Why Him? Understanding the Female Support Behind Erdogan

BY ELANUR URAL

On a global scale, it is difficult to understand why there are substantial numbers of women in particular subscribing to the hyper masculine, strongman leader brand. This concept can be observed in the Chinese female backing of Xi Jinping; in Russia with its ‘Babushkas for Putin’ troupe; and with white middle-aged women in the United States, who voted overwhelmingly to elect Donald Trump. Likewise, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not commonly described as a paragon of women’s rights. He has stated that equality amongst men and women “goes against the laws of nature”, described childless women as “incomplete”, and likened abortion to military air strikes on civilians.[1] His critics flag the year 2004, when the AKP party attempted to ratify a law criminalizing adultery, as the first major step down a long road of detriment to the state of women in Turkey.[2]

His admirers, on the other hand, celebrate him as a catalyst for women’s rights, noting his campaigns against violence on women and an increase in women’s employment as victories. President Erdogan has said some appalling things about women, many of whom have taken recently to a Twitter campaign saying #tamam, or ‘okay, enough’ with him. But understanding his female voting base—even though the fairness of elections is questionable—is crucial to understanding the state of Turkish politics today. Although many justify their support of the AKP party and Erdogan with purely economic interests, the majority of his female advocates are religious women who support his social policies.[3] Who are these pro-Erdogan women, and how do they justify their support?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Turkey saw significant rural to urban migration.[4] These migrant families clung to their more conservative values, finding homes amongst other alike people in neighborhoods like Eyüp or Çekmeköy. As these men and women worked and walked alongside more liberal native city-dwellers, they went back to their conservative homes for dinner. It is this contradistinction of an increasingly Westernized city of Istanbul with the comfort of traditional familiarity in the household that has partially led to what some call a “new conservativism” in Turkey.[5] As such, many of these new conservatives have long felt ignored and spoken over by liberals claiming their own belief systems as inherently Turkish. This perceived domination of halter tops over headscarves, motorbikes over motherhood, and West over East drove the tension that led to the rising and thriving of AKP as it is known today. Erdogan’s validation of conservative women as being in line with, and even as the ‘true’ bearers of Turkish culture, is a major factor in his success as President of the Republic.

Thus, pro-Erdogan Turks see him as a liberator of the conservative woman. Perhaps most notably, his removal of the headscarf bans on civil servants in October of 2013 has been met with approval by many women who do cover.[6] This is acknowledged as a victory in the normalization of the headscarf in the public sphere, and as a first step in granting more women agency in the family and greater community. Subsequently, the year 2015 boasted record-breaking numbers of female Members of Parliament (MP), and the upcoming snap-election has 904 female candidates up for MP positions.[7][8]

In addition to the public sector, Erdogan’s followers praise him for sparking female leadership in the private sector. Only 54 percent of Turkish women have their own bank account, many deeming it unnecessary as a family member already has one.[9] This parallels a massive gap in the female labor force participation rate, which has increased from 26 to 34 percent since Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2003.[10] AKP supporters expect women to enter the workforce at even higher rates with the launch of initiatives for small business loans aimed towards women, such as those negotiated by the Turkish government with EuroBank and Turkey’s Credit Guarantee Fund.[11] This increased access to financial tools paired with the social validation of headscarves is expected to entice more conservative women to enter the realms of education, public health, and business.

Erdogan’s comments, such as that women and men’s “dispositions are different” and therefore gender equality is impossible, provoke harsh reactions both domestically and abroad.[12] But AKP women explain that his words are misunderstood; instead, the push should be for gender equivalence rather than equality.[13] That is, that the strengths and roles of women should not be valued less than the strengths and roles of men in society. This is what Erdogan coins as “Turkish-style” women’s rights.[14] The concept as a conscious campaign is compelling in the Turkish context, where many conservative women may shy away from notions of feminism due to its perceived Western character. Rather, it is intended to garner equal respect of both the masculine and the feminine, not adhere to a hierarchy of masculinity as is common in Western feminisms. Accordingly, these Turkish women appreciate that they can continue within the gendered role they enjoy and be valued for it.

