This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
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 way.
“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.”
Kamisli's feelings follow a strong recommendation from a Sufi Muslim scholar broadcast on state television last month that pregnant women should stay home.
Omer Tugrul Inancer complained during an interview during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that it is “disgraceful” for expectant mothers to show themselves in public.
Meanwhile, a female columnist criticized women who wear short shorts in hospitals and shopping centers in a column earlier this month.
Many women in Turkey were angered by both comments and are now fighting back.
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 girls.
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 forced marriages.”
More than 3.6 million girls under 18 are currently married in Turkey, according to data from the United Nations Population Fund.
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 exemption.
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.
“Early marriage 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.”
Despite 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 Syria.
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 said.
But Kamisli, and others, say they are dedicated to a more inclusive future for themselves and their children, in an ancient country still struggling to modernize.
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