Women's Health Under Threat in Turkey

June 1, 2012

Turkish feminists protest in Istanbul
Turkish feminists protest outside Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's office in Istanbul on May 27, 2012. BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

By Howard Eissenstat, Turkey Country Specialist

I guess Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, wanted to change the subject.

In May, Turkey’s ruling AK Party was busily trying to explain away its culpability in the massacre of civilians in the Roboski/Uludere airstrike by implying that, since the victims were smugglers, they may have simply gotten what they deserved. Even the largely cowed Turkish press sensed that the government had staked out a position so outlandish that it was only embarrassing itself.

Then with characteristic bravado, Erdoğan connected the massacre of Kurdish villagers to women’s reproductive health.  “Every abortion is an Uludere,” he said to one delegation of supporters.  Suddenly women’s reproductive health has become the major issue of the day, not the massacre of civilians by Turkish armed forces. As Andrew Finkel notes in his sharp analysis, “With that single stroke he maneuvered a Turkish woman’s right to choose into a place it had never been: at the center of the political agenda. This is a mistake that may have tragic consequences.”

The discussions are not abstract. Almost immediately, the government moved forward with a plan to drastically reduce women’s capacity for family planning.

Almost as disturbingly, Erdoğan framed this attack on women’s rights in the language of race and national survival.  As Jenny White notes:

What is more disturbing is the reasoning — that if births are not increased, Turkey — and Turkishness — will disappear off the map. This is a jingoistic fear that resonates with the old racialist understanding of Turkishness as soy (lineage, descent), … In such a conception of national membership, there is no room for immigrants, migrants, or minorities, even if they are culturally assimilated…

White also highlights the authoritarian and paternalistic role that Erdoğan envisions for the state in its treatment of Turkish women:

And what about rape? Well, the government says that children born when “bad things” happen to the mother will be taken care of by the state. Those poor kids  – is AKP planning to improve the condition of their miserable orphanages, then? And those poor women. There is no concern whatsoever for a woman’s trauma of bearing a rapist’s child — or her safety in a place like Turkey, where even gossip about a girl or woman can lead the community to drive her out, or her murder by relatives who feel their “honor” has been impugned. Imagine what would happen to the raped woman who must also then give birth. And given the lack of women’s shelters, where is she to escape the violence; where can she safely give birth? Under the eyes of her rapist (more often than not someone in the family or community)? It is a nightmarish scenario that indicates to me that the men making these policies have no idea what goes on in their country with regard to women’s lives. Or they don’t care.

Amnesty shares these concerns.
Turkey has signed an array of international agreements which protect “human rights linked to women’s ability to decide if, when, with whom, and how often to become mothers. The United Nations expert bodies authorized by states to interpret these treaties have repeatedly called for women and adolescent girls to have access to a full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including, where needed, abortion.”

This latest foray into social engineering bodes ill for Turkey.  It distracts the pressing need to address the Turkish government’s on-going attacks on freedom of expression and its mass arrest of dissidents by creating a whole new avenue for restricting personal freedom.  At the same time, the tactics and rhetoric employed by the AK Party are reminiscent of some of the worst qualities of Turkish Republican history: racial nationalism and authoritarianism.  The AK government, which has long framed itself as a break from the missteps of Turkish history, now seems determined to repeat them.

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