On Dec. 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended a wedding ceremony of the son of businessman Mustafa Kefeli. Erdogan and his wife posed with the happy couple and their families in front of the cameras at a fancy Istanbul hotel. This would normally not have been more than a short and happy news item in a magazine or on a TV show, yet the ceremony ended up on the front-page of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet. Erdogan did it again! He poked at one of the favorite nerve centers of the opposition, particularly the seculars and women. Yet, this time the results were less than satisfactory.
Erdogan directly looked into the eyes of the young couple and said, referring to the number of his children, “One [child] will be lonely; if there are two, they will be rivals; three will be a balance; four will bring abundance and for that I say Allah Kareem [God is generous].” His words could be regarded as well wishes from a family friend to a young couple, but Erdogan did not stop there. “For years, treason has been committed by means of the enforcement of birth control in this country. They aimed to dry up the bloodline of our nation,” he added.
As Erdogan continued his speech on the virtues of marriage and family, his opinion about birth control was what carried the simple wedding ceremony to the headlines.
The reactions from different sections of Turkish society and the media are interesting, to say the least. Both pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) social media accounts and newspapers surprisingly ignored the issue in the first 18 hours. Trendsetting social media accounts, on the other hand, ridiculed Erdogan’s words and the opposition media reported almost exclusively the “mockery” rather than what Erdogan had actually said.
This time, not Erdogan’s words but how they impacted social media was newsworthy for the opposition, which named themselves “the birth control lobby” and gathered around the hashtag #dogumkontrolu (birth control) and the slogan "Ey Prezervatif" (Oh Condom). Here are some examples of witty reactions from Erdogan’s opponents:
- “In theaters now, 'President in My Bed.'”
- “I sometimes want to grab his [Erdogan's] collar and yell at his face, “What is it to you dude!”
- “What does “birth control is treason” mean, bro? So if we have two kids, then we can only make out twice in life?”
- “These people, to stop the national will, attempted a coup by the method of using birth control.” (imitating Erdogan’s style of criticizing Gezi protesters)
- “The real treason to this country was when your [Erdogan's] parents had unprotected sex!”
- “Condoms are haram. Sex is haram. To steal the people’s money in shoe boxes is halal. This system is great, bro.”
- “My offer is clear. From now on there has to be a warning sign on condom packages: 'Using these is considered treason to your country.' There are people who may not know.”
- “Viagra in, Condoms Out.”
- “Traitors against the nation were caught with three packages of condoms and two packs of birth control pills.”
- “They should open up a 'Sexual Intercourse' Department under the Presidency. Erdogan should lead it. After three children, now birth control!”
- “RTE: today is the time for verdict on [former] ministers' corruption so [please] focus on my batshit crazy comment on birth control instead #Turkey.”
The most popular reports of Erdogan’s comments on birth control came from Onion-like satire websites. One website predicted 15 possible scenarios of what to expect in the news following the president’s words, such as “Justice and Development Party’s Istanbul municipality organized a men’s protest. Men marched holding banners that read, 'My body, my decision, we do not want condoms'" and “113 couples arrested on charges of making out just for pleasure have been released on probation.”
Zaytung, the most popular Turkish satire website published a long piece on what Erdogan had said. It read: “Erdogan called on the nation for normalization: Let’s talk about issues such as birth control, just like in the good old days.” Zaytung ridiculed Erdogan’s previous rhetoric on the issue of “we will disturb the birth control game.” The piece concluded with a set of ideas on how to distort and reframe the public agenda, including bringing back the fez (traditional Ottoman hat for men); asking for Friday to be a day off rather than the Sunday; insulting the sensitivities of religious minorities; reminding everyone about the plan for the Hagia Sophia mosque; and questioning the reason Turkish women are seeking Brazilian blowout hairstyles.
As opposition parliamentarians and women’s rights organizations provided the same negative reactions toward Erdogan’s comments, we can infer a few important findings from this social upheaval.
First, Erdogan’s efforts to muddy the waters and change the public focus from real policy issues to personal and social choices has run its course. Even observant Muslims find it difficult to follow, let alone defend, Erdogan’s rhetoric. A pious Muslim and mother of three told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I supported Erdogan for over a decade and remain grateful to him, but now I can no longer understand what he is really trying to do. Even though the core of the policies he brings up I may agree with, the way he proposes them is ludicrous. I have used birth control for 20 years of my marriage. My daughter will be getting married next year. I would like her husband and her to choose a birth control method. This is the best for her health and her babies’ health. This is how we decrease infant mortality rates.”
She makes important points in that Erdogan’s statements are valid. Successful birth control education has led to the decrease of birth rates, particularly in western Turkey. Erdogan has previously voiced his concerns that Kurds will be in the majority in the future. However, one wonders if this sort of concern validates his rhetoric to declare sexual choices as treason or patriotism. Will Erdogan soon launch a program on giving tax credits to families with more than four children? Or medals of honor for mothers with five babies or more?
Regardless of Erdogan’s concerns on population trends, and the most reiterated reason of changing the public rhetoric from difficult issues such as the graft probe to women’s bodies, we must also question how Erdogan’s approach and that of other Islamist men to women’s rights is shifting in Turkey. Are the Islamists battling for freedom of wearing the headscarf, and hence a place for observant Muslim women in public long gone in Turkey? Have we now reached the stage where Islamists will battle against women’s freedom in public spaces? There are strong signs to fear the threshold has been crossed in Turkey to the detriment of women’s rights.