Turkey ranks 130th out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality report – Global Gender Gap Index 2015. It ranks just slightly higher than Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Women’s political participation in the Turkish Parliament is just 4.4%, far below the European and world norms. Only 14% of all MPs in the last parliament were women, and almost half of Turkey's cities have no female representation. Turkish women are also underrepresented in the workforce: 28% of women are employed compared with the European Union average of 63%. While 36% of University students are female (30% of doctors and architects and 25% of lawyers), there are regions where almost half of the female population is illiterate. On average, the entire population spends 6.5 years in school, less than in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar.
The Domestic Violence Against Women Report of 2014 states that almost 40% of women in Turkey have been physically abused at least once in their lifetime; and one in ten women have been subjected to sexual violence by their partner. According to the UN, domestic violence is 10 times more likely to occur in Turkey than in other European countries. Turkey is ranked 77th out of 138 countries on a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) index of gender equality.
Violence against women has skyrocketed since Erdogan’s Islamic AKP party came to power. From 2003 to 2010, the number of women murdered increased 1400% and the victims’ husbands are responsible for half of those murders. This large increase in domestic violence is directly connected to family honor. The Turkish Ministry of Education found that 1 in 4 Turks support honor killings (statistically Istanbul has 1 honor killing per week).
For many years, those who committed such acts of violence could get a reduced sentence under Turkish law if they claimed provocation. Turkish lawyers and activists say these mild penalties stem from a culture that views women as second-class citizens. Sometimes a woman’s death is not even investigated because the husband claims it’s a suicide or an accident, and the police look the other way. In 2005 as part of Turkey's campaign to join the European Union, mandatory life sentences were introduced as punishment for honor killings. Yet this approach has backfired in other ways. According to the findings of British investigative reporters and human rights activists, the new law has forced many more girls to commit suicide.
As Amnesty International reports, the 2012 Law on Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence against Women “remained inadequate, under-resourced and ineffective in dealing with domestic violence. A number of women under judicial protection were reported to have been killed. The number of shelters for victims of domestic violence remained far below that required by law.”
Almost one-third of all marriages in Turkey involve child brides. Nearly 7,000 girls were married between the ages of 13 and 17 over the past decade – according to a survey by a women’s rights group. However this number doesn’t reflect the many unregistered marriages taking place with young girls. Such marriages happen out of the public eye in the presence of an imam. “Almost 20,000 families submitted requests to marry off their under-16 daughters in 2012”.
The Turkish government is weakening female power in the country one step at a time. With Erdogan in power, the government has lifted bans on women and girls wearing headscarves in schools and in civil service over the past two years. Burqas have proliferated and hijabs have become legal headgear in government buildings. Mr Erdogan's wife Emine wears a headscarf to official functions, as does the wife of his long-standing AKP ally Abdullah Gul, who was president before him. Erdogan also provoked controversy when he instructed the women of Turkey to stay home and breed, demanding three children from each of them. He referred to women’s’ ultimate Koranic role as mothers to justify his statements, among other sentences like “Women are women, men are men; is it possible for them to be equal?” His infamous statements resulted in demonstrations in 2013 on International Women’s Day. The demonstrations led to the so-called Gezi crackdown, where Turkish security forces’ crackdown on protests resulted in widespread and well-documented allegations of sexual harassment and violence.
Erdogan’s colleagues are also propagating the Islamists agenda. For instance, in his latest remarks Babacan mentioned the rising average marital age and “the increase in relationships outside wedlock” as “significant obstructions” to population growth. The deputy prime minister in 2015 addressed a member of the opposing party in the following manner: “Madam, be quiet! You, as a woman, be quiet!”. The name change of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to the Ministry of Family and Social Policy in 2011 highlights a shift in Turkey’s political agenda. Liberal Turks worry that the Islamist-rooted government is motivated not only by demographic concerns, but also by a conservative agenda that targets liberal lifestyles and women’s freedoms.