Turkey: 'A tangled web: the politics of gender in Turkey'

Open Democracy

On 18 July 2010, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held a consultation  meeting with women’s non-governmental organisations in the context of the ‘Democratic Initiative and National Unity and Brotherhood Project’, also dubbed ‘the Kurdish Initiative in the popular press.  This initiative aims to resolve the conflict that has plagued the South-east of the country, pitting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) against the Turkish military. The PM addressed the women in attendance as mothers “whose voices would drown out the sounds of bullets” – thus enlisting them to the cause of peace. Among the 80-odd attendees were members of NGOs with established feminist credentials such as KA-DER and theFoundation for Women’s Solidarity, among others. This goes some way towards explaining why some participants took the PM to task during the question period for addressing them exclusively as mothers, overlooking the fact that they are fully fledged economic, political and juridical personae. It is at this point that the PM apparently interjected: ‘I do not believe in the equality of men and women. I believe in equal opportunities. Men and women are different and complementary’.

This intervention signalled that regardless of Turkey’s signatory status to CEDAW,  the PM had chosen to nod in the direction of fitrat , a tenet of Islam that attributes distinct and divinely ordained natures to men and women. The reactions of the participants were widely reported in the local press as ‘utter shock’, ‘having the effect of a cold shower’, ‘total astonishment’ and ‘deep disappointment’. Much more significant than the PMs comments - a politician who, after all, had never made a secret of his conservative leanings - was the sense of utter consternation that greeted them. The reasons behind this despondent mood can only be gauged in the context of previous engagements of the women’s movement with the Turkish state. 

An uphill struggle: The battle over legal reforms

Turkey is often singled out as the only Muslim majority country with a secular Constitution and a Civil Code (adopted in 1926) that breaks with the shar’ia. The Code prohibits polygamy, outlaws unilateral divorce and recognizes gender equality in inheritance rights and the custody of children. However, a new generation of post-1980s feminists were no longer content to be the grateful daughters of the republic. They started targeting previously taboo issues - such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape - that had been silently swept under the carpet, bringing these concerns out onto the public domain.  An early victory was scored in 1990 when Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code, that reduced the sentence passed on rapists if the victim were a sex-worker by one-third, was repealed by the Grand National Assembly. This was followed by a major campaign initiated by over 120 women’s NGOs from across the country to reform the Civil Code and to eliminate any remaining discriminatory clauses.  The new Turkish Civil Code, passed in November 2001, abolished the supremacy of men in the conjugal union and established the full equality of men and women with respect to rights over the family abode, marital property, divorce, child custody, inheritance and rights to work and travel.

 A vigorous three-year campaign between 2002-2004 led by a coalition of women’s and sexual liberties groups - The Platform for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code - resulted in the adoption of the draft law on September 26, 2004. Amendments were put in place to prevent sentence reduction for ‘killings in the name of customary law’ ( or so-called honour killings); marital rape was criminalised; the article foreseeing a reduction or suspension of the sentence of rapists and abductors marrying their victims was abolished; sexual offences such as harassment at the workplace were criminalised and the discrimination between virgins and non-virgins, married and unmarried women in sexual crimes was abolished.

It must be noted that Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership in December 1999 and was therefore required to bring its legal, political and economic system into alignment with EU standards. Quite clearly, the women’s movement seized the moment as a window of opportunity to press for further reforms. However, this process proved to be an uphill struggle. Initially, a group of male MPs across political parties attempted to block the draft of the civic code in April 2000, claiming that equality in the family would lead to chaos and anarchy. After the electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in November 2002 - self identified as a Muslim conservative party - the stakes became even higher. The members of the group that had  initiated demands for reform - the Women’s Working Group on the Penal Code (WWRG) were stonewalled in their attempts to seek a dialogue with the new government and finally had to resort to a public media and lobbying campaign, expanding their initiative to form a broader national Platform.

Although they were pilloried in the Islamic press (“shameless”, “dissolute” and “rabid” were among the epithets used), they had touched a nerve. When the chief consultant to the Ministry of Justice opined that in a country where all men want to marry virgins, it stood to reason that the only sensible way out for a raped woman was to marry her aggressor (although, when asked, he could not countenance such a prospect for his own daughter) there was a mood of public revulsion. As the debate raged on, it proved fortuitous that the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Yakin Erturk,  happened to be a Turkish woman. She assisted in bringing together representatives of the Platform, the parliament and the EU for a ‘dialogue’ on the penal code on December 10, 2003 in a meeting of strategic significance since it finally led to a grudging recognition of the Platform and gave it international visibility.

However, the AKP had initiatives of its own. Only a month before the EU was due to issue an appraisal of Turkey’s progress towards EU standards, it proposed to re-criminalize adultery. The moment was not well chosen. The proposal created a furore nationally and astonishment in the EU. When the AKP decided to stall the reform package in its entirety, the EU threatened tosuspend accession talks. However, business groups - including Muslim capitalists - had no wish to burn their bridges with Europe. The PM finally defused a stand-off which had the makings of a full-fledged crisis (markets had started taking a plunge) by backing down. Ironically, Turkey had achieved full compliance with CEDAW under governments that had little time for feminist demands.

On shaky ground?

