Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called on Muslim women to reject all forms of contraception. In a speech broadcast on live TV in Istanbul, Erdoğan called on "well-educated future mothers" not to use birth control.
"I will say it clearly… We need to increase the number of our descendants," he said. "People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that. As God and as the great prophet said, we will go this way. And in this respect the first duty belongs to mothers."
While Erdoğan has criticized birth control before, this is the first time he's gone so far as to specify exactly how the 'good' Turkish woman should use her uterus. Helpfully, the president also specified how many children Muslim women should have (a minimum of three, ideally), describing motherhood as "God's work", and a women's "first duty."
"The Turkish president's absurd suggestion that no Muslim family should consider birth control is dangerous, discriminatory and potentially damaging to the rights and health of women and girls in Turkey," Amnesty International UK campaigns director Kerry Moscogiuri told Broadly. "All women should have the right to choose how, when, and indeed, if they wish to start a family. Without interference from the state or anyone else."
In reality, Turkey's birth rate is relatively healthy. Although it has decreased slightly in recent years, the average Turkish woman will have 2.14 children in her lifetime—compared to 1.9 in the UK or 1.88 in the USA. Meanwhile, pro-government newspapers such as the Daily Sabah (often described as Erdoğan's mouthpiece) emphasizes the government's plans to encourage working women to have more children.
Selime Buyukgoze, a member of the Istanbul Feminist Collective, has seen first-hand the effects of Erdoğan's premiership on Turkey's women.
"These comments are really just part of an ongoing attitude in their politics," explains the 32-year-old university lecturer. "Since coming into power [in 2014] Erdoğan's made it harder and harder for women. In 2013 he attempted to make abortion illegal and although we protested and stopped the law from being changed, in effect it's still very difficult to have an abortion in Turkey."
Buyukgoze says that out of a population of 14 million, Istanbul only has two state hospitals that perform abortions—and outside of cities, the situation's even worse. "In somewhere like Anatolia, it's really hard to get away from these social structures and have your own life."
In Buyukgoze's view, the Turkish authorities are obsessed with promoting conservative family values at all costs. "They have this idea of a perfect, proper women in their minds. This woman gets married as young as possible, has as many children as possible, takes care of her elderly relatives. She might work but only in a flexible way to help grow the economy—never in secure jobs." Meanwhile, the authorities do little to stem Turkey's burgeoning tide of domestic violence against women, and even suggest that women leaving violent situations should undergo conciliation with the aim of reconciling them to their abusers.
I ask Buyukgoze whether she feels that Turkey's tradition of secular democracy has been undone entirely by Erdoğan's brand of political Islam. What does this mean for Turkish women? "With all these conservative politics, it's becoming harder and harder for women. It's almost impossible to live on your own in Istanbul, for example, unless you're in a rich neighbourhood. Sexual harassment is constant."
Erdoğan's recent comments are the latest in a string of anti-women judgements from the religiously conservative president. The president has shored up his power base amongst pious voters with frequent statements and policies attacking female autonomy. In widely reported comments from 2014, he accused feminists of "rejecting motherhood," arguing: "You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature." This year, he marked International Women's Day with a speech that described birth control as "treason" and argued that "a woman is above all else a mother."
While Erdoğan roots all his policies in Islamic teachings, Buyukgoze believes at heart this is about power, not religion. "He always uses Islamic quotations to justify saying things like how it's against the nature of women to be equal to men, but it's just about power. He uses religion as an instrument to achieve what he wants. The government only uses Islam for their own political ends."
Is the situation the worst it's ever been for Turkish women? "I think that even the women who voted for Erdoğan might struggle to support his attacks on the lives of everyday women. We've never had a government in Turkey that's made things better for women. But the difference is that this government is directly attacking women."