AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Friday 8 November 2013
Last update 8 November 2013 1:01 am
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on mixed-sex student dorms has been condemned by critics as a fresh attempt to force conservative values on the staunchly secular country.
Just days after four female lawmakers from his party broke a decades-old taboo by wearing head scarves in Parliament, the prime minister fired a fresh salvo at secularism in the majority-Muslim nation.
“We will not allow girls and boys to live together in state-owned student residences,” Erdogan told lawmakers from his party this week.
“The values I hold on to do not allow such a thing,” he said.
“Anything can happen when it is mixed. We have received complaints from families who asked us to intervene and it is our duty to intervene.”
Swatting aside a barrage of criticism, Erdogan ordered the governors of the country’s 81 provinces to monitor student residences and speak out against immoral behavior.
Three-quarters of state-run student residences already separate the sexes, and the remaining mixed dorms are to be done away with by early 2014, an official source told AFP.
Huseyin Avni Cos, governor of the southern province of Adana, promised to heed Erdogan’s call.
“It is up to the state to protect the youth from bad habits,” he told the Dogan news agency.
But Erdogan’s move has touched a nerve among those who accuse him of trying to force conservative values on Turkey, where laws on alcohol sales and advertising have also been tightened.
Furious Twitter users denounced the move as an attack on private life. One, Wim van Wegen, said: “The ‘democratization’ of authoritative Erdogan’s Turkey is a joke. Ataturk would turn over in his grave,” a reference to the revered founder of secular Turkey in 1923. Erdogan has also made it clear he plans to clamp down on private mixed residences.
“We already have separate apartments with separate entrances and nothing abnormal has happened when we eat together in the canteen,” said amused 22-year-old student Ahmet, who lives in an Ankara residence.
“We are adults and we have the right to vote but not the right to be together, men and women. It’s ridiculous!” he added.
Erdogan’s government faced an unprecedented wave of protests in June over its repression of critics and growing imposition of conservative values on the private lives of Turks.
The main pro-secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said Erdogan’s real aim was to “put a stop to mixed-sex education in general.”
“In a democracy, the state cannot play the voyeur. Stick to your own business,” party spokesman Haluk Koc said Wednesday.
The issue also appears to have troubled some within Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, seen as more moderate than Erdogan, on Tuesday tried to temper the debate.
“We have absolutely no intention of carrying out checks” on students’ living arrangements, he told reporters.
Legal experts have also questioned how the state would intervene against adults living under the same roof when the constitution protects equality of the sexes and fundamental freedoms.
“This isn’t interference in private life,” said Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, adding that Turks were “opposed to their sons and daughters boarding together.”
Despite the criticism and possible legal obstacles, Erdogan remained resolute: “If the laws must be changed, we will change them,” he told journalists Tuesday.
The comment came the same day Turkey reopened talks on joining the European Union. Democratic reforms have been a stumbling block in the longtime EU hopeful’s membership bid.
Peter Stano, spokesman for European Union Commissioner Stefan Fuele, said the choice on whether to live in mixed residences “should in principle be one exercised by the students and their families.”
“A core element of the recent democratization package announced by the prime minister himself was the protection of lifestyles and private choices of every citizen, and this is an element which we wholeheartedly welcomed,” he said.