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Turkey's President Erdogan calls women who work 'half persons'

Women who choose careers over motherhood are "deficient" — at least according to Turkey's president.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Istanbul, June 7, 2016. (Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Istanbul, June 7, 2016. 

Women who choose careers over motherhood are trailblazers in some parts of the world. But in Turkey they're "deficient" — at least according to the nation's president.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's declaration that such women were "half persons" is the latest in a series of remarks by the leader of a key U.S. ally that has sparked outrage and fear among liberals and human rights activists, who allege he's leading the country down a path to conservative Islam.

"A woman who abstains from maternity by saying 'I am working' means that she is actually denying her femininity," Erdogan said in a widely reported speech in Istanbul on Sunday.

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"A woman who refuses maternity and gives up housekeeping faces the threats of losing her freedom. She is lacking and is a half [a person] no matter how successful she is in the business world," he said according to excepts of the speech translated by the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper.

On May 30, Erdogan — who was prime minister for 11 years before becoming president in 2014 — said Muslim families should not engage in birth control or family planning. He has come out against cesareans, equated birth control with treason, and opined that women should avoid laughing in public — all the while using his strong Muslim faith to justify his ideas.

"We will multiply our descendants. They talk about population planning, birth control. No Muslim family can have such an approach," Erdogan said in a televised speech on May 30. "Nobody can interfere in God's work."

Erdogan's conservative worldview clashes with a vocal but beleaguered liberal minority that is struggling to hold fast to Turkey's secular foundations as envisioned by the country's first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Prominent Turkish author Elif Shafak called Erdogan's comments "totally unacceptable, wrong and alarming," and said they represent a dangerous pattern on the part of the president and his Justice and Development party (AKP).

"Turkey's AKP government has, over the years, increased their statements against women," she told NBC News via email. "They are openly questioning secularism. If secularism is destroyed and a religious order is introduced, there is no doubt in my mind that we women have much more to lose than men."

The country, an essential Western partner in containing the Syrian civil war and the flood of refugees that it has unleashed, was seeing a "systematic backlash against women's rights and liberties," Shafak added.

Sayek Boke, a member of parliament from opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), cast her net wider, saying that Erdogan's comments weren't only about women.

"His discriminatory discourse against women's identity is actually a reflection of his radical views," she said. "This is part of the larger plan of transforming the society into a more Islamist direction. Creating a new 'norm' for women is indeed an essential part of this transformation."

But while Shafak, Boke and others might be appalled by Erdogan's views on women and their place in modern Turkey, the president's comments resonate with the country's largely conservative majority, according to Turkish-British researcher and commentator Ziya Meral.

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Meral added that Erdogan is shoring up his conservative and nationalist base in order to push major constitutional changes to create a presidential system of government. These changes will require a strong majority and motivated support base.

"This patriarchal conservative language is still Erdogan continuing to appeal to his conservative voters knowing all too well that statements like this will attract attention and negative response from secular Turks," he said.

So Erdogan mainly wants to consolidate his power around himself and the party, he said. That is not to say the president isn't conservative socially — he is, Meral added.

Take Erdogan's Cabinet.

"The only woman on the Cabinet is relegated to family and social affairs [ministry], while the rest are all men," he said. The result was a Cabinet that is "diverse in the sense that it is men with mustaches versus men without mustaches."

While Erdogan's comments on the role of women in society and family planning alarm Turks like Shafak, they reveal what Erdogan and the ruling party see as "a national security issue and existential threat," according to Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert and associate fellow at London-based Chatham House think tank.

While ethnic Turks had on average a birth rate of 2.1 percent, the country's Kurdish minority — which makes up about 15 to 30 percent population — has around twice that, he said.

"He sees if current trends continue within a few decades Kurds could become the majority in Turkey," Hakura said.

With Turkey's economy moving from an agricultural economy to a more industrial one, and its population migrating in greater numbers to cities, it is only natural that birth rates are falling as they have around the world, he said.

This demographic bubble terrifies nationalist Turks like Erdogan who fear greater Kurdish power and influence could lead to the country eventually splitting up along ethnic lines, according to Hakura.

Kurdish militants have been fighting an intermittent decades-long insurgency in the southeast of the country but a cease-fire declared three years ago brought some calm. In July, the truce with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fell apart.

Whatever is motivating him, Erdogan's comments have caught the attention of observers beyond his own country.

Women have historically had many freedoms and played a big role in the work force in Turkey, said Hillary Margolis, a researcher on Europe and Central Asia focused on women's rights for Human Rights Watch.

"To have a leader who is frankly sexist making a lot of anti-female comments along the way for years now is quite concerning," she said. "If we look at them beyond the comments about reproductive health, reproductive rights — it is about equality."

For Shafak, Erdogan's latest comments were a call to action: "If we do not speak up now, tomorrow we might lose even the rights that we take for granted today." 

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