For Women’s eNews on August 27, 2013
ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s urging of women to have bigger families–at least three children, or better yet, five–worries Nacide Berber.
The 33-year-old volunteer for a feminist organization in Istanbul called Mor Cati, which translates to “purple roof,” said the government should have no role in family planning.
“According to me, the woman has to decide how many children she wants to have because we are talking about our bodies, women’s bodies, and the woman has to decide what she wants to do,” Berber said in an interview at Mor Cati’s Istanbul office.
Berber, who lives with her husband in Istanbul, said Erdogan’s stance on abortion–to ban it after eight weeks of pregnancy instead of the current 10–is close to an outright ban. Giving women only eight weeks to decide, plan and access abortion services makes it impossible for some women in Turkey to participate.
While Erdogan has not issued any legislation to limit abortions to eight weeks, some hospitals, due to the controversial nature of abortion, have followed Erdogan’s suggestion.
“When Erdogan gave a speech about three children, I was very nervous and I complained about it because women have a right to decide how many children they want,” said Berber.
She said that even though Erdogan is still just at the talking stage about population policy, the government still has influence over family planning in private households of Turkey due to the country’s patriarchal makeup.
Pelin Batu, a Turkish actress, poet, author and activist, agrees. “Every time the prime minister gives a speech, it’s almost as if he’s acting the part of a social architect, wherein he’s preaching for us to be a religious family or he wants religious youth,” she said.
The prime minister’s fertility push began in 2008. That year, on March 8, in a speech in the provincial city of Usak to commemorate International Women’s Day, he advised his “dear sisters” to have at least three, preferably five, children.
Afterwards a Turkish daily newspaper suggested that perhaps Erdogan would like to see International Women’s Day renamed “International Childbirth Day.”
In his frequent speeches about matters of private family life, Erdogan has decried the evils of abortion and Caesarean sections, which are issues that drew many women to the anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
“They are saying I am interfering in their lives when I call on women to have at least three children,” Erdogan told a crowd of supporters in a speech outside the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Istanbul office on Aug. 8. “We have not brought out a legal obligation for this. This is something optional. But I, as a prime minister, am recommending three children. This is my most natural right. We are not holding a gun to anybody’s head [to have three children].”
Erdogan’s rhetoric has translated into governmental restrictions on alcohol sales and advertising.
Batu said Erdogan’s population politics are fueled by his capitalistic desires for a strong economy. “The thing is, statistically, [the prime minister is] right, because when you look at everything from an economical point of view it makes sense because he obviously wants a young country and a young work force,” she said.
The Hurriyet Daily News reported on April 23 that the proportion of children in respect to the total population will fall from 30 percent in 2012 to 19.1 percent in 2050.
If Erdogan is able to spur a baby boom, Batu thinks something should be done to expand the public education system.
“If you can’t educate these kids, then what good is a work force?” said Batu, who completed her Ph.D. in history at Bogazici University in Turkey. “Are you going to just stuff them into factories and have this great preliterate force that’s going to feed your economy?”
In 2012, the Turkish government introduced a new national program that extended mandatory schooling from 8 years to 12 years. Public schools in the country are free until 12th grade, however Turkish parents are becoming more likely to opt to pay for private schools due to the quality of education and intense competition to be accepted into higher education.
Unexpected Big Family
Leyla Akinci, a Kurdish woman, spoke to Women’s eNews in her home in the neighborhood of Bagcilar, in the outskirts of Istanbul. She grew up in the Batman region of eastern Turkey, one of 12 children. Akinci was pulled out of school when she was 12, then married at 23. At most, she expected to have two children, but instead she has three and is expecting another. Akinci’s eldest children are Meryem, 9, and Ahmet, 8. Her youngest child, Avsin, 5, and the child she is expecting was unplanned.
“I don’t like the idea of having a big family,” Akinci said. “It’s hard to feed a lot of children, and they always fight with each other. It’s hard to send them all to school.”
Her son Ahmet runs into their bottom floor apartment after playing soccer in the street. He yells for her attention, but she goes on to talk about her reaction to the prime minister’s population politics.
“I can’t support it. But when the prime minister proposes this kind of idea, the government has to offer money or salary to feed these children,” Akinci said.
Turkey’s Family and Social Policies Ministry announced a financial plan to provide “incentive for children” similar to social services in European countries, The Hurriyet Daily News reported in February.
If the Turkish government were to offer money for families to have more children, Akinci would not be inclined to participate. “Even if the government offers money for you to have children, I don’t like that because having a big family is too crowded,” she said.
‘One is Enough’
Burce Celik, vice dean of communication at Bahcesehir University, describes herself as a modern and secular mother and believes Erdogan’s suggestion for three children is not feasible in Turkey’s current economy.
“One is enough for a family” said Celik, 36, whose son is 11 years old. “Three is too many. Sometimes two is too many. It’s so expensive, especially in Turkey where you don’t have good public schools, you don’t have extra benefits. It’s very expensive.”
One Kurdish mother of five, Rakiye Akinci–a relative of Leyla Akinci–interprets the prime minister’s population politics as an expression of ethnic rivalry with her community, which has long sought one of two things: independence or greater political and cultural rights for Kurds inside the Republic of Turkey.
The Kurdish community still experiences discrimination by Turks due to armed conflicts since the 1970s. While some Kurds support Erdogan, most subscribe to Kurdish and leftist political groups.
Rakiye Akinci, 32, believes most Turkish families want only two children. She says one of Erdogan’s motivations behind the statement is to increase the Turkish population in order to further alienate Kurdish people.
“Each Kurdish family has five or six children. So they see the Kurdish population is increasing and the Turkish population is decreasing so just want to make sure that the Turkish population must be increasing,” she said.
Rakiye Akinci grew up in a family of nine siblings in a town in eastern Turkey. She and her husband agreed to have a large family in keeping with their shared Kurdish custom. She hopes her children will have a profession in the future, get married and then look after her as she grows old.
Erin Browner is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. She interned with Women’s eNews as a foreign correspondent while based in Istanbul during June and July of 2013.