Istanbul -- Elif Kamisli sits with two friends on the patio of a streetside cafe
in Istanbul. Even wearing a slim black dress, she is not hard to spot -- she's
very pregnant, nine-months pregnant, in fact.
Her shapely figure, Kamisli
told The Media Line, often draws attention, but not always in the best
“Since the beginning of my pregnancy when I am in public spaces, I
can feel a kind of eye on me,” Kamisli said. “And sometimes it's not very
welcoming. You can see that everyone is looking at your belly.”
feelings follow a strong recommendation from a Sufi Muslim scholar broadcast on
state television last month that pregnant women should stay home.
Tugrul Inancer complained during an interview during the Muslim holy month of
Ramadan that it is “disgraceful” for expectant mothers to show themselves in
Meanwhile, a female columnist criticized women who wear short
shorts in hospitals and shopping centers in a column earlier this
Many women in Turkey were angered by both comments and are now
Such public comments on women are “unbelievable and
unacceptable,” Nezihe Bilhan, president of the Turkish Association of University
Women, told The Media Line.
Bilhan's organization is currently hosting
nearly 500 women from 58 countries during a conference in Istanbul—part of the
International Federation of University Women, (IFUW) which advocates gender
equality, human rights, and secondary education for women and
Bilhan said it fitting this forum is taking place in a country
whose women's rights situation she described as “terrible.”
One of the
primary obstacles to women's rights in Turkey, she said, are forced marriages,
especially of girls.
“The rules of the family, they are terrible in some
parts of Turkey,” she said. “A woman cannot choose her husband. There are many
More than 3.6 million girls under 18 are currently
married in Turkey, according to data from the United Nations Population
Most underage marriages are arranged by the families of the bride
and groom. The minimum age for civil marriage in Turkey is 17 but in some
instances 16-year-olds are wed after getting a special court
However, religious marriages of even younger girls continue in
parts of Turkey such as southern and eastern Anatolia where forced marriages,
domestic violence, and denial of reproductive rights often play a role in
suicides of women and girls there, according to the UN.
is a major human rights violation because you take away her right to be
educated,” Bilhan said. “When you take her right to be educated then you take
her future. She cannot have a future if she is not educated.”
significant reforms within the last 20 years in women's rights in Turkey that
have increased the number of girls enrolled in school, and extended health
services to more women, Bilhan is hopeful her organization, and others, will
pressure government officials to better enforce the laws protecting the rights
of women here.
Turkey ranked near the bottom of the latest World Economic
Forum's Gender Gap Index, but did better than two of its neighbors: Iran and
Marianne Haslegrave, president of IFUW, described women in Turkey
as moving between two extremes.
There “are the really educated,
articulate, knowledgeable women. They are very high-powered,” Haslegrave told
The Media Line. “Yet in Turkey, you have the other side of the story as well.
[Some are] not necessarily literate, they're not well educated, they're
encouraged to have big families and stay home.”
On an international
level, IFUW is working with the UN to ensure member countries, including Turkey,
develop and implement better gender equality initiatives.
“We need to be
heard, and we need to be seen,” Haslegrave said.
Many women, like Elif
Kamisli, refuse to hide. Even while pregnant, she continues to work and travel
through Istanbul, regardless of how others might react.
“Maybe for some
of them it would be better for me to stay at home and wait for my husband,” she
But Kamisli, and others, say they are dedicated to a more inclusive
future for themselves and their children, in an ancient country still struggling