Monday, April 11, 2011

Women Rights in Turkey: The Women`s Movement after the 1980 Military Coup in Turkey

Rape and sexual violence in family and society, social and cultural pressure, lack of education for women, gender discrimination at workplace, and sexual harassment in the workplace is the major problems affecting women in our society. Violence shapes gender relations in multiple ways. Killings carried out in the name of honor are one of the most visible and lethal forms of gender based violence. In its less visible, more subtle forms, gender-based violence threatens the physical and emotional integrity of millions of women living in Turkey, and billions globally. Domestic violence especially that carried out by husbands comprises a “constitutive dimension” of women’s life (Bora and Üstün 2005, 18).

We, the people of the Republic of Turkey feel proud of our glorious history. We say that Turkish women are granted the right to vote since 1934. In addition to this, in 1926, the new Turkish civil code passed. Under the new code, women gained equality with men in such matters as inheritance and divorce. Moreover, in 1935, 18 women deputies had chairs in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. As a percentage, they accounted for 4.5% of all the seats in the Assembly, one of the highest proportions in the world at that time. 

Despite some advancements made by women in today’s society they are still affected by some challenges. Turkey is an interesting example, from the aspect of the position of women, because it is a country which is influenced by all the contradictions of globalization and traditions. First of all, the great majority of the population in Turkey is Muslim and gaining some important rights by the women is not easy in Islamic or traditional societies. However, women have started to get some rights since the end of the 19th century in the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, women got maybe the most important rights through the republic in Turkey. Women gained many rights for the first time, including the rights to vote. With abiding faith in the vital importance of women in society, Atatürk launched many reforms to give Turkish women equal rights and opportunities. The new Civil Code, adopted in 1926, abolished polygamy and recognized the equal rights of women in divorce, custody, and inheritance. The entire educational system from the grade school to the university became coeducational. These rights were very important for the women when we consider the structure of the society, and conditions of that time period. In all walks of life, Atatürk's Turkey has produced tens of thousands of well-educated women who participate in national life as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers, administrators, executives, and creative artists.  

First female MPs of the Turkish Parliament (1935)

        Yes, maybe we should feel proud of our history but we should look the events, objectively. In the first republican era in Turkey, women granted some rights, but they were not totally free. For example, in 1935, the Turkish Woman’s Union (TWU) was shut downed.  It had a big mission which played the role of a bridge between the Ottoman women’s movement and republican women. Ankara claimed that as women had “full equal status with men”, there was no need for a women’s organization such as TWU. That was the end of the women’s movement for 40 years to come. 

         When we look at the time period between 1940s and 1980s, we cannot see any improvement in the women rights in Turkey. As the most of feminist scholars state that the real women` s movement started in 1980s in the Republic of Turkey. Interestingly, it was under these very difficult circumstances that the Turkish women’s movement emerged as the first democratic opposition movement. 

            The military intervention in 1980 forbade all political activities on the left and thereby enabled the emergence of a democratic and pluralistic women’s movement. Although the military coups harm the democracy in the countries, women had a big role in the re-democratization process after the military coup of 1980 in Turkey. 

        We can see some improvements in the re-democratization era of the Republic after 1980s; for example, Turkey ratified the UN Convention for the Elimination of any Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in December 1985 as one of the last states as 83rd state. In 1986, the petition campaign requesting that the International Agreement on Women, which was also confirmed by the Turkish Republic as well be put into force brought women of various levels of the society together again. This was followed in 1987 by the Solidarity Campaign Against Beating after an order by a judge in Çankırı legitimised a husband beating his wife, claiming "Kids and smacks are what every woman needs regularly." A demonstration protesting against beating women took place on 17 May 1987, called by the Women's Association Against Discrimination, Socialist-Feminist Women, and Feminist Magazine. More than a thousand women took part.

