Across Turkey, women are breaking into laughter. Addressing the “degeneration of society”, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has advised women not to laugh in public. A woman’s “chastity” was serious business, he felt. Now Twitter in Turkey has been flooded with selfies of laughing women. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the presidential candidate running against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tweeted that the country “needs women to smile”. Suddenly, laughing in Turkey has become political. And it’s not really funny.
Laughter, in its lack of orderliness, in its riotous physicality, in its irreverence, has always unsettled the establishment. The power of levity can upset the norms of discourse, pierce through the conceit of rules and regulations. For centuries, institutions, whether political, religious or social, have feared the radical potential of laughter. The Greek philosophers restricted it and the early church condemned it — nuns and monks were ordered to keep a serious countenance. The excesses of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union spawned a counter-culture of jokes and laughter. In the 1990s, M.D. Nanjundaswamy, a social activist agitating for the rights of farmers, invented the laugh-in. On one occasion, some 50,000 farmers were gathered around the Karnataka state secretariat in order to “laugh the government out”.
In Turkey, a people increasingly at odds with their government have been taking to the streets for more than a year now, agitating on a range of issues, from civil liberties to the government’s slow undermining of Turkey’s secularism. In response, the Erdogan regime has grown more authoritarian, resorting to violent arrests and curbing access to social media websites. This week’s protest stems from years of bitterness about a political culture that is steeped in misogyny — Erdogan famously said he did not believe in equality between men and women. The women of Turkey should keep laughing.