Women candidates aim to redefine the role of the muhtar in Istanbul
Turkey is heading to the polls for local elections on March 31 in which the ruling Justice and Development Party is seeking to keep its hold on crucial major cities, despite a struggling economy and a coalition of opposition parties desperate to make an impression.
But alongside the thousands of mayors and councillors facing elections across the country, voters will select more than 50,000 muhtars, non-partisan village and neighbourhood heads responsible for day-to-day services including registering residents and, in rural areas, tasks related to health and education.
In Istanbul alone a large number of women, including candidates in their twenties, are running in their home neighbourhoods, running grassroots campaigns with aims ranging from improving earthquake protocols to opening new healthcare facilities.
“The public directly chooses muhtars, there are no delegates in the process. It’s the finest example of direct democracy,” said Didem Koryürek Armutlu, a journalist running in the Kartaltepe neighbourhood in Istanbul’s Bakırköy district.
Many people regard the office of muhtar as a relatively inconsequential one: the position is not supposed to be tied to political parties, and muhtars often spend their terms in office without making an impact on the neighbourhoods they serve.
Yet the women running in Istanbul have ambitious plans that aim to change their neighbourhoods for the better.
Zeynep Alemdar, the head of the international relations department at Istanbul Okan University, believes the women seeking to serve their communities as muhtars are a sign of a new wave of women determined to break into politics despite the difficulties and toxic atmosphere faced by women campaigning for higher-profile positions.
“It’s difficult for women even to stand as candidates for municipal councils,” said Alemdar.
“Firstly you have the issue of taking care of household work. Society and the system places the onus on women for this type of work ... Then, there are the obstacles placed in their way by the patriarchal system.”
These include the added difficulties for women seeking funding for political campaigns, and the misogynistic attacks faced by women in political positions.
“Your posters could be torn down, you could be subjected to social media lynch campaigns, you could receive threats to your children or your loved ones,” Alemdar said.
So, women running for muhtar positions across Istanbul are aiming to redefine the role and break gender barriers while also improving the lives of their neighbours.
“Muhtars have responsibilities, and our aim is to look into and resolve infrastructure problems,” Armutlu said. “We want everyone to take responsibility in the neighbourhood and to give their input into solving problems.”
The most important among these problems, Koryürek said, is the risk of an earthquake, since Istanbul lies close to a fault line.
The threat of an earthquake striking Istanbul is a nightmare for its roughly 16 million inhabitants. The last major earthquake to hit the area was centred in İzmit, a city around 100 km from Istanbul, killing around 17,000 people in 1999.
“We want to raise awareness on the issue of earthquakes, and to gather the public in street meetings to make a joint decision on how to prepare an action plan to protect ourselves if one happens,” she said.
Since there is currently no area marked out as a gathering point if an earthquake takes place, Koryürek said the creation of one, and securing electricity, water and shelter, would be a priority.
Damla Akman, a healthcare professional and Istanbul's youngest muhtar candidate.
It is a concern that is also raised by Aslı Karabale, the 36-year-old candidate for the Kozyatağı neighbourhood, who aims to set up volunteer groups to organise residents in the event of an emergency.
“People don’t know what to do if there’s an earthquake or a similar disaster. We want to set up volunteer units on every street and train people on how to act,” said Karabale.
For Seyda Ateş, a healthcare professional running in the Zuharatbaba neighbourhood in the Bahçelievler district, the issue that could win over the neighbourhood’s 16,000 voters is the lack of a local funeral home.
“I’ll start by demanding a funeral home from the municipality as soon as I’m elected. We’re losing our neighbours, and there’s nowhere for us to gather,” Ateş said.
It is common in smaller towns and villages across Turkey for residents to gather in a house specially assigned for the task when a friend or loved one passes away, though in other places gatherings take place in people’s homes.
Ateş believes the people in her neighbourhood are crying out for communal areas for public use, and has promised to open the muhtar building to the public and to establish barter markets and a consumers’ co-operative.
Damla Akman, another healthcare professional who at 24 years old is the city’s youngest muhtar candidate, also sees the provision of public services as a key issue for the 23,000 residents of her neighbourhood, Osmaniye.
As well as her promise to set up a free legal advice bureau for residents, Akman has promised to establish a health cabin in the neighbourhood, which will offer free health checks on specific days of the week.
Citizens and residents of Turkey have access to universal health care, though in a city of Istanbul’s size state medical centres are often crowded, so the cabins would solve a pressing need for the neighbourhood, which has a large elderly population.
This kind of community care is also high on the list of priorities for Leyla Tokmak, who is running in the Sahrayıcedit neighbourhood in Kadıköy, on Istanbul’s Asian side.
Tokmak wants to reinvigorate community relations in Sahrayıcedit, and hopes this can help support the roughly 100 disabled residents in the neighbourhood.
The 56-year-old candidate also has ambitious plans to introduce sustainable energy to the 60,000 inhabitants of the area.
“We still haven’t grasped the benefits we can gain from solar energy,” Tokmak said. “I plan to start talks with the municipality and with professional organisations to install solar panels on every home.”
Tokmak says this initiative will help reduce residents’ energy bill, a benefit that will have a significant impact on people’s lives given the high inflation and rising living costs that have hit Turks over the past year.