhood in the AKP: modesty and what I call the “ethos of fedakârlık” (fedakârlık, Turkish, could be translated as self-sacrifice). While modesty constrains one’s public appearance and behavior, the ethos of fedakârlık limits women’s margin of action within their political party.

39In Turkish, fedakârlık refers to altruism or self-sacrifice, and while every politician strives not to be associated with personal profiteering, fedakârlık is a gendered concept in that it has specific repercussions for women’s careers. Self-sacrifice is associated with a disinterested love of motherhood, and by extension with one’s devotion to a political cause devoid of personal interest. A woman openly asking for office risks being criticized – including by other women – because she is violating the feminine ideal of self-sacrifice. While this doesn’t mean that women in the AKP lack ambition, it implies that ambition needs to be communicated in legitimate party codes. This is not surprising since research from other contexts has shown that women in right-wing parties use discursive frames made available by the party ideology to make demands for greater representation (Shames, Och, Cooperman 2020: 3; Wineinger, Nugent 2020).

40In the AKP, women display their ambition through compensating behaviors—they spend large segments of their time campaigning door-to-door, hoping to see their effort recognized, and they display great availability in accompanying male politicians during their public appearances (to increase visibility and as a form of networking with future dealmakers). Simultaneously, discursively, women tend to maintain a low profile. Nurşen, from women’s branches in Trabzon who entered the party shortly after its creation in 2001, was in the process of preparing for her successful candidacy in the upcoming elections when she reacted in the following way to a question on ambition:

I am a very idealist person. I push for the cause not caring about who is in the shop window. If in the future, there was a possibility to have a place in the shop window and to have a representative role, why not. I am aware of some openings but I do not push for them to materialize. (Nurşen, in her 40s, head of local women’s branches, AKP, interviewed on 29.3.2016, Trabzon)

41Ambition was almost systematically erased from the accounts of my interviewees. While this is also partly due to the format of the interview itself, in other parties, such as in the center-left CHP, women were much more likely to speak openly about their own merit in achieving electoral office than they were in the AKP. Paradoxically, and perhaps cynically, women’s ambition in the AKP is suppressed on the grounds of conservative gender norms while at the same time, as the above-mentioned male party recruiter decried the lack of a sufficient number of qualified female candidates to select from. Thus, the fact that female candidates are less likely to come forward also serves to justify women’s political non-inclusion – this is then articulated with the sensitivities of the conservative electorate. The compound effect of exclusion in a constituency with increased conservative social pressure appears thus as a function of the party uses of the argument of conservative electorate (voters do not accept women) and the legitimate female image which disqualifies overt ambition and champions self-sacrifice (no women are coming forward).

Negotiating with Conservatism: Crafting one’s Political Career

42As a result of concealing their ambition, women within the AKP may at first glance seem less driven and lacking in vision for their own political careers. However, the interviews have revealed women’s understanding of the workings of the conservative intra-party environment. The case of Ezgi from Trabzon, independent accountant in her late 40s, not only a municipal councilor but also head of several municipal committees, illustrates women’s capacity to organize their political promotion while also demonstrating a good understanding of intra-party dynamics. After some time in the district party leadership, Ezgi wished to join the party directorate at the provincial level:

I went to see the head of my district section and told him I wanted his support in the matter. He said, “We are having dinner tonight, come and I will introduce you.” During the dinner, I noticed that my head of section [başkanım] and Ahmet Bey [the prospective head of the province directorate] were sitting next to each other and were pointing at me regularly. Then, my boss said “we gave the girl” [kızı verdik], and Ahmet Bey replied, laughing, “we took the girl” [kızı aldık]. I was lucky because the list of Ahmet Bey won the congress and I entered the directorate of the province. (Ezgi, accountant, in her 40s, municipal councilor, interviewed on 3.6.2015, Trabzon)

43Ezgi’s political growth was paved by her strategic connection with powerful male brokers but also, crucially, by her knowledge of the intra-party rules. She was conscious of the fact that without the endorsement of a well-positioned party member, her bid for promotion would have little chance of success. Thus, instead of taking the initiative and approaching the prospective leader herself, she solicited her direct superior, who acted as a trusted intermediary. While this behavior might be also displayed by men within the party, Ezgi’s capacity to read the intra-party dynamics and to pursue her political ambitions paints a very different picture from the one of inexperienced women in politics who would simply go with the flow and also sheds a different light on how women’s ambition is displayed. Ezgi is an active agent of her political promotion. However, what is very particular – and gendered – is the use of the traditional language of marriage agreement between two families as a metaphor for Ezgi’s transition from district party leadership to the level of the province. The two men express – jokingly indeed – how a female politician goes from the authority of the old man (symbolically the father, here the head of district party unit) to that of a new man (symbolically the husband, here the head of the provincial party unit).

