Is life getting worse for women in Erdogan's Turkey?

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Turkish women shout slogans against the murder of a woman as they hold a picture of Ozgecan Aslan who was raped and killed by three suspects in Mersin city, during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, 14 February 2015.Image source, EPA

The murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan, who was stabbed while reportedly resisting a rape attempt, has unleashed a storm of outrage in Turkey.

There have been mass street protests, and hundreds of thousands of women have tweeted #sendeanlat - "tell your story" in Turkish - to share their experiences of abuse. Human rights groups say there has been a dramatic rise in violence against women during the rule of the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Leader of the AKP, he was elected as prime minister in 2002 and last year became the country's first elected president. He has called violence against women "a bleeding wound of Turkey", and vowed to launch a new campaign against it. But he has also said that women are not equal to men.

So is life getting worse for women in Erdogan's Turkey? Four expert witnesses spoke to the BBC World Service's The Inquiry.

Professor Karen Barkey: Evidence of a new religious conservatism

Karen Barkey grew up in Istanbul in the late 1970s and 1980s, and is now a professor of sociology and history at Columbia University in New York.

"I grew up at a time where Turkey was quite secular and where girls were really seen as equal to boys in schools.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been accused of authoritarian tendencies - but he remains popular

"So many changes happened. So many people from the rural areas moved to Istanbul and to the major cities with different expectations and with different visions of what they wanted and what they needed. There is [now] a new conservatism - a new religious conservatism - which makes it more difficult for women, I think, in contemporary Turkey."

Professor Barkey argues that under Mr Erdogan, the AKP has mobilised that more conservative, religious population, who felt shut out by the Westernizing elites who ruled Turkey for the previous decades.

"Some people say that actually Erdogan did start as much more democratic, and in his attempt to empower a part of the population that had been very marginalised during the republican era - the conservative, small scale, middle class, lower-middle class, the more religious people in Anatolia - by giving them much more opportunities, business contracts and getting also their vote, as a result that he really opened up Turkey and made it more democratic.

"Turkey had to change in that way. But it came at a price of increased conservatism."

Mr Erdogan has been criticised for closing down freedom of speech and dissent in Turkey, and in 2013, 3.5 million people took part in protests against his government. But he remains both popular and powerful.

"I think the major, most acute tension that divides Turkish society today is Erdogan's government and how people view Erdogan himself: either as an authoritarian leader or as the father of the nation. And so it's not about secular versus religious. Erdogan divides the country."

Professor Deniz Kandiyoti: Denial of women's rights

Deniz Kandiyoti grew up in Istanbul in the 1950s and 1960s. She's now a professor based in London, specialising in gender relations in Turkey.

"In the initial phase of the AKP's government when they were elected into power in 2002, a lot of very positive legal changes took place. This was largely due to the efforts of women's civil society organisations, which between 2002 and 2004 pushed for substantial changes in the criminal code.

"But it became clear quite rapidly that the government had other priorities, because they immediately in 2004 wanted to pass a law criminalising adultery. There was an outcry."

And then in 2010 Mr Erdogan told a conference of women's organisations that he did not believe in the equality of men and women, that women's destiny was divinely foreordained.

"And of course, this was a bombshell."

The Ministry for Women and Family became the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, ending the focus on rights and making women just one more group in need of special protection, like orphans and families of veterans.

"After this, I'm afraid, it continued to go downhill in terms of the sorts of public pronouncements that the government was making. First they started in relation to women's duty as procreators of the nation. It was made very clear that women were first and foremost mothers, and that women had the duty to make the nation big.

"So women were being asked to have minimum three children, then abortion was condemned as being a form of genocide, basically."

He condemned violence against women by saying that men are the custodians of women, they have to protect them.

"This created a furore among women, who said 'we're not in anybody's custody - we are human beings and we have rights'."

Image source, AFP/Getty
Image caption,
Many men joined the widespread protests after Ozgecan Aslan's death last month

To Professor Kandiyoti, Mr Erdogan's rhetoric suggests that some women are vulnerable creatures to be kept safe. Or, at least, some are: "What trickles down of course is that some women are worthy of protection. Other women: it's open season. If you see a woman who's not dressed modestly, or you do not think is sufficiently modestly dressed, then obviously you can be as bold as you like. And you can rape, etc."

Professor Kandiyoti says that reactions to the murder of Ozgecan Aslan reflect the split in Turkish society between Mr Erdogan's supporters and opponents: "One group of commentators was talking about how better to segregate women, like pink buses for women only. While another part of society was saying 'What kind of a society is this, that women can only be safe if they're segregated?'

