Often peppered with religious references, “family values” rhetoric has become a trademark of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. His frequent encouragement of early marriage and criticism of childless women illustrate an ever-expanding repertoire of conservative pronouncements regarding gender, reproduction and the family. During an iftar dinner in 2014, for example, Erdoğan urged female college students not to be picky in selecting a prospective spouse “because our dear prophet advised us to get married and to procreate, so that he could take pride in the sizable presence of the ummah in the afterlife in comparison to other [religious] communities.” At a ceremony hosted by the Women and Democracy Association in 2016, he claimed that “A woman who abstains from maternity by saying ‘I have a job’ means that she is actually denying her femininity … She is lacking, she is an incomplete person, no matter how successful she is in the business world.”

Although most of its founders were members of the frequently banned pro-Islamist Welfare Party (RP) in the 1990’s, the AKP defines its ideology as “conservative” rather than Islamist. This distinction illustrates the AKP’s awareness of the historic difficulty of directly challenging the secular state project—known as Kemalism, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at the founding of the Turkish Republic—which forbids Islamic reasoning in law, policymaking, economics or policing. Talking about gender, reproduction and the family provides AKP politicians an outlet to articulate their conservative social vision without necessarily trespassing secularism’s boundaries. Due to the common misconception that such intimate and private issues are not within the domain of politics, AKP leaders have not shied away from religious references while expressing their views on these issues.

Erdoğan’s critics often downplay these religiously inflected pronouncements as either diversions from its policy failures or indicative of the AKP government’s ulterior agenda to Islamize Turkish society by imposing religiously inspired norms. Rather than simply a rhetorical sideshow or shorthand for covert Islamism, however, Erdoğan and the AKP’s emphasis on strengthening family values and promoting conservative views on reproduction and gender are central to the AKP government’s broader demographic, social service and welfare policies predicated on neoconservative, neoliberal and neo-patriarchal rationalities. Moreover, the AKP’s politics of family values is at the core of its long-term strategy to rebuild a “New Turkey” by recuperating from the alleged damages to the social fabric and strength of the nation perpetrated by the formerly hegemonic Kemalist oligarchy.

Governing the Family, Governing the Nation

The AKP and Erdoğan’s invocation of “family values” rhetoric is rooted in its broader vision about the family’s central role in confronting Turkey’s political and economic challenges in the new millennium: The AKP has placed “strengthening the family” at the center of its social policy vision since its founding in 2001. Its party program states that “the family constitutes the foundation of society,” and “despite all the negative developments and economic problems,” Turkish people owe their “survival as a nation to [their] strong family structure.”[1]

AKP policies aimed at “strengthening the family” are justified by government officials not by Islamic precepts but rather because they ensure the economic productivity and welfare of the nation. In 2013, Erdoğan underlined the role strong families play in confronting the challenges imposed on Turkish society by globalization, modernization and urbanization: “a family that has weakened, decayed and lost its essence as a result of the changes in our world is a threat to both our future and humanity …. If we would like to become a strong nation, we need to have strong families.” Erdoğan and his party claim that the Turkish family is in crisis and its values deteriorating, generating socio-economic problems such as poverty, homelessness, addiction and crime.

The AKP’s “family crisis” discourse illustrates a logic of governance in which the family is both the cause of an individual’s disorderly conduct and the site of its containment and correction. For the AKP, society would be facing fewer problems if the family fulfilled its function in disciplining and policing the conduct of its members. In short, while “family crisis” discourse situates the family as the source of risks that threaten the integrity of the Turkish nation, “strengthening the family” is offered as the primary solution to these problems, thereby obscuring structural factors producing societal problems such as income inequality, unemployment and lack of affordable housing.

Growing the Family, Growing the Economy

Erdoğan and other AKP politicians promote a strong pro-natalist stance in speeches and proclamations, expressing distaste for reproductive rights and a desire to strictly regulate citizens’ reproductive behavior in favor of larger families. Erdoğan, in particular, frequently encourages early marriage and having at least three children. He is also an ardent critic of abortion, referring to it as murder, as well as criticizing caesarean delivery for allegedly impeding women’s future reproductivity and lowering population growth, thus hampering the nation’s development.

