Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again sparked outrage among women’s rights groups by declaring that men and women are not equal. However, unlike similar statements made in the past, his comments mostly sparked angry words, as opposed to the mass protests that traditionally would follow.
“You cannot put women and men on an equal footing … it’s against nature. They were created differently,” Erdogan said in the now-infamous address he gave on Monday in Istanbul.
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The speech, ironically made to Turkey’s Women and Democracy Association, has caused great offence, particularly within the country’s secular community.
“How can a president of a country legitimately say these things? What he said is a crime. It’s a crime according to our legislation and it’s a crime according to universal laws,” Erdogan Erdogan, a women’s rights activist, told Al Jazeera while en route to an anti-sexism rally in Istanbul.
Aylin Nazliaka, an MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), took to Twitter to denounce Erdogan’s speech as a “hate crime” against women.
The late 1980s, early 1990s, saw an emergence of women’s rights groups in Turkey that had not existed before.
In 1993, Women for Women’s Human Rights was created to rally for women’s equal participation in Turkish society. However, in 2014, the feminist movement seems to have lulled with many of the women Al Jazeera spoke to saying they were unsurprised by Erdogan’s comments, and felt disheartened by his re-election.
The energy and enthusiasm from past decades had withered.
Erdogan was equally adamant about women in the workforce, saying: “You can’t get a woman to work in every job that a man does, like they did in communist regimes in the past… You can’t put a pickaxe and a shovel in their hand and get them to work. “
Erdogan has been criticised in the past for being too involved in the private lives of his citizens. His declarations about motherhood, for example – stating that women should have at least three children – have been viewed as an infringement on women’s basic rights to make choices about their bodies and families.
I think we need to clarify what the president said. I think he has mixed two things up, sameness and equality. Okay, men and women are not the same, but equality is different from sameness... I deeply believe that President Erodgan thinks women and men have the same rights... he's just a little confused, that is all.
“There are those who understand this [and] those who don’t,” Erdogan said. “You can’t tell this to feminists, because they do not accept motherhood.” Erdogan has also expressed his staunch opposition to abortion.
Zeynep Banu Dalaman, a political scientist and expert in women’s studies, told Al Jazeera: “Mr Erdogan wants to make the private lives of women in Turkey a public matter. At the same time, he wants women to be kept away from public spheres of work.”
Dalaman said Turkey’s opposition parties must play a bigger role in tackling sexism of this magnitude.
“They can help hugely by increasing women’s political participation and therefore, give women greater influence in positions of power,” she said.
But not all Turkish women are on the same page. While educated women in urban areas are furious about what the president said, others are comfortable with Erdogan’s assumptions, professor Yildiz Ecevit, who specialises in gender studies at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, told Al Jazeera.
“[Some women in rural communities] receive social benefits for being stay-at-home mothers and while they might not be happy, as long as the economy is good, and they live a comfortable lifestyle, they are okay with voting for Erdogan,” Ecevit said.
Fatma Bostan, a lecturer at Mus Alparslan University in eastern Turkey, said Erdogan may have mixed up two distinct concepts.
“I think we need to clarify what the president said,” Bostan told Al Jazeera. “I think he has mixed two things up, sameness and equality. Okay, men and women are not the same, but equality is different from sameness.”
Bostan, who used to work as a volunteer in the social affairs branch of Turkey’s ruling AKP party, was dismissed from her post in 2002 after her husband became a member of parliament. This was because of Turkish legislation stating that only one spouse could work in parliament at any given time – even though Bostan’s position was unpaid.
Bostan said she supports this rule, noting: “Politics should not be a family affair.”
“I deeply believe that President Erdogan thinks women and men have the same rights … he’s just a little confused, that is all,” she added.