Why Women's Rights Are Going Wrong in Turkey

A woman supporting Turkey's prime minister cheers and waves Turkish and AK Party (AKP) flags during an election rally in Istanbul on March 23, 2014.

Why you should care

Because women’s rights are human rights.

It was last July, during an ordinary session of Parliament. Business as usual — probably rather boring, in all honesty. Until suddenly, routine politics did a U-ey and veered into gender territory. The deputy prime minister of Turkey’s ruling party was addressing a member of the opposing party: “Madam, be quiet! You, as a woman, be quiet!”

To the average outsider, it’s a longstanding puzzle. Turkey is a progressive Muslim country with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But even as it dives ever deeper into the 21st century, the country continues to lag in the area of women’s rights. Sure, it’s got a new leftist party, which is also feminist and pro-gay. But although it won 13 percent of the votes in the June parliamentary elections, eliminating the once absolute power of the ruling party, experts see a downward shift in the area of women’s rights. The ruling party “does not believe in the equality of men and women,” says Gönül Karahanoğlu, chairwoman of Ka.der, a Turkish nongovernmental organization that works on issues of gender equity. She says the party in power wants women to stay at home, raise children and take care of their families.

Some might write off the message as caveman-crude, but the tactics sure aren’t.

Thing is, that party — the AKP — has still not formed a government. Political analysts suspect it was a stall tactic to spur new elections, one which proved successful: New elections will take place on November 1. And to Sevim Dağdelen, a left-wing politician from Germany and an expert on Turkish politics, the president’s strategy is clear: If his party can frame the lefty-feminist opposition — the HDP — as terrorists in cahoots with the infamous Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), there goes the women’s libbers’ chances of winning votes, she said on German radio. Currently, the government and the PKK, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the EU and the Turkish state, are fighting each other with bloody attacks. ISIS entered the scene in October, with an attack in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people.

The AKP is vocal about women’s roles, says Dr. Nil Mutuler, a professor in the sociology department of Nişantaşı University in Istanbul, because it helps them convey their ideas to the people. And that’s typical for nationalist politics, she says: “By defining the attributes of women clearly, it is much easier to explain the values of your ideology to the society.” This has been the ruling party’s M.O. since 2007, says Mutuler. Some might write off the message as caveman-crude, but the tactics sure aren’t. The name change of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to the Ministry of Family and Social Policy in 2011 was both simple and very savvy. With this change, says Mutuler, “the mentality changed as well.” Aydιn Cıngı, a political scientist and former chairman of the social-democratic SODEV, says the AKP’s ideology has roots in the misogyny of radical Islam, linking the party’s worldview to an uptick in rapes and violence against women. “This negative trend is obviously no coincidence,” Cıngı says.

Some might argue that women — at least, millennials in the West — take certain civil rights for granted, and that the decades of women who struggled for those rights are long forgotten. So the situation of women in Turkey could be surprising. But even though the Internet cuts through time zones and borders, cultural divides do not disappear at 5G speeds. “Turkey is at the crossroads of all kinds of places,” says Anne Firth Murray, a Stanford University professor of international women’s health and human rights. She is optimistic about the ramifications of modernization for women in Turkey, whom she calls highly educated and sophisticated. “Surely, women in Turkey have been affected by the fact they are in an international hub, and that strengthens the movement.”

Not everyone agrees with an antifeminist characterization of Turkey’s ruling party. Women have the same access to the labor market as men, says Yeşim Seviğ, the general secretary of KAGİDER, a women entrepreneurs association that assists the Turkish government in international forums. Seviğ admits that women face certain career obstacles, mainly the lack of a comprehensive childcare system. But in her opinion, the AKP’s conservative values are not exclusionary or discriminatory. On the contrary, she says, the AKP has taken “positive actions” to include more women in the labor market, because it needs women for economic growth and the sustainability of the country. Since the AKP came into power in 2002, female participation in the labor force has increased from 22 percent to 27 percent, Seviğ adds. And while childhood marriage and honor killings are still commonplace in Turkey, according to the 2014 progress report by the European Commission, the ruling party has outlawed marital rape. The AKP did not reply to OZY’s requests for comment.

That may ultimately be the key for Turkey’s women. As moves such as building what could be the world’s largest international airport increasingly modernize the country, international pressure and the abject need for a robust white-collar workforce could open doors that all the women’s-rights groups in Turkey (and there are many) could not on their own.

Comment

OZYFast Forward

New trends and breakthrough thinking in politics, science, technology, business and culture. It’s futurism at its best.