Gender segregation debate in Turkey
Övgü Pinar - 15/11/2013
Turkey’s outspoken, and as some say maybe even “undiplomatic”, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has caused another stir when he anounced that the goverment will work to prevent male and female university students from sharing the same houses.
Erdogan, who is more and more irritating democracy advocates with his increasingly authoritarian approach, has took yet another step in the discussion of “interfering with people’s private lives”. On November 5, he declared a fight against mixed-sex student houses, saying these houses are “incompatible with our conservative democrat nature” and asked governors to help fix the “problem”. He went on to say, “We receive intelligence on what goes on in these houses—very intricate things probably. Anything can happen. Then, parents cry out, ‘Where is the state?’ Steps will be taken to show that the state is there. We need to intervene.”
Erdogan’s choice of words when he said these houses are “incompatible with our conservative democrat nature” brought new accusations. The “conservative” aspect of his goverment has never been questioned, but after these remarks, its supposed “democrat” nature became a hot discussion topic.
Leader of the secularist opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of trying to separate men’s and women’s education and said “This voyeuristic mentality cannot bring democracy or laicism to Turkey”.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are criticized with trying to impose Islamic values on the society. Although Turkey’s population is predominantly Muslim, secularity and the protection of lifestyles are higly heeded. Critics of the government fear that Turkey may turn into a state ruled by religious teachings. Restrictions on selling alcohol, approved by the AKP dominated parliament in May was one of the examples that showed these fears may not be so baseless.
After furious reactions from various parts of the society, Erdogan’s allies went even further by correlating mixed-gender student houses to terorism. Interior Minister Muammer Guler rushed to explain the grounds for the intended intervention with the pretext of preventing “depravity, drug trafficking, prostitution and terrorism”. Guler said, “In our studies regarding terrorism, one of the key findings is that the terrorist organizations have started to significantly abuse the relationships between the boys and girls, those among the university youth. They use it as a recruitment base to their organizations. We have seen the terrorist organizations using the youth for their own purposes. This is the terror aspect of the issue. It’s not about people legally being together or those being together in the student homes, but it is a fact that these children have been targets of terrorist organizations. The families have a right to know where their kids are. The state has a responsibility to protect the youth, and therefore take protective measures”.
“Officious” governors and security forces, not wasting time, took Erdoğan’s words as “orders” and rushed to oppress students living in mixed-sex houses. Right after Erdoğan’s speech, there were reports of inspections against students in some cities of Anatolia and also in conservative quarters of Istanbul. The police asked the students with whom they lived, when they come and go etc. Although the legality of interfering with the living arangements of adults is disputable, the prospect of a “social punishment” in the hands of the landlords, neighbours and even the whole quartier, constitutes an oppression masterminded by the Prime Minister himself.
The Prime Minister, who claims to protect the “Turkish moral values”, went on to say “There is legitimate life and illegitimate life. Naturally, we have our duties about this. Those duties are defined by law. We will take our measures as required by law".
The legal basis of these words is questioned. University students are mostly over 18 years old, therefore free by law to decide where and how to live. Moreover, the Turkish constitution protects the private lives of the citizens. But this inviolability maybe ineffective in case a court decides that there’s a need to prevent crime or protect public morality.
Women’s right activists and some commentators point another problem with Erdogan’s latest remarks. They say that the main target of Erdoğan’s words are the women, who will bear the burden of the social stigma of leading an “illegitimate life” if they’re discovered to be living with a man.
In a country, where women are still victims of high rates of domestic violence and so called “honor-killings”, smearing young women with leading an “illegitimate” lifestyle could have disastrous outcomes. The women’s rights group “Stop the Female Homicide” called the prime minister to stop trying to interfere with private lives and instead find a solution to prevent female homocides.