ISTANBUL -- Gender equality is “against nature,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a controversial speech at an Istanbul women’s conference today.
“You cannot bring women and men into equal positions," he told a crowd at the Women and Justice Summit, according to Hurriyet Daily News. "That is against nature because their nature is different."
Erdogan reportedly blasted feminists for dismissing the "concept of motherhood," which he said Islam defines as women's primary role.
Women's "characters, habits and physiques are different,” he said, according to a report on the same speech by Agence France-Presse. “You cannot place a mother breastfeeding her baby on an equal footing with men.”
Turkey's president and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party have drawn ire from women's rights activists both within the country and abroad. Leading Turkish feminists and activists have told The WorldPost that under Erdogan, their country has been sliding backward on rights and equality for women.
Erdogan has called on Turkish women to have at least three -- preferably five -- children. He has likened abortion to murder, calling abortions "steps taken to prevent [Turkey's] population from growing further." Turkish women say it is difficult to get safe and legal abortions in the country.
In one notable incident, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınc said in July that women shouldn’t laugh in public.
“Where are our girls, who slightly blush, lower their heads and turn their eyes away when we look at their face, becoming the symbol of chastity?” he asked, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.”
Arınc's comments prompted a wave of backlash. A defiant social media campaign ensued, in which Turkish and foreign women who posted photos of themselves smiling and laughing.
Last year, the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report ranked Turkey 120th out of 136 countries in terms of political empowerment, education, health and economic participation. The United States was ranked 23rd.
One issue that rights groups have lamented in particular is violence against women. Gruesome murders and battery cases -- usually carried out by women's husbands, lovers, fiances, or family members -- are frequently splashed across the front pages of Turkish media outlets. While Turkey has passed promising legislation to tackle the issue and protect women, survivors and rights groups say there is little enforcement of the laws.
“Something has to be done about the women in Turkey,” Cigdem Evcil, a survivor of domestic abuse and a women's rights activist, told The WorldPost in mid-November. Her sister, Muhterem Gokmen, was stabbed to death with a kitchen knife by her abusive husband, despite having a restraining order against him. Evcil says authorities repeatedly turned down her sister's requests for protection.
“Our society asks what the women did wrong,” she said. “Like there should be a reason for a man to beat. Every day, women are murdered.”