ErdoIan hampers girls’ education

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- Adalet Binici, a 14-year-old Kurdish girl in eighth grade, became the champion in last year’s Level Determination Examination (SBS), a high school placement test administered by the Turkish government to over a million students nationwide, thanks to the supplementary education and training provided by a prep school run by the Hizmet movement that is inspired by education-savvy Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. Coming from a poor family of seven, she did not even have her own room to study in, so she spent most of her after-school time at the prep school studying and preparing for this very competitive exam.

Her province, located in southeastern Turkey at the Iraqi and Syrian borders, is perhaps the most impoverished part of Turkey, yet she achieved the opportunity to enroll in any top high school of her choosing in Turkey, thanks to Hizmet volunteers’ educational investment in this predominantly Kurdish province.

Terrorized by the Marxist-Leninist armed group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the residents of the province had not had much cause for hope for decades and had to rely mostly on social assistance because border trade, livestock breeding and crop farming did not bring much income. Government employees, be it doctors or teachers, always saw the province as a place of exile and rushed to flee from there at the first opportunity, despite additional payroll incentives.

It was under these challenging conditions that members of Hizmet volunteered to go to the province to educate and train Kurdish children. That was the hope that became reality with many bright students like Ms. Binici getting the educational opportunity to be able to compete with students in the western part of the country.

The proven record of Hizmet-affiliated educational institutions successful performance over the years is not limited to the southeast, of course. The champion of this year’s Transition to Higher Education Exam (YGS), a national university entrance examination run by the government, OIuz TurkyIlmaz, who prepared for the exam with the Hizmet-affiliated FEM University Preparation School in Malatya, said he owes most of his success to his prep school teachers. There are numerous other examples of similar success stories and the Turkish media has reported extensively on their achievements over years.

Now Turkey’s divisive Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoIan, who loathes Hizmet’s Sufi-oriented Islamic perspective and sees it as a direct challenge to his political Islamist ideology, pushed a bill through Parliament earlier this year to have these prep schools shut down by 2015. By doing so, his government, dominated by Islamist zealots, has dealt a big blow to women’s empowerment in Turkey, especially in less developed regions where public schools have been failing terribly. The only successful outlet that provided educational opportunities for this mostly conservative part of society has, for some time, been Hizmet-run educational institutions, be it the prep schools, study halls or private colleges.

After the prep schools, ErdoIan has now begun to clamp down on private schools as well an army of inspectors has been sent out to harass students, parents and school administrators at Hizmet schools as part of the government-backed intimidation campaign. The relentless, hateful campaign ErdoIan has sustained for the last five months in a frontal assault on these educational institutions will take a particularly big toll on girls’ education and undercut the long effort to empower women in Turkey. Many families who send their daughters to Hizmet-run educational outlets are conservative and many maintain strong traditional values. They take great comfort in knowing that these educational institutions are trustworthy, dependable and observe the family and social values seen in predominantly conservative Turkish society. ErdoIan is taking this option away from these families.

Given that subjects such as female illiteracy, better access to quality education and employment, and violence against women are major issues in Turkey, cracking down on Hizmet schools, all run privately with funds raised by volunteers and do not cost taxpayers in Turkey a dime, is certainly a counterproductive campaign to empower women. Perhaps that is what the political Islamists running the government want to see in this country and perhaps they have no interest whatsoever in seeing women be empowered. Undoubtedly, education is key to addressing important matters such as the low participation rate of women in the labor force, violence against women, underage marriage, the underrepresentation of women in politics, economic life and government, and many other challenges.

Take the problem of violence against women in Turkey, for instance. When questioned, ErdoIan’s apologists list a number of legislative measures adopted by the government to curtail violence against women, training programs for officials in law enforcement conducted by the Ministry of the Interior, action plans adopted by the Ministry for Family Affairs and Social Policy and ratifying international conventions as evidence of the government’s commitment to combatting violence against women. Yet it has been a lackluster performance, because the government did not seize upon these new legal and regulatory instruments to build substantive educational initiatives to improve the position of women. According to a Human Rights Watch study done in May 2011, 42 percent of women over 15 years of age and 47 percent of female rural residents have undergone physical or sexual violence at the hands of their spouse or partner at least once in their lives.

That means that Turkey cannot resolve these issues without addressing the root of the problem, which is limited access to quality education for women. Focusing too much on punitive measures will not produce the intended results, as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)oncluded in its judgment in the Opuz v. Turkey case in September 2009. The court criticized Turkey for a lack of diligence on the part of the authorities to take action against the perpetrator of domestic violence in the case as well as an overall insufficient commitment to take appropriate action to address the problem of domestic violence.

Another daunting picture can be seen in politics. The ErdoIan government also failed to narrow gender inequality in governance. His party has only 45 female deputies among 313, corresponding to merely 14.4 percent in his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary group. In local government, less than 1 percent of mayors have been women and that did not change in the last election on March 30. In the Cabinet, there is only one female minister. What is more, ErdoIan’s close aisors are all men, with the exception of his daughter.

The economic picture is not so different. Women’s participation in the labor market was 30.5 percent in 2011 as opposed to 63 percent in the European Union. The main reason for this low rate is a lack of education. Female illiteracy continues to be major obstacle to women’s participation in public life and the business world. According to government estimates, the number of illiterate women in the country is approximately 3 million, most are in the less developed regions of the southeast, where the literacy rate increased by only 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, reaching 70 percent.

The restricted access to education for girls has also social implications. For example, child marriage is a big problem confronting girls in Turkey, where one in three marriages is a child marriage and half are between illiterate boys and girls, according to a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) survey in 2012. This research highlights the link between poverty, illiteracy, child brides and the greater risk of girls being exposed to physical, psychological and sexual violence. When all these factors are combined, it is not surprising to see that Turkey ranked 120th of 136 countries in the Global Gender Equality Gap Report 2013 that measures economic participation and opportunities, educational outcomes, health and survival and political capabilities.

Gulen has always aocated for the education of women and aocated for their empowerment, a progressive view that stands in contrast to the views of other Islamic leaders. His ideals were not only given life in Turkey, his homeland, but they also led to the establishment of girls schools in Afghanistan and other countries where the education of girls has traditionally never been a priority. Now Turkey’s number one political Islamist, Prime Minister ErdoIan, threatens to shut down these institutions not only in Turkey but also in other countries where his government has leverage. ErdoIan is lobbying his counterparts to crack down on these schools, the first Turkish leader to do so in republican history.

ErdoIan does not seem to realize it, but the downside of this shameful policy is that he is also sabotaging his own vision of making Turkey one of the top economies in the world. Without an increased contribution to economic life from women as a vehicle for growth, Turkey cannot tap into its full potential and can never be a major economic powerhouse in the world. For that, girls’ education must be a priority for his government, and for any government, for that matter.