Politicians and policymakers in Turkey are cutting back on women’s hard-won rights. Recent proposed amendments to divorce law may restrict women’s freedoms and jeopardise their safety, and abortion – legal since 1983 – is increasingly difficult to access.
Activists and observers have argued that these shifts are part of a broader attempt to reduce women’s role in society to motherhood within a traditional family structure.
Particularly worrying is the fact that these changes actually undo previous gains, a sign that the hard-won victories of women’s movements may be under threat. While this has triggered protests by women’s groups in Turkey, there is no sign that the government has taken note.
In May, the Parliamentary Commission on Divorce, tasked with “investigating factors which threaten the unity of families and divorce incidents, as well as [making] recommendations concerning the strengthening of the institution of marriage,” released its report. According to the women’s activist group EŞİTİZ, the Divorce Commission report features a number of recommendations which could seriously undermine the rights of women and children in Turkey, including lowering the legal age of marriage from 18 to 15, and allowing adults engaged in sex (or rape) with minors – aged under 15 – to be released on parole if they enter into a marriage with the minor. EŞİTİZ has argued that this effectively encourages rapists to marry their underage victims.
The document also pushes for policies that favour marriage reconciliation over divorce, even in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. Other recommendations seek to reduce men’s alimony responsibilities, effectively make it more difficult for women – especially poorer women – to get a divorce.
Sociologist Nil Mutluer argues that the Divorce Commission risks undoing progress made in the early period of AKP rule. Mutluer told Independent Turkey that the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission of Divorce, if enacted, will constitute “a total backlash.”
“It’s a big trauma. When the women’s movement managed to amend the Civil Code this was on the agenda too – not for the child, then it was for the women. If it became a ‘matter of honour,’ they [rapist and rape survivor] could marry. So it’s a big trauma and [the women’s movement] managed to amend it. And now it comes to a child. Can you imagine?”
The existing Civil Code was only introduced in 2002, and it ensures that women have the right to half the couple’s mutual assets if they divorce. It also officially removed men as the de facto heads of households, a significant step in achieving gender equality. Additionally a new Penal Code introduced in 2005 brought harsher sentences for crimes committed in the name of ‘honour.’ If the Committee on Divorce’s amendments are enacted, the liberalization of the early 2000s will likely become null and void.
A few days after the report’s release, following the ousting of now ex-Prime Minister Davutoğlu after he fell out of President Erdoğan’s favour, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced their new Prime Minister candidate, Binali Yıldırım, and his new cabinet.
What was especially striking about the brand new administration was quickly discerned from the official press release: out of the 27 members of the cabinet, there was only one woman. Adding what some may consider to be extra salt the wound, the singular female minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, was appointed as the Minister of Family and Social Policy. Activists saw this as a clear indication of where this government believes women’s concerns lie: with the family and nowhere else.
A woman’s place
Meanwhile, President Erdoğan continued his streak of controversial remarks concerning women when, speaking at an educational foundation, he claimed that no Muslim family should consider the use of birth control. “They talk about population planning, birth control. No Muslim family can have such an approach,” said the President. Yet the controversy of this latest comment appears relatively mild considering comments Erdoğan made in 2014 at a wedding, when he claimed that the use of birth control is treason.
Erdoğan is infamous for other remarks regarding women, including his opinion that “men and women are not equal” and his theory that “the imprisoning concept of economic independence has done the greatest harm to women.” He continued: “How can a mother’s work be compensated with money? How can we measure the sacrifice of a women to take care of her family?” Those comments were made on March 8, 2016: International Women’s Day.
Mutluer argues that this kind of rhetoric is indicative of a generally held belief among the political leadership that women have overstepped their boundaries. Motherhood is held to be the ideal – an activity that is the sacred reserve of women and should be left untouched.
“If you look at the political discourse going on between the president and the prime minister and some MPs, you can see that they position women as second class citizens,” Mutluer told Independent Turkey.
“Motherhood is a very typical thing to position women as in all nation-states, secular Turkey did this as well, but this is this motherhood embodied by the new Islamist party and their way of [doing] Islamism.”
It appears then that this has less to do with religion than with social engineering – which, while no doubt shaped by the party’s Islamism, is also driven by a desire for a homogenous and obedient society shaped by the AKP’s own brand of authoritarianism.
Behind the scenes of this fairly public campaign to diminish the rights of women and reduce their role in society to compulsory motherhood, a more subtle campaign has targeted another area of women’s independent lives and control over their fertility: abortion.
Restricting abortion rights
Independent Turkey had the opportunity to speak with Sakine Günel, a spokesperson for the group Kürtaj Haktır Karar Kadınların – “Abortion is a right, the Decision belongs to Women” – one of the activist groups trying to raise awareness of the silent war being waged by the AKP administration on abortion.
Abortion has been legal in Turkey since 1983, with the only limitation to the procedure that it be performed by the tenth week of pregnancy. However, according to Günel, a number of slow-encroaching state policies have produced a “de-facto ban on abortion,” which began with pressure on doctors working at state hospitals. The chief architect of this trend is not the doctors, however, but the Ministry for Health.
