International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: The Fight for Abortion Rights in Turkey

I’m hesitant to announce a region for this week’s post. That’s because we’re looking at one of the more confusing countries in the world, geography-wise. Is it part of Europe? Asia? The Middle East? Well, yes, yes, and yes. That’s right, friends, this week I’m focusing on Turkey. And if you follow the news at all, you can guess why – women in Turkey took to the streets over the weekend to protest stricter abortion laws. International Women’s Issue alert, right? So let’s see what’s going on, and why, and what’s being done.

A little bit of background on Turkey, if you need it – Turkey is, essentially, what’s left of the Ottoman Empire, a key global power for over 600 years, at times controlling much of the Mediterranean, and parts of Europe, the Caucuses, northern Africa, and the Arabian peninsula. The modern Turkish state was founded in 1922, and its first leader, Kemal Ataturk (his last name is honorary, meaning “father of Turks”) ushered in a number of modernizing secularist reforms, separating Turkey from its Ottoman past. Turkey further Westernized during the Cold War, as its geographical location made it a key ally of the United States – and Turkish policies remained secular and Western-centric, despite the fact that 99 percent of the country is Muslim. Turkey is a constitutional democracy, and while there have been military coups in the ’70s and ’80s, popular rule seems to always be restored. So what you have in Turkey currently, essentially, is a mostly well-developed secular state, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, but fundamentalist Islam has not taken hold in the past few decades the way it has in much of the Muslim world. There are hints of it to be sure, and to be honest, I’m being deliberately vague here – the influence of fundamentalist Islam on Turkey is a subject for people far more familiar with the country than me.

Women’s rights in Turkey are slightly less muddled – but only slightly! Turkish women have had legal equality with their male counterparts since the constitution was first written in the 1930s (including equal rights to obtain a divorce); have reasonably good access to health care, including contraception; are represented (albeit underrepresented) in politics; and rape, marital rape, and sexual harassment are all illegal. That said, one in five women are illiterate, nearly half the female population reports suffering domestic abuse, crimes such as rape and sexual assault are not widely prosecuted, and perhaps most jarring, honor killings are a problem. While women enjoy equal legal protection, the society as a whole is discriminatory. (As always, when I read U.S. State Department reports, I can’t help but wonder how they’d evaluate women’s rights in the U.S., because some of the shortcomings mentioned above seem to be universal to the planet, rather than the problems of a specific country.) Anyway. Abortion is currently legal for the first ten weeks past conception, and has been since 1983. Married women need their husband’s permission to obtain an abortion, while single women can obtain one on their own. Abortion was legalized mainly to curb the high number of unsafe and fatal abortions performed each year. And that brings us to the current issue.

On May 26, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan made a speech comparing abortion to murder, and further decried the country’s high rate of Cesarean births, claiming they made it impossible for a woman to have more than two children. Newly drafted legislation moves the deadline for abortions from 10 weeks to 4 weeks – a time at which the majority of pregnant people do not yet know they are pregnant.  Mehmet Gomez, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate – both a government official and the nation’s highest Muslim cleric – weighed in, stating,

So, a pregnant mother does not have the right and the authority to say: ‘The body is mine, I can use it however I want. I can both have a baby and get rid of it if I want.’ The mother is not the real owner of the fetus she carries… It is a gross injustice to handle this issue as a women’s issue, as men have always held the greatest responsibility in this issue throughout history. And women have been those who suffered the most and have been victimized.

(So much facepalm. I know. Deep breaths.) Erdogan claims that he wants to keep Turkey’s population high, calling it an economic issue. However, the more likely causes are, of course, far more insidious. First, of course, there is the religious element, heightened by the statement made by the religious official above. Erdogan’s party, the AKP, has been described as everything from “mildly Muslim” to “Islamist” and this is suspected to be a move to strengthen his standing with the more religious elements within his own party. (According to experts, the Koran never explicitly mentions abortion, so this has been interpreted as meaning everything from forbidding abortion to allowing it in the first trimester, depending on the source.)

In addition to the religious angle, there are two other elements in play: Turkey has been gripped for over a month by the story of 34 Kurdish smugglers murdered at the Iraqi border due to a mistake by Turkish army officials. This has become known as the Uludere incident. This new anti-abortion campaign was literally launched in the middle of a press conference about Uludere, with Erdogan stating that he sees abortion as murder, and “every abortion is an Uludere.” Experts have speculated that one of the benefits for Erdogan in this new campaign is that it will detract attention from Uludere. And speaking of the Kurdish population, there is also an ethnicity aspect to this change in policy. The Kurdish minority in the southeast has a much higher birthrate than the majority of the country – and they’re also the least likely to have access to contraception and abortion. So when Erdogan talks about increasing the country’s population, it is very much the Turkish population, rather than the Kurdish, that he would like to see grow larger – at the sake of women’s bodily autonomy.

Right. This sucks. Since this is the first time I’ve really focused on abortion in this column, I should probably point out – this column is firmly pro-choice. I’m not going to justify here why it is absolutely essential for women’s rights and women’s advancement globally that abortion is legal, easily accessible and affordable, and that making abortion illegal will only kill women, not prevent abortion. We all know this, right? And if you don’t, there are millions of other websites that will explain it to you. Go Google.

Anyway. There are thousands of women in Turkey who seem to agree with me, and they came out in droves over the weekend to protest Erdogan and Gomez’s comments, and the new bill. Specifically, almost 3,000 women met in a suburb of Istanbul to protest this proposed change to the law, carrying signs unfortunately all too familiar to those of us in the U.S. right now: “my body, my choice” and “government, take your hands off my body.” More protests are planned for the upcoming weeks.

The women’s rights movement in Turkey may be caught off guard, though – abortion has never been a highly charged issue, and indeed, abortion rates have been falling in recent years. Nevertheless, women are mobilizing to protect their rights. There are a number of women’s rights NGOs in Turkey, and many of them are up in arms about this new assault on abortion – their main platforms are women’s representation in government, domestic violence, etc, but they have been quick to mobilize against this new threat to women’s rights. Ucan Supurge, (Flying Broom in English) is a women’s networking NGO, was founded in 1996 in Ankara, the capital, by a community of women seeking to unite the women’s movement and share ideas between different parts of the country, and different generations. Their webpage currently has five different articles about the abortion debate, covering the protests, the government’s work on the bill, and the disproportionate impact this law will have on impoverished women. KA-DER, the Association for Support and Training of Women Candidates – not necessarily an organization primarily concerned with women’s health – has an open letter to the Prime Minister over his anti-abortion comments. I couldn’t find specific information as to what groups organized the protest outside Istanbul that has garnered so much international attention, but 3,000 people don’t take to the streets on their own without some sort of organizing force. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to learn more about the women’s rights groups that organized that protest, and who will be taking the helm in the coming fight. Because even though this attack on women’s rights was unexpected and unprompted, a political move to gain favor with a misogynistic, xenophobic element of Turkish society, Turkish women are going to fight back, and do everything in their power to preserve their control over their own bodies.

2010 Human Rights Report: Turkey
CIA Factbook – TurkeyUcan Supurge (in Turkish)
KA-DER (in Turkish)
Turkey Profile
WSJ: Turkey Seeks New Limits on Abortion Turkey: What’s Behind the AKP’s New Anti-Abortion Agenda?
UPI: Turkish Cleric: Abortion Should Be Limited
AP: Turkish Women Protest Plans to Curb Abortion

DW: Turkish Women React to Proposed Abortion Limits

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