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Turkish Dragon Lady Rides the Wind

Ozlem Zengin of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seems determined to occupy the top trends with her inhumane discourse in the current Turkish politics. While most critics state they have not known her this way, there is no doubt the transformative power of politics have worked its magic even on the mildest in Turkey. Those who have a tad of hope in her integrity keep on explaining that Zengin was once known as modest and decent. Yet her latest comments and toxic political stance never fail to make the news.

Honestly, I had no idea that a deputy named Ozlem Zengin existed in the Turkish Grand National Assembly till the last couple of years. There were other significant political figures of the AKP like Bulent Arinc, Binali Yildirim, Burhan Kuzu, Hayati Yazici, and many others in the National Assembly who mouthpieced for defending the views of the AKP when needed. The Turkish Grand National Assembly has not been stranger to bickering and even fist fights especially during the last 20 years; despite all crises, in none of them any of such political figures made vile sexist comments, especially the way Ozlem Zengin did about the silenced and oppressed women. 

I’d rather not get in line as if in a funeral among the congregation who readily affidavit any departed soul as ‘we knew him or her well’ when the imam asks the congregation’s opinion about the person on the funeral slab. I’d rather say it has been great that millions across Turkey got to know Ozlem Zengin as she revealed her real face in this age of political and anti-pandemic masks and she will always be remembered as someone who notoriously lacks basic compassion.” Was it really worth stooping so low for the sake of politics?

She described women who had revealed their experiences of unlawful prison strip-searches as “disreputable” and “immoral” during a speech in the Turkish parliament on Feb 18. And, this shocked everyone. As a woman, how could she talk about other women with such immorality? She is same person who said the opposite years back. She said “women were feared at a time and they could not report the unlawful treatments happen to them”.

She is not an ordinary person at least when her resume is checked. She is a lawyer and was an advocate for women, children, and families since her graduation. She established a foundation called IKAMER (Istanbul Woman and Family Research Centre) in 2001. She is also a founding member of Beyaz El Solidarity Foundation and Women and Democracy Association. You can see the names of the foundation and association that she established and could expect at least she should be more sensitive about women rights. She even once hosted a TV program at Ulke TV about the political development of Turkey and the World with a title of ‘Elegant Thought’ referring to women’s elegant approach to national and world affairs.

Before she became a deputy in AKP, she was considered as an elegant and decent proponent for the rights of women, children and family, but she totally changed as she rose in the party hierarchy and after becoming a deputy of a government that oppresses millions, including children, youth, women, old and sick people in Turkey. The oppressed became the oppressor. What a dramatic change. Quo Vadis, Ozlem Zengin?

ozlem zengin 1
Ozlem Zengin

She received lots of flak after her talk in which she termed the women who reported the stripped search a year later as “disreputable and immoral.” It is a culture in Turkish politics that if you failed in something, you go to your electoral district and make a speech and show off against your critics to tell them “who cares what you think, but I still have support of my people”. This was what Ozlem Zengin did by visiting Tokat from where she was elected and made a long speech of the champions to a tightly-knit (both in ideology and social proximity) audience disregarding her own government’s Covid-19 precautions. Why, while meetings, assemblies and rallies are free to the members of the AKP during the pandemic, it costs dear money to the common folk in case they break the curfews. If they go outside during the curfews, people are heavily fined by the same authority for whom socializing without distance is no problem at any time.

You may have thought she reasoned after that event and apologized or at least withdrew from following the same line. No, true to her political loyalty, Zengin made another accusation against the oppressed and silenced women on a TV program: She said exclusively about the women participants of the Hizmet Movement as “those women get pregnant by a directive.” These words caused an outcry on social media and people from all walks of life harshly criticized her for being so heartless and despicable.

On Netflix, there is a psychological thriller series called Behind Her Eyes. An amazing watch with a perfect scenario… Here’s a spoiler and you may wish to skip reading the next two paragraphs, if you do not wish me to spoil the fun. Anyway, there is Louise, who meets with a family who will change her life forever. She discovers her inner powers and controlling of her soul after meeting with the main character, Adele. Without knowing what kind of trouble she is trapped in; she gets more involved with Adele and her family even after feeling the risk of it. At the end, she is trapped by Adele, Adele takes the control of her body and lets Louise’s soul die in Adele’s body. Louise is the same Louise but with a different conscience or soul originating from Adele. Her son and her ex-husband realize that there is something wrong with her, but in no way could they imagine what they saw was Adele occupying Louise’s body.

This serial reminded me of Ozlem Zengin who resembles Louise. Once Ozlem Zengin lived a modest and decent life, engaged in charity work, advocated for women, children and family. The same as Louise met Adele, got trapped by her and lost her body to Adele’s soul, Ozlem Zengin had the same experience with the AKP. The more she was involved with the Machiavellian politics of the AKP, she discovered her inner powers and this made her feel better and get closer to the AKP. At a time, AKP ‘tricked her soul and replaced it’ as it happened in the serial. The body is the same but the conscience is not hers anymore; Turkey deals with the shell of Ozlem Zengin who is a dim shadow of her principled past. 

When the Interior Minister saw that a deputy for his party blurted out something more than she could chew and received lots of criticism, he intervened by his usual threatening tone. Suleyman Soylu tweeted: “Criticizing Ozlem Zengin on the social media is inhumane and immoral; so we are taking action.”

Ozlem Zengin’s example shows that Erdogan and his party ranks see themselves above the laws and regulations, suffer (or rather enjoy) the vertigo as they look down on people from above, and slap vile labels on all who do not support them or agree to partner with them in crimes. Ozlem Zengin based her justification against strip-searching women on her view that reporting an unlawful treatment after a year is immoral.

Let’s stop here and ask: “To whom should they have reported it, Mrs. Zengin? To a judiciary which works under the tutelage of the Presidential Palace and controls the very penitentiaries where visitors and inmates are degraded by strip-searching? To a police department under the tutelage of the Interior Minister Soylu who does not say anything against the strip-searches and all the while controls the detention centers where people are subjected to the degrading practice? Women who could find the opportunity to raise their voices against injustice even after a year are now threatened because people like Ozlem Zengin deem they criticize the so-called almighty government.

Breathing fire from her poison heart only for the sake of transient political gains, Ozlem Zengin has no doubt been instrumental for the current regime in Turkey with her confrontational style whenever a crisis troubled the political government. As it goes in the Turkish saying, it hurts the trees the most when they see the handle of the ax that chops them is one of them. Choosing toxicity to address the oppression suffered by the women in prisons and elsewhere in Turkey, Ozlem Zengin bulldozed women’s sentiments in a manner only she as a woman could know.


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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.


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