Women's rights activists in Turkey are pushing back against new comments from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who declared women unequal to men and said that being a mother is a woman's primary role in society.
"You cannot bring women and men into equal positions; that is against nature because their nature is different," Erdogan said Sunday at an international meeting focused on justice and women, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News reported. It's the latest provocative statement by the outspoken Turkish leader in recent days, following up on last week's declaration about the supposed discovery of the Americas by Muslim explorers.
Erdogan also railed against feminists and said Islam defines motherhood as a woman's primary role. "Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood," he said.
Women's rights activists say the remarks are not only offensive, but also dangerous, given the country's record on women's rights issues. "Such comments by state officials, which disregard equality between men and women, play an important role in the rise of violence against women," Hulya Gulbahar, a lawyer and activist, told the Associated Press. "Such comments aim to make women’s presence in public life — from politics to arts, from science to sports — debatable."
Erdogan and other members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have long been viewed with dismay by women's rights activists in Turkey, who say the AKP politicians are enabling a climate in which laws are not equally applied to protect women.
"We have strong laws intended to protect women from violence, but the police and the courts are not enforcing the laws effectively and consistently," Fikriye Yilmaz, a women’s rights activist and spokeswoman for Istanbul-based Stop Women Homicides, told Al Jazeera America in September.
In 2012, Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, called abortion murder and came out against birth by Caesarean section. He's also called for women to have at least three children and pushed for laws that encourage people to marry young.
In 2013, Erdogan's government lifted a head-scarf ban for women working in government offices. Turkey ranked 120 out of 136 on the World Economic Forum's 2013 gender gap index, which includes economic, political and educational measures.
Before the presidential election this summer, then-Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, an AKP founding member, said a woman "should not laugh loudly in front of all the world and should preserve her decency at all times," sparking a social media protest, with women posting pictures of themselves laughing.
In a report in September, Human Rights Watch said that "perpetrators of violence against women, most commonly male partners, ex-partners, and family members, often enjoy impunity" in Turkey and that authorities have failed to implement a 2012 law to protect women from violence.
On Sunday, Erdogan dismissed the idea of gender equality: “Equality is turning the victim into an oppressor by force or vice versa," he said. "What women need is to be able to be equivalent, rather than equal."