Foreign Policy Blogs

Perry’s Comments were Ridiculous, but What About the Status of Women in Turkey?

In the recent South Carolina GOP Presidential Primary, Fox News’s Brett Baier asked an extremely misleading question to Rick Perry about Turkey’s ‘Islamist oriented’ government, and what policies should the U.S. have towards it. This is how Baier started his question:

“Since the Islamist oriented party took over in Turkey the murder rate of women has increased 1,400% there…”

And, this is how Rick Perry started his answer:

“Obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists…”

Perry’s comments sparked denunciation both from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department. For those who are interested, I think the most entertaining reaction to Perry’s remarks came from Cenk Uygur, the main host of the progressive political commentary program, the Young Turks:

While Perry’s comments make no sense, they brought much needed attention to an important issue: the worsening status of Turkish women.

Violence against women:

Apparently, the numbers in Baier’s question – the murder rate of women skyrocketing in the last decade in Turkey – is true. According to the U.S. State Department’s latest human rights report on Turkey, the violence against women “including honor killings” is still a widespread problem in the country. The European Union 2011 Turkey Progress Report also indicates that violence against women is increasing and that early and forced marriages and domestic violence remain serious problems.

True, Turkey has made numerous reforms to address this problem since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took office in 2002. The most important step came in 2011 when Turkey became the first signatory to the Council of Europe Convention against Domestic Violence and Violence against Women. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “violence in the home against women is endemic, and police and courts regularly fail to protect women who have applied for protection orders under the Family Protection Law.” HRW also indicates that reports of spouses and family members killing women continued to rise in 2011.

Turkish women and human rights activists march during a protest on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010. The banner reads: "We will stop the killings of women!" (Credit: AP)

The legal framework in Turkey is broadly in place. What is lacking is the proper implementation. More importantly, the laws need to be transformed into ‘social reality’ which would change root causes and perceptions of violence against women. For example, as the EU progress report indicates, gender stereotyping is common in Turkish media. In fact, while the country’s media is subject to serious pressure from the government regarding its coverage of terrorism and politics, it faces no real challenge in perpetuating gender stereotyping and hate crimes.

The following is an excerpt from an article appeared in a retired police association journal. It represents the perceptions shared by some, if not many, in the courts and the law enforcement in Turkey:

“Naturally our women are in a position of victimhood against men due to the [discrepancy between their levels of] physical strength. It is not possible to say the same, however, with respect to [women’s use of] language and gestures. The blame for the murders cannot be squarely placed on men’s shoulders”. According to the author, who is a former police chief and a PhD, “it is a grave mistake to link the problem merely to the sadism of men. It is entirely impossible to ignore or deny that the matter is related to our national traditions and customs, and even to our social mysticism, or in other words, our religious perspective.”

The Turkish Gender Gap:

The AKP is often praised for pursuing polices to improve gender equality in Turkey. It reorganized the General Directorate on the Status of Women, an office tasked with improving women’s rights and strengthening the status of women in social, economic, culture and political life. In 2009, a parliamentary commission was set up to address the problems faced by women. In 2010, the AKP-sponsored constitutional reform package made it legal to enact future affirmative action laws for promoting equal opportunity.

Numbers, however, tell a different story. According to the 2011 Global Gender Gap Report (World Economic Forum), Turkey ranked 122 out of 135 countries studied. The WEF report investigates instances of inequality between men and women in areas such as political empowerment and economic participation.

According to the state personnel office, 36 percent of all civil servants in Turkey are women. This number falls to 13 percent for senior level public administrators such as advisors (danışman), counselors (müşavir), legal counsel (hukuk müşaviri) and general-directors (genel müdür).

The presence of women almost disappears within the senior level bureaucracy in Turkey. There are 26 ministers and 22 deputy ministers (bakan yardımcısı) in the current Turkish cabinet. Of these 48 top executives, only two are women (both in the Ministry of Family and Social Policies). While there are no women among the 26 undersecretaries (müsteşar), there are only two women among the 80 deputy undersecretaries (müsteşar yardımcısı).

Do these numbers represent the occupational choices by women or women’s ‘traditional family roles’ in Turkey? The answer is no. There are many qualified women to run Turkey’s public administration, but their presence in country’s top bureaucracy has eroded in the last decade.

According to the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, around 38 percent of all lawyers in Turkey are women. In the Ministry of Justice, however, of the 33 executives only one is woman and all five of the deputy undersecretaries are men. Women also lack representation in country’s high courts. There is only one female member in the country’s highest administrative court – the Council of State (Danıştay). There are no women in the boards of the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay) and the Court of Accounts (Sayıştay). Moreover, of the 17 members of the highest legal body in Turkey, the Constitutional Court (Anayasa Mahkemesi), only two are women.

Similarly, around 40 percent of all teachers in Turkey are women; however, only eight percent of women are serving as principal administrators in public schools. There is only one female appointee (Press and Public Affairs Advisor) to 27 top offices in the education ministry. While women constitute over 30 percent of all doctors in Turkey, of the 81 provincial directors, only five are women. Men also dominate the executive post of chief of staff in public hospitals. Moreover, there is only one woman (Directorate of European Union Coordination) among the top bureaucrats in the Ministry of Health.

As in the cases of education, health, and justice ministries, there is only one female appointee to the executive posts in the Ministries of Forestry (and Water Affairs), Energy, Agriculture (Gıda, Tarım ve Hayvancılık Bakanlığı), and Labor and Social Security. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Development, Science (Industry, and Technology), and Environment (and Urbanization) have no women in their executive offices.

Interestingly, the majority of women who are in senior management are either in charge of public affairs or European Union and/or International relations. Coincidentally, the only ministry where there are more woman appointees to senior offices is the Ministry of European Union Affairs. Of the 19 senior managers, 11 are women, while the ministry’s top three executive posts except the minister (deputy minister, undersecretary and deputy undersecretary) are held by men.

Only in the Ministries of Culture and Tourism and Family and Social Policies women constitute 20 percent of the senior managers. Yet, there are still only a few women among the top four bureaucratic offices in both ministries.

Here is the most confusing statistics: the AKP not only has the highest number of female political party members in Turkey, it has the highest representation of women in party membership with around 35 percent in Turkey.

The AKP describes itself as a democratic movement with a conservative ideology. Its supporters argue that the party is no different than the conservative political movements in the West. However, AKP policies are becoming associated more with Islamic conservatism than with democracy in a number of issues including the status of women. The critics question that if the AKP has the support of the majority (of women), why serious problems in the status of women persist and why women’s presence in the country’s public administration is disappearing.



Murat Onur
Murat Onur

Murat Onur completed his Master’s degree in Security Policy Studies with a concentration in development and Middle East Studies at the George Washington University. He is the recipient of several awards including the British Chevening and HSBC Scholarships, International Peace and Security Institute Scholarship, and the GW Career Development Fellowship. He has previously worked in entry and mid-level positions in Washington-area on defense and security analysis and has written on Turkish politics, foreign affairs and Turkey's defense and security policies.