Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chair of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is used to the rage of women. In July, he opened a Pandora’s box on the Istanbul Convention, an international accord that combats violence against women and domestic violence, by saying that its ratification had been a mistake. The debate that followed has taken thousands of women across the country to the streets, resulted in several online campaigns and created a crack in the ruling party on the future of the convention.
Next, the AKP heavyweight turned an accusing finger to the country’s 3 million-plus single population. Invited to speak at a conference of Turkey’s civil servants union, MEMUR-SEN, Kurtulmus lauded the family as the “strong foundation” and the “stem cell” of the Turkish nation. “Undermining the family is one of the most cunning [means] to destroy a nation,” he said. “Strong individualism, coupled with hedonistic trends … have put dynamite in the foundations of the family. … [Those individualists] who live alone and see marriage as unnecessary are among the main problems we see now against the family and its values.”
His portrayal of “people who live alone” and “have no intention of marrying” as hedonistic and “troublesome” have spurred hundreds of witty rejoinders on social media. But the butt of the jokes was on Devlet Bahceli, chair of the Nationalist Movement Party and a confirmed bachelor at the age of 71. “Being left out of the Cabinet seems to have taken its toll [on Kurtulmus] who has not realized that his words may end up targeting [his party’s] small ally,” tweeted Haluk Ilicak, a former ambassador. Others have called upon Bahceli to block Kurtulmus, mocking the remarks with the hashtag #therootofmytroubles.
Faced with ridicule, Kurtulmus hastened to explain himself through a wave of statements to favored columnists and TV channels. “My words were taken out of context. I have many friends who live alone and it is unthinkable that I [criticize] them,” he told Murat Celik of Posta, adding that he expressed a nostalgia for larger families and that what he meant with singles was “single parents” or people with “alternative lifestyles.” In a statement to the semi-official Anadolu News Agency, he spat fire at “attempts to undermine the family” or “pit men and women against each other” — a thinly veiled reference to the Istanbul Convention that he called earlier as a front of the LGBT lobbies.
Family and family values have been at the heart of the social, cultural and economic policies of the AKP ever since its foundation in 2001. The party’s program underlines that the party “prioritizes policies related to the family” that it sees as the foundation of Turkish society. The party members’ general take on women leans on women’s role within the family rather than as an individual — a belief demonstrated by the fact that the government changed the name of Women and Family Affairs Ministry to Family and Social Services Ministry in 2011 and then merged it with the Ministry of Labor in 2018.
Government members regularly tout statements on marital bliss and sacred motherhood, often dissing women who are neither married nor have children. In 2015, Mehmet Muezzinoglu, then-minister of health, said women should put “no careers except motherhood” at the center of their lives. In 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to women who refused to embrace motherhood as “unnatural and incomplete.”
In January, the president chided the new generation for not getting married until they are in their 30s or not getting married at all, though the average age of marriage in Turkey is still 24.8 for women and 27.8 for men; the number of people who marry after age 30 increased 15% between 2012 and 2018. The president’s remarks created trending topics on social media, where online humorists joked about unmarried men and women secretly meeting at singles bars or reminding the president that his own daughter Sumeyye, vice chairman of women’s rights group KADEM that upholds the Istanbul Convention, married after 30. Others quipped about a “spinsters tax.”
“Like most conservative parties around the world, the AKP’s ideal woman is one who is married early in life, has three children and holds a job that will not undermine her responsibility and role in the family,” Seyda Taluk, a political communications expert and the author of “How to Win Elections,” told Al-Monitor. “The AKP owes a good deal of its power to women — who have voted for him and worked as soldiers in the party ranks at each and every election. The party has also taken conservative women out of the house, allowed headscarves to be worn at universities, and nominated women in parliament and in decision-making positions. But the stance of some party members and cronies on a number of issues — the Istanbul Convention, role of women as homemakers, insistence on patience in marriage — simply no longer sit well with its female members and supporters.”
The biggest flashpoint is currently to do with the Istanbul Convention, which was signed by Turkey in 2011. Erdogan — who is expected to have the last word on whether to stay in the convention or not — has yet to do so, though he said last week that Turkey needed to create and strengthen its own legal framework against violence. On Aug. 20, daily Hurriyet reported that Turkey would seek to propose some changes to the convention’s Article 4 and Article 6, which refer to gender and sexual orientation.
Following a party meeting Aug. 18, AKP spokesman Omer Celik said that the assessment of the issue was ongoing and that the government was “listening to all sides, except those who express their opinions by insulting women.” He was referring to arch-conservative columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak, who called the supporters of the Istanbul Convention “prostitutes." Dilipak was slapped with lawsuits both from KADEM and AKP women’s branches. The columnist finally sent an open letter of apology to the president, saying his remarks targeted the LGBT community and not female activists.
“We want to empower women and protect the family — we do not think these two are mutually exclusive,” Celik said.
“AKP women have flexed their muscle and they were heard,” said Can Selcuki, general manager of Istanbul Economics Research and a pollster who coined the term “restless conservatives” to refer to those looking for leadership in other places than the AKP. “They have participated in one of the lengthwise movements, as women of all walks of life took to the streets against violence and femicides.”
Asked how the tensions between the AKP’s female supporters and the party’s old guard will play out mid-term, Selcuki replied that he was not sure that the young female conservatives’ vote would leave the AKP and go to one of the new parties founded by Ali Babacan or Ahmet Davutoglu. “At the end of the day, they still believe that they can search their rights through the AKP,” he said.