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Women as spacefarers: Turkey’s Erdoğan has doubts about it

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Remarks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressing doubt about women’s competence as spacefarers when unveiling the country’s national space program on Feb. 9 attracted widespread criticism from social media users and opposition figures, who accused the president of adding to his already long list of sexist and misogynistic comments.

During his 18 years in power, Erdoğan as well as some members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been criticized for using rhetoric considered by many to be discriminatory against women.

The latest example came only two days before the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which is marked on Feb. 11, while Erdoğan was talking about sending a Turkish citizen to space – one of the AKP’s 10 strategic space goals for the next 10 years — during an event in Ankara.

“I am sure many people grew up dreaming about this. Maybe there are still those among you who continue to dream about it, maybe there are even those among the ladies who want to be candidates [to go to space],” Erdoğan said on Tuesday.

The Turkish word “bayan” that Erdoğan used does not exactly translate as “lady,” but rather as “Miss.” Many women in Turkey have denounced this noun and have campaigned against it for years, saying, “Don’t call me ‘bayan,’ I am a woman.” Nobody refers to men as “Bay” (Mr). “Bayan” is, therefore, considered by many to be a word that epitomizes gender discrimination.

In response to the president’s remarks, many social media users took to Twitter to express their condemnation and criticism under the hashtag #bayanlardanbile (even those among ladies).

The users primarily mentioned two prominent Turkish female figures in their posts – Sabiha Gökçen, the world’s first female fighter pilot, and Leman Bozkurt Altınçekiç, the first female accredited jet pilot in the Turkish Air Force and NATO.

“Those who don’t consider women equal to men cannot lead the country to space. If anything, they can only lead it [back] to the Middle Ages,” Alpay Antmen, a lawyer and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker, said in a tweet.

Gamze Taşcıer, another deputy from the CHP, said: “The mentality that treats women as second-class citizens and considers being an astronaut to be an extraordinary situation for them, doesn’t have the vision to lead Turkey to tomorrow, let alone space.”

“Your project is about the space age, but your mentality reflects the medieval age,” journalist Sedef Kabaş tweeted, addressing Erdoğan.

Former MP from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Ferhat Encu tweeted that the president’s remarks showed the ruling AKP’s point of view about women in Turkey.

Erdoğan’s AKP government, which has its roots in political Islam and came to power in 2002, has long been accused by critics, activists and human rights advocates of seeking to erode the country’s secular principles and limit the civil liberties of women. He has commented on a variety of topics related to women in Turkey, including their role in society and whether or not they should have children.

Girl or a woman

Referring to a protestor named Dilşat Aktaş during a rally in Konya in 2011, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan said, “There was someone, I don’t know if she was a girl or a woman.”

In the Turkish language, the word “girl” implicitly refers to virginity, while calling someone a “woman” generally means she is not a virgin.

‘Women not equal to men’

“Women are not equal to men,” Erdoğan said in November 2014, adding that they cannot be treated equally “because it goes against the laws of nature.”

“Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood,” he said, igniting a firestorm of controversy on social media.

Women eschewing motherhood ‘incomplete’

In June 2016 the president ramped up his rhetoric against women and described those who choose careers over motherhood as “incomplete” and “half-persons.”

“A woman who refrains from having a child, saying ‘I’m working,’ means she is actually denying her femininity. No matter how successful a woman is in the business world, a woman who rejects motherhood, who gives up on looking after the home, is incomplete, is only half, is at risk of losing her uniqueness,” he said.

These remarks came a month after Erdoğan advised “Muslim families” not to use birth control or family planning. He has also come out against cesarean operations, equated birth control with “treason” and opined that women should avoid laughing in public, using Islam to justify his ideas.

Erdoğan has also drawn the ire of feminist groups and women’s rights associations for declaring that every woman in Turkey should have at least three children to boost the country’s population and for changing the content of textbooks for the first, fifth and ninth grades in 2018 in order to diminish women’s role in the workforce.

Over 15,000 women killed under AKP rule

Activists say government officials’ remarks about how women should be treated and their reluctance to take a strong political stance on violence against women are encouraging male perpetrators and thus leaving women exposed to violence in Turkey.

At least 15,557 women have been murdered in Turkey since the ruling AKP came to power in 2002, according to a report drafted by Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a CHP deputy and a prominent human rights activist, in March 2020.

Despite objections from activists, Turkish authorities have been arresting pregnant women and women with infants for the last several years, with most of the women arrested on political charges, and some suffering from health problems. According to unofficial numbers, there are more than 600 babies and young children accompanying their mothers in Turkey’s prisons.

A 2020 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) looking at global inequality between the sexes ranked Turkey 130th out of 153 countries.

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