That Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not only believe but also state openly that he doesn’t believe women to be the equal of men should surprise no one after all these years. While Turkey was once one of the most enlightened majority Muslim populations when it came to women—being one of the first Muslim countries to elect a female prime minister, for example—in recent years, the plight of women has declined precipitously.
According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, Turkey now ranks 125th out of 142 countries, in the bottom not only of Europe, but also of Central Asia, and below Russia, Tajikistan, Swaziland, and conservative Muslim societies like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
Erdoğan has flushed women from top levels of the state bureaucracy; in the current cabinet, there is only one female minister. A few years ago, the Prime Minister’s Office of Personnel found no women among the 25 ministry undersecretaries, and only three women among the 85 deputy undersecretaries. Only one woman served among the 254 regional ministry directors. This is no coincidence: women found little support from Erdoğan, who told them they should have at least three babies and ideally more. It was upon this theme that Erdoğan doubled down in his comments yesterday, declaring, “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women [in society]: Motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t.”
Of course, the most damning statistic which also comes from within the Turkish government is that in the first seven years of Erdoğan’s watch, the murder rate of women in Turkey increased 1,400 percent.
Obama once praised Erdoğan as one of his most trusted international friends. American presidents—with the slight exception of Ronald Reagan—have traditionally been averse to bullhorn diplomacy, that is, using the podium of the Oval Office to lambast adversaries outside the confines of wartime.
But sometimes the most effective thing a president can do is speak with moral clarity from his bully pulpit. Just as Obama’s silence against the backdrop of Iran’s 2009 post-election protests forfeited an important opportunity to define the moral high ground, so too might Obama provide Erdoğan with a teachable moment about bigotry and the contributions women make to societies and have made inside Turkey when treated with equality. Women in Turkey are not willing to take Erdoğan’s slights sitting down; they should know they have support.
It is not only Obama, though, who should speak up and make Erdoğan realize that when he spouts nonsense, others will push back on him. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has had an honorable career. Under her tenure during the Clinton administration, U.S.-Turkey relations arguably reached their tightest. Since leaving government service, she has remained engaged in Turkey. Her word matters, and if she were to stand up and speak out, Turkish officials would notice.
Too many current officials choose to remain silent because they believe principle might get in the way diplomacy. But diplomacy absent principle is often not worth the paper on which it is written. Likewise, former officials bite their lips and remain silent for fear of undercutting business interests or access. That is a short-term approach, however; for if Turkey continues to unravel the progress its women long made and if Erdoğan continues to seek the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s mantle of craziness, then such opportunities aren’t going to persist.
President Obama once solicited Erdoğan’s advice for raising daughters. Perhaps it’s time Obama returned the favor and offered the Turkish strongman some advice on how to treat women.