Body of Politics

Thousands of Turkish women stage a protest in Istanbul on June 3, 2012 after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he considered abortion to be"murder," and "I am a prime minister who is against Caesarean births."

Thousands of Turkish women stage a protest in Istanbul on June 3, 2012 after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he considered abortion to be"murder," and "I am a prime minister who is against Caesarean births."

The recent Gezi Park protests in Istanbul unleashed a series of arguments on gender politics in Turkey. The sheer number of young female protesters was a clear signal to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that a decade of politics on women’s identity and reproductive health have certainly backfired.

Let us just take a look at the recent chronology of government policy concerning women’s rights and their bodies. First, there was a shy attempt to criminalize adultery in 2004, which caused an uproar not only in liberal circles, but also in the European Union corridors that had given a green light to AKP policies. Women's rights groups strongly opposed the proposed law, believing it would be used more frequently against wives.

Then came the healthcare policies. In recent years, the Ministry of Health in Turkey has been introducing a database that will monitor every single patient that passes through the state-sponsored healthcare system. It is a good idea at heart, which would cut costs and help medical professionals keep track of their patients on a regular basis, more like the US system—or so we thought.

It turned out that the Ministry of Health practically obliged doctors and nurses to report on women who would buy or get prescribed contraceptives. These medical professionals were also encouraged to call a woman’s family, husband or father to inform them about a pregnancy, miscarriage or even an abortion. In a predominantly Muslim society where pre-marital sex is still a taboo, these attempts at social engineering have had a huge backlash. A young, single woman in Izmir was beaten by her father after he received a mistaken phone call from her doctor about the “pregnancy news of their daughter.” The Ministry of Health investigated and concluded that the case was “an individual mistake, not a systematic policy error.”

The Turkish Medical Association reacted to these almost Shari’a-imposed policies. “We are bound by the Hippocratic Oath and we cannot compromise patient–doctor confidentiality,” they claimed. The GP system is now under severe scrutiny, but the AKP shows no sign of retreat.

Erdoğan’s much-debated “three children” policy to help promote population growth does have a point. According to recent research done by the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK), Turkey’s population is getting older, like that of Europe, and becoming more urban. To keep the current social security scheme working, Turkey needs young workers entering the work force every year—unfortunately often at a minimum wage near to that of India or China.

According to the TUIK, Turkey will have a population of 90 million by the year 2035. The rate of population growth is projected to level off soon after, and then suggests population figures will begin to drop around 2060. Erdoğan fears Turkey will end up being an old and un-productive nation like Europe, ending all Ottoman Empire nostalgia.

His latest edicts on population and women’s body parts came during the height of the Gezi Park protests. “To keep Turkey weak, these dark centers for years . .  . enforced and imposed birth control methods even by surgical means, these C-sections and so forth,” he stated while delivering a speech in Ankara at a ceremony to launch the Be a Family Project. The Turkish Gynecologists and Obstetricians' Association (TJOD) expressed anger following Erdoğan’s claims that they were carrying out “sterilization” of women. The TJOD issued a statement saying that “Caesarian section is a medical procedure to which doctors resort only when necessary to save lives of the mother and the baby, not a method of sterilization.” They also cited the dramatic drop in infant mortality rates over the last decade, thanks to C-sections in rural areas. But Erdoğan’s pious base may now have second thoughts about having a C-section to deliver their babies.

So the question remains. Who owns a woman’s body and womb? In this day and age, the answer should not even be challenged. But Turkey’s policymakers believe they are the guardians of an unborn child—or even the idea of a child. Romania’s last dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, thought that, too. That policy did not end well for him.

So Turkey’s young women joined the Gezi Park protests to make a very bold statement that they own their bodies, as well as their own pursuit of happiness.

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