When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the United States last month to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman decided to cover a speech Erdogan was set to deliver at the Brookings Institution. When she arrived, however, she ended up covering something else completely: the attacks by Erdogan’s bodyguards on members of the U.S. press and protesters who had gathered outside the organization’s offices.
“It was total pandemonium. I saw one of my colleagues, a Turkish journalist, being sort of carted out by force from the building … at the same time I saw a woman fall to the ground, she was shouting, she being shoved to the ground, again by the security detail … and I saw a gentleman with the security detail trying to kick him,” Zaman, now a columnist at Al-Monitor and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, recounted at today’s Women in the World Summit in New York City.
“I was looking around in disbelief and one of the security guards came up to me, said ‘what are you looking for, get lost,’ and I said ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going anywhere, it’s none of your business, this is the United States, it’s not Turkey,’ and so he called me a PKK whore,’” Zaman said, explaining that the initials PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) represent a rebel group in Turkey fighting against Erdogan’s administration.
The scene was unsettling for Zaman and the Turkish women’s rights advocates who joined her on stage at the summit and warned of Erdogan’s increasing attacks on press freedom and the culture of misogyny that has trickled down from him and his administration and infiltrated Turkish culture.
Turkish Parliament Member Selin Sayek-Boke, attorney and women’s rights activist Ipek Bozkurt, and U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer joined Zaman in a conversation moderated by Zainab Salbi, the Iraqi-American author and women’s rights activist who now hosts the talk show Nida’a, and is Women in the World’s editor-at-large. The women spoke about the startling rise in violence against women in Turkey and the threat to democracy Erdogan now poses.
Last year more than 300 women were killed in Turkey — a 20 percent increase — and 94 women have been killed in the first three months of 2016, according to Bozkurt, who has launched an organization called We Will Stop Women Homicides. The increase in violence has come from a change in attitude toward women’s rights at the top, with Erdogan and men in the government telling the country that women belong in the home, raising children, and are not equal to men.
“We have a president who says that men and women are not equal in nature, and ministers who utter in public that it is immoral for a woman to laugh in the streets. When you have these examples, when that is the language of the government, of bureaucrats and technocrats, it translates into how things work on the street, how men are motivated, how men feed off such language,” Bozkurt said.
“So they say, well, I’m going to hurt my wife, I could stab my girlfriend or I could kill my wife who wants a divorce because I know that I could get away with it because I’ve been told that men and women are not equal,” she said.
Bozkurt has represented women and the families of women who have been injured or killed at the hands of men in court cases where judges are often willing to hand down lenient sentences for murder. She said that men know the legal system in Turkey will protect them, and that shield of impunity has fueled more widespread violence.
The misogyny has permeated all parts of culture, the women said, from the private homes of individuals to the Parliament, where Sayek-Boke said she has been defined politically by her gender, as “the politician who wears skirts.”
“I think you won’t find a single woman in Turkey who doesn’t feel the stress, it’s not who you are, it’s actually your female identity that creates the stress,” she said.
But women have also been willing to stand up and fight for their rights, both in Parliament and in the streets.
“We fight for it, we fight for women’s rights on the streets, we have slogans, we chant, we say to women that you’re not going to walk alone, and also we lead all these judicial battles in the courtroom,” Bozkurt said.
Sayek-Boke, as one of only 96 female Members of Parliament in the 550-seat legislature, is trying to work from within the system to advance women’s rights, she said. She draws on a career in economics, including a job at the IMF, to advance progressive policies in Parliament focused on development.
The ascent of Erdogan to an authoritarian position of power that disregards the rights of women is a threat to the country’s democracy and to regional peace, said Verveer, who now serves as the Director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Turkey’s position as a strategic stronghold of democracy among its more volatile neighbors of Iraq, Syria, and Iran make it critical to “the whole geopolitical consideration,” she said, and when a society starts disregarding women’s rights, it is often a predictor of other rights that will soon come under threat.
“I think it’s very concerning,” she said. “What we all know is the condition of women is very dispositive about the kinds of transformations occurring in a society, so if you begin to look at women, you begin to get a picture overall of how it’s going, how it’s trending, and what potentially worse will happen,” Verveer said.
She pointed to Erdogan’s public statements about wanting to have a Turkish style of presidency, which appears to be authoritarian, and a Turkish style constitution — one, it seems, without checks and balances. Erdogan has stated that women’s rights are a Western idea, not a universal one.
“This is a global scourge, there is no doubt about that. It is not a private matter, not a cultural matter, it is criminal, it is criminal to violate women,” Verveer said.
On the other hand, the strong role of women in civil society in Turkey provides hope, she said.
“Even as that society becomes more polarized, it is very striking and perhaps one of the reasons for the pushback is because women are on the front lines,” she said.