Turkey’s evolving feminist movement

Posted on 12 September 2011


By Aaron Stein for Southeast European Times in Istanbul — 07/09/11

Conservative feminists share many of the same interests as liberal feminists — women’s rights, education for women, and stopping domestic violence. [Reuters]

Turkish women have theoretically been equal to men since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk introduced the country’s drastic modernisation reforms during the 1920s. Having changed the law, Ataturk then closed the book on women’s rights, believing that he had solved the problem.

Despite beating out their Western neighbours on modern reforms like women’s voting rights, Turkish reforms “paid no attention to what went on behind closed doors”, says Jenny White, author of Islamist Mobilization in Turkey.

Instead, Republican women were expected to typify the traits of 1920s era modernity, while also serving their husbands at home. Constitutionally women were equal, but the penal code still favoured men.

Attitudes slowly changed, and “after the mid-1980s you had a new kind of feminist movement that emerged that focused heavily on violence against women,” Nicole Pope, a columnist for Today’s Zaman and author of Turkey Unveiled, explains.

Traits typical of Republican women, like western dress, are still popular, but the idea that women should be modern in order to support the state project has lost its appeal.

“The idea of the young Republican women serving the state has gone out of fashion,” according to White. The women “have gravitated to the liberal feminist movement that sprang up in the 1980s. The liberal movement is interested in individual rights and more in line with Western feminist movements.”

The newly empowered liberal feminist movement has had a series of political successes, directly contributing to the passage of the reformed penal and civil codes in 2002 and 2006.

Significantly aided by the external pressure of Turkey’s EU accession process, women’s groups “managed to create a fantastic political platform. They really learned professional lobbying tactics like email campaigns and demonstrations in front of the parliament,” according to Pope.

Before these changes to the penal code, Turkish women were legally defined in terms of family and society.

“Before, a crime against a woman was considered to be a crime against the family and community, not the individual. A judge might allow a rapist to marry his victim because then there would be no ‘crime’ since the sexual act was ‘legitimate’,” White says.

Perhaps, the biggest change was the liberal feminist movement’s adoption of a different attitude towards the concept of individual rights. There was a recognition that “they [liberal feminists] had to get there by organising, and that there should be rights for the individual. Yes, the state is involved, but they shouldn’t be waiting for the state to hand them their rights.”

Despite the successes, Turkey’s liberal and Kemalist feminists have had trouble accepting the platform of Turkey’s emerging conservative feminist movement.

“The feminist movement is still fractured because the Kemalist women refuse to do work with women wearing headscarves. There is a complete split and an absolute refusal to work with each other, even though many of them have the same goals,” White argues.

However, attitudes have begun to change as the groups have worked together, for instance, in getting the new Penal Code reforms passed. Conservative feminists have many of the same interests as liberal feminists — women’s rights, education for women, and stopping domestic violence.

“Like Islamist feminists in other countries, Turkey’s pious feminists argue that the Koran and Hadith were written for a certain time and place and they can’t think that Allah would mean for men and women to be treated unequally or women to be treated unjustly, since they are equal before God,” according to White.

Turkish feminists have a series of obstacles they must still overcome. Beyond the hyperpolarised feminist movement, trends in Turkey point towards a country becoming more conservative.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.