Numerous meetings, public demonstrations and political activities of the women’s movement were reactions against state policies. An important example is The First Women’s Congress in 1989, with 800 participants discussing their problems and publishing their "Manifesto for the Rescue of Women", in which they explained that they criticised the state because it maintained the division of labour in society – the main reason for their problems.

In addition to this, women started to write their own novels, and they tried to emphasize the problems of women in Turkey. The major books which published in 1980s;

  • Women in Turkish Society by Nermin Abadan Unat in 1981
  • The Woman Has No Name by Duygu Asena in 1987
  • Women in the Developing World: Evidence from Turkey by Nermin Abadan Unat in 1986
  • The Patriarchal Paradox: Women Politicians in Turkey by Yeşim Arat in 1989
  • Let Them Hear You Scream by the Lilac Roof Foundation in 1988

Actually, the women tried to announce the problems of women in Turkey such as the physical abuse of women by their husbands, fathers or brothers, education and occupational problems of women by these women movements in 1980s and from then on the attitude of the press changed with regard to feminism. Furthermore, we can see the affects of these movements in 1990s. For instance; the Foundation for Purple Roof Shelter established The Foundation opened a Women`s Consultation and Shelter Center in Istanbul in 1990, Women`s Solidarity Foundation opened in 1991, and in 1998, the state recognized the need to protect women’s bodies against violent husbands by adopting the so-called Protection of the Family Act which regulates measures for the protection against violence and criminal measures upon application of women and children suffering from domestic violence or upon the decision of the General Attorney in this regard. 

    In addition to this, Tansu Çiller is elected as the Prime Minister of Turkey in 1993 who is Turkey's first female Prime Minister.

    Since 2000, Turkey's Europeanization process has affected Turkey`s foreign policies. However, the domestic policies are also affected from this process through the European Union`s criteria for the full membership. For example, `In 2000, fewer than 30% of women were in employment, a figure that fell below 25% in 2005. It is also worth noting that women’s share in property ownership is only 8%`(ibid: 4). In 2001, the Civil Law was reformed which includes the property regulations. `The new Civil Law was to be applied from January 2002 onwards and stipulated that the property regulations would be valid only for the couples married after this date. About 17 million women who married under the old property regime – the separation of property – did not benefit from the progressive steps taken by the legislature for future generations` (ibid: 5) Moreover, in 2004, the Penal Code was reformed, abolishing most of the discriminatory articles against women and providing heavy penalties for cases of “honour crimes”. Undoubtedly, the revision of the Civil Code was an important step for the improvement of women’s rights but not enough to end discrimination.

     Consequently, some politicians may emphasize the women`s statutes in the society as a measurement of civilization and democracy or people may think that women are very important for us, because, they are mothers and they bring their children’s up and if the mother are educated and cultured, their children may be educated and cultured, so the society become educated and cultured in their speeches. However, these speeches state sometimes liberal, elitist, and sometimes fascist ideologies on the women. This means that women became a subject or tool for these ideologies. However, from 1940 until 1980, there is no improvement on women rights in Turkey. The real women movements started after the military coup of 1980. When we look at the improvements on women rights in Turkey in 2000s, we can see that it is for Accession of Turkey to the European Union which is the policy of Turkey. So, women are still used for some policies by the politicians. If people want to know what the statutes, struggles, gains of women are, they should look at the after 1980s; even we have still domestic violence, forced marriages, and honor killings problems in the Republic of Turkey.

İsa Burak GONCA 

  • Bora, Aksu and İlknur Üstün. 2005. Sıcak Aile Ortamı, Demokratikleşme Sürecinde Kadın ve Erkekler. Istanbul: TESEV Yayınları.
  • Sirin Tekeli (2006) The Turkish Women's Movement: A Brief History of Success. Istanbul: KADER Yayinlari
  • Violence Against Women in Turkey: a Nationwide Survey, Yeşim Arat with Ayşe Gül Altınay, Istanbul Punto, 2009. 
  • Zuhal Yesilyurt Gunduz The Women’s Movement in Turkey: From Tanzimat towards European Union Membership