EU membership, national security and women's rights in Turkey

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EU membership, national security and women's rights in Turkey

by Elif Babul 2011-12 Graduate Dissertation Fellow

by Elif Babül on Monday, September 10, 2012 - 11:01pm

Stanford Researcher, Elif Babül, offers new insights into the New York Times recent report that women in Turkey are facing rising levels of domestic violence and gender discrimination in the country. The Times attributes the heightened violence to the “Muslim-inspired” Justice and Development Party and the government’s increasing conservatism following both the Arab Spring and the country’s “flagging prospects for European Union (EU) membership.”

Gender equality and women’s rights are an integral part of EU membership requirements, and many analysts correlate membership with progress in women’s (and, in general, human) rights in Turkey. However, a study of how the accession actually takes place on the ground reveals a more complicated picture.

A two-year ethnographic study of human rights training programs in Turkey 

In order to research the impact of Turkey’s accession to the EU, I spent two years, from 2007 to 2009, researching human rights training programs for Turkish state officials and government workers. The results of this ethnographic research suggest that the way human (and women’s) rights are framed and institutionalized in the light of EU’s “good-governance” framework may actually contribute to a more conservative and bureaucratic interpretation of those rights.  

Large rally of Justice & development party 2007

More than half of the human rights training programs I studied focused exclusively on women’s and children’s rights. This was partly due to recent legal reforms – such as the Family Protection Law (1998), the Child Protection Law (2005), and the constitution of Family Courts (2003) – that aim to improve women and children’s status in society. The Prime Ministry had also issued a circular in 2006, addressing “custom and honor killings and violence against women and children,” to further emphasize the government’s commitment to gender equality and juvenile justice across the country.

 ...the research also shows that women who earn more money than their husbands are twice as likely to encounter domestic violence. 

Both the regulations and the training programs were purportedly geared to advance women’s and children’s rights in Turkey. However, rather than as citizens deserving of equal rights, the subjects of those regulations were portrayed as passive victims of abuse during the training programs.

For instance, the program on children’s rights sought to convince the state officials of the necessity of child-oriented juvenile justice system by way of evoking images of helpless children who needed protection and guidance from the state. In a similar vein, trainings on domestic violence and women’s rights depicted the prototypical victim of domestic violence as a poor, uneducated woman from an Eastern village, who is financially dependent on her husband.

Map of TurkeyAscribing the main cause of domestic violence to the supposedly less civilized, under-developed Kurdish region, this depiction effectively distorts the real picture of the problem in Turkey. Extensive research conducted in 2008 by noted social scientists Ayşe Gül Altınay and Yeşim Arat disproves the widespread conviction that women in the Eastern part of the country experience domestic violence much more frequently than their peers in the West. Furthermore, the research also shows that women who earn more money than their husbands are twice as likely to encounter domestic violence.

Even though the number of women who admit to experiencing domestic violence decreases as their level of education increases, Altınay and Arat note another reason for the limited reports of violence. More educated women may be less likely to articulate their experiences due to increased feelings of shame. This is also consistent with their finding that one out of every six highly educated men across the country inflicts violence on his wife.

Portrayals of women as poor, uneducated victims serve a masculinist logic 

Altınay and Arat’s research contradicts the established belief that domestic violence is mainly an issue that affects women with lower levels of education and income. Still, however, the image of the poor, uneducated woman constitutes the main reference point for many governmental reform programs. Why is this so?

The answer, my research shows, lies in what Iris Young eloquently calls “the logic of masculinist protection” that forms the basis of national security states. As the late sociologist Dicle Koğacıoğlu explains: The modern state effectively disguises its complicity in erecting and enduring patriarchal and misogynistic institutions and rules by attributing violence and discrimination against women to the remnants of archaic traditional structures. Furthermore, modern mechanisms of governance – including Turkey’s – require the unconditional obedience and gratitude of their citizens in exchange for their protection from those threats.  

More educated women may be less likely to articulate their experiences due to increased feelings of shame. This is also consistent with their finding that one out of every six highly educated men across the country inflicts violence on his wife.

Since the EU itself is based upon the model of modern nation states, its institutional framework does not necessarily counter the logic of masculinist protection. On the contrary, by promoting free market economy and advanced liberal democracy, the accession process oversees the re-organization of the government in candidate countries, shrinking social services while expanding the field of national security. This complex picture helps explain why it is highly problematic to assume a direct and simple correlation between EU membership and the improvement of women’s rights in Turkey.

 A new conversation for women’s rights 

It is important to continue discussing and condemning violence and discrimination against women in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s recent anti-abortion statements heighten the need for these discussions as they allude to the government’s possible intent to further curb women’s reproductive rights in the future. However, basing these discussions on ready-made false dichotomies of tradition vs. modernity, Islam vs. secularism, Arab vs. European would prevent us from fully understanding the situation and steer us away from producing viable solutions. 



Elif Babul is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, and a former Clayman Graduate Dissertation Fellow.