In Turkey, Women Suffer Horribly Under Erdogan
First, there were the beatings in their home in Ankara: her husband’s fist crashing hard against her body. Then came the beatings at the shelter, where she’d found refuge with their child, when the husband came to visit. The judge imposed a fine: 3,000 liras (about $1,000) against the man for physical abuse, and 3,000 more against the wife, for the injury to her husband’s hand when he’d beaten her too hard.
Turkey’s elections Sunday may have indicated a wind change for the country, but Turkish women, who have suffered under the regime of Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, are not likely to feel the difference for a while, if at all.
“These things happen so often,” a friend said to me a year or so ago, “that we no longer notice them. There is always a story of an honor killing or a woman killed by her husband. It’s become routine.”
Shocking as this is, it should not be surprising. In the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, Turkey ranked 120 out of 142 countries listed, placing it dead last for Europe and Central Asia. And according to Roberto Frifrini of the Ankara-based Human Rights Agenda Association, “Data on gender-based violence indicates that it is increasing on a daily basis – from suffering basic discrimination to being victims of sexual harassment and rape to honor killings.”
Many women’s rights activists point their fingers directly at Erdoğan and his government, saying that despite occasional appearances to the contrary, they have largely abandoned women. Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now blog notes, for instance, that “Erdoğan recently replaced the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs with the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. The government’s commitment to women has quite literally been erased.”
As a result of such “erasure,” police and the courts tend to take a regressive, even antagonistic approach towards women and women’s rights. In the days running up to the elections, for instance, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that religious marriages would be recognized as legal even in the absence of a civil marriage license – a decision that not only equates religious with civil law, but risks legitimizing polygamy and, worse, the forced marriages of child brides.
Such rulings further underscore the extent to which Turkey has Islamized since the start of the Erdoğan era in 2003. As prime minister from 2003-2014 and currently as president, the man often referred to as “the Sultan” has systematically broken down the secular state created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 – not least when it comes to his vision of the role of women. He has also called on women to stay home and focus on family, to bear “at least” three children, and has described birth control as “treason.” And just last November, he declared that “Equality between men and women is against nature.” His goal, it would seem, is to mirror what he has witnessed in Iran where, women must be covered, cannot travel without the permission of a male guardian or pass on citizenship to her children, and where girls can marry at 13 and even younger.
Erdoğan has been relatively successful. As the Islamists have gained in power, their influence has seeped into the next generation and now threatens to poison even the youngest Turks, through mandatory religion and Koran classes in public schools, and by encouraging girls as young as 10 to wear headscarves. (Such scarves were banned under Ataturk for all women and girls in schools and government buildings.)
The result has been horrific. According to the Atlantic, 11 million women in Turkey have faced or currently face sexual violence. And according to the Daily Zaman, a recent Turkish Interior Ministry report showed that in the past three years, more than 20 times more underage girls were married than underage boys (134,629 versus 5,763). In Gaziantep alone, 21,000 applications were filed in 2013 by families seeking to marry off daughters under 16.
Other research cited by Amnesty International shows that abuse extends throughout the country and across all demographics: 42 percent of women between the ages of 15-60 are subjected to domestic abuse, while almost a third of women in the “highest economic bracket” have endured domestic abuse. It should be noted that many of these victims, while wealthy, are frequently also religious Muslims who actively support the AKP.
It is doubtless no coincidence, then, that in a 2012 study, as many as 71 percent of women agreed with the statement “women should always obey their husbands.” The percentages varied per region, from a low of 40 percent in cosmopolitan Izmir to 71 percent in the Islamic area of Eastern Anatolia. Not surprisingly, these women tend to support Erdoğan and his efforts to increase the role of Islam in Turkey. Fifty-five percent of Turkish women voted AKP in the previous elections, according to the Atlantic.
But what is especially worrisome about these “obedient wives” is their youth: the median age for women is 30 in a country where 41 percent of the population is under 25, and 42 percent between the ages of 25 and 54. They are, in other words, the mothers of Turkey’s future obedient wives, their future abusive husbands, and the judges who will preside over their cases in a court of law.
That may change as the AKP loses power to more secular and woman-friendly political parties – should a coalition government actually succeed. But the road will be long and challenging, involving not only changes in laws, but changes in cultural beliefs and visions. In building its new, more promising future, the new Parliament would do well to remember the words of its political father, Ataturk, who observed, “Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men…. Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains, the other half can soar into skies?”
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.