A newborn baby in an incubator. Photo: Getty Images
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True reproductive justice is more than being allowed to become a mother at an older age

Simply having the choice to have children later than before isn't a sign of greater freedom - it's simply a sign of greater privilege under the same old patriarchy.

Older mothers, feel guilty no more! David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has decided that there’s no point in berating you for having “left it too late”. The shift towards older motherhood is, he claims, unavoidable and hence he’s not here to judge you:

I think it [the trend] is irreversible because of increasing equality in the social, professional, financial [and] corporate environment we live in. If you put a man in that situation, they would do exactly the same. I completely respect that position."

At thirty-nine and as the mother of two small children, perhaps I ought to be delighted at this laissez-faire attitude, but the truth is, I’m not. It’s not that I regret having children later (I don’t), it’s that any talk of an “irreversible” trend due to “increasing equality” strikes me as untrue. The apparent inevitability of older motherhood isn’t a sign than we’re becoming a more equal society; on the contrary, it relies on an implicit acceptance of all the inequalities that persist, ones based not just on reproductive difference, but on class, race and age.

Older motherhood is nothing to be ashamed of. Nevertheless, the risks involved in delaying conception – risks which include miscarriage, high-risk pregnancy or simply never conceiving at all – are not a price we are paying for our individual workplace “liberation”. They’re the price individual women pay for a broader societal resistance to economic redistribution and cultural transformation. That it is, apparently, unthinkable that we organise our working lives and social relations any other way is anything but a cause for celebration. As Nina Power notes in One Dimensional Woman, this betrays an appalling lack of imagination in the face of contemporary capitalism:

We can have as many vibrators as we like, and drink as much booze as we can physically tolerate, but anything else outside the echo chamber of money-possessions-pleasure is strictly verboten. Communes, you say! Collectives! Alternative models of the family! What are you, mad?! It’s a weary indictment of the state of things when virtually every book on these topics has been removed from your university library. People can’t possibly have once thought that there might be more to life than Daddy-Mummy-Me...could they?"

And yet they did. However resigned we are today, it wasn’t always like this. One of the key demands of second-wave feminism was free 24-hour nursery care, making economic independence feasible for mothers of any age, class or familial set-up. While this may now seem hopelessly naïve, it’s worth noting how much further away the UK is from such a goal in comparison with other OECD nations. How “inevitable” are a woman’s choices when they vary so greatly depending on where she was born?

Radical feminism has argued that men exploit women for their reproductive capacities. To many this will sound ludicrous. But they don't, not any more! Women have the right to choose! But (relatively) legal abortion, access to contraception and a (slight) reduction in the expectation that all women must breed are not the same as true reproductive justice. This is a point that Black feminists and womanists have made repeatedly but which middle-class white feminists have often ignored, focussing instead on how to work the current system before realising it doesn’t work, not even for us. It’s a mark of our privilege that we leave it too late. We’ve bought into a myth of choice which wasn’t even offered to the majority of women. 

In a 1989 interview with Time magazine (quoted by Power), Toni Morrison offers up a vision of motherhood that is truly inclusive, dependent not on wealth, race, age or the presence of a partner (male or female):

I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community – everybody – to raise a child […][Young Black mothers] can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. […] I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘Your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

When challenged over how one would in fact pay for this since “you can’t just hand out money”, Morrison’s response is simple:

Why not? Everybody gets everything handed to them. The rich get it handed – they inherit it. I don’t mean just inheritance of money. I mean what people take for granted among the middle and upper classes, which is nepotism, the old-boy network. That’s shared bounty of class.

To put the injustice in such simple terms is, I think, devastating. We deprive mothers and babies of the support they need to thrive because we’ve reduced it to a matter of “individual choice”. We describe the different choices women make as “inevitable” even though they are quite clearly dependent on social prejudice, racial privilege and the prioritisation of profit over human life. We even have the nerve to couch this in terms of “increasing equality”. It is nothing of the sort.

My partner once taught a bright eight-year-old girl who told him she planned on having a baby at twelve. Taken aback, he asked her why:

If I leave school at 16 the baby will just be starting so I'll be able to find a job and get my life back."

How we laughed. Laughed and laughed. And then we stopped laughing as it became clear that, given the choices currently available to young women, it's not that ridiculous a plan. We could all be doing so much better but right now we lack the will. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue