Turkey's Erdogan says 'women are above all mothers'

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated the Turkish political scene since 2003 (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)

Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday he believed that "a woman is above all else a mother", in a speech marking International Women's Day.

Erdogan has come under fire in the past for urging Turkish women to have at least three children and railing against efforts to promote birth control as "treason".

Critics have accused his government of trying to impose strict Islamic values on Turkey and curtailing women's civil liberties.

"I know there will be some who will be annoyed, but for me a woman is above all a mother," he told an audience of women in Ankara.

He criticised the capitalist system for "enslaving" women in pursuit of profits, and urged the crowd to "protect the family".

"You cannot free women by destroying the notion of family," he said in a speech peppered with verses from the Koran praising the virtues of motherhood.

The president -- who has two sons and two daughters -- has angered feminist groups by saying that women are not equal to men.

Thousands of women gathered in Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's main tourist throughfare, to protest the President's comments on Tuesday night.

"We want equality!" chanted the crowd, according to an AFP journalist on the scene.

"The policy of the AKP and the male hegemony that dominates our society is intended to keep women at the heart of the home and the family," said one of the protesters who gave her name as Gursun.

Another protester, Ayse, added: "We want more equality and freedom for women and that's it."

Hundreds of women also took to the streets of the capital Ankara demanding an end to the "murders of women" and holding pictures of alleged victims.

Erdogan has made controversial proposals to limit abortion rights, the morning-after pill and Caesarian sections.

Violence against women in Turkey -- often involving wives killed by their husbands -- has risen sharply in recent years and activists say nowhere near enough action has been taken to tackle the problem.