44Besides moments of career promotion, women deploy very diverse survival strategies in their day-to-day political lives. The cases of Emel and Ezgi are such opposite examples that they illustrate well the existing diversity of women’s strategies. The two women were members of the municipal council in two different districts in Trabzon at the time of our interview. They each integrated into an all-male collective (Ezgi in the party, Emel in her municipal hall), but they adopted very different behaviors.

Emel: A woman has to be everywhere. I saw and experienced it myself. During our meetings, when I see a certain way of sitting or speaking I alert the councilor in question by saying “me, Emel, I am here as a woman,” or I say “mind your way of talking.”
Me: Are you the only woman from your party [in the party group]?
Emel: Yes. At the beginning, we were two but my other colleague was taken out of the list. At that time, I reacted to this decision. I asked them “Why did you leave me alone?” I think if we were two women, we would have more success. Being alone is also not comfortable. It can even be difficult to stand up and go to the toilet. I manage to satisfy my duties in the municipal council because people appreciate my work, including my colleagues, but I sometimes feel alone.
(Emel, in her late 40s, without profession, previously seller in a family shop, head of district women’s branches, municipal councilor, AKP, interviewed on 1.6.2015, Trabzon)

45Emel positions herself in line with the traditional female image within the party—a woman whose presence has a constraining effect on her male colleagues. By policing their way of speaking or sitting, Emel projects onto them a certain type of masculinity which is also compatible with conservative gender norms. Ezgi, on the contrary, adopts the strategy of blending into the all-male collective, adopting their way of talking and behaving, such smoking cigarettes together, joining into jokes and talking in at times close to vulgar language:

There were thirty members of the provincial board and I was the only woman. I was thinking “but how am I going to attend these meetings every week?” These men, who generally throw around vulgarisms, were trying to control themselves when they saw me. At first, they did not get used to me, to the fact that I was relaxed. Being relaxed, I stressed them out actually. But after two months, they accepted me as one of theirs and we became good friends. These friendships still last. Two mayors, one vice-mayor, two district party presidents, and four or five municipal councilors all come from this team.
(Ezgi, accountant, in her 40s, municipal councilor, interviewed on 3.6.2015, Trabzon)

46Indeed, Ezgi’s behavior is subversive with regard to the conservative feminine norm. However, it is aligned to the masculine norm without transgressing it. Ezgi’s joining the all-male team doesn’t perturb their behavior and they reward Ezgi by accepting her as a special case. While she gets accepted (and harvests the fruits of these alliances in her political career), this doesn’t necessarily open the doors to other women since she is accepted as an exception and within the limits of behavior labeled as “masculine”, in this case smoking cigarettes or talking with the use of colloquial (at times vulgar) language. Amid the homogeneity in political discourse, Ezgi and Emel’s cases point towards different ways in which women deal with the conservative social pressures within their constituency and within the party.

Concluding remarks

47This article examined the embodiments and uses of conservative party ideology by female politicians of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power in Turkey since 2002. In doing so it responded to the growing literature on women in conservative parties, which studies the impact of ideology on women’s political experiences.

48The main insights of the article were twofold. Firstly, it showed that women become part and parcel of conservative ideology by strategically adhering to the discourse of the party and its leaders. Any possible divergence from the official party line would put one’s political career in danger, which explains the relative absence of subversive voices. However, depending on the conditions of speech (in terms of female politicians’ positionality, in terms of the situation in which the interview is conducted and with regard to the perception of the interviewer), some divergences from the conservative discourse appear. Should the conditions of speech change, the position of the interlocutor might change as well. Still, the examples where female politicians held a slightly different perspective from the AKP leadership are so rare that it is possible to conclude that there is an important level of compliance to the conservative party discourse in public.