So, what is the role of women as prescribed by the President? Erdogan has made it absolutely clear that maternity is the defining factor of womanhood, calling birth control “treason”.[15] His imploring of men to respect mothers to an extensive degree is well-received by many women in a culture with a long history where the vast majority, and often the full responsibility of, household and family labor is placed upon the distaff. Erdogan addresses this history, describing women working so hard that they “got hunchbacks while the men were playing cards and rolling dice at teahouses”.[16] His preaching of utmost appreciation, protection, and aid for mothers above all else is seen as a blessing by female—and therefore, by his definitions, maternal—supporters. He explains that working mothers cannot be expected to accomplish the same quality of work as men, since caring for their children should be of primary concern. Nevertheless, he calls on male coworkers to respect that balance.

Erdogan has declared that Turkish women should have “at least three kids”; Turkish women living in Europe should have five.[17] And while his critics argue that Erdogan’s defined role of womanhood has been completely restricted to this maternal one, these are appealing notions to many female supporters. So explains Zeynep Kandur, an AKP member interviewed by BBC in 2015, that having one or two children was long stressed to her as “modern”.[18] She sees Erdogan’s comments as affirmation for wanting a larger family while identifying as a “modern” Turkish mother of three.

It is important to contextualize this pedestalization of motherhood and calls to bear children with a political era marked by pushes for presidential power. Erdogan’s Constitutional referendum of last year limited the scope of Parliament, and reset his own term limits. He has had rows with several European leaders, most notably Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose administration blocked ‘Yes’ referendum campaign rallies in Germany.[19] AKP-sympathizing women in Germany mobilizing to give birth to a whole new generation of supporters is strategically advantageous to Erdogan in his affairs with the Germans and the European Union as a whole. But why does he look to increase population domestically, where cities are already struggling to handle an overflow of internal and external migrants? The answer seems to be several-fold. Firstly, conservative women who are Erdogan supporters (unlike liberal anti-Erdogan women) are most likely to take his words to heart in having larger families. In calling upon women in their traditional roles as mothers and thus, carriers of culture, one can predict that her values will be passed on to her children. In this case, if liberal Turkish mothers continue a pattern of having one or two children while conservative Turkish mothers have three or four, Erdogan and his party end up with a sustainable and far larger conservative voting base in the long-term. On another front, Turkey is experiencing a mass refugee influx of Syrians and Kurds, who tend to oppose AKP. Many women share Erdogan’s fear of an abundant population of migrants who are perceived as not sharing true, culturally “Turkish” values. Specifically, the Kurdish minority birthrate is double that of Turks, intensifying this anxiety.[20] By increasing his ethnically ‘Turkish’ population, Erdogan can ensure that dissenting parties, such as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, do not threaten his regime. This logic is met with firm support by many female followers.

And yet, when women are asked about the greatest issue facing their rights today, their answers reflect not the Kurds, but violence from men. In 2016, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies released a study stating that a shocking 86 percent of women in Turkey have experienced psychological or physical violence from a family member or partner, and subsequently took legal action.[21] Violence towards women is an especially contentious topic as of 2015, when university student Ozgecan Aslan, age 20, was brutally murdered by stabbing and iron rod beating by a minibus driver while attempting to resist rape.[22] Critics argue that when women do not subscribe to Erdogan’s prescribed gender roles—keeping house, bearing children, dressing modestly—the message is sent that neither should men. That is, if a young single woman such as Aslan is wearing a miniskirt and texting boys, she is not warranted the respect, treasuring, and protection that Erdogan expects from men. Critics also point to the AKP-majority parliament’s reluctance to push for harsher punishment for such violence, demanding them to address the legality and propensity of judges to lessen sentences should those found guilty display a remorseful demeanor in court.[23]

Many blame the perceived rise of violence towards women on Erdogan’s rhetoric, considering his controversial remarks on women to be empowering a male population already pervaded with toxic masculinity. But his supporters suggest that man-on-woman violence has always been an issue. Rather, Erdogan’s anti-abuse campaigns allow women to speak out more publicly on these atrocities and their own experiences, resulting in more media coverage and sparking a greater conversation about violence against women.[24]

Female supporters cite Erdogan’s mission to ameliorate this issue, such as his “Kadına Şiddet İnsanliğa İhanet” media campaign, which translates to “Violence on women is a betrayal against humanity”.[25] Last International Women’s Day, his speech slammed “some clerics” for using Islam to justify violence against women, saying that such people have “no place in our times” as Islam is “updated” over eras. Erdogan was likely referring to Nurettin Yıldız, a controversial preacher who stated that women should be grateful that God allows men to beat them.[26] The introduction of pink busses is also applauded, such as those launched in the AKP-run city of Malatya, as protecting women by not allowing men on board.[27] This mirrors the women-only bus cars of Mexico, Japan, and Malaysia, logic being that on-board violence from men is impossible without male presence.

Amidst gaping controversies on issues of censorship, purges of university faculty and journalists, and an increased focus on the role of religion in society, women’s rights face an absolutely crucial time in the AKP Turkey. This is especially pertinent in anticipation of the fast-approaching election, to be held on 24 of June 2018. The date was moved up by President Erdogan from its originally scheduled date of 3 November 2019.

References

[1] Tuysuz, Gul. “7 Times Turkish President ‘Mansplained’ Womanhood.” CNN, 9 June 2016. www.cnn.com/2016/06/09/europe/erdogan-turkey-mansplained-womanhood/index.html.

[2] Sachs, Susan. “Adultery a Crime? The Turks Think Again and Say No.” The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/15/world/europe/adultery-a-crime-the-turks-think-again-and-say-no.html

[3] Feldman, Emily. “Why Women Can’t Get Enough of Turkey’s Prime Minister.” Mashable, 2014. https://mashable.com/2014/07/29/erdogans-women-fans/#HLtIdTlyjgqE

[4] Filiztekin, Alpay & Gokhan, Ali. (2008). “The determinants of internal migration in Turkey. International Conference on Policy Modeling. EcoMod 2008. https://ecomod.net/sites/default/files/document-conference/ecomod2008/749.pdf

[5] “Is Life Getting Worse for Women in Erdogan’s Turkey?” BBC, 4 Mar. 2015. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31709887.

[6] “Turkey Lifts Decades-Old Ban on Headscarves.” Al Jazeera, 8 Oct. 2013. www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/10/turkey-lifts-decades-old-ban-headscarves-201310814177943704.html.

[7] Lyons, Kate. “Record Number of Women Elected to Turkish Parliament.” The Guardian, 8 June 2015. www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/08/record-number-women-elected-turkish-parliament.

[8] Gürbuz, Şeyma Nazlı. “Women Moving from Background to the Vanguard of Turkish Politics.” Daily Sabah, 2 June 2018. www.pressreader.com/turkey/daily-sabah-turkey/20180602/281479277098461.

[9] Demirgüç-Kunt, Aslı, and Ceyla Pazarbasioglu. “A Call to Turkey to Close the Financial Gender Gap.” World Bank, 26 Apr. 2018. http://blogs.worldbank.org/allaboutfinance/call-turkey-close-financial-gender-gap

[10] International Labor Organization. “Labor Force Participation Rate, Female (% of Female Population Ages 15+) (Modeled ILO Estimate).” The World Bank, DataBank, Nov. 2017. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?end=2017&locations=TR&start=2002

[11] “Euro Bank, Turkish Fund Agree to Expand Financing for Women-Led Firms.” Hurriyet Daily News, 10 May 2018. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/euro-bank-turkish-fund-agree-to-expand-financing-for-women-led-firms-131623

[12] Tuysuz, Gul. “7 Times Turkish President ‘Mansplained’ Womanhood.” CNN, 9 June 2016. www.cnn.com/2016/06/09/europe/erdogan-turkey-mansplained-womanhood/index.html

[13] “Recep Tayyip Erdogan: ‘Women Not Equal to Men’.” The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/24/turkeys-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-women-not-equal-men

[14] “President Erdogan Offers ‘Turkish-Style’ Women’s Rights.” Hurriyet Daily News, 7 Mar. 2016. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/president-erdogan-offers-turkish-style-womens-rights-96146

[15] Taylor, Adam. “Birth Control as ‘Treason?’ The Logic behind the Turkish President’s Latest Controversy.” The Washington Post, 24 Dec. 2014. www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/12/24/birth-control-as-treason-the-logic-behind-the-turkish-presidents-latest-controversy/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4128ec9aa731

[16] “Recep Tayyip Erdogan: ‘Women Not Equal to Men’.” The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/24/turkeys-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-women-not-equal-men

[17] Sanchez, Raf. “Erdogan Calls on Turkish Families in Europe to Have Five Children to Protect against ‘Injustices’.” The Telegraph, 17 Mar. 2017. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/17/erdogan-calls-turkish-families-have-five-children-bulwark-against/

[18] “Is Life Getting Worse for Women in Erdogan’s Turkey?” BBC, 4 Mar. 2015. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31709887

[19] “Merkel Reserves Right to Block Turkish Campaign Appearances.” Reuters, 20 Mar. 2017. www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-referendum-germany/merkel-reserves-right-to-block-turkish-campaign-appearances-idUSKBN16R1XG

[20] Bruton, F. Brinley. “Turkey’s President Erdogan Calls Women Who Work ‘Half Persons’.” NBC, 8 June 2016. www.nbcnews.com/news/world/turkey-s-president-erdogan-calls-women-who-work-half-persons-n586421

[21] Özgenç, Meltem. “Majority of Turkish Women Subjected to Violence, Pursue Legal Means: Survey.” Hurriyet Daily News, 1 Apr. 2016. www.hurriyetdailynews.com/majority-of-turkish-women-subjected-to-violence-pursue-legal-means-survey-97158

[22] “20-Year-Old Turkish Woman Brutally Murdered, Body Burned.” Hurriyet Daily News, 14 Feb. 2015. www.hurriyetdailynews.com/20-year-old-turkish-woman-brutally-murdered-body-burned-78354

[23] Hudgins, Sarabrynn. “A Chronic Problem: Violence Against Women in Turkey.” New America, 8 Dec. 2016. www.newamerica.org/weekly/edition-145/chronic-problem-violence-against-women-turkey/

[24] “Is Life Getting Worse for Women in Erdogan’s Turkey?” BBC, 4 Mar. 2015. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31709887

[25] Atakan, Bahar. “‘Kadına Şiddet Insanlığa Ihanet’ Aile Ve Sosyal Politikalar Bakanı Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, Kadına Yönelik Şiddetin Önlenmesi Konusunda Mesajlar Verdi.” Milliyet, 10 June 2017. www.milliyet.com.tr/kadina-siddet-insanliga-ihanet–gundem-2531960/

[26] “Erdoğan Slams Bigoted Clerics Degrading Women.” Daily Sabah, 8 Mar. 2018. www.dailysabah.com/turkey/2018/03/09/erdogan-slams-bigoted-clerics-degrading-women

[27] Girit, Selin, et al. “100 Women: The Pink Bus Designed to Protect Women from Harassment.” BBC, 19 Oct. 2017. www.bbc.com/news/av/world-41673352/100-women-the-pink-bus-designed-to-protect-women-from-harassment

Image source: www.ozy.com

About the Author

Elanur Ural is a Junior Fellow at the ERA Institute. 


This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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