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Turkish women receive mixed messages on work-life balance

Officials from Turkey's Justice and Development Party have made a habit of issuing controversial social edicts to women that don't apply to their wives and daughters.
Women walk as they shout slogans during a rally calling for gender equality, two days after International Women's Day, in Istanbul March 10, 2013. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3ET3V

On Jan. 1, Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu welcomed the first baby of 2015 with news cameras rolling. Muezzinoglu made instant headlines by saying, “Mothers have the career of motherhood, which cannot be possessed by anyone else in the world. Mothers should not put a career other than motherhood at the center of their lives.” Looking right into the eyes of female hospital staff, he said, “Motherhood should be women’s sole career.”

The strongest reaction to the minister's words came from Gulten Kisanak, the mayor of Diyarbakir and a member of the People’s Democracy Party (HDP). She said, “Dear women, let us promise we will build the strongest career by toppling [the AKP’s] tyranny.”

The health minister gave an interview Jan. 4 to address the criticism. Muezzinoglu complained he had been misunderstood, and what he meant to say was, “Motherhood is not a career for men.” He shared his views on women’s “biological clock,” adding that he had told his daughters, “By 22 or 23 years old, find a man and marry him.” Luckily for Muezzinoglu, both of his daughters complied and are married. They are also both college-educated and work full time.

If it were a single isolated statement from the minister, the issue could be seen as one odd remark by a right-wing politician, yet there seems to be a trend gaining strength in Turkey since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his confusing rhetoric on women. In late November, Erdogan commented, "Women are not equal to men, and motherhood is the highest position. … But you cannot explain this to feminists, because they don’t accept motherhood.” In December, Erdogan declared that birth control was treason. His unrelenting obsession with regulating women’s wombs has encouraged other prominent figures to make outrageous comments. Here are some of the latest perplexing statements:

On Sept. 28, pro-AKP daily Yeni Safak’s columnist Yusuf Kaplan referred to the Erasmus program, a European Union university exchange program, as "Orgasmus," accusing the students of hedonism and sexual obsessions. In mid-December, the media found out that Kaplan’s own daughter has studied in Paris as an Erasmus participant.

On Dec. 4, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “Men do not have the chance to be mothers; motherhood is the highest honor.” However, he did not stop there, but elaborated on the high rate of suicide in Scandinavian countries and concluded, “Gender equality triggers suicide.” He repeated many times the importance of women taking care of their families. Davutoglu’s wife is a successful medical doctor.

On Dec. 14, Tugrul Inancer, an Islamist lawyer and commentator on religion also known as the sheikh of the Cerrahi Dervish Lodge, said in an interview with a female journalist, “Women are not obliged to bring home income. Working women frequently get divorced. They may be independent of their husband, but then they go succumb to the services of other men. Why would a happily married woman be working outside the home? The fault is with the husband. A woman’s sole duty is to be a mother.” In the subsequent outcry, it was revealed that Inancer’s daughter is the CEO of a company.

On Dec. 31, Minister of Family and Social Policies Aysenur Islam criticized the media for publishing reports on the skyrocketing number of women’s murders. Sharing rather dubious statistics, she claimed that more women were murdered in Germany than in Turkey in 2014, and added, “No one hears of the murders in Germany, but everyone talks about the cases in Turkey.”

On Jan. 2, theologian and well-known commentator on Islamic issues Nurettin Yildiz issued a new fatwa: “It is not permissible for men to look at women who are not their immediate family. To give an example, it is not allowed for men to watch female newscasters on television.” Reactions were strong. Female anchor Pinar Isik Ardor protested, “I am not a sex object” after sharing the news of Yildiz’s fatwa on live television.

One cannot help but see a pattern of hypocrisy. All these men commenting on women’s rights and leading to the further devaluation of women’s bodies indeed have wives or daughters who are benefiting from secular educational and public services and establishing successful careers.

The AKP has waged an impressive war to open up space for religious women in schools and the workplace. Why has it changed course to push women back to the home? Why did the AKP support the rhetoric of increasing hijabi women’s participation in public spaces and providing them with economic freedom, if motherhood is all that they are to achieve? The mixed messages seem to divide the pro-AKP media as well. While most Islamist outlets have been quiet on the issue, pro-AKP Sabah Daily columnist Emre Akoz penned a column saying that women should be in the work force, and also arguing that it is not the AKP but the Fethullah Gulen movement that would like to erase women from public spaces.

If women opt out of employment, then who will serve the other women, especially pious women? Most observant Muslim women would prefer female hairdressers, doctors and customer service personnel. Sema, an observant Muslim whose husband is a high-level bureaucrat, told Al-Monitor, “The personal is becoming increasingly and irritably political. Will there be male beauticians, OB/GYNs for Muslim women? I am no longer sure their statements about women’s bodies are acceptable to Islamic standards. If your own life cannot set an example, how can you preach to other people?”

When asked by Al-Monitor about the mixed messages from the AKP, Hatice Altinisik, an outspoken human rights activist and the HDP’s deputy chairwoman responsible for "people and their beliefs," provided a disheartening answer: “That is the line the Islamist ruling elite draw between themselves and everyone else. This is the mind-set of those intoxicated by political power and arrogance in seeing it is their right to tell others what to do. All is permissible for them. The rules apply to others, who lack privilege.” She added sarcastically, “If one day we wake up and they tell us, 'How dare you breathe in the same universe with us?' I shall not be surprised.”

Zeynep Bozdas, a young Muslim woman and the foreign relations adviser of the Sunni-Islamist Kurdish party Huda-Par, told Al-Monitor, “Motherhood is most important, yes, but how healthy would a mother who is kept away from the public be? We should also talk about that. Women should contribute to society without ignoring their families. That would make them better mothers. And remember, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife was a businesswoman. Should we say more?”

Indeed, there seems to be confusing messages in the examples AKP women provide to the public.

While Turks were busy debating over social media what kind of a career motherhood is, Deputy AKP Chairman Suleyman Soylu suggested, “Politics is a matter of genetics. From the father, it could pass on the kids. If [Erdogan's youngest daughter] Sumeyye Erdogan ran for office, it would be lovely.” Others in the AKP rejoiced in the possibility. Social media users ridiculed the proposition, one tweeting, “What should Sumeyye do? Should she get married and have three kids, should she get involved in politics or assist her helpless brother?" Pundits have also asked how Sumeyye can remain single in her early 30s, while her father advises female high school students not to be too picky and marry soon, and the health minister sets the marriage age cap as 22-23 for women. One social media commentator asked the health minister, “Would you dare make this suggestion to Sumeyye Erdogan?”

So far, the AKP’s concerted efforts to redesign the place of women in society seems to be working rather well in conveying the message that equal opportunities for women are no longer guaranteed.

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