Turkey: Women condemn Turkey's new draft Constitution

Women's groups in Turkey have condemned a new draft constitution, saying it sets the country back years in terms of gender equality.
A new civilian constitution is being prepared to replace the current one, introduced after a 1980 military coup. The document describes women as a vulnerable group needing protection.
The proposed constitution has already sparked fierce debate with a clause to allow women to attend university wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Speaking on Tuesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan assured critics the new draft constitution will reflect the values and needs of all groups of society.

More than 80 women's groups have come together to voice strong opposition to the draft constitution, calling it a major step backwards for equal rights.

The current constitution in Turkey obliges the government to ensure equality for all - a clause that women's groups fought hard to include. The new draft removes that, describing women instead as a vulnerable group in need of special protection.

Women's rights activist Selen Lermioglu calls that worrying proof that Turkey is still a highly patriarchal society. "If the government accepts this it will show their ideology and mindset about women and men - that women are a group that needs to be protected," she said. "No we're not, we don't need protection. We need equality and ask for that, not protection. "If all laws and the whole constitution is prepared with this mindset, it can have a really bad impact," she added, pointing out that the draft was drawn up by men.

Pressure from women's groups helped force major reforms of Turkey's civil code in 2002. A clause was removed then that identified the man as the head of the household, and obliged a wife to seek permission to go out to work. Women's rights activists see this draft constitution as a return to that mentality.

They warn it could allow a man to deny his wife the right to work, for example, on the premise he is protecting her. And they fear such an argument could well win favour with Turkey's conservative, male-dominated judiciary.

The group says it has not formed a common position yet on the issue of the Islamic headscarf, worn by more than 60% of Turkish woman but banned in state offices, schools and universities. The government wants to change the constitution to ensure girls who cover their heads can attend university. Women's activists, like the wider society here, are divided on that.

So far the new constitution has been drafted behind closed doors: now women's groups are demanding to be consulted. They want to make this process an opportunity to push for more rights, not fewer, including a clause insisting on a temporary quota for women, to eliminate discrimination in all areas. They argue that is the only way to lift Turkey from close to the bottom of the list in Europe on gender equality.

By: Sarah Rainsford

02 October 2007