Turkish president rounds on feminists, says men and women not equal

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during the opening ceremony of an imam-hatip school in Ankara November 18, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told a meeting on women's rights on Monday that gender equality was contrary to nature and said feminists did not recognise the value of motherhood.

Erdogan, whose conservative, Islamist ideology frequently raises hackles in more liberal segments of Turkish society, said women's "delicate" nature meant it was impossible to place them on an equal footing with men.

"You can't get a woman to work in every job that a man does, like they did in communist regimes in the past," he told the meeting of Turkey's Women and Democracy Association.

"You can't put a pickaxe and a shovel in their hand and get them to work. That's not the way."

He said women should be treated equally in the eyes of the law, but their different role in society had to be recognised.

Erdogan's critics in mostly Muslim but constitutionally secular Turkey have regularly accused him of puritanical intrusiveness into private life, from his advice to women on the number of children they should have to his views on abortion.

But his divisive rhetoric has won him the support of the country's pious Anatolian heartlands, helping secure his victory in the first popular election for head of state in August after more than a decade as prime minister.

"Our religion gave woman a station. What station is this? The station of motherhood ... Motherhood is something different and is the most unobtainable, the highest station," he said.

"There are those who understand this, those who don't. You can't tell this to feminists, because they do not accept motherhood. They have no such concerns."

Economists cite the low numbers of women in the workforce as an obstacle to Turkey's development, while the European Union -- which Turkey has been negotiating to join for over a decade -- has urged the country to do more to improve gender equality.

"We know women are not physiologically equal. But equality is about having equal rights, equal status and equal opportunities," said Gonul Karahanoglu, president of women's rights group KA.DER.

"He defines women only as mothers. It is discriminating against all the women who don't have children. He always says the same things," she said.

(Reporting by Dasha Afansieva and Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Catherine Evans)