49Secondly, the article considered how locality matters in the concrete manifestations of the AKP’s conservative ideology. It found that conservative party norms are either inhibited or reinforced based on the constituency. In the city of Trabzon, where the party’s conservatism and social conservative norms within the constituency are mutually reinforcing, women face serious difficulties during the exercise of their political responsibilities. Women’s experiences showed how the “conservative values of the electorate” and the imperatives of motherhood serve as day-to-day justifications for exclusion used by male colleagues. It became clear that – presumed or real – conservative social norms play a legitimizing role in women’s exclusion.

50Faced with a constraining party environment intertwined with conservative social norms, women in the AKP mainly adopt accommodating behaviors. Even though the party ethos within the AKP prohibits any open display of women’s political ambition, female politicians repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to conceal their aspirations, to communicate in line with the party language, and to navigate the intra-party environment to ensure political ascension. Strategies that women adopted display some important variations. What they share is women’s knowledge of the intra-party rules which in fine enables them to advance.

51While the party’s conservative ideology legitimizes women’s exclusion, it also defines the “horizon of possibilities” (Avanza 2009) within which female politicians have to navigate to advance their political careers. However, these “survival strategies” that help to advance the political careers of some also contribute to maintaining gender-based stereotypes and thus the social pressures which in turn complicate access of more women into the local politics.

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1 These statistics are from the official account at the relevant office at the Court of Appeal in 2019 (Yargıtay 2019).

2 Descriptive representation refers to the physical “standing for”. It considers the numbers of elected female politicians and their profiles with regard to their constituency. Substantive representation or “acting for” is more concerned with policy outcomes and their gendered impact (the original conceptualization is by Pitkin 1972). Symbolic representation has been conceptualized in the last decade. It refers to “the symbolic effect that representatives have on the electorate, such as the effects that female politicians have on female voters” (Lombardo, Meier 2019).

3 While this body of literature mainly deals with women who access the electoral offices, this paper enlarges the scope to encompass women in representative roles within their political parties. Both the elected and intra-party offices are areas of power that are habitually accessed by some type of election. We can thus hypothesize that similar exclusionary patterns are at play in both domains. In addition, the low levels of women in the decision-making positions within the parties often “lead the way” to women’s underrepresentation in formal electoral politics as powerful actors within the party have greater chances to be placed on a candidate list.

4 It should be noted that the party labels itself as “conservative-democratic.”

5 Most of the interviews were carried out as part of my PhD research. I also conducted several informal interviews in the aftermath of the 2019 local election in Trabzon.

6 All the names used in this article are pseudonyms. The article avoids presenting extended personal information which may lead to the identification of the interviewed female politicians.

7 This article uses quantitative data from the 2014 municipal election because at the time of writing (summer 2020) the official gendered statistics for the 2019 municipal election were not yet available.

8 Women were best represented in the central district of Trabzon, Ortahisar, where women’s representation was up to 10% very much mirroring the national average.

9 The differences between the cities show how the national average of female municipal councilors (10.72%) can conceal infra-national variations.

10 This includes both elected councilors and women in the intra-party position of power.

11 As my doctoral research revealed, this general description applies to the center-left CHP and nationalist MHP as well (Drechselová 2020).

12 While for men the proportion of university graduates is not strikingly higher (25% of men over the age of 25), the absence of a university diploma doesn’t seem to be an impediment to a political career.

13 I would hypothesize that on average this is even more true for women than for men who tend to come from more varied backgrounds.

14 Based on Turkey’s Bar Association, women accounted for 46% of lawyers in Izmir and 40% of lawyers in Trabzon.

15 Even though this measure was announced by the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs in 2013, beyond Cindoğlu and Unal’s article, its concrete application is unclear and requires further research.

16 In 2011, the ministry was renamed “the Ministry of Family and Social Policies” amid the opposition of the feminist movement. Since 2011, its name has been changed four times without containing the reference to women anymore.

17 The issue of discursive adherence to the conservative elements of the party ideology should also be situated within the intricate mechanisms that aim to ensure party discipline. In this regard, it can be noted that – in comparison with other major political parties – the AKP has put in place an effective communication and surveillance system of its local units.

18 Kavakçı reinvented herself as a conservative scholar in the United-States (Kavakçı 2010).

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Electronic reference

Lucie Drechselová, Female politicians of the AKP: Gendered Uses and Ambiguities of Conservative Party IdeologyEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 33 | 2021, Online since 15 March 2023, connection on 05 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lucie Drechselová

CETOBaC (EHESS, CNRS, Collège de France) UMR 8032

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