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The Anti-Feminist Movement in Turkey Is Looking More Like Ours

President Erdoğan’s crackdown on women’s groups has religious origins but uses the language of secular misogyny

In 2014, three months after assuming the office he holds to this day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addressed a women’s conference in Istanbul. There, he espoused a rigid binary of gender. “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing,” he said, as this equivalence goes “against nature.” Women are too “delicate” for certain work, he told the audience, then complained that feminists “reject motherhood,” whereas Islam places great importance on it.

Erdoğan has consolidated power since then, his regime growing more authoritarian and intolerant of dissent. Now, ahead of a general election that will take place in the summer of 2023 or sooner, he and his party, AKP, have endorsed a move by state prosecutors to shut down the biggest women’s rights organization in the country, We Will Stop Femicide, on grounds that quite resemble Erdoğan’s characterization of feminists at the beginning of his presidency: They accuse the group of “disintegrating the family structure by ignoring the concept of the family under the guise of defending women’s rights.” This follows Turkey’s widely condemned withdrawal, in 2021, from a Council of Europe treaty intended to prevent and combat violence against women, an outrage to WWSF and others noting the steady rise in femicides there.

A Western observer might chalk up these anti-feminist politics to religious conservatism, since AKP’s policy for more than a decade has been to enforce women’s duties of reproduction and motherhood in line with Islamic-coded “family values.” The truth is more opaque. Hikmet Kocammer, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, wrote in the Middle East Report that while Erdoğan and his allies seek to uphold patriarchy at every turn, they often give secular justifications for doing so — their fiercely pro-natalist and anti-abortion stances, for example, have much to do with a vision of Turkey’s growing economic strength.

There is reason, furthermore, to believe that this fight over gender equality is coming into closer alignment with the kind of culture wars seen in the United States and elsewhere. Alev Özkazanç, a professor of gender studies and political science who used to teach at Ankara University and has published several books on those topics, in 2020 foresaw Turkey’s emergent “anti-gender” campaign in the “European style,” describing “an attempt to link the growing popular masculine reactions firmly to an Islamic project, something different from what the AKP has done up to now.” In an interview with the humanitarian network EuroMed Rights around this same period, Özkazanç also referenced this nascent “men’s movement organized on social media and supported by pro-government people,” which coincided with AKP’s sharper attacks on concepts including “gender equality” and “gender ideology.” 

Some members of the party, she said, had denounced the Istanbul Convention — the treaty meant to combat violence against women that Erdoğan and Turkey would later abandon — as a “Trojan horse” to “introduce tolerance for ‘gay perversity.’” Meanwhile, she pointed out, men have mobilized to challenge “unjust” practices in family court, citing child custody, alimony and domestic abuse cases.

The slippery slope argument blocking progress on women’s issues in Turkey has parallels with current stateside rhetoric condemning sex education and women’s bodily autonomy as gateways to deviance, grooming and pedophilic abuse. The backlash to laws around divorce and partner violence, meanwhile, is straight from the playbook of so-called Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs. In fact, English-speaking MRAs have approvingly shared articles about Turkey quitting the Istanbul Convention and the government’s ongoing efforts to curtail alimony payments, while bemoaning the misandry of Turkish women who used a tongue-in-cheek hashtag suggesting that “men should know their place.” 

A Turkish man posting on an incel forum recently wrote that his country “has the potential for the beta uprising” if Erdoğan would only “remove the rights of foids,” or femoids, i.e., women, in order to be “more based.”

Even as AKP’s aim of dissolving We Will Stop Femicide appeals to tradition-focused Islamists in the electorate and ruling class of Turkey, including socially conservative women, it surely courts the favor of reactionary men whose misogynist views are less rooted in religion. How conscious Erdoğan is of this natural coalition is hard to say, but the accord is there to be struck, and the pernicious logic he gives for the crackdown on women protesting gender-based violence — that existing laws already give them enough protection — is fully in step with the MRA strain of anti-feminism that continues to develop there, as well as on the international scale. 

In battling those who would silence them, WWSF and similar advocacy groups will have to take on both kinds of cultural opponents: the old and the new. Their struggle will only get more global.