A doctor working in the state system, who chose to remain anonymous, made a similar assessment. “Family planning services and mother and child health centres, which used to be very functional in the past, have been made dysfunctional,” she told Independent Turkey. After an act introduced in 2010, abortion services were all but eradicated.
“Family planning was abolished as a central unit. The Health Minister had announced back in 2007 that family planning services would be discontinued and reproductive health policies would be adopted instead. Three years after that statement, although having not been completely abolished, family planning services were omitted from the central structure with the 2010 Act,” said the doctor.
One mechanism used to achieve this has been the quota system.
“Medical doctors – especially in residency – are required to fill a certain quota by collecting points from different medical procedures in order to get appointed to a position or to get promoted. Every procedure has a specific percentage point and abortion is one of the procedures with the lowest points. Therefore, doctors do not see the point in performing them,” said Günel.
She also claimed that new practices have been introduced in state hospital procedure that discourage women from getting an abortion except in the case of a “medical emergency.”
“They [state hospitals] said they could only perform vaginal delivery and no caesarean sections; they could only perform abortions if there is a medical emergency that might put the mother’s or the foetus’s health at risk. This was explicitly expressed by the government; however such a clause does not appear in the law,” Günel said.
Anecdotal reports also describe doctors pressuring women into continuing the pregnancy by showing them the heartbeat of the foetus – or by contacting the woman’s family. As Günel puts it, these doctors are “trying to guilt them into changing their minds.” Doctors and hospitals have also been known to lie about a lack of equipment or the risks of anaesthesia in the tenth week of pregnancy, Günel said.
This claim was supported by the doctors who spoke to Independent Turkey. They reported that doctors at some state hospitals avoid performing abortions: “Most state hospitals effectively failed to provide the service, with some stating they were allowed to perform the practice only until eight weeks of pregnancy, some claiming that the patient would have to wait for anaesthesia, and some saying that they didn’t perform abortions at all.”
Posing yet another obstacle for getting an abortion in Turkey, especially for married women, is that women must have their husband’s consent. While this restriction did apply in the 1983 abortion law, Günel claims that doctors hardly ever enforced it until recently.
As a result of these policies, the number of state hospitals providing abortion procedures in practice has significantly decreased: in fact, according to both Günel and the doctors who spoke to Independent Turkey, there are now “only a handful” of state facilities left in Istanbul known to perform abortions.
Out of women’s reach
The key to the dynamics of the de facto ban, Günel argues, is that, without access to abortion from state hospitals in a country where most citizens rely on socialized medicine, women must resort to either private or back-alley procedures. Additionally, information about the cost of abortions has been removed from notifications provided to women by the Social Security Institution (SGK), obscuring women’s access to information about their rights.
“Poverty-stricken women had to appeal to private hospitals, after being made wait for long periods of time in state hospitals,” said Independent Turkey’s medical source. And private procedures are expensive: an abortion costs 1,000-2,000 Turkish lira, while the minimum wage is just 1,300 Turkish lira.
With legal abortion thus all but unattainable for many women, they are at risk of death or serious injury if – out of desperation – they choose instead to use back-alley abortion doctors, or attempt self-abortion. However, private practices have not been immune to increased government crackdowns on abortion either.
“[The Chamber of Medical Doctors and Chamber of Gynaecologists] recounted how their private practices were raided by inspectors from Ministry of Health. They were undergoing extensive inspections where they were questioned about the abortion procedures they implemented. The officers were asking them whether they performed abortions and, if so, how often and under what circumstances,” said Günel.
The long game
While these developments have mostly taken place since 2012, Günel argues that the campaign against abortion has deeper roots within the AKP administration, and can be understood as part of a larger campaign to “keep women in check and confining them to definitions of womanhood prescribed by the AKP.”
From 2008, under Recep Recep Akdağ, the Ministry of Health began to close down Maternal and Infant Health and Family Planning Centres, which had provided women with contraceptives and family-planning advice. This indicated a tangible shift away from the progress made by women’s movements towards what could be called a fertility-oriented policy, making it harder for women to take control of their own reproductive capacity.
In 2011, the Women’s Ministry was dismantled and replaced with the Family and Social Policy Ministry. This new institution, Günel says, replaced contraceptives and women’s health care with “so-called counselling services.” These services include “meetings or seminars on marriage where ‘experts’ advise women to be obedient and tolerate husband’s’ anger and even violence.”
It appears then, that the AKP’s campaign against abortion and their broader conservative policies are part of a wider project to restrict women’s role in society to that of motherhood.
The doctors who spoke to Independent Turkey agree. “Firstly, for a woman, having multiple children means receding from work life and secluding herself at home. And promoting this has become the government policy. Besides, encouraging families to have multiple children to help population growth would have such consequences as worsening education or cheapening labor. And this matches up perfectly with the government’s rhetoric,” they said.
Thus the apparently religious and neo-conservative sentiments behind the AKP’s policies may be masking somewhat more Machiavellian considerations: Günel argues that poor families with more children are more likely to accept help from the government, and to “take comfort in their faith” making them less prone to dissent.
In an environment of increasing polarisation and violence, changes like these escape the notice of the public beyond activist organisations and those immediately affected. Yet they indicate a worrying erosion of the rights of women. Given the AKP’s dominance in all aspects of government, this is a trend that is unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.