For millions of women in Turkey, life has just become more dangerous. And that puts the future of the entire country at risk.
At least one woman is killed nearly every single day in Turkey, usually by a family member or lover, with more than 400 such "femicides" on record last year alone. Now Turkey's government threatens to shut down the one organization that vowed to end this cycle of violence. In doing so, the ruling AKP party stands to further stamp its Islamist ideology into the body of the once-secular Turkish Republic and its people, and dig its authoritarian heels more deeply into the Turkish earth.
Just as domestic violence itself often evolves gradually, the government's attack on women in Turkey has unfolded over a period of years, moving in parallel with the slow dissolve of many of the country's secular and democratic ideals. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had barely been elected to office in 2014 when he declared, "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing," insisting that women were primarily suited to motherhood, as dictated by Islam. Since then, he has called for a new "pious generation," and has increased the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, to reach nearly €1.4 billion in 2021 – more than 20 times what it was when Erdogan became prime minister in 2002. To further the aim of an Islamist future for the country, the Quran is now being taught in kindergarten for the first time.
But lately Erdogan's efforts – both to oppress women and to promote Islamist ideology (the two often go hand-in-hand) – seem to be gaining speed. A year ago, for instance, Erdogan withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention On Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women claiming it "damaged traditional Turkish family values." Ironically, the treaty is known as the "Istanbul Convention," so nicknamed after Turkey became the first signatory.
Unsurprisingly, the number of femicides in the country increased dramatically soon after Erdogan's withdrawal. That fact is known, significantly, thanks only to the data collection and activism of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a group that tracks and fights violence against women and, not coincidentally, is the very organization that Erdogan's party is working to shut down. The government is now pursuing criminal charges against it.
Those charges, the Platform has explained in statements on its (now removed) web site and to the press, include engaging in "illegal and immoral activities" and "damaging the Turkish family structure under the guise of protecting women's rights."
In other words, protecting women from domestic violence may be a criminal act.
Meantime, with the Turkish lira in precipitous decline, Erdogan has leaned toward establishing Islamic rules to govern the financial market. Last December, for instance, he refused to raise interest rates, citing Islam as the basis for his decision.
"As a Muslim, I will continue doing what our religion tells us," he said in a televised speech. "This is the command."
The move left many wondering whether he is leading the country into sharia rule. The criminalization of women's rights groups along with the retreat from the Istanbul Convention may suggest he is.
What seems clear is that he is pressing harder to maintain authoritarian rule, creating an Islamist authoritarian state: one in which the rights of women are harnessed, driven back into past centuries, as men and religion, together, assert an ever greater power. As Harvard Kennedy Center's Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks wrote earlier this month in Foreign Affairs, "It is not a coincidence that women's equality is being rolled back at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise. Political scientists have long noted that women's civil rights and democracy go hand in hand...Misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities, but mutually reinforcing ills."
In a subsequent interview in the Harvard Kennedy School magazine, Marks further noted, "Democracy by definition requires equal human and civil rights for citizens – including, of course, women.... [By contrast], authoritarians often rely on the overrepresentation of male power (patriarchy) – in both public and private life – to consolidate their power and chip away at crosscutting social coalitions."
All of which does not bode well for Turkey's future should Erdogan manage to win next year's election, despite falling poll numbers.
Yet most of Turkey's secular women, and those who defend their rights, believe that after 20 years, there is a good chance Erdogan can be defeated. Rising inflation and a more Westernized younger generation have cut deeply into his popularity over the past year.
Which is why, despite the crackdowns and the imposition of religious values on women and their children, champions for women's rights continue to fight for the country's future and the secular ideals of Kemal Ataturk, its founder. For them, Ataturk's words remain immortal and carry their greatest hopes: "Humankind is made up of two sexes, women and men," he once said. "Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains, the other half can soar into the skies?"
IPT Senior Fellow Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @abigailesman.
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