In a widely publicised speech, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last November that “men and women are not equal; it is against nature”. Although many in Turkey and outside seemed surprised by this, it was nevertheless the echo of deeply-ingrained attitudes within Turkish society about gender equality, or inequality.

What made it more surprising is that this statement was made by the leader of a country that is negotiating for European Union membership. Erdogan’s personal view may well reflect a dominant social norm in Turkey, but adapting to European norms on gender equality is important to the country’s hopes of EU accession. Gender equality is not a formal EU membership criterion, but candidate countries are nevertheless expected to conform to European norms on the matter.

It would be wrong to say that EU members don’t have their own problems in varying degrees regarding gender-based discrimination, but they are much less visible. The distance that Turkey must make up to close the gap on gender equality is underlined by its ranking last year in the Gender Gap Index as 125th out of 140 countries.

Turkey is a prime example of a country of paradoxes when it comes to gender equality. On the one hand, women hold 47% of the academic positions, are 35% of engineers, 33% of lawyers and 30% of doctors. On the other, there are practically no women at the highest levels of Turkish bureaucracy, and there’s only one token female minister in the Turkish Cabinet. While 12% of CEOs in Turkey are women, compared to 3% for the EU, the participation rate for women in the active labour force at around 24% is the lowest of all the OECD countries.

Turkey’s long process of social transformation on gender equality and legal rights began as far back as 1934. But any thorough analysis of gender equality in Turkey would need to take into consideration the legal structure, social norms and the political situation in the country. The Constitution clearly states that Turkish laws do not discriminate on the basis of gender, and guarantees equality before the law. Yet when it comes to protecting Turkish women against violence, ensuring their rights of education and employment, and even their right to choose their own spouse, women face layers of discrimination. Child marriages and domestic violence are the most visible forms, with around 30-35% of all marriages in Turkey involving under-age girls, rising in rural southeastern Turkey to up to 75%. Domestic violence against women is reckoned to have reached epidemic proportions with 300-400 women killed by their partners every year since 2006.

The underlying factor that has been shaping the gender equality debate in Turkey appears to be the widespread perception that women are by nature inferior. Many Turkish politicians reinforce the view that women’s role in society is that of traditional home makers and mothers. This increasingly anti-equality rhetoric is leading to the further deterioration of women’s already shaky rights, and is complicating Turkey’s uneasy relations with the European Union.