The Future of Women in Turkey: What Are the Prospects?

Women’s struggle towards becoming equal and free individuals has progressed considerably both in the world and in Turkey. Yet, despite positive developments, there is still a long way to go. This article is about the developments shaping women’s demands and expectations in Turkey, and how these could be connected to a ”new phase of modernizationÓ.

The history of the achievement of women’s rights in Turkey constitutes a significant part of the country’s modernization process. In fact, women’s struggle for emancipation in Turkey dates back to the 1860s and continued in various forms to the late 1910s when this aspiration coincided with the ÒModern TurkeyÓ objective of Mustafa Kemal AtatŸrk and his companions. In fact it became a significant part of the latter’s modernization project.. In terms of universal women’s rights Turkey made a strong early jump following the creation of the Republic. It then experienced a process which, even considering the delays which prevailed in some instances, was in very broad terms parallel to global developments, including the demands of the second wave women’s movement with respect to the fight concerning violence against women and the institutionalization of equality.

Today, Turkey’s modernization process in general is confronted with the need for a rejuvenated perspective. Women’s current demands in the realm of equality and freedom would be expected to hold a significant place in this perspective. It will be particularly important for social democrats to prepare the clearest and most effective answers in this domain, and to realize them in close contact with the women’s movement.

In the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2010 Global Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranked 126th out of 134 countries overall. This extremely low rank is primarily due to the deficiencies prevailing in the domain of participation. In fact, Turkey’s worst rank was in economic participation and equality of opportunity, where it came 131st out of 134. Above all, this is because the Female Labor Force Participation Rate remains only around 25-30 %. And Turkey ranks 99th in political participation. In the health factor classification of the study, Turkey was in a relatively better 61st place, but 109th in education. Among the reasons for the latter rank is the fact that there are approximately 4 million illiterate adult women in Turkey, and 500,000 girls still do not participate in compulsory schooling. Even the situation of a large share of those with education is problematic. In the knowledge-driven era that the world has entered, education means the future; but educational indicators concerning women in Turkey reflect a bleak future for them. Moreover, had it not been for Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) opposition, the educational law known as Ò4+4+4,Ó which was recently passed unilaterally by the government, looked set to effectively exclude women from compulsory education. The revised law is still very flawed in this respect and several other critical aspects.

Even more disturbingly, each day five women are killed on average in Turkey. Among married women above the age of 15, the proportion of those who have been subjected to violence at least once in their lives is one third in the world, one quarter in Europe as a whole, and two fifths in Turkey. This means that at least eight million Turkish women have been subjected to violence.

We witnessed important improvements in legislation starting in the middle of the 1990s. However, in the last 10 years we have been facing a problem that only gets worse after every general election. This problem is that the leader of the party in power does not believe in gender equality, and the mentality with which it approaches women’s issues is based on the concept of Òunfair treatment,Ó rather than Òrights.
In July 2010, during a meeting with women’s organizations at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Prime Minister ErdoÛan openly declared that he didn’t believe in gender equality. Although there have been subsequent attempts to mitigate the effect of this statement, it has created undesirable long term consequences.

One of the consequences of the constitutional referendum of September 2010 has been the effective elimination of women from the high courts. Very significantly, the ÒyesÓ vote in the same referendum has also led to the practical elimination of the judiciary’s independence. Any independent observer would confirm this. In fact the opposition had demonstrated before the referendum the inevitability of this consequence in case of a yes vote.

Furthermore, in the new system concerning ministries introduced by the Decree-Laws enacted in the year following the referendum, i.e. in 2011, the word ÒwomenÓ was erased from the ministry whose functions comprise women’s issues.

In fact, the government is acting unilaterally and undemocratically in most critical fields. A most disconcerting example is the ¬4+4+4¬education law mentioned above, and it has emerged at a time when the preparation of a new constitution is under way. This puts prospects for a democratic constitution in serious danger. Moreover, the situation of the judiciary is worsening every day, so much so that even some members of the government cannot refrain from expressing concern about this state of affairs, despite the fact that it is of their own making. The perception of illegal phone tapping is widespread,. During discussions concerning the amendment of the law on the struggle against violence in the family, dialogue with civil society organizations has been severely restricted. The government’s stance on abortion has also been very worrying.

All this shows that a new phase has been reached in terms of the regression of women’s rights, and these negative developments also go hand in hand with regressions in a number of basic democratic structures, most notably the judiciary. Some of the judicial verdicts concerning rape and the murder of women, especially those relating to children, are very disturbing. Yet the declarations of a number of ministers and MPs of the ruling party, as well as a number of official reports, condone and directly or indirectly encourage the dangerous regressive trend in women’s rights witnessed in public life while also often including expressions disregarding the importance and value of the Republic in terms of women’s rights. We, as citizens, have to reflect deeply on how violence against women and acts of murder targeting them could possibly reach such terrible dimensions.

On the basis of the evidence pointing to the negative trend of change, the governing AKP’s attitude in the domain of gender equality has become clear. Expecting a change of mentality on the part of the government is not realistic. It has also become even clearer, including for those who feared an overemphasis on it, how secularism, together with democracy, constitutes an indispensable factor in guaranteeing women’s rights. The attitude of the EU, which ignored all the evidence-based warnings and criticisms regarding its unqualified support for AKP in favor of a ÒyesÓ vote ahead of the 2010 constitutional referendum has been disquieting. The EU furthermore failed to make any tangible correction to this ill advised stand after the referendum even though unequivocal evidence regarding notably the loss of independence of the judiciary has continued to accumulating further. This has been deeply disappointing for women who are struggling for the protection and advancement of freedom and equality. Such an attitude is also impossible to reconcile with basic EU norms and principles, which are so significant and have contributed much to developments in the field of women’s rights. Turkey’s membership of the EU constitutes a long standing major objective for our country, and the corresponding process is expected to be mutually beneficial for both parties. In this context, one would also expect that the EU does not continue to infringe its own fundamental principles to the detriment of both the EU and Turkey.

The change in CHP, which reached a new stage during the recent party congress in July 2012, is a promising development for us women. In his speech at the congress, CHP President Kemal Kilicdaroglu put forward a new perspective for modernization. He has depicted a process which, while in harmony with the modernizing vision of Ataturk and the founders of the Republic, will also encompass all the changes necessary to fully catch the spirit of the time, the Zeitgeist as he put it. The 34th Party Congress was the first one since the change in the party constitution ensured a 33 % quota for women delegates. A large number of women participated in the race for membership of the governing bodies, and some of the elected are leading members of Turkish women’s organizations. A similar quota of 33 % will be applied in the forthcoming local government elections, scheduled for 2014. Now, CHP carries a different meaning in terms of women’s struggle for equality and freedom and is much closer to becoming an effective Òguarantor of rightsÓ and a “voice of hope” for all women.

About Seniye Nazik Isik

Member of Party Council, CHP