Why Turkey Is Backsliding on Women's Rights

Elmira Bayrasli, a Turkish-American writer on women and development issues, suggested that to the AKP's socially conservative base, Erdogan, his policies, and his lifestyle are already progressive. His supporters appreciate his ability to temper the government's embrace of capitalism, symbolized by the dozens of chain stores and restaurants mushrooming all over Turkey's cities, with enough traditional rhetoric to soften the transition from an agricultural and rural society.

"He marches out with his wife Emine and travels with her," she said. "By bringing out his covered wife, he's making it normal for them to be modern citizens."

In its nine years as the ruling party, the AKP has passed some impressive legislation on women. In May, they signed Turkey on to a new Council of Europe Convention on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. The government passed a Labor Law in 2008 promising state contributions towards Social Security costs for female employees for five years. In 2010, an AKP-appointed education minister overrode a Constitutional Court's ban on the headscarf in public institutions by directing all universities to permit covered women on campuses, allowing millions of observant female students to access higher education for the first time. And despite the ban, covered women do work in some government offices, although they say they still face discrimination.

But the implementation remains spotty at best. For example, current legislation stipulates that any municipality with a population greater than 50,000 should have a domestic violence shelter, but the government is more than 100 shelters short. The total combined capacity for the 50 or so shelters that currently exist runs to just over 1350 people, hardly sufficient to ensure the safety of the 11 million women who have faced or are facing physical or sexual violence in Turkey, according to estimates by Human Rights Watch.

And according to a study by Binnaz Toprak, a sociologist and newly elected MP from the CHP, conservative values and economic forces, not headscarf bans, keep women out of school and out of the workforce, where they participate at a rate of 27 percent. A study she conducted in 2004 found that 0.5 percent of women named the headscarf as the reason they didn't work; far more cited having to take care of children (23 percent), that men in their family didn't want them to work (18 percent), or the inability to find a job (17 percent). In 2010, the budget for what was the General Directorate on the Status of Women was the lowest of any government agency.

At times, the Prime Minister's own rhetoric appears to contradict his stated commitment to women's rights. Ask any feminist about him and they quickly tick off a number of derisive off-hand comments ("Erdoganisms," you might say) he's made in public that suggest he's far more traditional than his legislative achievements would have you believe. Many women interviewed for this article recounted him saying that he "does not believe in gender equality," and and that Turkish women should have at least three children, although he opposes publicly-provided child care.

Sounding a lot like an Egyptian general, he recently said on television that he didn't know whether a woman arrested in a violent protest was a "kız" (a young virgin) or a "kadın" (an older, sexually experienced woman), a remark that riled even one of his supporters, Kubra Ozguven, a 23-year-old software engineer who divides her time between Turkey and Canada.

Although she approves of the AKP's economic and foreign policy, Ozguve said she felt "ashamed and humiliated" by his insinuations. "It was embarrassing to hear such an archaic language openly from my prime minister," she said. "His comments cement the age-old beliefs on gender inequality."

Ceyde, a 19-year-old student who voted for the CHP, took the comment personally.

"These are statements of an extremely ignorant man on the street," she said, "like the ones who yell at you for wearing a relatively short skirt. Especially as a young girl, I feel less free under the AKP. If the Prime Minister questions my virginity on national television, how am I supposed to be open about my own choices?"

Canan Arin, a lawyer who specializes in women's rights, believes his patriarchal rhetoric has far-reaching consequences.

"When he talks like that, the people who are applying the law -- policemen, say, or prosecutors -- are encouraged," she said.

Indeed, the Human Rights Watch report found that only eight percent of women who have experienced abuse bother seeking help from any institution. Many of those who did go to the police reported that the police sent them back to their abuser, insisting that their problems were a family affair.

Thank god for the family?

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for womenintheworld.org.

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