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Positive discrimination a la Erdoğan and its political background

Erdogan’s controversial comments calling gender equality into question come at a time when women’s issues have become connected to the very idea of the Turkish state and civilisational values.

Sezen Yaraş
5 December 2014
President Erdogan at the 2009 World Economic Forum

Erdogan - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009. Flickr/World Economic Forum. Some rights reserved

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes regular references to women’s fitrat (genesis, creation) as mothers, in the same breath as their not being the equals of men. Each time he stresses the inequality of men and women, it becomes an issue of hot public debate.  His latest statement took place at a meeting organized to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In the same speech, he referred to the delicate nature of women requiring different treatment based on their different needs in various spheres of social life. According to him, this difference-based approach to women’s rights refutes the feminist demand for gender equality which is based on denial of this God-given nature. He stresses that his political party supports women’s active participation in the public sphere, nevertheless, and has introduced various policies for the organization of social and economic life in a way that their active participation is guaranteed, without hindering their primary role within their family as mothers.

This insistence on defining women as a different group of citizens with different needs and the contribution it may or may not make to women’s social, political and economic wellbeing in the Turkish context has already been roundly criticised on several counts. What I would like to do instead is to comment on feminist criticism in Turkey and the way in which it is often caricatured as coming from a group of women who reject being mothers as nature intended them to be, and who want instead to be like men. And I would like to take this chance to note how feminist criticism in Turkey addresses but is not confined to women’s issues.

In Turkey, gendered rhetoric plays an instrumental role in normalizing, naturalizing and keeping certain issues out of political debate. It is not only women’s nature that Erdoğan declares to be delicate, valuable and vulnerable and deserving of protection these days. Actually, his criticism of the path of Turkish modernization hitherto and what he proposes as his project of a ‘New Turkey’ to replace it, is full of this jargon.

Contrary to the ‘Westernization’ path taken during Turkey's modernization, the path of the Ottoman ancestors so impressive to 'the West' in its dark ages in their scientific, cultural and philosophical achievements - is the way forward.  The heritage of these Muslim ancestors is a matter of national respect and honor, an approach to the protection of the pre-Republican heritage reflected in education, architecture, urban planning, law, social policy and media.  

Today, whenever the mission of protecting the new cultural project is raised, it comes with his definition of a group of local and international enemies that work against this. Anyone who criticized his claim at the Latin American Muslim Leaders Summit about Muslims discovering America before Columbus are criticised as, “those who have an inferiority complex due to cultural estrangement”.  This he says is the ‘old Turkey’ perspective about Islam which has alienated the Turkish people from pride in the contributions of their ancestors. “They never believed that their ancestors could manage to launch ships in the Golden Horn after transporting them across land” - was his conclusion. 

He calls on Turkish citizens to defy those who will be trying to undermine this revival. On the day of the trial of the 19 yr. old boy, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, beaten to death during the Gezi protests in an unholy collaboration between policemen and tradesmen as revealed by the footage of local surveillance cameras, he instead congratulated the tradesmen in their self-appointed role as law enforcement officers, for maintaining peace in ‘our civilization’ in a traditional way.

At his speech on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Erdoğan argued that a good and just sultan will guarantee justice even when the laws are bad. He calls on the ‘fitrat’ of various social positions for help in accomplishing this so called justice mission, which passes their cultural values on to the next generations of women and enocurages the men to protect this cultural mission from the enemies within and externally. And it is precisely this gendered division of labour in the protection of the ‘national’ good, that is the main target of feminist criticism in Turkey, rather than any controversy over 'motherhood'.  

In Turkey, we are very familiar with how the debates over modernization, what to take from the west and what to protect as the authentic core of the nation, place a heavy burden on women as the carriers of national identity. The headscarf debate, which is of critical importance in the high levels of support women have given to Erdoğan, was itself the end result of many attempts to define and control women’s role in representing the path of Turkish modernity. Women’s public visibility became a national security issue the minute the headscarf was declared by some to be the symbol of the reactionary movements of the Islamists.

Feminism in Turkey is an important political platform for monitoring how democratic opportunities are undermined by this process of naturalizing, sanctifying and securitizing national identity that always leads to an over-controlling male gaze over women’s bodies. The feminization of the nation as the delicate carrier of the seeds of the past to the future, while the role of the state becomes primarily that of protecting these seeds from possible enemies, continues to dominate Turkey's path to modernity. It regularly leads to a political debate shrunk down to a skirmish over women’s bodies and how modern Turkish women are to look. Feminist analysis of the political nature of the problems experienced by Turkish women is an invaluable voice in a context dominated by such loud voices of those that declare ‘the commander is dead, long live the sultan’. 

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