Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Burhan Ozbilici AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Following a meeting with leaders of civil society institutions in Konya, President Erdoğan went to Trabzon to meet with AKP party members on 15 October 2016. While discussing the coup attempt, alleged to have been planned and carried out by Fethullah Gülen followers, Erdoğan said: “What have I always said to you, do you remember? I have always said ‘aren’t we all going to die one day?’ But there is a difference between dying like a man and dying like a madam. We’ll die, of course; but we shall die like men!”
These remarks have attracted criticism from women’s groups, who accuse the president of making discriminatory remarks towards women. In fact, Erdoğan’s attitude to gender issues has been criticised on many occasions in Turkey for being misogynistic. Many believe this to have been caused by his Islamic identity. However, Erdogan’s misogyny can be more adequately explained by the reincarnation of Cato the Elder in ancient Rome within Erdogan’s political stance as a leader.
Cato’s conservative policy on women
Cato the Elder was a conservative traditionalist, praetor, consul, and governor in ancient Rome. Cato was not only a fascinating political figure in Rome, he also an important role model for conservatives in the Senate.
An interesting anecdote which illustrates Cato’s deeply ingrained conservatism comes from the debates about Lex Oppia. The Lex Oppia was a law established in ancient Rome in 215 BC, at the height of the Second Punic War, which restricted not only a woman's wealth, but also her display of wealth. It forbade any woman to possess more than half an ounce of gold, and from wearing multi-coloured garments or riding an animal-drawn vehicle in any town or city.
After the Second Punic War, women in Rome demanded that these regulations be lifted by the Senate. A debate followed about what the place of women should be. Cato the Elder represented women as forming an alternative public, an internal enemy, whose activities must be suppressed if the state is to continue to function. He said;
"What sort of behaviour is this? Are you in the habit of running out into the streets, blocking the roads, and addressing other women's husbands? Couldn't you have made the very same request of your own husbands at home? Or are you more alluring in the street than in the home, more attractive to other women's husbands than to your own? Our ancestors refused to allow any woman to transact even private business without a guardian to represent her; women had to be under the control of fathers, brothers, or husbands”.
This speech by Cato to the Senate during the debates of Lex Oppia, reflects the misogyny implicit in his authoritarian and conservative ideology. Moreover, he was against the equality between women and men in Rome. During one of his speeches to the Senate, he said:
“woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal... If you allow them to achieve complete equality with men, do you think they will be easier to live with? Not at all. Once they have achieved equality, they will be your masters”.
Moore’s Catonism: the case of Erdogan
Barrington Moore has used Cato the Elder’s conservative discourse to furnish his concept of Catonism in his book, ‘Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy’, in order to explore conservatism and authoritarianism in countries including Japan and Germany after the Second World War.
Misogyny features heavily in Moore's Catonism, and Nazi Germany illustrates this phenomenon. Moore gives the example of the Nazi Germany family vision, ‘Kinder, Kirche, Küche’ (children, church, kitchen), which was seen to offer a healthy domestic environment for women. Indeed, women in Nazi Germany were to have a very specific role which Hitler made very clear; women were to be good mothers bringing up children at home while their husbands went out to work. Outside certain specialist fields, Hitler saw no reason why a woman should work. What's more, families were encouraged to have as many children as they could. In Nazi Germany abortion was banned and birth control methods were not discussed. Goebbels, Hitler’s colleague, said that the mission of women is to be beautiful and to bring children into the world.
Clearly, Erdogan’s speeches and policies offer parallels to both on women and gender issues. Like Cato, Erdogan has said that women and men should not be treated equally because it goes against the laws of nature. In one speech, he said;
“Their characters, habits and physiques are different. You cannot place a mother breastfeeding her baby on an equal footing with men. You cannot make women work in the same jobs as men do, as in communist regimes. You cannot give them a shovel and tell them to do their work. This is against their delicate nature.”
Moreover, Erdogan holds a similar opinion to Nazi Germany’s conservative family policy in advocating that families in Turkey must have at least 3 children. The president has claimed that women have a duty to be "well-educated future mothers," and that they must not use birth control as it is contrary to Muslim traditions;
“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 said, we will go this way. And in this respect the first duty belongs to mothers.”
These examples challenge explanations about the exponential rise of misogyny in Turkey that attribute this to an incompatibility between Islam and women rights. From a comparative historical and socio-political perspective, from ancient Rome to dictatorships in the modern world like Hitler’s Germany or Salazar’s Portugal, we see leaders’ misogyny occur over and over again across time and space. The rise of misogyny in Turkey under Erdogan’s Catonist leadership does not indicate that this change is necessarily because of Islam. It can as easily be seen in some Christian countries, whether in the modern world or in Ancient Rome.