Feminism and Islam – a gender revolution in the making?
ESI report: Sex and Power in Turkey. Feminism, Islam and the Maturing of Turkish Democracy (2 June 2007)
Video: Pinar Ilkkaracan – The feminist movement and women's rights in Turkey (July 2011)
In the history of the Turkish Republic, there have been two periods when major improvements were made to the status of women. One was the 1920s, the early years of the Republic, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk outlawed polygamy and abolished Islamic courts in favour of secular institutions. This first period of reforms is well known and celebrated in Turkey.
The second major reform era has been the period since 2001. Reforms to the Turkish Civil Code have granted women and men equal rights in marriage, divorce and property ownership. A new Penal Code treats female sexuality for the first time as a matter of individual rights, rather than family honour. Amendments to the Turkish Constitution oblige the Turkish state to take all necessary measures to promote gender equality. Family courts have been established, employment laws amended and there are new programmes to tackle domestic violence and improve access to education for girls. These are the most radical changes to the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years. As a result, for the first time in its history, Turkey has the legal framework of a post-patriarchal society.
The reforms of the 1920s were carried out by an authoritarian one-party regime. Women were given the right to vote at a time when there were no free elections. Generations of Turkish women were taught to be grateful for Ataturk's gift of freedom and equality. However, legal inequality of men and women remained in place in Turkey throughout the 20th century, long after it was abolished in the rest of Europe.
The reforms of the last few years have come about in a very different way from those of the 1920s. They were the result of a very effective campaign by a broad-based women's movement, triggering a wide-ranging national debate. The current AKP government proved willing to work constructively with civil society and the main opposition party CHP. This open and participatory process produced the most liberal Penal Code in Turkish history. It represents a significant maturing in Turkish democracy.
There are some who fear that Turkey may be turning its back on its secular traditions. Some of the loudest voices come from Kemalist women, who insist that the rise of 'political Islam' represents an acute threat to the rights and freedoms of Turkish women. There have even been calls for restrictions to Turkish democracy, to protect women's rights. Yet such an 'authoritarian feminism' is out of touch with the reality of contemporary Turkey and the achievements of recent years.
Turkey has a long road ahead of it in narrowing its gender gap. In a recent international study, Turkey ranked an embarrassing 105th of 115 countries – far behind the worst-ranking EU member. Improving gender equality will involve tackling a series of deeply entrenched problems, from improving access to education in rural regions to removing the institutional and social barriers to women's participation in the workforce. Elections in July this year will test the commitment of Turkey's political parties to increasing the number of women in parliament.
It is these issues which deserve to be at the centre of the current political debate in Turkey. And it is only the maturing and further development of Turkish democracy that holds out the promise of a genuine liberation of Turkish women.
ESI picture story: 15 facts about Turkey
ESI picture story: A century of feminism in Turkey
Background: Feminism and Islam in Turkey