Turkey: Regarding Relations Between the Sexes, Erdogan Knows Best
Considering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gotten involved in telling Turks how many children they should have (at least three), what they should drink (the non-alcoholic ayran) and what kind of bread they should eat (whole wheat, preferably), it would seem unlikely that the opinionated leader could still shock with his intrusions on people's private lives.
But, true to form, Erdogan again stunned the nation, telling members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) today that the government is not only working towards creating segregated dormitories for male and female university students (known as "adults" in many parts of the world) but that it is also working to ferret out any instances where members of the opposite sex may be living together off campus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The prime minister said the government was already on a mission to “segregate” girls’ and boys’ buildings in dormitories operated by the state, adding that this segregation had been completed in around three quarters of all dorms.
“There are some troubles concerning the share of houses in some places since we could not meet needs at the dormitories,” Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the Anadolu Agency on Nov. 5 as he addressed a parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“It’s not clear what is going on in these places. They are all mixed up, anything can happen. As a conservative democratic government, we have to intervene. At these places, there is intelligence received by our security forces, the police department and the governorates. Acting upon this intelligence, our governorates are intervening in these situations. Why are you annoyed about this?”
Erdoğan said without elaborating on the form or content of this intervention, however, citing complaints from neighbors living in the same apartment buildings as students.
Erdoğan portrayed such actions as part of a governmental responsibility, noting that they had nothing to do with “intervening in people’s lifestyles.”
“Mothers and fathers cry out, asking ‘where is the state?’ These steps are taken to tell them that the state is here,” Erdoğan said, adding that he knew that parents would be uncomfortable allowing girls and boys to live together.
Reiterating that it was not possible for them to ignore intelligence about mixed-sex accommodation, he emphasized: “We are assessing this intelligence with our governorates and the police department and we are coming down on it.”
Erdogan's comments about rooting out cohabitation came a day after several AKP officials vigorously denied the government was doing any such thing. They also come a few days after several female AKP legislators made history by entering parliament with their headscarfs on, breaking what had been a long-standing taboo (the last MP to try doing that, in 1999, found herself kicked out of the assembly and ultimately stripped of her Turkish citizenship).
While the AKP has been busy patting itself on the back for helping advance the cause of Turkish women's rights by breaking the headscarf ban in parliament, Erdogan's new policy on campus sleeping arrangements offers a good chance to take a look at how problematic the government's (paternalistic) approach to gender issues actually is. Indeed, during the AKP's dozen year rule, Turkey's record on women's issues has been dismal. For example, the labor force participation (LFP) rate for women in Turkey is a woeful 29.5 percent (the average among countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which Turkey is a member of, is 61 percent), while the most recent World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index finds Turkey ranked 124 out of 135 countries. The Erdogan government has also done very little to appoint women to senior positions in government -- out of the country's 26 ministers, only one is a woman and only one woman can be found among Turkey's 81 regional governors.
Yes, observant MP's may now enter parliament with their headscarves on, but Erdogan's effort to get local authorities to crack down on cohabiting coeds -- thus forcibly limiting the range of housing choices available to female students, who clearly are the target here -- suggests he and his government don't plan on pushing for advancing women's rights much beyond the issue of where they can wear the headscarf. Like on so many other social issues in recent years, Turkey this past week has again taken one step forward, then two steps back.