In 1923, when the new-born Republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal was striving to rid itself of the outdated traditions of the Ottoman Empire which were seen as the chief reasons for the country’s decline, women became the symbol of the Turkish Republic and its ambitions to westernize and modernize. In conjunction with this, a “State feminism,” flying the Republican flag, was introduced, involving major reforms in the social life of women.1 Thus the Turkish Civil Code of 1926, patterned after the Swiss Civil Code of 1912, put an end to polygamy, gave women the right to a civil marriage and the right to divorce, as well as equal property rights. In addition to these formal rights, the image of women evolved as well. The enlightened, became the emblem of the Republican woman, an image of the Turkey of the future, “mother of the Turkish nation”, modern — and above all Western.
A Right Granted by “The Father of the Turks?”
But though State feminism had its moment of glory, the government gradually managed to regain control and stifled the popular feminist movement. For example, official accounts of that period have always claimed that women’s rights were granted by the founding fathers, and especially by Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” (“father of the Turks”) and his forward-looking vision, with no mention of women’s grassroots demands.
Recent feminist historians have refuted this blinkered view by shedding light on the work of Turkish suffragettes in the early years of the Republic and even during the twilight of the Empire.
Already in 1922, before the founding of the Republic, Türk Kadin Yolu, (“The Way of Turkish Women”), a journal published by the Union of Turkish Women (Türk Kadinlar Birliği, TKB), declared that women’s time had come:
They grant men rights and have nothing to say to women. And yet in a democracy, men’s rights should be women’s rights [. . .] You cannot divide up rights or classify them. The time has come2.
Research concerning the hidden history of women has shown that they were already demanding access to political rights in the name of the republican and democratic principles which granted women full citizenship and hence, they argued, the same rights as men. In Türk Kadin Yolu, Nezihe Muhittin, the journal’s editor and a key figure in the Turkish suffragette movement, voiced her disappointment with the Second Constitutional Period (from the “Young Turk Revolution” of 1908 to the defeat of the German—Turkish alliance in 1919) which had failed to change women’s lives despite the promises of liberty, equality and fraternity imported from France by the Young Turks. She insisted that the reforms to come could no longer ignore women.
Life and Death of the Suffrage Movement
Having been deceived by the previous reforms and revolutions, Nezihe Muhittin founded The People’s Party of Women (Kadınlar Halk Fırkası) in 1923. It was immediately banned since women had no political rights at the time. It then became an association, The Union of Turkish Women, and pursued its mission of advocacy, in particular through Türk Kadin Yolu. The journal kept women informed of the Union’s activities, published debates on feminism and took stock of women’s rights in various countries. It also circulated translations of the correspondence between Union members and suffragettes around the world. Besides campaigning for women’s political rights and their active participation in the social and economic life of the country, the journal argued in favor of women’s right to enroll in the armed forces, stressing the need to teach girls as well as boys to participate in the nation’s defense.
On 5 December 1934, the Turkish Parliament granted women the right to vote in all national elections. Immediately, the Union of Turkish Women called for a celebration on Beyazit Square in Istanbul. Women masses of women partied on the square and the newspapers announced that they had won “the greatest right of all.”3 Women voted for the first time on 8 February 1935 and as a result, 18 women became MPs, 4.6 % of Parliament.
The International Woman Suffrage Alliance, IWSA, founded in 1904, decided to organize its 12th congress at the Yildiz Palace in Istanbul on 24 April 1935, with the participation of delegations of women from some thirty countries. Welcoming the progress made by Turkish women and praising the country’s leader Atatürk, Corbett Ashby, the president of the Alliance, called for “freedom for women and peace for humanity.”4
However; this appeal for peace was soon to founder on the rising tide of fascism and the preparations for war in Europe. The Turkish political climate was gradually heating up and the Union of Turkish Women was dissolved in 1935, soon after the suffragette congress. The reasons for this were never revealed, but various explanations have been suggested. The absence of certain of delegations was criticized and the congress accused of propaganda in favor of the Allies insofar as neither Germany, Italy nor the Soviet Union were invited, while the sessions were dominated by delegations from the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Latife Bekir, president of the Union declared that it had achieved its goals since women had obtained all their rights in Turkey. She herself proposed to dissolve the Union and the Turkish delegates agreed. An autonomous suffrage movement was no longer deemed necessary and henceforth women would work within the established institutions of the Republic, which had “granted them full rights”.