Religious sensibilities certainly play a role in shaping Erdoğan and other AKP politicians’ political rhetoric, but their pro-natalist and anti-birth control stance is shaped by their contentious view on global family planning policies as well as demographic and economic rationales that inspire concrete national population policies. Previous Turkish governments made family planning a priority: They promoted contraceptives and birth control, and eventually legalized voluntary abortions in 1983. These anti-natalist population policies reflected a global trend equating overpopulation with economic instability and underdevelopment. Erdoğan and the AKP cadre, by contrast, see birth control methods promoted by US aid agencies and the UN Population Fund as a Western conspiracy against the Turkish nation aimed at curtailing its productivity, development and prosperity.[2]

The AKP government promotes pro-natalist population policies because it believes that population growth is necessary for economic growth: A larger and younger labor force attracts more foreign investment and helps improve Turkey’s competitive advantage in the global market. Zafer Çağlayan, the former AKP minister of finance, for example, claims that Europe is losing its productivity due to its aging workforce and that investors would prefer to outsource production to Turkey rather than other Asian countries because of its dynamic young population and its relative proximity to Europe. Moreover, Erdoğan often refers to India and China, G-20 countries with larger populations and high economic growth, as illustrating how population growth ensures a competitive edge in the global market. When critics questioned whether Turkish families were affluent enough to afford to raise three or more children, Erdoğan responded: “Do you think these countries have better livelihood conditions than ours? No! Only a certain segment of their population is well off but the majority has worse living conditions than ours.” According to this rationale, the well-being and uplift of Turkey’s poor is secondary to the role their cheap labor plays in attracting foreign capital.

Although Turkey has a large and growing population—census data indicates that the population grew at a rate of 1.3 percent to 78.7 million in 2015—anxiety about population decline and an aging population is not completely unfounded.[3] The government predicts that improved economic conditions will lead to an increase in life expectancy, which, combined with a decreasing fertility rate, will eventually lead to stabilization and decline in the overall population growth rate. While the median age was around 31 in 2014,[4] it will likely rise to 34 in 2023 and around 43 in 2050.[5] As a result, Erdoğan claimed that the twenty-first century will be “the century of the elderly,” as the elderly population of 6 million in Turkey will increase to 9 million in 2025 and 18 million in 2050. The fertility rate has also decreased by almost 50 percent during that last 40 years.[6]

But convincing couples to have at least three children is a tall task in a country where the desired number of children per household reflects the national average (approximately two children per family) and delayed marriage, divorce, contraceptives and abortion are widespread.[7] Taking up this challenge, Erdoğan asked the ministries of finance, health, labor and family and social policies in 2013 to develop recommendations to increase the national fertility rate. In 2015 former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced the “Project for the Protection of the Family and Dynamic Population Structure.”

The government has developed a variety of financial inducements and other targeted policies to encourage larger families. Between 2015 and 2016, the government sent more than 450 million Turkish liras (TL) directly into the bank accounts of the mothers of more than a million newborn babies.[8] Believing that delaying marriage delays having children, the government also helps young couples waiting on marriage due to economic difficulties by canceling student loans and offering interest-free loans of up to 10,000 TL for newlyweds.[9] The government has even proposed providing part-time working options for pregnant women, prolonging maternity leave from 16 to 24 weeks and offering free childcare services in government buildings and private companies based on the view that the fertility rate of employed women tends to be lower than that of housewives.[10]

In addition, AKP government policies encourage the use of assisted reproductive technologies. The government increased the legally mandated maximum number of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments covered by state insurance from two implementations per family, to three.[11] And the Ministry of the Family and Social Policies signed a protocol with Acıbadem, the largest private hospital chain, to offer funding, payment plans and discounts for IVF to low-income families.

Finally, although the government withdrew its plans to further limit legal abortion after thousands of feminists staged widespread demonstrations in 2012, the Ministry of Health pressures state hospitals make it difficult for women to have abortions.[12] The ministry has reportedly introduced an insidious follow-up system for pregnant women whereby the hospital would release positive pregnancy test results to their family members without their consent, which many see as a ploy to discourage abortion.[13]

Care-Giving Families

Over the past few decades, economic recessions, rural-to-urban migration, the transition from extended to nuclear families and increasing divorce rates have weakened the caregiving functions of the family.[14] But rather than addressing these transformations at the level of national social welfare policy, the AKP government has sought to revitalize the family as the central site for caregiving by providing direct financial and social service support to families who home-care their elderly, disabled and children formerly dependent on state care. This targeted support constitutes the bulk of welfare provisions in recent years. By consigning the responsibility of care to the family, the government reduces spending on care for its needy citizens because institutional care is costlier than these small cash transfers.[15]

