Women in Turkey: Servants of the family and the state

by Ayşe Çavdar

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Ayşe Çavdar studied journalism at Ankara University and history at Boğaziçi University and worked for many dailies and magazines. She completed her Ph.D. entitled “The Loss of Modesty: The Adventure of Muslim Family from Neighborhood to Gated Community” in 2014 at the European University of Viadrina. Currently she is a visiting scholar at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Philipps University in Marburg.

The AKP’s policy on women and family is a classic example of the deal between the global market mechanism and the conservative political agenda. This arrangement identifies women as the primary means of reproduction in the family, the economy and the market. In this “great deal” women are considered “vital” for the future of the household and the nation and therefore highly appreciated. Women are perceived as consumers, loyal mothers and servants of the family and the state. However, these roles attributed to women also grant men and the state “the duty to protect and control” the women.
In 2008, on International Women’s Day, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan appealed to Turkish women: “The most crucial element of the economy is the human being. They (referring to imagined enemies) want to destroy the Turkish nation. Give birth to three children to keep our nation young” (Hurriyet, 7 March, 2008). This speech sounds like a joke at first. Obviously, it was not. Erdogan’s appeal became the main reference point for the AKP’s policy towards women, mainly focusing on their reproductive role.
In May 2012, Erdogan declared, “I think abortion is murder” and tried to promote new regulations concerning reproductive health. According to him, birth control was a conspiracy of the enemies of the Turkish nation. The secular women’s movement formed a strong opposition against his discourse and regulations. There were many protests in major Turkish cities. The slogan was clear: “My body, my decision”.

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At that time the opposition was successful and stopped Erdogan’s government from banning abortion. However, a small change in the regulation allowing doctors to refuse to perform abortions made it practically impossible, especially in conservative cities in the countryside. According to a report prepared by Mor Cati Women’s Shelter Foundation in 2015, most of the public hospitals did not perform abortions unless the prospective mother had a serious health problem. A shocking one-third of public hospitals did not accept abortion under any circumstances.
One of the latest debates regarding the control and instrumentalization of women as a means of reproduction occurred in November 2016. Four AKP deputies presented a draft law that suggested that if a minor is raped, the penalty should be delayed if the rapist marries the victim. This draft law clearly rejects all international women’s human rights laws and conventions on sexual violence. Very recently, after KADEM — a women’s organization lead by Sumeyye Erdogan Bayraktar, Tayyip Erdogan’s daughter — issued a declaration opposing the draft, the AKP withdrew it. Interestingly, a similar law was in place until 2005, until the AKP eliminated it from the penal code during the EU accession process.
According to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, an advocacy organization running a campaign against violence against women, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of femicides in recent years: 237 in 2013, 294 in 2014, 303 in 2015. In most of the cases documented by the platform, the women were killed by their husbands and close relatives when claiming their legitimate rights. However, pro-government experts and advisors to Erdogan, such as Prof. Ayşen Gürcan, explain this phenomenon through the increased interest from the press about the issue rather than an actual increase in femicides (t24, 5 December, 2016).
Besides these severe human rights violations and the neglect of the state, there is another problem in the women’s rights movement in Turkey. Those who follow feminist discourses in Turkey will clearly remember that religious women were looking for friendship and support from feminist and left-wing women in the headscarf debate, which peaked in the 1990s. They were blaming the secular women’s movement for ignoring the headscarf issue as a woman’s right in terms of the freedom of expression and religion. As a result, they received support from many secular feminists, particularly in the universities and on the streets. Most of the headscarf activists of that period are now very close to the government and hold powerful and influential positions in the media, the bureaucracy, pro-AKP NGOs, etc. These powerful career women are visible, respected, and represented in every domain of life. On the other hand, these tough religious women are only able to oppose the AKP government’s policy of repressing the fundamental rights of women if the powerful men of the AKP allow them to speak. In this way, they not only let down the secular women’s movement but also their daughters and lower-income sisters.

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This is also shown by a massacre-like accident that happened on 29 November in Adana, the fifth biggest city in Turkey, located in the south. 11 school girls burned to death and 22 were injured in a dormitory run by a religious community called Suleymancilar. The investigation revealed that the caretaker had locked the emergency exit door to prevent the girls from fleeing the school. The dead bodies of the girls were found right in front of the emergency exit. In other words, they died in the most painful way while trying to escape the fire.
To sum up, there are two major contradictory developments regarding the situation of women in Turkey. On one hand, there is a tremendous decline in women’s rights and a rise in violence against women, both in the public sphere and in private households. For example, in one case a man who kicked a woman in a public bus because she was wearing shorts was arrested and released several times although his violent attack was documented by security cameras and witnesses. It was obvious that the judicial authorities were more focused on the opposing public opinions about the case rather than implementing the legal procedure concerning the case (NTV, 2016). On the other hand, we see conservative women becoming more visible in all areas of politics, social life and as consumers. However, there is no contradiction in the “big picture” of the AKP’s policy on women and family. The AKP government sends out a very clear message to the women of Turkey: I will reward you if you submit to the life I have designed for you as the servant of the family and the state. You will be able to consume as you wish, have enough domains to get power and enjoy visibility as my representative. However, if you resist my will, I will punish you or let them, the men, train you on my behalf.
The lack of reaction from religious women to structural violence and repression by the state causes a great disappointment and anger among their secular sisters. Most of them, especially those who benefit from the AKP’s conservative family-based gender policies, simply ignore the decline in women’s rights. Of course, there are some progressive religious women criticizing the AKP’s discriminating policies. But they are also experiencing discrimination through massive political exclusion and are accused of being “traitors”. Yet those who suffer the most and are missing from the “big picture” are women in low-income families. What happened in that girls’ dormitory in Adana shows that, for most of them, searching for a little bit of mobility, even through religious communities, leads to fatal consequences (19 December, 2015).