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Chanting alongside Istanbul's female football fans, by Kathryn Tomasetti

Jazeera, December 2015

Dr Itir Erhart, assistant professor at Istanbul’s prestigious Bilgi University, is a poster girl for Turkish feminism. She even lectures Istanbul’s police force on gender issues. Which is why she was shocked at her own behaviour while watching her beloved Beşiktaş football club. “Years ago we were playing local rivals Fenerbahçe at the old Inonu Stadium,” she tells Jazeera. “I started chanting sexist statements while making the appropriate hand gestures. My 10-year-old daughter would have been shocked!”

Dr Erhart’s subsequent study into Turkish female fandom came at a topical time. A decade ago, women-only supporters groups, like Ladies of Beşiktaş and GFB Angels of Fenerbahce, emerged to change the face of local football. Turkey now leads the world in hosting women and children only games. Support at these meets is frequently louder than at predominantly male matches. But Dr Erhart’s interviews with 27 female Turkish fans, three football columnists and two feminist writers show that moving football from a masculine pursuit took serious time.

“Decades ago I would watch football on TV with my father, uncles and younger brother,” remembers Dr Erhart. “My mother, aunts and female cousins believed that as I got older I’d direct my interest to ballet and gymnastics like a ‘proper girl’.” As with thousands of other Turkish women, that didn’t happen. Turkey’s modern social history has allowed girls to grow up to become everything from a fighter pilot to prime minister. But inside the last bastion of male hegemony a more sexist story emerged. “At football stadiums women still had to become honorary men – chanting, smoking and shouting rude things like the rest of them.”

Female supporters group Ladies of Beşiktaş was started by Betul Aslan and three other women in 2006 as a response to such crude arena antics. Their task was tough because Beşiktaş’ Inonu stadium, on the banks of the Bosphorus, has a reputation for rowdiness. It even holds the world record for the noisiest fan support – 132 decibels was recorded at a 2009 Champions League match against Liverpool. That’s louder than a plane taking off. Aslan and her colleagues used whistles and horns to drown out lewd chants. Support grew. The Ladies opened 12 chapters across Turkey with members as far Germany and Japan. They maintain a popular Facebook group and Twitter feed.

How did traditional supporters view Ladies of Beşiktaş? “When we started we received lots of attention in the newspapers and TV,” their spokeswoman tells Jazeera. “It was difficult on derby days (against bitter local rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe) when too much alcohol was consumed.” The Ladies receives some nasty insults. “But we concentrated our support on Besiktas winning the championship instead”. Match day attendance is now far more varied. “I know at least 500 women who sporadically come to games. And we expect about 50 in our side-by-side group at the stadium.”

The rise of female football fandom had a knock-on effect in an unlikely space – across the Bosphorus at rival club Fenerbahçe. On 20th September 2011, Istanbul’s Asian giants were forced to play behind closed doors as penance for a pitch invasion during a match against Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk. But the Turkish Football Federation sanctioned an alternative punishment. In a footballing first, the club offered to give away free tickets to women and children only. Some 41,000 fans wearing Fenerbahçe’s trademark canary yellow steamed into the Rüştü Saraçoğlu Stadium.

For the first time in history, Fenerbahçe’s footballing cauldron became cordial. That day, flowers instead of jeers greeted visiting club Manisaspor. Their midfielder Ömer Aysan told the Turkish press: “It was such a fun and pleasant atmosphere…. we Manisaspor players couldn’t believe in what we were seeing.” Former Brazil and Fenerbahçe capitan Alex de Souza claimed: “this memory will stay with me forever”. This unique event was picked up by CNN. Even more astonishingly, rival female fans from Beşiktaş and Galatasaray were invited to join in the spectacle.

In all, the Turkish Football Federation sanctioned a further 58 women and children only matches. Turnouts regularly topped 40,000, far more than most English Premier League or Italian Serie A games. All passed off without incident. When Fenerbahçe won Turkish Süper Lig with three games to spare in 2014 there wasn’t a male supporter in sight.

Globalization has also pushed sexism to the sidelines in Turkey. All three Istanbul clubs regularly play Champions League football (last year Beşiktaş welcomed Arsenal), which has strict UEFA-sanctioned crowd rules. Rising ticket prices and heavy merchandising have deterred some diehard fans. Foreign supporters are more welcome than ever before thanks to the new Passolig e-ticketing system. Ironically, a recent commercial from a European mobile phone company drew ire from Turkish supporters. It depicted a man using his contract minutes to explain the offside rule to his girlfriend over the phone – a stereotype considered outdated in 2015.

Grassroots organisations like Ladies of Beşiktaş now have official support. As the club’s General Manager Metin Albayrak explains: “Our ‘Female Eagles’ are always an important piece of our fans because they really know and love football”. Albayrak calls the previous years’ women-only games an “interesting exercise” but prefers men, women and children to support the club together. Especially as Beşiktaş move into their new Vodafone Arena in early 2016. “We want more children and women fans at our new stadium and we are starting new projects to accomplish this,” he says. “Our new home will be more polite and sensitive with these fans. With their Beşiktaş passion, our fans’ support will be better for our team.”  

Dr Erhart will be first in line for Beşiktaş tickets next year. “Ladies of Beşiktas and similar female groups have changed the landscape of Turkish football forever.” She’s even planning to take her 10-year-old daughter. “We’re counting down the days!”

Read more stories about Turkish culture written by Kathryn Tomasetti here.