By Sercan Çınar
In the latest in a string of violations against women’s rights in Turkey, it was recently revealed that a number of municipalities controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been distributing booklets designed to give advice to newlywed couples.
These booklets consist of scenes and ‘advice’ that can be considered concrete examples of the institutionalized misogyny of AKP, corresponding to the broader gender politics that have been produced during its reign.
Some would argue that what women experience in today’s Turkey follows the global trend in which women’s rights have been assaulted by governments that are loyal to the neoliberal consensus. This global gender regime is guided by the convergence of market fundamentalism, utilitarianism and conservatism and has recently risen to the forefront of political debates under the new Trump administration.
Discerning the global patterns and consequences of the global gender regime and its establishments is essential for the formation of transnational alliances and networks to counter backlash.
Rather than viewing contemporary trends and developments in Turkey in the abstract and simply addressing overarching global processes, the direction Turkey has been heading in under the governance of the AKP and its policies on gender and women’s rights deserves closer scrutiny.
Turkey’s retreat into conservatism can be identified as a reiteration of the classic patriarchy that posits a set of concrete constraints into particular geographies. Islamic traditionalism occupies a central place in AKP’s perspective on women, which corresponds to Erdoğan and his government’s longstanding strategies on sustaining rule by consolidating politics around the axis of the secularist/ Islamist conservatism divide.
Islamic traditionalism normalizes of a specific form of intimacy and sexuality within the boundaries of family and household that is constituted through references to Islam and fiqh (Islamic law), as well as the so-called ‘traditional values’ of society that have reifying effects on classic patriarchal structures. Additionally, it responds to the purpose of marginalizing and crushing oppositional and autonomous movements that go beyond the framework of the AKP’s agenda on women’s issues.
The clearest instance of AKP’s perspective on women may be found in the booklets for newlyweds distributed by the municipalities of Kütahya and Pamukkale which were recently discovered by Fatma Kaplan Hürriyet, a member of parliament from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The booklet titled “Marriage and Family Life” is distributed by the Kütahya Municipality, and gives advice to the husband on how to keep his wife subordinate and obedient. Men are regarded as ‘the shepherds’, and the arrangement of the household and sexual relationship between couples must be in accordance with this assumption.
While counseling men on what to do with their wives, the book contains graphic arguments and misogynistic commentary on the subject of a woman’s employment, in which women are treated as beings likely to introduce discord (fitna in Islam) and become uncontrollable if they work outside to the household. Hasan Çalışkan, the author of this booklet, worked for the local branch of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which has been repurposed by the AKP as a political tool that promotes a ‘convenient’ interpretation of Sunni Islam consistent with AKP politics.
In a blurb about the booklet, Çalışkan describes his underlying motivation for writing this book as delineating “the proper marriage and family life with reference to the Quran and Sunnah”. A few days after it appeared on social media, similar booklets titled “Marriage and Sanctity” were unearthed in Pamukkale Municipality, and most recently in Şahinbey Municipality, a district in Gaziantep province that is governed by the former Minister of Family and Social Policies, Fatma Şahin.
Although some prominent names in the AKP have claimed that such booklets do not reflect the AKP’s official stance on women’s issues, asserting that they were just ‘exceptions’, such misogynistic narratives are not new to AKP rule. Seemingly sharing Çalışkan’s view that women should be expected to conform to the ascribed roles within the household as wives and mothers, Mehmet Şimşek, then-Minister of the State, claimed in 2009 that women’s participation in the workforce was responsible for the rise in national unemployment.
Another prominent member of the AKP government, former Minister of Environment and Forestry Veysel Eroğlu, made a similar statement on women’s employment in which he asked a group of women: “Don’t you have enough tasks within the household?” Lastly, on the first day of 2015, the current Minister of Labor and Social Security Mehmet Müezzinoğlu stated that “women’s careers must be motherhood”, while showing his support for Erdoğan’s ‘commendation’ that urged women to have at least three children and branded childless women ‘deficient’. Besides these representative examples of misogyny repeatedly expressed by AKP officials, other ‘organic intellectuals’ of the regime play an active role in mobilizing similar discourses, namely through constructing an imagery of the ‘Islamic way of life.’
At this point, it is worth emphasizing that this idea of the ‘Islamic way of life’ deserves a more nuanced and complex approach than debating the ‘real essence of Islam’, which avoids the question of whether Islam is inherently misogynistic. However, instead of noting the reductive and simplistic nature of that concept, Islam is taken as an ideological nodal point that occupies a central location within the construction of gender ideology that is manifested in both the statements of these figures and the policies enacted by the AKP government.
Regarding such an appeal to Islam, the leaders of Islamic groups or communities which openly declare their support for the AKP play an important role in spreading their own interpretations of Islam, particularly in accordance with the gendered ideology propagated under the AKP’s rule. For instance, Nureddin Yıldız, who is the founder of the religious foundation Sosyal Doku, issued a ‘fatwa’ in which he described working women as being “prepared for prostitution”, and claimed that a woman’s employment “threaten[ed] the entire ummah of Islam”. when the woman does not fulfil her husband’s needs within the household that is considered as the central component of the Islamic way of life.
Here, Yıldız situates himself as a figure authorized to issue fatwas, something that typically exceeds the scope of activities expected from someone that is the head of a religious foundation. Furthermore, his referral to ‘the entire ummah of Islam’, which hints vaguely at an imagined political entity, is particularly striking. Such an imagination tends to impose a totality for thinking about the organizing principles of the public sphere.
This rigorous process of the imposition of totality goes along with the facile particularization of oppositional and dissident segments of society, especially women who do not act in accordance with this Islamist imagination. Thus, the primary focus of certain norms directly targets women’s employment, which is considered a major threat to that kind of political imagination.
The booklets that reproduce such gender norms therefore do not only hinder women’s visibility within the public sphere and their ability to take part in the working life, but also reveal the AKP’s gender ideology to be even more fragile.
In respect to the aforementioned points presented in the booklets distributed by the three municipalities, it is possible treat these pamphlets as a kind of a manual for the AKP’s gender ideology, rather than its exceptions. Only three booklets have been discovered so far, but considering that the political orientation of AKP is one marked by a consistent habit of deprioritizing and violating women’s rights, it would hardly be surprising if more were to surface.