Newborn baby becomes focus of lifestyle row in Turkey

In a country as polarised as Turkey, even a social media influencer’s religious ritual for her newborn daughter can spark heated debate.

The row sprang up around what many deemed an ostentatious display of wealth by Büşra Nur Çalar, a young woman connected to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) through her husband Ahmet Emin Söylemez, a former Health Ministry undersecretary.

Çalar, who had already amassed 300,000 followers on Instagram before the incident, shared a professionally produced video in which she and her family celebrated the birth of her baby daughter in a luxuriously decked out venue.

The short clip was taken by many as proof of the moral hypocrisy of the religious conservative class that the AKP has brought to the fore of Turkish society. 

While millions of Turks continue to suffer from an economic downturn that has left hundreds of thousands unemployed, here was a supposedly pious woman flashing her family’s wealth. Social media users shared picture of a diamond ring the young mother had bought for the child. A leading opposition member of parliament shared the video, saying in a clearly anti-Semitic comment that it demonstrated the “Judification” of Turkey’s ruling class.

The facts became obscured as the moral outrage snowballed. Leading media outlets reported that the ceremony had been held in Istanbul’s Ihlamur Pavilion, a former Ottoman summer palace that has become one of the city’s most luxurious venues. In fact, Çalar’s event took place at an unexceptional venue in Ankara.

Public mistrust at the government’s practices of allocating lucrative contracts to its own circles fuelled accusations that the family had, directly or not, used taxpayer’s money for their lavish celebration.

But these reports were based on speculation, and overlooked Çalar’s own fame on social media, which could easily have brought her sponsors for the event or the money for her to pay for it outright.

“Büşra’s case has a special characteristic, in that she is a social media professional. That pomp and that way of showing off is how she makes money,” said Emine Uçak, a journalist and human rights activist. 

“But many other religious women who are not social media stars also live in a similarly ostentatious world,” she said.

 

Uçak said, partly thanks to social media, banquets and flashy displays to celebrate special occasions had become the fashion in Turkey from the most provincial towns to the country’s richest circles.

Sociologist Feyza Akınerdem said the change in conservative lifestyle started a decade ago with new fashion magazines that showed the potential of the market. 

“Now this market has expanded, products have diversified, its influence and visibility on social media has increased,” she said. 

The academic cited U.S. historian Daniel Boorstin’s concept of “extravagant expectation”, which he used in the 1960s to describe U.S. society’s quest for new, extraordinary and exciting events on a daily basis. A similar trend can now be observed in Turkish society, with exaggerated ceremonies for weddings, births and circumcisions, Akınerdem said. 

As an entrepreneur of this new lifestyle, Büşra Çalar is only one of the many social media personas who have been using new media technologies to expand their outreach, Akınerdem said. 

“Though all of those influencers aim to add more taste and colour to this lifestyle, their foremost aim is to make people talk about them. I think Büşra showed with her last video that she is very successful at that,” she said.

With her 300,000 followers, Çalar is a featherweight in a social media scene in which major players boast more than a million followers. An expert in the market said people like Çalar could make a between 500 and 5,000 lira ($88-$880) for each advertisement they post on Instagram. 

Meanwhile, conservative women are not the only ones sharing their lavish lifestyles. Social media influencers who are recognised as secularist do the same, but many believe conservative women have been singled out for harsher criticism as they are also seen as symbols of the AKP’s rule. 

Women in conservative circles have long been at the centre of debates in Turkey over secularism. In the 1990s, the state responded to the rise of Islamism in Turkey by banning headscarves in universities, a move that only affected women, while Islamist men enjoyed their freedom to attend higher education.

“The discussions on secularism has caused women to be excluded from education and public space and they could gain their rights after long years suffering severe traumas,” Uçak said. 

“In fact, the main decision makers in that political debate were men, but they did not pay a price, and in the end were seen as the ones who put an end to the problem. Most women did not see a problem with other women paying the price of this political friction,” she said.

After more than a decade, women are still at the centre of debates over the transformation in Turkish society and the new AKP elite. Women in headscarves driving expensive cars or going to new conservative high society venues are, for many, highly visible symbols of that profound change. 

At the same time, women who wear clothes considered revealing are often subjected to harassment in public from people – often conservative men – who say their dress is immoral. Videos of men verbally and physically abusing women on public transport have become commonplace. 

“Most of the wealth created in this transformation is owned by men, but the transformation in religious men’s relations with the world and power has never been discussed,” Uçak said. 

“Because this required a deeper political debate about how that financial wealth has been obtained, debating about women is a less risky and more comfortable issue,” she said. 

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.