AKP politicians blame Turkish families’ alleged negligence of their duties and responsibilities toward their elderly parents on the Kemalist modernizers’ promotion of the nuclear family model over the traditional extended family. According to a 2013 demographic survey, 70 percent of the Turkish population now lives in nuclear families.[16] By contrast, AKP politicians valorize the patriarchal three-generational extended family, in which the elderly live with their children and grandchildren and benefit from their support and care. While promoting the extended family reflects the AKP’s conservative view that the elderly transmit traditional moral values to younger generations, the government’s neoliberal social care strategy is largely aimed at mitigating state provision of care for children and the elderly.

Since 2005, an AKP government initiative has sought to return children placed in orphanages and other childcare facilities—such as government owned apartments known as sevgi evleri (houses of affection) where children live under the supervision of social workers—to their families or place them with foster parents under the premise that home care provides children a more nurturing environment with a parental role model.[17] There were around 12,200 children living under such government care in 2015.[18] The initiative, known as the “Return to the Family and Familial Support” program, presumes that the primary reason parents send their children to state-run facilities is economic hardship, while ignoring that some children were conceived during previous marriages, from unwanted relationships, or by rape. The Social Services and Children’s Protection Agency also provides financial assistance to parents who agree to remove their children from institutional care and bring them back home.[19]

Similarly, the government encourages home care for the elderly and the disabled by providing direct monetary support to their families.[20] AKP politicians discourage citizens from sending parents to nursing homes by presenting home care as a moral duty or even religious obligation, while also emphasizing the overall social benefit. Speaking to the UN-initiated International Day of Old Persons in 2014, former Minister of the Family and Social Policies Ayşenur Islam suggested that families should take care of their elderly not only because “old people are happiest and most peaceful when they are with their family members,” but also because “benefiting from the experiences of the elderly is both a societal gain and a social duty.”

Unmaking Kemalism, Upholding Patriarchy

Erdoğan and the AKP government’s emphasis on strengthening families, and its intrusive promotion of conservative policies on reproduction and gender, are, therefore, central to the government’s political, social and economic vision for the “New Turkey” that it seeks to build. These policies reflect a logic of governance and not simply diversionary theatre or covert Islamism.

At the same time, the AKP’s focus on strengthening, growing and re-centering families is also a critical element of its broader project to overturn the legacy of Kemalism. The AKP believes that Kemalist modernization undermined the traditional Turkish family, which it sees as the root cause of social and economic problems that the AKP’s population, social care and welfare policies aim to reverse by embracing family values. Rather than condemning Kemalist modernizers’ anti-natalism as un-Islamic, they see anti-natalism as detrimental to Turkey’s economic development and its national strength. AKP politicians also lament the eradication of the extended family structure—in which elders live with their children and grandchildren—by Kemalist modernizers not merely because elders are transmitters of religious and traditional values, but also because they consider the nuclear family to be responsible for the gradual loss of the social protection and caregiving function of the family, causing dependent populations, such as children, the elderly and the disabled, increasingly rely on state care.

Whether or not such policies will actually rectify any of the alleged damages wrought by Kemalism, such policies are particularly problematic due to the challenge they present to women’s rights and advancement by reinstating patriarchal norms. The transformation of the Ministry of Women’s Issues and the Family into the Ministry of the Family and Social Policies, for example, positions women’s rights as a policy issue solved by strengthening the family, rather than through reformulating state policies or fighting patriarchy. The disappearance of “women” from the name of the ministry suggests that its services would be allocated to women regardless since their gender identity is predicated upon their traditional roles in the family as mothers and wives. Through this slight linguistic switch, the ministry has effectively excluded from its jurisdiction unmarried women and single mothers who do not live in the same household as their parents or other family members.

Nearly all of the AKP’s population and welfare policies associate women with motherhood and their traditional reproductive, childrearing and caregiver roles, and thereby render their position in patriarchal Turkish society more vulnerable and precarious. The emphasis on early marriage may prevent some girls from pursuing higher education and may exacerbate the problem of underage marriages, which constitute almost one third of all marriages in Turkey.[21] Expecting at least three children and discouraging (and limiting access to) birth control also imposes restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and their participation in paid labor.[22] Most Turkish women tend to leave their jobs after major life events such as engagement, marriage, pregnancy and childbirth.[23] In fact, some government policies already encourage women’s retreat from employment: The labor law promises a severance payment to newly married women who leave their job within a year after their wedding.[24] Furthermore, government welfare policies that offer cash transfers to families conditional upon having more children or providing home care to dependent members may lead to more full-time stay at home moms and caregivers rather than encouraging them to pursue careers and acquire financial independence.

