by Devran Gülel
R.T. Erdoğan and his Justice & Development Party (AKP) have been in power for two decades. Over time, they have ignored the rule of law and separation of powers, seized state institutions, embedded political Islam, and started raising pious generations. In turn, this so-called New Turkey agenda has instigated a nationwide misogynistic social environment: It worsened women’s rights, reshaped women’s place in society, reinforced the gendered private space, and intensified violence against women. The significance of political discourse in this process cannot be denied.
Since language use helps to reproduce social identities, relations and beliefs and therefore shapes society, there is a link between political discourse and misogyny. Politicians understand that speech is an instrument for promoting gender roles, biases and stereotypes, including Erdoğan. As the former prime minister (2003-2014) and the current president (2014-present), Erdoğan’s discourse on women has become increasingly apparent and influential over time. Thus, the AKP’s gender politics cannot be analysed independently from his discourse. For Erdoğan, it is impossible to put women and men on an equal footing as it is against women’s fıtrat (purpose of creation).
Although Turkey is another example of the current anti-gender discursive shifts across Europe and the Americas, the situation in Turkey is somewhat different: the gendered political discourse is embedded in political Islam. Through discourse and practices, Erdoğan and the AKP have built a religio-conservative gender climate that strengthens regressive gender norms. Islamist and patriarchal understanding of gender relations has been engrained in political discourse, policy- and law-making, and interpretation and enforcement of the law.
Patterns of Misogyny in Erdoğan’s Discourse
Misogyny is a matter of the social norms, expectations, and consequences that order the lives of women under a system of patriarchal oppression. A give/take model of “hers-to-give” and “his-for-taking” functions at its heart, and misogynistic acts and behaviours aim to punish women who deviate. Women have the obligation to be givers of certain feminine-coded goods and services (hers-to-give): “Attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children (i.e., social, domestic, reproductive, and emotional labour); also mixed goods, such as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort” (p. 130). Whereas men are entitled to have masculine-coded perks and privileges (his-for-taking): power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honour, ‘face’, respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love, devotion, etc.” (p. 130).
Likewise, Erdoğan’s discourse punishes women who defend gender equality over gendered Islamic texts; i.e. women who resist providing feminine-coded goods and services and ask for masculine-coded perks and privileges. He divides women as appropriate and inappropriate, and alienates inappropriate women because they reject women’s fıtrat and fight for feminism and gender equality. He calls them “marginal people,” “feminists” (in a condescending manner), and “enemies of the nation”. An analysis revealed that Erdoğan referred to history, culture, customs and values 51 percent, and to religion, Islam, or faith in 40 percent of his speeches about women and women’s rights. Namely, Erdoğan’s discourse polarises women and society, and strengthens patriarchy and gendered Islamic texts.
Erdoğan’s discourse has substantiated misogyny’s “give/take model” also by focusing on women’s humanity. His consistent emphasis on women as human beings shows that he refers to human capacities that women owe to men (and children), i.e. women’s obligation to provide feminine-coded goods and services: In his discourse, women are too human and their humanity and personhoods are owed to men and children in the form of social, domestic, reproductive, and emotional labour. This attitude is also evident in women in the AKP, who provide loyalty, love, and devotion (hers-to-give) to Erdoğan, while not holding any power or prestige (his-for-taking) in the party.
Furthermore, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) with its ever-expanding budget has been instrumental in promoting the nationwide misogynistic social environment. An analysis of sermons (hutbe) given at mosques further uncovered how Erdoğan’s regime controversially promotes gender biases, roles, and stereotypes across every aspect of life: sermons defend the superiority of men; depict women as meek; endorse women as ‘family’s honour’; and demand obedience from women. In mosques, millions of people listen to similar sermons and are thus exposed to rhetoric that supports regressive gender norms and provokes intolerance toward people and ideas that differ from these norms.
Unsurprisingly, there has been an increase in violence against women who do not accept their fıtrat, who reject hers-to-give and claim his-for-taking. According to the Justice Ministry, the number of femicides increased by 1,400 percent between 2002 and 2009 and more recent numbers show a continued upward trend. In addition, the number of women dying of suspicious causes has increased. In response, a new category of suspicious deaths of women has arisen to account for alleged suicides and unsolved murders.
The rising numbers in this category imply that the national authorities in Erdoğan’s New Turkey do not investigate women’s deaths effectively and diligently. In this New Turkey, femicides are justified when men violently respond to women wanting to make decisions about their own lives. So much so that the language used in legal argumentations in femicide case law reflects a societal approval of a man’s right to kill if he is refused a reward to which he feels entitled. This exposes that the give/take model of misogyny, the understanding of what women owe to men, has also infiltrated the judiciary.
To conclude, political discourse has been instrumental in reinforcing patriarchal and Islamist understanding of gender relations. In particular, Erdoğan’s discourse on women has deteriorated society’s attitudes towards women. Predictably, patterns of misogyny have spilt over into the judiciary and law enforcement. Hence, this intensifying misogynistic social environment has led to the violation of women’s equal citizenship and protection under the law, and to widespread contempt of women’s rights such as the right to life, the right to live free from violence, and the right to private life (including physical and psychological integrity).