Beating drums and blowing whistles, hundreds of women marched last month on Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, in one of dozens of rallies that have been held around the country to protest a new threat to reproductive rights.
Abortion until the 10th week of pregnancy has been legal in Turkey since 1983, and little contested until Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed against the practice in May, calling it akin to “murder.” Other officials subsequently ramped up the harsh rhetoric, characterizing abortion as a “greater crime” than rape and suggesting that “adulterous” women kill themselves instead of their fetuses.
Under the leadership of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, first elected to power in 2002, Turkey has been held up by the press, think tanks and the Turkish government itself as a model for the Middle East. An NPR report from earlier this year called Turkey a “modern, moderate Islamic country that works.”
But many activists believe the “Turkish model” is seriously flawed.
“The approach of the government in recent years, especially after its  re-election, has created a battleground around equality. [The abortion issue] is part of a larger backlash against women’s rights,” Liz Amado, president of the Istanbul-based organization Women for Women’s Human Rights, told Women’s eNews.
“The [Turkish] government has never been a big supporter [of women’s rights], but I don’t think we’ve previously faced such blatant attacks as we have recently,” she added.
Turkey ranked close to the bottom–122 out of 135 countries–on the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2011,” largely due to women’s poor levels of educational attainment and work force participation. Only 28 percent of Turkish women are employed outside the home, the lowest figure among all 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. More women, an estimated 40 percent, have been victims of abuse, with reported rates of domestic violence increasing 70 percent from 2008 to 2011.
Though the Turkish government says it’s committed to closing the gender gap and fighting violence against women, its recent proposals to further restrict reproductive rights by making abortion illegal after four weeks of pregnancy–before many women even know they’re pregnant–appear to run counter to such statements.
“As women have more children, they are less likely to finish their education and work outside the home. This lack of alternatives increases their vulnerability to abuse,” said Jenny White, an anthropology professor at Boston University and an expert on contemporary Turkey.
In a recent blog post on the topic, White also noted the risk an unwanted pregnancy can create in “a place like Turkey, where even gossip about a girl or woman can lead the community to drive her out, or [lead to] her murder by relatives who feel their ‘honor’ has been impugned.”
Following public outcry and criticism from both domestic and international media, the Turkish government seems to have gone silent on the abortion issue, though its promised changes to the law have not been officially scrapped. But the recent debate appears to be only the latest indicator of an increasingly hostile climate for women.
Amado pointed to Erdogan’s repeated calls for Turkish women to have at least three children, as well as his statement in 2010 that “men and women are not equal” as signs of the times. The name change in 2011 of the Ministry for Women and Family to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies also prompted concerns.
“What we’re seeing here is a very patriarchal, conservative approach to women that is refusing to acknowledge their rights as individuals and instead emphasizing their familial roles while trying to control their sexuality,” Amado said.
The renewed debate over abortion in Turkey comes as the Vatican and other religious conservatives are being accused of setting back global reproductive rights during the Rio+20 summit. Due to pressure from these groups, references to “reproductive rights” and “access to reproductive health services” were removed from the final document produced at the U.N. global summit on sustainable development, which ended June 21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Though Erdogan is a devout Muslim, it is far from clear that he and his allies are driven by religious motivations on this issue.
The majority of the Turkish population supports abortion’s availability, even among women in Erdogan’s political camp, White said, noting that “the rationale given is not religious. It has nothing to do with the status of the fetus as a ‘person’ with a soul.”
Instead, Erdogan suggested that family planning threatens the country’s growth and strength. (Just 10 percent of pregnancies in Turkey were terminated in 2008, down from 18 percent in 1993, according to a study by Hacettepe University in Ankara.)
Neither is cultural pressure on women something new in Turkey, according to White. “The Turkish state has a long history of interest in women’s bodies. Women’s morality, their sexual ‘honor,’ is a mirror image of national honor, just as the family is a mirror of the nation,” she said. “Better access to and education about birth control would be more efficient at preventing the need for abortion,” she said, adding that the current government “is interested in women having more children, not fewer.”
The prime minister’s moves regarding women also fit in with what critics call an increasingly authoritarian streak that is threatening freedom of expression and other social rights in Turkey, a trend that has been criticized by Amnesty International, the European Court of Human Rights and Reporters Without Borders, among others.
“Rather than setting a positive, progressive and forward-looking example that others in the region can look up to in terms of democracy and human rights, what’s happening here on many levels is just the opposite,” Amado said.