INTERVIEW. Presidential election in Turkey: “Erdogan is against equality between women and men”, exposes political scientist Hazal Atay

A wind of freedom for women. This is what promises the leader of the Turkish opposition, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who is seeking the head of the country against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, given however a clear favorite in the second round of the presidential election, Sunday, May 28. For political scientist Hazal Atay, a gender specialist in Turkey, Erdogan’s government has marginalized women’s demands in the public space for more than ten years. The Sciences Po teacher-researcher, who is writing a thesis on the development of gender policies in Turkey, explains that the man who has led the country for two decades sees feminists as “a threat to society”.

Franceinfo: After twenty years of Erdogan in power in Turkey, what conclusions can we draw for women’s rights in the country?

Hazal Atay: We can consider the long duration of Erdogan’s reign in two distinct periods. During the first decade when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was in power, Erdogan made reforms that favored women, with the goal of joining the European Union. For example, it passed a new Penal Code in 2004, which criminalized marital rape and workplace harassment. The aim was to harmonize Turkish laws with European rules.

Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the time Prime Minister, and Javier Solana, EU foreign policy high representative, on January 19, 2009, in Brussels (Belgium).  (DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP)

But the change in relations with the EU from the beginning of the 2010s favored the emergence of a discourse against women’s freedoms. This last decade (2012-2022) is rather marked by a weak Europeanization and an increase in authoritarianism. The regime has gradually become very intolerant of the opposition, which obviously includes feminist groups as well as LGBTQ+ groups.

You have to understand that Erdogan is against equality between women and men. He carried the demand for the wearing of the veil in public institutions, finally granted in 2008. But it was a fight for the freedom of only some women, not all.

What freedoms have been rolled back for women, for example?

In 2012, Erdogan claimed to be preparing a new law to restrict the right to abortion, which ultimately never saw the light of day, thanks to unprecedented feminist demonstrations. But there have still been consequences on access to voluntary termination of pregnancy (abortion), which Erdogan and his government are openly opposed to.

As there was a political will to restrict this right, the stigma of abortion grew and hospitals became afraid to offer this legal service. In Istanbul, only three public hospitals now perform abortions. As a general rule, it is rather private hospitals that do this, which creates inequality in access to care. This is also in line with the neoliberal logic of Erdogan’s government, which seeks to privatize public services.

Women demonstrate against the government's plan to ban or limit abortion in Turkey, June 17, 2012, in Ankara.  (ADEM ALTAN / AFP)

Another serious setback for women’s freedoms: in 2020, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention (a treaty which sets binding legal standards to combat gender-based violence). For Erdogan, it was incompatible with family life and Turkish traditions, to which the executive attaches great importance.

“It proves a decline of democracy in Turkey and, above all, that Erdogan’s government does not have the political will to protect women victims of violence.”

Hazal Atay, gender specialist in Türkiye

at BlazeTrends

How can the vote of Turkish women weigh in the election?

For the moment, it is not known how the women voted in the first round, it is too early to know. But ahead of the election, Erdogan once again revived the headscarf debate, although it was to some extent resolved in 2008. I think he did it because he knows it has brought women’s votes in the past and needs it again this time around. At the time, it was a huge victory for him and a big change for Turkey, so he is trying to do the same in this election. We will see how the women will react this time.

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A woman shows her support for outgoing Turkish President Erdogan in a district of Istanbul (Turkey), May 12, 2023. (OZAN KOSE / AFP)

More generally, women’s rights became a subject of negotiation during these elections. Some parties in Erdogan’s coalition have demanded the lifting of a law on violence against women as a condition for joining his alliance. On the other side of the spectrum, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu has promised to return to the Istanbul Convention if they win.

What place do women occupy on the political scene?

The number of women in the Turkish Parliament increased significantly in 2015 (97 women, compared to 79 in the previous assembly, out of 600 seats) and is mainly due to the parity policy adopted by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), pro -Kurdish. A woman-man pair had to be registered on the electoral lists. On the side of the AKP, the right to wear the veil in public institutions has allowed veiled women to become members of parliament, which also played a role.

But for the moment, their presence in Parliament has not counterbalanced the government’s draconian measures, because sexist discourse and against gender equality remain dominant. Furthermore, we began to see more female MPs as the power of Parliament began to diminish in favor of a more powerful executive. Typically, in 2017, Turkey moved from a parliamentary regime to a presidential regime.

And in the public space, how free are they to express themselves?

Feminist and LGBTQ+ movements are working to gain strength in the public space, but it’s difficult for two reasons. First, because demonstrations, such as that of March 8 for Women’s Rights Day, or the Pride March, are often prohibited for so-called “security” reasons.

“For ten years especially, feminist demands have been marginalized in the public space.”

Hazal Atay, gender specialist in Türkiye

at BlazeTrends

Then, because in parallel, anti-gender movements, that is to say groups that oppose the demands of feminists and LGBTQ+ people, are gaining momentum in Turkey. Their demonstrations are never banned and their remarks are legitimized by conservative political groups.

A protest against LGBTQ+ people in Istanbul, Turkey, on September 18, 2022. (YASIN AKGUL / AFP)

In Erdogan’s speech, feminists and LGBTQ+ people are seen as threats to society. An internal threat, but also an external one, because the government associates their demands with those supported in the West. Anti-gender movements also advance the fight against globalization as an argument. At the same time, the government presents Islam and nationalism as safeguards against the risk of collapse.

What about Kurdish women, from a minority persecuted by Erdogan? Can we speak of a “double penalty” for them?

I think so. The AKP regime excludes everything that does not conform to its conception of the world. At the national level, this includes LGBT people, Kurds, feminists… There are restrictions that directly target women, but also Kurds, such as curfews in areas where they live and an increase in operations policewomen. In this sense, one can speak of a double penalty for Kurdish women. And that is why the opposition coalition is campaigning on the defense of protest movements.

Russia, Poland, Hungary… We are seeing a decline in the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people in several European countries. What parallel can we draw with Turkey?

Each case is different, but what is common is that anti-gender discourse is always supported by populist and right-wing governments. It is often accompanied by a more general anti-democratic transformation. Turkey is considered a special case compared to European countries, because the influence of the Church is important in the anti-gender movements in Europe, while the Turkish population is mainly Muslim. However, we see that these groups draw inspiration from each other across borders: the Turks involved in anti-gender movements argue in particular that we should follow Russia or Hungary in their fight against womens rights.

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