Citizens but Underrepresented
83 years later and despite their having gained their political rights long before many European countries, women are still under-represented in Turkey. As is the case everywhere, rights do not lead to concrete change and male dominance remains deeply rooted in the political arena. Despite the fact that women are now recognized as citizens, they still do not have equal access to political responsibilities. While 4.6% of Turkish MPs were women in 1935, the figure had dropped to 3.7% after the legislative elections of 1943. When Turkey adopted a multi-party system in 1950, their number declined dramatically to 0.6%. All in all, until 2007, women MPs represented less than 5% of parliament, never equaling the original 1935 percentage.
In the 2007 elections, however, 9.1% percentage of MPs elected were women and in 2011 the figure rose to 14.3%. The record high to date was achieved in June 2015, with 17.6%. However, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority in that election and was unable to form a government. When a new election was held in November of the same year, the percentage of women MPs dropped back to 14.7%.
There are also very few women holding a major political office. Since the foundation of the Republic until this very day, Turkey has had 22 women with the rank of minister, among them Tansu Çiller of the center-right Party of the True Path (Doğru Yol Partisi), the first and only woman to become Prime Minister. Appointed in 1993, she remained in office until 1996. Behice Boran was the first woman to be appointed leader of a political party, the left-wing Workers Party of Turkey (Türkiye İşçi Partisi) in 1970.
Of the parties currently represented in Parliament, only the Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) has a woman for co-president, Serpil Kemalbay.
Today, the Cabinet of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) includes only two women ministers out of a total of 27: Fatma Betül Kaya, Minister of Family and Social Policies, and Julide Sarıeroğlu, Minister of Labor and Social Security. It is worth noting in passing that in 2011 the title “Minister of Family and Social Affairs” replaced “Minister in charge of Women’s and Family Affairs”. Symbolically enough, the elimination of the word “women” is the expression of a conservative logic which associates women with the family . . . and only the family.
“Politics still wears a mustache”
In comparative terms, Turkey is still well below the world average of female parliamentary representation, estimated by The Interparliamentary Union at 23.5%. It lags well behind the Arab world as a whole (17.5%) and Europe (27.2%).
Despite this chronic under-representation, no efforts have been undertaken at a national level to increase women’s participation in politics. The issue is left to the initiative of political parties. In this context, only two parties currently set a quota of women for all functions and candidacies: The Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), a center-left party founded by Atatürk which sets a quota of 33%—defined in 1996 as a minimum of significant commitment by the Council of the European Union—and the HDP, with a quota of 50%. Besides which, although Turkish parties often tend to have women’s sections, their effectiveness is open to question, because they function like ladies’ auxiliaries, easily co-opted by the party leadership and the women close to it.5
The issue of women’s participation in politics is more complex than the bald figures would indicate, because women must deal with patriarchal norms and traditions as well as the sexist and misogynist rhetoric which often prevails in the world of politics. Even when they are elected or when they belong to the leadership of a political party, women come up against a very male political arena where teamwork is required, at the same time bearing up under a misogynistic ambiance. Thus, in Turkey as feminists are wont to say, “politics still wears a mustache” and women must go on fighting for a political arena in which they can not only participate but also share.6
1Şirin Tekeli, « Emergence of the New Feminist Movement in Turkey », in Drude Dahlerup (dir.), The New Women’s Movement, Beverly Hills, Sage ; p. 179-199
2Nevin Yurdsever Ateş (ed.), Yeni Harflerle Kadın Yolu/ Türk Kadın Yolu (1925-1927), Kadın Eserleri Kütüphanesi ve Bilgi Merkezi 20. Yıl Özel Yayını ; p. 141.
3« Türk Kadını Hakların En Büyüğünü Aldı », Cumhuriyet, 6 December 1934.
4« Kadın için Hak Beraberliği, İnsanlık için Barış İstiyoruz », Cumhuriyet,19 April 1935.
5Yeşim Arat, The Patriarchal Paradox : Women Politicians in Turkey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989 ; p. 98-101.
6As Jean Vogel put it in Martin J. (dir.), La parité : enjeux et mise en œuvre, Toulouse, Presses universitaires du Mirail, 1998 ; p. 48.