Facing domestic and international criticism over Turkey's skyrocketing murder rate for women, the Turkish government has established a parliamentary commission to investigate violence against women. Intriguingly, on Jan. 29, the commission made headlines in all major newspapers — not with their findings or possible remedies, but with the mind-boggling statements of Ismet Ucma, a deputy from the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In response to a proposal for mobile panic buttons that women could use to contact police in case of an assault, Ucma told the commission, “We could replace buttons by creating exemplary families. We could foster the concept of neighborhood honor.” Ucma added that neighborhoods could protect their own "honor," which could also be supervised by the Religious Affairs Directorate. This idea, nice as it may seem, sent chills down the spines of Turkish women and rights advocates. In Turkey, the "honor code" is the leading cause of violence against women, and it is well documented that people look the other way when they see a man beating a woman.
It's difficult to gauge whether Ucma was joking or serious, because in that same speech to parliament he said, “We must have a renaissance and put Turkey as an example on the world map. We must overcome the men-women differentiation. If you [women] had the physical power, I swear you would be beating men more frequently.” Adding insult to injury, Ucma continued, “We must accept the reality that there are LGBT people in society, and the fact is this sort of sexual orientation can be prevented. There are ways and means to prevent homosexuality.”
It's impressive that Ucma managed to fit all these bewildering statements in just one speech. Social media networks boomed with comments that criticized and mocked Ucma and the AKP’s mindset on sexuality. One social media user mocked, “Forget the neighborhood honor, what about AKP’s honor?” Another wrote, “If our neighborhood had honor, there would be no AKP.”
In response to the criticism, Ucma said that he would not withdraw his recommendations. Female AKP Alev Dedegil backed Ucma, saying, “It is in Turkish culture that elders are recruited for negotiations.”
It's not easy to make sense of the AKP deputies' repeated contradictory statements. For example, the AKP government has continuously enacted legislation to make divorce more difficult, particularly for women, and this is seen as one of the reasons behind the rising murder rate. Ucma, however, going against his own party's legislation, suggested that “divorce should be made easier to decrease the murder rate.” Apparently enjoying coming up with creative recommendations, Ucma suggested other perplexing solutions to the violence, such as a “license of competence to wed.” One cannot help but wonder if Ucma is aware of the literature on violence against women in Turkey, or perhaps he is unaware of his own party’s policies.
Frustrated with Ucma's comments, Nursel Aydogan, a deputy of the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), told the press that the HDP does not approve of the presence of male deputies on the parliamentary commission to investigate violence against women. The HDP also condemned Ucma’s statement on homosexuality, which was published alongside supportive images of rainbow flags and kissing men by opposition media outlets. Pundits penned columns arguing that violence and hate crimes can be prevented, not sexual orientation.
Though a majority of Turks might consider images of two men kissing inappropriate, statements from different religious figures on sexual matters have also been quite controversial. Here are a few of the latest mind-boggling statements:
On Jan. 26, a video of Alparslan Kuytul, founder of the Furqan Foundation, made the news. In the video, Kuytul says, “Here is what Islam says: Even if she is your mother, above the kneecap will be provocative. You cannot look at her body above the kneecap or her back. Islam speaks the reality, not rosy pink dreams.” Facing strong criticism, Kuytul again went on the record as saying that these are not his personal views. He cited examples from the Hadith (prophetic traditions) and Islamic laws explaining how all the Islamic sects agree on this point, and that it also applies to sisters and daughters. Kuytul claimed that he was answering a question on incest, which he alleges has become more common in Turkey.
His concerns may be well grounded, especially if you listen to the notorious marriage counselor Sibel Uresin. Uresin first entered popular culture in 2012 with her support of the legalization of polygamy, saying, “I offered my single friend to my husband as a sister-wife.” It remains unclear whether she was on the payroll of any AKP-run municipality as a marriage counselor. However, she has since appeared on several television programs. In one, she told the television host, “If I desire a man, I do not need government approval to be with him. I can have a sheikh wedding,” referring to a religious union not officially recognized by the Turkish state. She has also offered a troubling explanation for violence against women, explaining, “Because women in Turkey talk back against the men all the time, they deserve to be beaten up.”
So far, conservative media outlets have quietly condoned Uresin’s unusual rhetoric, and to such an extent that on Jan. 19, pro-AKP Aksam Daily published an interview with her headlined, “The proper method of Islamic prayer is achieved through proper sexual intercourse.” Uresin argued in the interview that sex is more important than daily prayers. This time, her comments triggered a backlash among observant Muslims, as well as the mufti of Tokat province, Ahmet Erdem, who told the press, “We cannot compare sex with prayer.”
These are just a few examples of the conflicting and confusing messages on sex to emerge from Turkey's conservative circles within the last several months. The parliamentary commission to address violence against women has so far produced more sensational headlines than real solutions, the most outrageous being the recommendation of attorney Yavuz Balkan. On Feb. 2, Balkan officially requested the government mandate 75 Turkish lira ($30) in funding per week for single Turkish men as a "sexual necessity credit." Balkan argues that male aggression stems from a lack of sexual satisfaction. So, he reasoned, if men are given financial support, they can employ prostitutes and not rape or murder women. He said, “If men can meet their sexual needs, I am confident that 99% of female murders will be eliminated.” Much of the response over social media to his bold promises has been too obscene for publication.
Through their well-established media outlets, AKP members and supporters initiated a process to redesign Turkey's social codes and to produce a "pious generation," in the words of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet, when it comes to matters of sexuality, this design seems to have backfired. There are too many embarrassing comments originating from different religious communities that not only rub various groups the wrong way but also provide common ground for the opposition to grow. As one senior academic told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, “I do not know about pious, but I see a shameless generation in the making in Turkey.”