Women's Rights in Erdogan's Turkey

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

(Photo Credit)

Amid the current political instability in Turkey following last week’s attempted coup by segments of the military against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, the country’s performance in implementing the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is being reviewed by a UN Women committee.

The committee, comprising representatives from the permanent representation of Turkey to the UN and officials from various government bodies, gathered on July 13 to discuss findings and answer questions on a wide range of issues affecting women in the country. Members of the committee focused on gender equality and matters relating to legislation, violence against women, education, employment, and political affairs. The official concluding observations are set to be announced on July 25 and will offer an important snapshot of women’s rights in Turkey.

Women’s roles in many areas of life in present-day Turkey have been shaped by enduring gender equality, partly due to policies supported by the government led by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) that favor restrictions on women’s rights. Despite the AKP’s initial introduction of legislation outlawing marital rape and relaxing some restrictions banning the headscarf, it soon became clear that women’s rights were not a government priority. As a result, Turkey continues to be blighted not only by widespread domestic violence and significant disparities in equal access to employment and education but also cases of rape, honor killings and child marriage.

The political discourse throughout much of Erdogan’s “reign” (he served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 until 2014 before becoming president) has been marked by gender inequalities and patriarchal norms. For instance, in his address to Turkey’s Women and Democracy Association (KADEM) in Istanbul on the eve of this year’s Ramadan, President Erdogan said that a woman who rejects motherhood is “deficient” and “incomplete” and, by choosing work over staying at home to look after her family,  is “denying her femininity.” The President continued by saying that he supports women’s right to have a career, but he added that this should not come at the expense of their patriotic duty as child-bearers, and urged all females to have at least three children.

As Rose Asani mentions, it would be easier to shrug off these remarks if they had come from someone with less influence, but in Turkey it is precisely Erdogan who “grips the strings of the country tightly in his hands.” Moreover, this was not the first time Erdogan expressed such antiquated views on women’s role in society. The week before his speech at KADEM, he openly rejected contraception: “I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants…. People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that. As God and as the great prophet has said, we will go this way. And in this respect, the first duty belongs to mothers.” And in 2014, he went as far as to state that women cannot be treated as equal to men, and accused feminists of failing to grasp the importance of motherhood in Islam: “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature.”

Even as he continues to make such remarks, Erdogan has also vehemently pushed for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the Schengen zone and criticized European leaders for stalling discussions on Turkey’s European Union membership bid for years. But how can the EU consider Turkey as a potential member when its President clearly thinks that women belong at home, giving birth to and looking after children? How can countries whose leaders and societies largely espouse women’s rights accept Turkey’s accession to the EU, and what would this mean for progress in achieving gender equality?