Twitter was abuzz with criticism after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday referred to Dr. Özlem Türeci, chief medical officer of German pharma company BioNTech who along with her husband BioNTech CEO Dr. Uğur Şahin developed a vaccine against the coronavirus in partnership with Pfizer, as the latter’s “spouse,” with many users accusing Erdoğan of sexism.
Speaking to the press after Friday prayers in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Erdoğan announced the upcoming visit of the couple behind the coronavirus vaccine, Drs. Türeci and Şahin, by saying, “Soon Dr. Uğur Şahin and his spouse will be our guests.”
“Thus we will be able to take faster steps with BioNTech.”
Erdoğan’s blunder was not lost on Turkish Twitter users, as his omission of Dr. Türeci’s name and title was seen as a sign of his “blatant sexism.”
“For you women might not have a name, but her name is Özlem Türeci. Down with the masculine, caveman mentality,” one user tweeted.
During his 19 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.
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.
“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.”
“The woman has no name,” one user posted, referring to Turkish feminist author Duygu Asena’s book titled “Kadının adı yok” (The woman has no name).
“Mr. Uğur and his spouse? Is being the spouse of Uğur Şahin the only thing that defines who the academic and scientist Özlem Türeci is?” Aylin Kotil, a former politician, tweeted.
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.
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.