"And there was a men's demonstration. Men wearing skirts protesting. Now these were men who obviously didn't want to live in a society where women need to be segregated to be safe."

Journalist Cicek Tahaoglu: Violence affecting women across society

Cicek Tahaoglu works in Istanbul and has been collating media reports on violence against women since 2011 for a news website called Bianet, partly because official statistics are unreliable.

"In 2009 the Minister of Justice said that 953 women were murdered, and the Ministry of Family said that only 171 women were murdered. This is two official answers; it's contradictory, you can see that."

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Cicek Tahaoglu's own figures suggest a significant increase in the number of women being murdered

In 2010 the Ministry of Justice said that 14 times as many women were murdered in that year than in 2003. After that the government stopped putting out statistics. Cicek Tahaoglu thinks that lack of official data tells its own story: "They keep statistics of divorces, they keep statistics of marriages, they keep statistics of births, but they don't keep statistics of male violence.

"This fact explains something. When they don't keep statistics of male violence it makes us think that they don't want to accept the seriousness of the issue."

Cicek Tahaoglu's own findings point to a significant jump in the number of murders - up 31% from 2013 to 2014. According to local reports, nearly 300 women were killed by men last year. But it is not just the numbers that trouble her. It is what happens in these cases.

"Perpetrators think that these women deserved to die. When a woman wears a miniskirt she deserves to get raped. When a woman doesn't do cooking and taking care of children and when she doesn't do that some men thinks she deserves to die.

"One case I will never forget. A man killed his wife with a cooking pan because there wasn't enough salt in the meal."

And she says this kind of violence against women is seen across all of society: "There is no social stereotypes of male violence. Educated women get murdered, uneducated women get murdered and perpetrators are the same.

"It can be a man with no employment or it can be a lawyer who kills his wife, so there's not a social pattern of this. This problem is bigger than that."

AKP member Zeynep Kandur: Women are being given freedom

Zeynep Kandur is a member of President Erdogan's AKP. She grew up in Chicago, but married a Turkish man and went to live in Turkey in 1992.

"Life is definitely getting better for women in Turkey. I see great hopes for the future for improvements being made to make it even easier and better.

"If you go back 15 years ago it was very difficult for a large proportion of the female population to go to university, to work in the public sector.

Civil servants and students were banned from wearing headscarves, and when the ruling was extended to all schools and universities, Zeynep Kandur gave up her teaching job rather than bare her head. But then, in 2008, Mr Erdogan's government lifted the headscarf ban. She says that dramatically improved the lot of Turkish women.

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AKP member Zeynep Kandur believes some people are using Ms Aslan's murder to score political points

"Now women can work in most sectors with a headscarf or without a headscarf. Certain laws have been introduced to give women more rights. In 2002 there was a sentence in the constitution saying that men are the head of the family, that was removed and women have been given the right to 50% of everything that belongs to the family. So I feel that women are getting a much better deal now than they used to."

In 2014 a European commission report highlighted women's underemployment in Turkey, especially in parliament and the judiciary, but Ms Kandur insists the situation is improving: "With the lifting of the headscarf ban, that will change now. I mean we have elections coming up in June this year and, for example, for AKP there's over 1000 applicants to become candidates, and of those I think 250 are women."

She argues the perception of an increase in violence is partly due to increased reporting of the problem:

"I don't mean to be callous about it, but women are pushing for more rights, women are pushing for their voices to be heard and there is more reporting, there is more recognition that women are victims of abuse."

She accuses some people of exploiting Ms Aslan's murder to score political points against Mr Erdogan: "We are coming up to a general election, and I think certain parts of the media in a way irresponsibly fan the flames to make it into a subject about women's rights, about violence against women, about the failure of the government to protect women. [But] over 50% of the voters for AK Party are women."

She emphatically rejects the claim that the government is setting a negative tone when it comes to women. When Mr Erdogan says men and women are not equal she hears something quite different from Professor Kandiyoti.

"What he's saying is that women and men have equal rights. They have equal rights to freedom of expression. They have equal rights to employment. They have equal rights to everything.

"But if a woman is working next to a man in the same position as a man, she should have the ability, if she wants to have a child or she wants to nurse a child, to be able to do that, that men and women are not physically equal and we should not expect them to perform equally in the same tasks, that women should be given extra dispensation because they are also mothers."

And when Mr Erdogan says that women should have lots of children, as a mother of three herself, she hears not a command, but a confirmation of freedom:

"[Previously] this message was drummed into us: 'two children are modern'. So by saying to women, 'You can have three children, have three children, have four children,' it should be a choice."

The Inquiry is broadcast on the BBC World Service on Tuesdays from 13:05 GMT. Listen online or download the podcast.

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