In short, while the AKP’s family-related policies are not likely to turn Turkey into an Islamic state, they reinforce and reinstate a patriarchal social structure in which women are confined to their homes to fulfill their reproductive, nurturing and caregiving roles rather than participating in the public sphere as economically independent and self-reliant individuals.


Endnotes

[1] Akparti, “Hükümet Programi,” 2003.

[2] Özlem Altiok, “Reproducing the Nation,” Contexts, May 20, 2013.

[3] Kasim Cindemir and Uzay Bulut, “Turkish President Under Fire for Views on Women,” VOA, June 11, 2016.

[4] Tulay Cetingulec, “Turkey’s baby boom sends many children into state care,” Al-Monitor, August 13, 2015.

[5] Kadri Gursel, “Erdoğan’s ‘Three Children’ Campaign Alienates Women,” Al-Monitor, June 25, 2013.

[6] The average number of children per household was 4.33 percent in 1978 while it was 2.14 percent in 2015. According to predictions, this average will go down to 1.85 percent in 2023.

[7] Çiğdem Kağıtçıbaşı and Bilge Ataca, “Value of Children and Family Change: A Three‐Decade Portrait From Turkey,” Applied Psychology 54/3 (2005).

[8] “Turkey paid over 450 million liras to encourage procreation: Ministry,” Hürriyet Daily News, May 19, 2016.

[9] To encourage childbirth, couples are promised a one-time financial assistance of 300 TL for the birth of their first child, 400 TL for their second child, and 600 TL for the fourth and more.

[10] Since 2013, the government has given loans to pay for the kindergarten expenses of around two thousand children. Moreover, new mothers are now given the option of working part-time while receiving full-time pay for 2 months for their first child, 4 months for the second, and 6 months for the third child and beyond.

[11] “Devlet tüp bebekte deneme sayısını 2’den 3’e çıkardı,” Hürriyet Daily News, January 10, 2014.

[12] Benjamin Bilgen, Olivia Rose Walton and Hannah Walton, “Women’s Rights: Now Optional,” Research Turkey, June 21, 2016.

[13] Hayati Arıgan, “Skandal!” Haber Türk, June 20, 2013.

[14] Ayşe Buğra and Çağlar Keyder, “The Turkish welfare regime in transformation,” Journal of European Social Policy 16/3 (2006).

[15] Berna Yazici, “The Return to the Family: Welfare, State, and Politics of the Family in Turkey,” Anthropological Quarterly 85/1 (Winter 2012).

[16] “Geniş aile gitti, çekirdek aile geldi,” Haber Türk, October 6, 2015.

[17] ÖzateŞ Atauz and Sevil Atauz, “Evaluations of Social Workers About Family Reunification Program,” Toplum ve Sosyal Hizmet 22/2 (2011).

[18] Tulay Cetingulec, “Turkey’s baby boom sends many children into state care,” Al-Monitor, August 13, 2015.

[19] As of May 2015, the government has delivered financial support for almost 63,000 children according to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies’ Children Services Directorate.

[20] By the end of 2015, the government provided 4 billion TL for 450 thousand families providing home care for the elderly and the disabled. See “Bakım aylığı alanlar 470 bin kişiye ulaştı,” Haber Türk, October 2, 2015.

[21] Around one third of all marriages in the country are between an older man and a child, according to statistics from a Turkey Population and Health Research Survey. See “Child marriages make up one third in Turkey,” Hürriyet Daily News, December 7, 2015.

[22] According to the Labor Force Statistics in 2015, only 31.5 percent of women have paid jobs, and only 17.2 percent of these women have jobs other than as agricultural workers.

[23] Umut Korkut and Hande Eslen-Ziya, “The impact of conservative discourses in family policies, population politics, and gender rights in Poland and Turkey,” Social Politics 18/3 (2011).

[24] Turkish Labor Act 1475: Article 14 and 4857: Article 120.

How to cite this article:

Hikmet Kocamaner "The Politics of Family Values in Erdogan’s New Turkey," Middle East Report 288 (Fall 2018).
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