An Object Lesson In Knowing Your Audience

Speaking at an international women’s justice summit on Monday, Turkey’s president violated a cardinal rule of public speaking, telling a room full of women’s rights activists that gender equality is unnatural:

Certain work, Erdogan said, goes against women’s “delicate nature,” and “their characters, habits, and physiques are different” from men’s. “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood,” he said. He then went on to blast feminists, accusing them of not understanding their role in society. “Some people can understand this, while others can’t,” he said. “You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”

Erdogan tried using the Quran to advance his point, saying, “Paradise lies at the feet of mothers,” which ended up just turning into an awkward reflection on the role of his mother in his own family. “I would kiss my mother’s feet because they smelled of paradise,” he said. “She would glance coyly and cry sometimes.”

Alev Scott puts her finger on why this speech was so frightening:

Erdoğan is neither a lone madman in a padded cell, nor a Victorian uncle caught in a time warp.

He’s the president of a country of 75 million people where only 28% of women are in legal employment, an estimated 40% of women suffer domestic violence at least once in their lives, and where millions of girls are forced into under-age marriage every year (incidentally, Erdoğan’s predecessor, Abdullah Gül, married his wife when she was 15). Exact figures on domestic abuse and rape are hard to come by because it is socially frowned upon to complain about husbands, and police often tell women and girls who have been threatened with murder by their partners to go home and “talk it over”.

During his speech this week, Erdoğan implied such widespread abuse is the work of the unhinged: “How could a believer – I’m not talking about perverts – how could someone who understands our religion commit violence against a woman? How could he kill her?”

Elahe Izadi notes that Erdogan doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to women’s issues:

In 2012, Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, called abortion murder and came out against birth by Caesarean section. He’s also called for women to have at least three children and pushed for laws that encourage people to marry young. In 2013, Erdogan’s government lifted a head-scarf ban for women working in government offices. Turkey ranked 120 out of 136 on the World Economic Forum’s 2013 gender gap index, which includes economic, political and educational measures. …

In a report in September, Human Rights Watch said that “perpetrators of violence against women, most commonly male partners, ex-partners, and family members, often enjoy impunity” in Turkey and that authorities have failed to implement a 2012 law to protect women from violence.