Questioning women’s rights in Turkey? Ask a woman

Ceylan Ozbudak
Ceylan Ozbudak
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
12 min read

This week on Thursday, the people of Turkey celebrated the 70th anniversary of Turkish women’s right to vote, as well as the 80th anniversary of co-education in Turkey. The law recognizing women's voting rights was passed on Dec. 5, 1934, and the one on co-education on March 3, 1924. Even though Turkish women obtained the right to vote before many European countries it is still a shame that today we are referring to this as a favor in the world. Even the fact that we have to remember this day as somehow 'unique' or 'exceptional' is a disgrace; it should have been this way all along.

Within the confines of the opportunities they have been provided, women have always been frontrunners in the transformation of societies. Revolutions, uprisings, and ideological movements have generated arguments and policies related to the status of women in society. Changes or transformations that were not supported by women have never been achieved. How did the world come to believe that it is exceptional to grant equal rights to women? What makes men think they can tell women what and what not to do? Very clearly it is not because of a difference in intellectual capacity but can be because of physical capacity, which makes the act totally animalistic.

"Even though Turkish women obtained the right to vote before many European countries, it is a shame that we still refer to this as a favor"

Ceylan Ozbudak

I can almost hear my dissent claiming it is a religious obligation of men to control women, which is one of the greatest lies in history. Those who say oppressing women is in Islam are traditional conservatives. There is a difference between a traditional conservative and a religious conservative. The former preserve the moral values of traditions of their tribe or community rather than preserving the moral values of religion like the latter. At the time of our Prophet (pbuh) and before, a woman was not the owner of her property, nor could she inherit the property of her father or husband, though in some cases she had the right of managing it during the husband’s lifetime. When married, she was either assigned to her husband for good as his property, and in no circumstances could she be separated from him. Should the husband leave her, there was no law to protect her. It was obligatory on her to be resigned to her lot, and work for a living both for herself and her children. Should the husband die, the wife fell into the hands of her husband’s relatives, who could then marry her to whomsoever they liked. She was merely property, like a sofa or a hand-me-down bookcase. Some husbands would sell their wives or lose them in gambling and betting, and these were all considered to be within their rights. We all know that female babies were frequently buried alive because it was regarded as a disgrace for a man to have a daughter before he had a son.

By the advent of our Prophet (pbuh) all these iniquities were wiped away, as it were, with one stroke. He declared that God had particularly entrusted to him the task of safeguarding the rights of women. He proclaimed in the name of God that man and woman - by virtue of their humanity - were the equal of each other, and when they lived together, just as man had certain rights over woman, so had woman certain rights over man. Women could own property in the same way as men. A husband had no right to use the property of his wife as long as the wife, of her own free will, did not let him have some of it. These are the ways of our Prophet and how he embodied our religion at a time when the standards of the world were altogether opposed to it.

Women in Turkey

Treatment towards women is one of the main differences between Muslims living in Turkey and many other Arab countries. An important pillar of the depth of Turkey’s strategic advantage in its Eastern and Southern neighborhood is the diversity of its society, and the liberties painstakingly forged over the years, often with inspiration and support from the West. As one close friend of mine visiting Turkey at the moment, a think tank fellow from America stated, “One thing Turkish women are not is oppressed. Even in the parliament, ladies run the game. Even very conservative members of the Saadet or AK Party seem to have no problem taking directions from women.”

Republican project and the role of women

Turkey has a deep-rooted experience of equality between women and men, resting on historical, cultural and religious foundations. The foundation of the Turkish women’s movement was laid in the Ottoman Empire, and empowered during the Republican Era. The first high schools and universities for women were established in the Ottoman era. Since 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was founded, the reforms carried out under the leadership of Atatürk not only enabled women to have civil rights, but also for society as a whole to be reconstructed. Women were crucial in the Republican project of modernity. The explicit goal was not to fight religion but to fight tradition and custom, which were obstacles in pursuit of the modernization. On April 18th, 1935 Kemal Ataturk posed with women at the first International Women's Congress gathered in Istanbul. As in many photographs in which he appears with women, he gives explicit instructions that the women stand AT THE FRONT of the picture, NOT at the back behind the men. Ataturk did this deliberately to get people used to the fact that in the new, modern Republic being built, Turkish women WILL NOT rank second to men.

In the early period of the Turkish Republic, with the adoption of secular law, women were empowered to participate in arenas of the public domain such as education, business life and politics, and the government encouraged this involvement with equitable public policies. The Law on the Unification of Education, enacted in 1925, provided equal educational opportunities for women and men by arranging education under a single system. Dress reforms enacted in 1925 and the Turkish Civil Code enacted in 1926 provided equal rights both in domestic affairs and in individual terms. These were the primary reforms that transformed the legal status of women. Another important phase in shaping the legal status of women was women’s gaining of political rights. Turkish women were entitled to vote in local and general elections, in 1930 and 1934 respectively, long before many of their European counterparts.

Steps to enhance women’s rights in today’s Turkey

Turkey has taken the steps required by international law in order to eliminate discrimination against women and to support women’s rights. In this regard, efforts have concentrated on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was ratified by Turkey in 1985. There has been a dramatic increase in the rates of primary schooling. While the net number of the population having received primary schooling in 2001- 2002 was 92.4 percent in total, the rates of boys and girls were respectively 96.2 percent and 88.4 percent. In 2011-2012, the net schooling rates were 98.67 percent, while the rates of boys and girls were respectively 98.77 percent and 98.56 percent. The gender ratio in primary education has risen by 100.4 percent with a 10 percent augmentation in the last decade.

With the vision of “Zero Tolerance for Violence”, a struggle in all domains is ongoing. The “Convention of The Council of Europe for Preventing and Combating the Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence” ratified in Strasburg on March7th, 2011 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe was opened for signature on May 11th, 2011 in Istanbul and was signed by 17 countries including Turkey. Turkey is the first country to have ratified the Convention in its Parliament. The Law on Protecting Woman and Family Members From Violence, Law no. 6284, was prepared by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy with the contribution and involvement of related parties in order to enhance the scope of the Law on Protecting Family (Law no. 4320) dating back to 1998. This law is the first case in Turkey of domestic violence being defined and tackled.

I also know from Foucault’s writings that empowerment is not simply the ability to exert power over people and resources: Empowerment involves the exercise rather than the mere possession of power. We can have all the necessary rules in place, but if society is not educated in a way to allow these legislations to work, we will never achieve the level of empowerment of women in practice. So let’s now look at the practical life examples from Turkey:

If we remember this June – the Gezi protests - there were ZERO complaints of harassment towards the women participating in the protests unlike the Tahrir scene with up to 90%. There were a few reports on the media claiming female protestors were harassed by the male police, however after the investigations began, these protesters later admitted the police in question were a); not male, and b); did not physically harass them. If you are getting no complaints from women in a crowd of thousands of angry people, it makes a very strong statement.

With the AK Party government, our constitution has been amended and one of the additions was including women in the group of those who are “positively discriminated.” Turkey aims to not only make women equal to men in their rights, but superior to men in their rights.

I am not a feminist. I don’t believe men and women are equals, and they are created differently. “Man can never be a woman's equal in the spirit of selfless service with which nature has endowed her,” said Mahatma Gandhi and “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” said Margret Thatcher. Women have proven themselves to be much more punctual and detailed workers in discipline and much more sensual human beings in their private lives. Men and women have equal rights in all matters. It is a disgrace to all societies that we are still talking about the rights of women and their empowerment rather than naturally living in an environment of mutual respect.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending