The Fight Is Still On For Women's Rights In Turkey

04/20/2015 07:39 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
DANIEL MIHAILESCU via Getty Images

By Dasha Afanasieva and Jonny Hogg

ISTANBUL/ANKARA, April 20 (Reuters) - When 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan was stabbed and beaten to death after trying to fight off a man bent on raping her on a minibus, Turkey's president called violence against women the country's "bleeding wound."

But two months after her murder, groups that have campaigned for years on women's rights complain that President Tayyip Erdogan is still sidelining them, preferring to work with newer organizations including one in which his daughter has a prominent role.

Women's groups and opposition politicians have criticized Erdogan, a devout Muslim, for slamming abortion, calling birth control "'treason," telling women how many children to have and dismissing the Western idea of gender equality.

He in turn says his detractors seek to impose Western liberal values on a religious country, railing against feminists for failing to understand Turkish culture, in which - he said soon after Aslan's murder - "God entrusted men with women."

Erdogan has been Turkey's dominant politician for well over a decade and his ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party plans to change the constitution to boost his powers if it wins a sufficient majority in a parliamentary election on June 7.

"Excluding independent women's organizations has been the government's strategy for a long time because our aim is not the same as theirs - (which is) just to make women have babies," said Tanja Volker, a social worker at domestic violence charity Mor Cati.

Elif Safak, one of Turkey's best known female authors, said she saw a hardening of Erdogan's tone.

"Feminists are now being vilified in politics," Safak said.

"Erdogan used to speak more embracingly, saying he was the leader of everyone, whether they voted for him or not. He sounds as if he puts a distance between himself and half the nation."

HEADSCARVES ALLOWED

While Turkey is officially secular, the president's traditionalist views appeal to millions of conservative Muslim voters who have repeatedly backed the AK Party he founded.

Nurgul, 23, a student of mathematics in the southern city of Antakya, says that for millions of pious women like her, life is far better under the AKP.

"Before, covered women could not go to university and now they can and they can have good careers," said Nurgul, referring to a ban on headscarves overturned by the AKP in 2013.

Many activists acknowledge that the AKP made progress, but say that has recently stalled.

"Our laws are better than tens of countries," says Zelal Ayman, co-ordinator at Women for Women's Human Rights, an anti-discrimination group active since the early 1990s.

"But the problem is implementation and the mentality of the law."

She said Erdogan's rhetoric promoting a rigid role for women exacerbated the problem, while the penal code lessens jail sentences for men who say they were "provoked" into violence.

HIGH MURDER RATE

According to a 2011 U.N. report, non-sexual physical violence committed by intimate partners was 10 times more likely in Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, than in some European countries. Monitoring group Bianet says 281 women were murdered in 2014, up 31 percent from the previous year.

Last December the government held a meeting at which it chose three non-government organizations (NGOs) to help tackle violence against women. But a majority of mainstream NGOs walked out and dozens of organizations issued a statement complaining that their input had been ignored.

One of the groups selected was KADEM, or the Women and Democracy Association, whose deputy head is Erdogan's daughter Sumeyye. In a speech last month she said it was normal for women to inherit less because men are the breadwinners.

KADEM says it provides support for women to be productive within their families and society. Its president, Sare Aydin, told Reuters it was independent of the government and accused feminist groups of failing to support religious women.

"Those NGOs who claim to be supporting women's representation ... were silent when thousands of girls wearing the hijab (headscarf) were banned from universities," she said.

But a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, acknowledged that women's rights had become politicized.

"The government has turned its back on the mainstream women's movement. They're acting very politically, they ask the opinion (of established women's groups) when they have to, but that doesn't mean they're going to listen to what they say," the official told Reuters.

"The organizations the government are working with now just have no idea - they're so new, they have no idea about the women's movement."

Asked about Erdogan's views, the official said: "He is sincere in his efforts to tackle domestic violence, but perhaps he doesn't understand gender equality."

The ministry of family and social policy did not respond to requests for comment. Erdogan's office declined to comment. (Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones)

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