ISTANBUL — As Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes the reins as Turkey’s first elected president, women’s rights activists say that his increasingly sexist views are perpetuating and leading to more violence against women.
“We have strong laws intended to protect women from violence, but the police and the courts are not enforcing the laws effectively and consistently,” said Fikriye Yilmaz, a women’s rights activist and the press officer for Stop Women Homicides, an Istanbul-based women’s rights group.
Yilmaz and other rights leaders say a culture of indifference toward violence against women is condoned from the top, as Erdogan and others in his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) publicly make discriminatory and misogynistic statements.
“The government has to change their statements about women rights. [Government officials] are opinion leaders, and they have a big effect on the street,” said Melda Onur, a women’s rights leader and member of Turkey’s parliament
Onur is from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party to Erdogan’s conservative AKP, Turkey’s biggest political party.
A September Human Rights Watch report outlined numerous rights violations in the country, including “a pattern of impunity for violence against women.”
in July, Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister and a co-founder of the AKP, caused an uproar on social media after he told a crowd at a religious holiday celebration that women should be “chaste,” should differentiate between public and private and “should not laugh in public.”
Women reacted on social media by posting pictures of themselves laughing and accusing Arinc of inciting violence against them.
His comments sparked protests in Istanbul before the Aug. 10 presidential elections. As hundreds of protesters lined Istiklal (Independence) Street days before the election, Onur urged the crowd to “fight back and not let our freedoms be taken away. Stop the killing, not the laughter.”
Al Jazeera contacted the Turkish National Police, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies and the General Directorate on the Status of Women about the government’s efforts to combat violence against women but has not heard back.
A history of violence
The day after the rally, Onur and a group of women’s rights activists filed a criminal complaint against Arinc for discrimination and inciting hatred. They did that, said Onur, so there would be a point of reference in case his comments spark any violence against women.
“Who will be responsible if a woman is killed because of his comments?” she asked.
On Aug. 7, Erdogan — Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014 — lashed out at journalist Amberin Zaman, calling her “a shameless militant disguised under the name of a journalist” and urged her to “know your place.”
Erdogan was reportedly reacting to remarks that Zaman, the Turkish correspondent for The Economist, made during a debate with an opposition leader.
The Economist supported Zaman, who responded to Erdogan in a column, writing, “You are lynching a Muslim woman who described what you are doing. Because women are sitting targets, aren’t they?”
Turkey ranks 120th of 136 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index, down 15 places since 2006. And according to a 2011 United Nations report, rates of physical violence by an intimate partner in Turkey were almost twice those in the U.S. and sometimes more than three times as high as in some European countries.
According to Bianet, an online Turkish news and advocacy site, men killed 184 women in the first eight months of 2014, and an additional 417 women suffered some other form of violence at the hands of a man.
“More than 50 percent of the women are killed because they want a divorce but their husbands won’t let them because they believe women should live according to ancient times and not have their freedom,” said Yilmaz.
Her group tracks cases of women murdered in Turkey and holds the police and courts accountable for investigating the cases and prosecuting the killers.
“The state should give the most severe punishments to the killers of women. I will continue to fight until my death for my sister’s justice,” said Hatice Serlvaraj, holding a photograph of her sister, Yasmine Varici, who was murdered by her husband in June.
Equality in name only?
Onur and other female leaders say the a critical point for them was in 2010 when Erdogan told a group of representatives from women’s rights organizations that he does not believe in gender equality. A year later he changed the name of the Ministry for Women and Family to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies.
Women’s rights groups protested the removal of the word “women” from the ministry’s name, saying it implied that the government saw women only as mothers, wives or parts of a family and not as individuals.
Shortly after that change, the name of the parliamentary commission on gender equality was changed to the Equal Opportunities Commission, Onur said.
According to Yilmaz, violence against women in Turkey continues to increase, and societal acceptance of domestic abuse in some cases contributed to underreporting of gender-based violence.
“The government did not effectively or fully enforce these laws or protect victims, and victims often waited days or weeks to report incidents due to embarrassment or reprisals, hindering effective prosecution of assailants,” said a 2013 report on human rights in Turkey by the U.S. State Department.
A mixed legacy
Erdogan has publicly chastised women before.
In 2012 he called abortion murder and threatened to limit abortions after four weeks of pregnancy and overturn a law allowing abortions up to 10 weeks.
In August 2013, speaking at the International Family and Social Policies Summit, Erdogan said Turkish families should have at least three children so Turkey can increase its population.
He has been quoted in media reports for telling young female university students not to be “picky” when they are searching for a husband. “Marry when offered,” he said.
Yilmaz said that there’snot much hope that things will change under new prime minister, Ahmet Davutglu.
“To tell you the truth, we have no expectation that Mr. Davutoglu will be different from Erdogan on the subject of women, because he is just a follower of the politics of Erdogan,” she said.
It’s worth noting that Erdogan’s government is credited with passing some laws to protect female victims of violence. He lifted a longtime ban on headscarves for female students at universities in 2011, and in 2013 the ban was lifted for women working in government offices.
Erdogan’s secular critics claim that these changes were more for political reasons then any sincere interest in advancing women’s rights.
“When the AKP come to power in 2002, they had the target of finalizing Turkey’s European Union membership process. That’s why they made some very rapid positive reforms in some areas, including women’s rights,” said Cigdem Aydın, a psychologist and former chairwoman of Kader, an Istanbul-based organization working to increase the number of women in politics and assist them in working together.
She said at that time Erdogan was weighing his options for which way to lean — more toward secularists or Islamists, who want Muslim values to dictate all parts of society, including politics.
As accession into the European Union has dragged on without any signs that it will accept Turkey anytime soon and as the political climate in the Middle East has worsened, Aydin says, Erdogan and the AKP have changed course, especially on issues concerning women’s rights.
“While our expectations were Turkey will go on to be the role model country in the sense of secularism and Islamic, Erdogan chose the different path, which is more Islamist, conservative and despotic. And this positioning is in line with their conservatism,” said Aydin.
“The authorities are not harsh [on the criminals] … People who commit these crimes [against women] find strength in that they don’t get punished or prosecuted,” said 29-year-old Nazar Bagci, a protester at the Aug. 8 rally.
“I get the sense that more and more people feel that women are under their authority and if they [women] do the opposite of what they are told, that they even deserve to die,” said Bagci.