The  conjunctural nature of these legal victories, resting as they did on a particular alignment of external  and internal factors (EU conditionalities and the joint efforts liberal media and women’s groups), attests to their fragility. A reshuffling of the decks in the shape of a crushing AKP electoral victory in 2007, returning the party to power with a 47% majority; the evaporating prospects of EU accession, and, with it, any leverage it might have had; a generally docile media after the debacle of  Dogan Media Group that owned substantial sections of the liberal press and a strong geopolitical demand for a Muslim Turkey with an exportable model of “moderate Islam” - ensures that no such “flukes” are likely to recur.

In fact, the gap between Turkey’s progressive legislation and the realities on the ground is turning into a yawning chasm. The Global Gender Gap Report 2009, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), ranked Turkey 129th out of a total of 134 countries in terms of equality between men and women. Only Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad and Yemen ranked lower. Furthermore, Turkey has been steadily slipping in the rankings: it held 105th place in 2006, was 121st in 2007 and 123rd in 2008.  The latest 2010 report ranks Turkey 126th, still near the bottomof the league table.

Yesim Arat speculates as to whether the country might be in the grip of a democratic paradox; was it the case that the exercise of religious freedoms, encouraged by democratically elected governments, could be accompanied by potential or real threats to gender equality?  Yet, as she readily acknowledges, what is at stake is not religious freedom per se. Since the advent of multi-party democracy in 1950 religious actors have been firmly embedded in Turkish politics. A variety of centre right parties were deeply enmeshed in ties of patronage with influential leaders of religious communities (tarikat) whose following they counted on for political support. After the 1980s, the adoption of neo-liberal policies substituted charity for already threadbare social safety nets, making religious communities key actors at the grass-roots level in the provision of poverty relief and new forms of social solidarity. Religious communities have become entrenched as civil society players commanding both resources and popular appeal despite growing unease about their increasing (and non-transparent) political influence.  Meanwhile, the aversion provoked by the 12 September 1980 military coup ensured that varied constituencies, liberal and Islamist, would align themselves behind a “democratization” agenda led by the AKP- even if that meant inviting women to find virtue in their fitrat.

Feminist dilemmas: Issues that unite, issues that divide

Meanwhile, preoccupied by its own multi-cultural woes, latent (and overt) Islamophobia, and residual colonial guilt (had the French not forcibly unveiled women in Algeria?)  public opinion in the West had its eyes glued on a single issue: the prohibition on wearing headscarves in public universities and buildings - a ban that has finally been lifted. This was presented as a gross human rights violation - of the fundamental right to religious freedom -  on the part of an uncompromising, authoritarian secular elite.

The responses within Turkey itself were more nuanced. The issue predictably divided secular feminists between those who upheld the right to veil as an inalienable individual right to choose one’s attire (and beliefs), and those who feared that this might be the thin edge of the wedge as far as women’s equality - so far enshrined in the legal system - was concerned.  There was, nonetheless, a growing realization that many women who chose to veil were no more inclined to condone polygamy or to meekly submit to discrimination than their secular sisters.

In a society that relentlessly upholds male privilege women of all persuasions share a great deal in common. When in the 1990s there was a proposal that the Municipality of Istanbul might run women-only buses, secular female constituencies were, again, divided. While some feared this would take them back to the bad old days of gender segregation, others welcomed the proposal not out of a sense of Islamic propriety but of out sheer weariness at having to do daily battle in hostile hetero-social spaces. They simply wanted to travel in peace.

Women’s tenuous position as interlopers in public spaces was brought home forcefully in the summer of 2008 when a 28-year old mother of two who was fishing on the Galata bridge in Istanbul was sued for “indecency” under Article 225 of the Turkish Penal Code by a fellow fisherman. The court upheld the charge and handed out a six month prison sentence, reduced to five months and finally commuted since she had no previous convictions. This provoked predictable outrage among feminists who staged a protest on the bridge under the banner  “Our Bodies are Ours” and issued an accompanying press statement. The statement was prefaced by rhetorical questions; “Can women go fishing? Can they dress as they like? Do they have freedom of movement?”. The answer was clearly “no” since you could be condemned to 6 months in jail for offending public morality, while men who sexually harass women on Taksim Square during New Year’s Eve celebrations could get away with a minor fine. They called for the repeal of Article 225, an article that clearly had the potential of being used to intimidate women in the name of public morality.

Given the non-negligible numbers of secular women in the press, in academia and in feminist circles who had made common cause with their veiled sisters in upholding their rights to freedom of attire, one might have expected that the compliment would be returned on this occasion. In the event, there was a muted response. Apart from the routine charges of “shamelessness” emanating from certain sections of the press (castigating the fisherwoman for being on the bridge in the first place), few veiled women - except for a minority who had the courage to be consistent on the issue of rights - were willing to stick their necks out. Admittedly, many might have felt deeply uncomfortable with the behaviour of a woman who had chosen to mix with unrelated men in a public space that is commonly their own preserve. There is, however, a world of difference between personally refraining from such behaviour and condoning that the full force of a punitive state (in the form of Article 225) should be visited upon women who stray. Many women who choose to veil are fully alert to these crucial distinctions. Some rightly argue that the choice to veil or otherwise can only be meaningfully exercised in contexts where there is no compulsion to do so. Others, on the other hand, might acquiesce to punitive measures to “keep women in their place”.

The results of republican reforms and of the feminist struggles that followed was to give the women of Turkey a great deal to lose. They managed, against heavy odds, to curtail and erode male entitlements and privileges on the statute books if not in society at large. They anxiously wonder now whether they can hold on to these gains.

By Deniz Kandiyoti