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Istanbul / Photo Fanack
Istanbul / Photo Fanack

According to recent estimates, 30 percent of the women in the labour force are wage earners; added to that are women in the informal sector who work without pay in family businesses or agricultural production. The situation of women in Turkey is a paradox that cannot be explained solely by patriarchal family structures or the status of women in Islam, or, conversely, by the emancipation of women under the Kemalist state: women are omnipresent in skilled occupations, at a rate of 30-40 percent (e.g., doctors and scientists), but they are mostly absent from the middle- and lower-class workforce. The over-representation of women in skilled occupations is explained by class distinctions – wealthy families send their daughters to prestigious educational institutions – or by a ‘cultural capital’ built by personal commitment, making it possible for some women to go far in their education; this allows them to refuse early marriage imposed by the parents and garner the professional resources that enable them to enjoy their autonomy. Arranged marriages are for those women who do not inherit or fail to acquire this cultural capital.

Domestic violence targets especially, but not exclusively, women. Surveys show that the legitimacy of violence against women is largely internalized in society, even among women. The figures are alarming: the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association reports that 4,190 women were killed between 2005 and 2009, some of them as victims of ‘honour crimes’. Only 500-600 rape cases are officially reported each year, but this figure – even leaving aside cases of incest – is far from reflecting the reality of this sensitive issue.

Between 1993 and 1995, the country was led by a female Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller (born 1946), a hard-line supporter of the state’s position on the Kurdish issue who was respected and supported by a cohort of male generals. The Turkish Industry and Business Association, representing the bourgeoisie of Istanbul, is chaired by a woman, Ümit Boyner (born 1963). Aside from these symbolic figures, however, there are few women in politics, even if their numbers in Parliament are increasing (13 in 1995, 23 in 1999, and 24 in 2002). In 2007, there were 50 women in Parliament (9 percent of the total) and, in 2011, 78 (14 percent), including eleven belonging to the Kurdish List represented by only 35 deputies (men and women), six of whom are in prison.

These issues require us to reconsider women’s issues in Turkey. In the words of Mehmet Emin Yurdakul (1869-1944), a national poet, nationalism in the 1910s wanted to ‘place women at the heart of the country’. According to Turkish sociologist Nazan Aksoy, the political power granted to women under Kemalism was limited: ‘Although the individual is the basis of Turkish modernization, what we ask of women is in no way to become an independent individual entity. (…) The main factor that threatens the autonomy of women lies in the fact that the nationalist discourse required for building a new nation was “masculine”‘. Sociologist Şirin Tekeli points in the same direction: ‘In his speech to women [Atatürk] strongly emphasized that the most sacred duty of women is maternity. Neither the Anatolian peasant women who are considered a model of “altruism” nor the elite working women could avoid becoming a mother. The Kemalist message thus became vague and even contradictory: to glorify the maternal role, it did not simply call for old traditions but also sought to strengthen them through ideological speech and practice. Women who were encouraged to abandon their usual role were required to lower their ambitions in the work environment so as not to surpass men.’

Although feminism in Turkey is politicized and polarized between several movements, from Islamist to socialist and from Atatürkist to Kurdish, it remains combative, particularly in the fight against violence against women. Many organizations, such as Mor Çatı (Purple Roof, a shelter foundation) serve as channels for women to express their demands and as a place of refuge and protection for female victims of domestic violence or other abuse.

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