ISTANBUL — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provoked a political storm in Turkey over his call to crackdown on mixed sex student accommodations. The prime minister claims the move is in response to concerned parents. But the crackdown has raised questions about whether the Islamic-rooted ruling party is pursuing a religious agenda.
Erdogan says cohabitation is intolerable and said the government had already shut down mixed accommodations in 75 percent of state-run student dormitories.
Erdogan's critics have repeatedly accused him of intrusiveness into private life, from his advice to women on the number of children they should have to his views on abortion.
A student, who lives with her boyfriend, said she believes the move is part of a religious agenda.
"They don’t like men and women together because they are an Islamic party and these things always happen in Turkey and actually all of them are about the women and women’s body," she said. "I don’t think this issue is about men. It’s only about women and a woman's life."
Erdogan, whose AK Party has its roots in Islamist politics, denies any religious motives, claiming it’s in response to calls from concerned parents.
But throughout the prime minister’s decade-long rule, he has been dogged by accusations he is undermining the 90-year-old secular state, a charge he steadfastly has rejected.
Ayfe Bartu Candan, a sociology professor at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, said the latest move threatens to re-open the debate over his government’s agenda.
"For secularists, their immediate response is 'well of course. This is who he really is and this was his real agenda, and now he is making public,'" Bartu said.
According to observers, this latest controversy comes just after a political consensus had been reached over the deeply divisive issue of lifting a ban on female parliamentary deputies wearing religious headscarves in parliament.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party -- the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern secular republic -- accuses the prime minister of trying to resurrect the conflict between the secular and religious ahead of an 18-month election cycle that culminates in general elections in 2015. But Erdogan insists he is following an agenda of “conservative democracy.”
Pinar Ilkkaracan, co-founder of Turkey’s Women for Women's Human Rights, said the latest move is part of a trend aimed at controlling women.
"The main pillar of their conservatism is the control of sexuality of women’s bodies and this also is now a statement of the lives of youths, especially of girls," Ilkkaracan said. "Because he literally is accusing them of being immoral. He said the word 'immoral'. This is a country where honor crimes are taking place. Where girls can be killed because of honor."
The prime minister received rare criticism from some of his own supporters.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc sought to play down the controversy saying it was not on the government’s agenda. But his comment was rebuked by Mr. Edogan, who insisted it was. Some influential columnists in the country’s powerful pro Islamist media have also questioned the move.
Legal experts claim there is no existing law that could enforce a ban on mixed student cohabitation. But local media has reported that police have started to raid student homes.
In addition to introducing legislation, Erdogan is also considering calling on neighbors to report students. Sociologist Bartu Candan warns such statements will add to existing tensions in Turkish society.
"We have been hearing about landlords or neighbors complaining and threatening these students and now they will have more courage and probably, I am afraid, the legal framework to justify any intervention. And, that is the part I find most scary," Bartu said.
The European Union has expressed in statements that it's concerned, saying governments have no right to interfere in adults living arrangements. Despite such criticism, the Turkish prime minister shows no signs of backing down.