The feature starts at minute 06:43.
In early 2013, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a call to arms, of sorts. Speaking at a conference on family and social policy in Ankara, he urged married couples to produce at least three children; saying Turkey’s economic stability depends on it. Or as he stated it: “One or two children…equals bankruptcy”. And he called it an issue of family values.
That triggered a wave of outrage from women’s rights groups in Turkey. Lawyer Nazan Moroğlu says that was for good reason. She says it’s just one more example of the message coming from the highest levels of government: that Turkish women should stay at home. She says it comes at a time when leaders aren’t addressing the real threats to Turkey’s progress: “If the people running the country said ‘this shouldn’t be happening’, ‘end child marriages’, ‘end women’s violence’ then it would be different. ‘Our women should work’ for example, this is never said.”
Moroğlu offers some disturbing numbers: a quarter of Turkish marriages involve a child bride. Half of women over the age of 15 have reported abuse at home. Only 26% of girls graduate high school. Women make up just 28% of the workforce, and even that’s a 45% jump from eight years ago. She argues that the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, should train its focus on those areas, and not on family planning.
“Women could have gone much further in the past 11-12 years,” says Moroğlu. “The law supported us but because of the mentality we couldn’t.”
The mentality she’s talking about is the one that has parliament passing laws to address those inequities. But these days, she says, without the AKP’s blessing, there’s no follow-though.
“On one hand starting from the constitution onwards, in terms of rights there are laws being passed etc, things were moving forwards. Whereas in actual life, things are getting harder for women,” she says.
It’s a split between democratic process and deep-rooted social conservatism, as Moroğlu sees it. She explains that the Turkish Republic’s first constitution back in 1923, enshrined the rights of women. And those rights advanced more or less in step with other Western nations.
“And as with more conservative countries, women’s rights started going backwards,” she says.
Documentary cameraman, Koray Kesik, who just completed work on a film about child brides, sees decades of progress being reversed.
“Today there are women suicides, honor killings, child marriages. It’s a serious issue in Turkey, and it’s a serious problem today. I’m married. I have a daughter. She’s sixteen,” says Kesik.
Entrepreneur Bedriye Hülya agrees there’s a serious issue and she’s doing something about it. In 2006, she founded B-Fit, Turkey’s first – and only – chain of women’s fitness centers. She’s driven mainly by a social mission: to encourage low and middle-income women to get out of the house, maybe give them a sense of a life beyond the home, even if it’s just going to the gym a few times a week. She says that with all the pressure on women to focus only on family, the concept was, and still is, kind of revolutionary. To buy a B-Fit franchise, you have to be a woman, and B-Fit owners don’t typically fit the entrepreneurial mold, coming from more modest backgrounds. No surprise that Hülya had to overcome a good number of skeptics.
“No one knew what we were doing, there was never anything like this. So we had to make it legitimate for people’s eyes,” says Hülya.
Berna Aydın, a B-Fit owner in Istanbul’s Fatih district, a deeply conservative Muslim neighborhood, sees B-Fit as a model for women helping women.
“One of the women here was actually having a problem with her boss and another woman’s husband was a lawyer and they’re suing the boss,” she mentioned.
Another owner, Ayda Tarakçian, who runs a B-Fit near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, agrees it’s so much more than the workout or the social interactions. For some women, it’s just the act of showing up, claiming some time for themselves.
“These 30 minutes are mine,” women tell her. “This is my right. I feel great. Life at home is better.”
Ayda hears it all the time: getting out into the world, it changes your whole outlook. And, she says, she also sees an attitude shift among men who now know her as a successful business owner. One man in particular.
“For example, before owning this business, my husband was not listening to me that much but now I feel stronger. Now he’s listening to every word I say,” Ayda says.
Lawyer Nazan Moroğlu sees the women’s movement as an important counter-balance to the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric. But it’s those small shifts as well, like the one between a woman and her husband, that keep her optimistic.
I’m optimistic because women are aware. Even for those who are not aware, others will support them to gain more power within their families or in terms of their rights,” says Moroğlu.