News Analysis

Life Deteriorating for Turkish Women

Wed, December 12, 2012

Abigail R. Esman

At a casual café in Istanbul, a woman in her twenties sits and stares morosely at her plate, stirring her food absently with her fork. Her four-year-old son reaches out and starts to scramble across the table towards her; annoyed, she scolds him and pushes him back into his seat. Her husband, dark and swarthy, goes right on eating.

She is small, this woman, though growing plump. She wears no makeup; and on this street, the Istiklal Caddesi, where other Turkish girls sway their hips and saunter in micro-miniskirts and counterfeit Louboutins, her only form of adornment isn’t really adornment at all: A plain tan scarf splashed with dark brown and salmon-colored flowers, a hijab she wears not for fashion, but for piety.

One sees more and more of these women lately in Istanbul. They are part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “new religious generation,” an active force in a movement that is turning Turkey, secularized nearly 100 years ago by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, further and further from the West and more towards its Islamic – even Islamist – neighbors in the Middle East.  It is a movement that can have profound consequences for the West – Turkey is, after all, a full member of NATO – as much as for the Turks themselves.

But right now, nobody is feeling it more than Turkish women.

This country, split between East and West, and for the past century a bridge between them, is now feeling a profound split from within, as religious groups gain power over the secular elite that has long held the country’s reins.  “Young people are becoming more religious,” a friend tells me – significant when you consider that the majority of Turks are under the age of 30.

The effect this is having on women is two-fold. For the religious, it signals a return to patriarchal lifestyles: Not only are they willing to accept arranged marriages for themselves, but they insist on the same fate for their daughters.  Few enter the workforce, reflecting the government’s increasing emphasis on family and the Prime Minister’s view, explicitly put forth in a speech on International Women’s Day 2008, in which he called on his “dear sisters” to produce “at least” three children --- and preferably more.  Two years later, he went even further: “I don’t believe in equality between men and women,” he said. 

These changes have an even more profound effect on less religious women, the ones who prefer to marry for love, to work outside the home, to live a Western, secularized life. As Turkish men become more conservative – and younger, conservative men mature -- they are less willing to accept these kinds of behaviors in their wives and sisters, their nieces and their daughters – and the numbers show it.

Domestic and “honor” violence statistics have soared since Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in 2003; recent studies show a nearly 15- fold increase reported in honor killings between 2002 and 2009. (It is also well worth noting that, while UN figures show the number of honor killings globally at 5,000 per year, a Christian Science Monitor report cited nearly 1,000 in Turkey alone for the first seven months of 2009 – which, if true, tells a lot about both Turkey and the real rate of honor killings worldwide. However, other reports put the number of honor murders at a high of 160 in 2011.

None of these figures, however, include statistics for Turkey’s latest trend, known as “honor suicide” – when a woman (or girl) chooses to end her own life rather than wait for her family to do it for her, or to endure a life of misery with a man her family has forced her to wed.   (Honor suicides have also been reported among young gay Turkish men.) True ciphers for this trend are hard to come by, however, as more and more honor killings are being declared “suicides” in family-kept conspiracies aimed at keeping the murderers out of prison.

Other women simply succumb.  In one unspeakable story, the family of an 18-year-old girl locked her in a room with the man they’d chosen for her husband  --  and encouraged him to rape her.  If they had sex, the reasoning went, she would be forced to marry him for “honor.”  Instead, she escaped, and both the family and the groom-to-be were arrested, though the family later released.  The young woman, known only by her initials – O.A. -- subsequently recanted, and the couple married in September. One can only assume it was a marriage made in fear, and not in love.

But sexual molestation – family sanctioned and otherwise – is commonplace. Human Rights Watch cites a May, 2011 study that puts the number of Turkish women who have experienced “physical or sexual violence inflicted by a relative at some point in their lives” at a staggering 42 percent—reflecting the UN Development’s ranking of the country at number 83 on its Gender Inequality index – lower than Iran.  (The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index for 2011 listed Turkey at number 122 out of 135 countries). 

Is it any wonder the hijabed woman in the Istiklal Caddesi café looked so defeated?

In fairness, honor killings long predate the arrival of Erdogan and his Islamizing efforts, and so arguably the spike in numbers of reported incidents reflects not a rise in the incidence of such murders but rather, a growing awareness of them and willingness of women themselves to seek help. (Interestingly, of the 12 honor killings reported annually in the Muslim community in Holland, the majority take place in Turkish homes, even as it is the Moroccan immigrants who tend to be more inclined to radicalize.)

[ad] Supporters of the current government will argue that Erdogan has put into place several measures defending women against domestic abuse: New programs train women to combat violence with physical force, and judges are now permitted to impose restraining orders against non-spousal abusers (fiancés, brothers, boyfriends and so on).

But from all indications, this has hardly helped. Police usually send women back to their families, however bloodcurdling their abuse, however desperate the threat may be to their lives.   Despite a law “recommending” women’s shelters for communities larger than 50,000, according to the Christian Science Monitor, “few have paid attention to the vaguely worded, noncompulsory legislation, and so far only 65 are operating, compared to the 1,400 that would exist with proper implementation.”  The truth is, a government eager to be viewed as a friend to Iran – in part a the backlash against the EU’s continued rebukes – is not likely to step up to the plate for women’s rights.

Which is also likely why Human Rights Watch reports that “illiteracy figures released by the government show great disparities between men and women: 3.8 million of the 4.7 million people who are illiterate [in Turkey] are women.”  Not coincidentally, they are also conservative Muslims (or the daughters and wives of conservative Muslims), trapped in homes ruled often by tribal and barbaric customs of misogyny and violence – in short, Salafist interpretations of the Koran.

They are women without hope. 

But rather than work to educate these women, or to establish a culture that promotes their equality and freedom, the government’s primary emphasis is being placed on those things that create and perpetuate the violence in the first place:  The building of a more conservative Muslim society that keeps women at home, supports a more pious lifestyle, and discourages women – and others – from pursuing their independence.

This, after all, is the government that has also imprisoned hundreds of journalists on trumped-up charges, and is now prosecuting pianist Fazel Say for “insulting Islam” in his Twitter feed.  

Evidently, despite its name -- the Justice and Development Party – Turkey’s ruling politicians have a long way to go before they begin understanding what justice truly is. And until that time, the despicable abuse and the cowardly, heartless killing of Turkish women will go on.

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Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West