Erdogan’s Family Policy Conservative, But Not Islamist

The Turkish prime minister's family policies are more nationalist than Islamist.

al-monitor Members of the Savun family pose in their home in the town of Cizre in Sirnak province, near the border with Syria, March 23, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

women in the workforce, turkish nationalism, turkish economic policy, islamism, erdogan, employment, children, akp

Sep 27, 2013

A universally known saying, also used in the Turkish language, suggests, “You reap what you sow.” Perhaps keeping that in mind, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan hopes that each Turkish family will yield three children. According to a highly ranked Justice and Development Party (AKP) official, “three children” will even serve as a slogan in the upcoming local elections, during which the ruling party plans to emphasize the risk of an aging population.

The ruling AKP has proposed measures including prolonging maternity leave from 16 to 24 weeks, financial support per child, half-day working options for pregnant women, child care in companies and a guarantee of return to work. Like everything else in Turkey, these measures bear the risk of becoming front lines in the culture war. Yet it would be wise to try some objective analysis instead of pro- or anti-AKP propaganda.

For starters, just note that recent child care subsidies in Germany, which feminists named a "stove premium" or "mother-hen subsidies," prompted great reproach. On the question of cash aid, a very important factor of the subsidy debate, the Christian Social Union insisted that it is a question of fairness in offering alternatives to child care.

In a similar fashion, Aşkın Asan of the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policy stated that legal work is in progress for state provision of child care services. (Which is encouraging, as quality, affordable child care in Turkey is an indispensable incentive for improving women’s willingness to work.) Furthermore, Asan claims, offering financial support suggests a plurality of choices, so those who want to have more children can take financial support, and others can both work and have children while still benefiting from state support. This suggests that conservative parties in different countries, regardless of religion, think along similar lines on this matter.

The feminist concern in Turkey seems to be the AKP’s perceived diversion from increasing the low percentage of female labor in the workforce. Yet, examples from Asia show that high employment numbers don’t reflect equality. Around 74% of women in China work, but as “task-executers rather than decision-makers,” according to Worldcrunch. So lack of family-friendly policies means women can’t get ahead regardless of the economic boom. Inequality aside, as the number of working-age people in China fell for the first time in its recent history, the Family Planning Commission is already studying proposals to lift the ban on having a second child in 2014 or 2015. 

Evidently, many cultural and structural barriers around the world stand in the way of finding perfect solutions. In Japan, where the hunt for child care is desperate, the debate between “bedroom or boardroom” is very much alive. Whereas Erdogan — to some, aggressively and intrusively, yet to others, caringly and engagingly — asks for “support” from women in Turkey, in Japan, the country’s health minister referred to Japanese women in 2007 as “birth-giving machines” and begged them “to do their best per head.” As the Washington Post reports, this year female parliamentarian Noda Seiko proposed that abortions be banned to boost the Japanese population.

Evidence across different countries supports the claim that religion has nothing to do with birth rates, as Hans Rosling shows in his fascinating TED talk. So, in Turkey in particular, critics who blame an Islamic ideological worldview for being behind low female participation in the workforce might be inaccurate. In the words of academic Guven Sak, “Urbanization and statistics methods are the real culprits here.”

During the migration period from 1960 to 2010, the urbanization rate increased from 30% to 75%. Turkey’s statistics office estimated the rate of female employment in urban areas, and only recorded a small percentage of women in rural areas as working. Sak suggests three other reasons why women in Turkey don’t work: First, lower female education leads to fewer skills and lower wages. Second, few incentives make many women prefer home and domestic chores over work. (It is a sad fact that money dictates women’s choices in the majority of countries, so, according to an Al Jazeera article, “Being a mother is a structural constraint regardless of your economic position.”) Third, poor urban infrastructure increases the time and transportation costs for women to reach their posts. Add to these factors common complaints about sexual harassment in public transportation. Culture, yet again, matters a lot!

In fact, the real shock in Turkey, not just from a feminist point of view, should be not the government’s proposals, but something else: The “don’t hire female employees” instruction given by some industrialists to their managers, in consideration of the higher costs perceived to be involved with hiring women. Minimizing expenditures might be rational for a company, but this particular outcome is unacceptable for a society that claims to aspire to be a just one.

Turkish bosses should note that a guaranteed return to work place is the norm, not the exception in developed countries. Under EU legislation, pregnant workers, those who recently gave birth and breastfeeding women are recognized as a specific risk group, so their health and safety are protected and they are granted maternity leave and shielded from workplace discrimination. The United States is now the only developed county in the world that does not ensure paid maternity leave on a national level, although recent struggles show a strong push for change. Alongside structural support by the government, a conversation about flexible work options between employer and employee is something that will, sooner or later, have to happen in Turkey, too.

As counterintuitive as it might sound, it might be market competition (or growing labor shortages, as in the Anatolian town of Konya) that leads to an improvement. In the United States, in response to general Facebook and Google offers, Yahoo is expanding its parental leave benefits, for example. But until Turkey gets to point of appreciating women employees as very valuable human capital rather than just a replaceable commodity, achieving any company’s full potential will be impossible.

Yes, though Turkey will not be Finland, "the best place to be a mom," anytime soon, the reason is not “policies tainted by Islamic ideology.” If we still look for ideas that bear some responsibility, though, it might be the strong nationalist discourse that represents the foundation of the Turkish nation. Erdogan, for his part, emphasizes the special place of mothers in Islam, according to which, “paradise lies at the feet of the mother.” Yet, for the secular Kemalists, too, women’s highest duty has always been motherhood, since both Muslim and secular nationalists share a highly gendered understanding of the nation. As anthropologist Jenny White further clarifies, under Kemalist nationalism, marriage and childbearing were also presented as national duties, regardless of a woman’s education or profession. It was simple logic that nothing was “to compete with loyalty to the nation and threaten [its] biological and ideological reproduction,” she wrote.

Erdogan might indeed be “fighting windmills” while recommending three children despite Turkey's socioeconomic trends. Accusations of interfering in citizens' lifestyles will continue, but won’t keep him from his “natural right" of offering his advice. His own deputy, Bülent Arınç, objects to the three-children rule, and instead states that he hopes for the best for each individual couple. That suggests that three children per family is the prime minister’s personal desire, but considering that he is a Muslim nationalist, it should come as no surprise. According to Sahid Javid Burki, thanks to young populations in large Muslim nations, “Political development has been able to move forward despite the recalcitrance of entrenched elites.” Erdogan, thus, wants to contribute his share to “the inexorable rise of the Muslim middle class.”

The bottom line is that Erdogan's family policies, as conservative as they are, are not really signs of an ideological Islamism that threatens to take over secular Turkey. Erdogan is rather a nationalist whose dream is an ever powerful, young and highly populated Turkey. On that matter, he is not that different from other birthrate-oriented leaders of the world, including conservative newly re-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel. How far both can go with or without equal opportunities for both genders remains to be seen.

Riada Ašimović Akyol is an independent analyst and writer. Her articles have been published by the Al Jazeera Center for Studies and Turkish daily Today’s Zaman. She is obtaining her doctorate in international relations at the Galatasaray University in Istanbul. On Twitter: @riadaaa

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