As I entered my 30s I remember thinking how lucky I was. I had a successful career, owned property and was enjoying life as a singleton. Many of my friends were already married, some with children, but the desire wasn’t quite there for me. I wasn’t ready. Now as I march towards my 40s, I’ve embarked on a new life in Turkey. I’m still single, childless and successful. I’m happy, but apparently I shouldn’t be, as according to the country's President, I have behaved in the wrong way.
On the eve of Ramadan, the Muslim Holy month, President Erdogan gave all women something to think about during the fast. Addressing Turkey’s Women and Democracy Association in Istanbul he said a woman who rejects motherhood is ‘deficient’ and ‘incomplete’. By working, she 'is denying her femininity'. In the same breath as urging them to have at least three children, because apparently one alone isn’t enough to make you a woman, he also laughably said he supported their right to have a career.
It would be easy to shrug these remarks off if they had come from someone with less influence, but in Turkey the President grips the strings of the country tightly in his hands. Cross him and you’re removed without a second thought. Just look at what happened to the former Prime Minister, the relatively cuddly (by comparison) Ahmet Davutoglu. He’s said to have questioned Erdogan’s persistent push for more authority. He also expressed concerns about Turkey’s broad definition of terrorism, which has been used to detain journalists and academics. Look where that got him.
And this is not the first time Erdogan has aired his views on a woman’s role and the use of her uterus. Last week he called on Muslims to reject contraception, saying ‘No Muslim family' should consider birth control. He also placed the onus on women, particularly well-educated women, not to use it. But it’s a little hard, don’t you think, for a woman to embark on a career if she can’t manage when and how frequently she has children, if of course she decides to have them. And what about those women who try and fail to conceive? Are they ‘deficient’ and ‘incomplete’? Erdogan has yet to make concrete remarks on that grey area, but only because nobody will challenge him openly.
What’s worrying is how Turkish women have reacted to this new dictum. This is a country where the President almost has demigod status in the eyes of AK Party supporters. ‘He is wise and we listen to him,’ is what one young colleague told me days after I moved to Turkey. I was a little taken back by the whimsical look on her face as she talked about Erdogan, like he was some dreamy Hollywood heartthrob. I soon realised she wasn’t alone.
In my office there are dozens of young women embarking on their careers at the same time as finishing their studies. I admire how hard they graft, as well as their intelligence and their wit. What I had failed to understand, though, is why the main goal that seems to occupy them all is ‘when will I get married and have a child?’ After Erdogan’s recent remarks, I understand a little better.
They will I’m sure, go forth and multiply, just as many women did in Nazi Germany under the orders of the Fuhrer. And I have no bone of contention with any women who embraces motherhood. I love children and I’m fortunate to have siblings who've made me a very proud aunt, but having children is a choice, an individual choice. It shouldn’t be forced from high. Can you imagine the outcry if David Cameron said something similar? He would be roasted in the press and on social media. In Turkey, Erdogan’s comments merited a mere shoulder shrug.
Yet this is a country which is pushing for visa-free travel within the Schengen area of the EU. It also wants to become a member state. For decades, women in European countries have pushed for equality and the right to have careers unbridled by the centuries-old convention that they must stay at home, pop out children and keep the house tidy. And the fight still continues. What would Turkey's entry to the EU mean for the feminist fight?
A recent study by the women’s rights organisation, the Fawcett Society found women in the UK still earn around almost £6,000 less a year than their male counterparts. In Turkey, I’ve no doubt the pay gap is far higher. The President has even said women and men can’t do the same jobs as we are ‘too delicate’ for some roles. I wonder if he’s ever mentioned his views to Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. A woman in control of Europe’s engine who, by the way, must be ‘deficient’ and ‘incomplete’ as she doesn’t have any biological children.
How can the EU consider Turkey as a potential future member, when its society is being dragged backwards into the dark ages? When imams preach that ‘beating your wife a little, is ok’ and the President thinks a woman’s place is at home? How can anyone who believes in, or has fought for equal rights for women ever accept Turkey’s accession? I hope I never see that day as long as a man like Erdogan is in power.
He has insulted me and many other women in Turkey. Erdogan has derided my choice, so far, not to have children. Yet if I had questioned his manhood, I’m pretty sure I’d be sitting in a Turkish jail cell by now.
Rose Asani is a journalist based in Turkey.