Turkey's suffragettes: Politics still wears a moustache

Turkey's suffragettes: Politics still wears a moustache
The long read: Turkish women won political rights early on, but soon met opposition. Today their participation is not, in theory, limited, but representation remains low, writes Hazal Atay.
9 min read
12 Dec, 2017
Turkish women protest in Taksim Square in Istanbul, 2013 [Wikimedia Commons]
On 5 December 1934, Turkish women won the right to vote in national elections, ten years before the women of France.

They had already been able to vote and run for office in local elections since 1930, and the first woman to become a village chief, Gul Esin, was elected at Cine in the province of Aydin in 1933.

But, like almost everywhere else, this historic advance quickly met with strong opposition from the patriarchy and a long struggle lay ahead before women could participate fully in the political life of the country.

In 1923, when the new-born republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal was striving to rid itself of the outdated traditions of the Ottoman Empire - which were seen as the chief reasons for the country's decline - women became the symbol of the Turkish Republic and its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 westernise and modernise.

In conjunction with this, a "state feminism," flying the Republican flag, was introduced, involving major reforms in the social life of women. 

Thus the Turkish Civil Code of 1926, modelled on 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 public image of women evolved, as the image of the Republican woman became that of an enlightened and educated woman; the emblem of the Turkey of the future, and "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. Official accounts of that period have always claimed that women's rights were granted by the founding fathers, and especially by Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk" ("father of the Turks") and his forward-looking vision, with no mention of women's grassroots demands.

Rights do not necessarily lead to concrete change, and male dominance remains deeply rooted in the political arena

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 before then, during the last days of the empire.

Already in 1922, before the founding of the republic, Turk Kadin Yolu, ("The Way of Turkish Women"), a journal published by the Union of Turkish Women, 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 come."

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 Turk 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 freedom, equality and fraternity imported from France by the Young Turks.

She insisted that future reforms could no longer ignore women.

The life and death of the suffrage movement

Having been deceived by previous reforms and revolutions, Nezihe Muhittin founded The People's Party of Women (Kadınlar Halk Fırkası) in 1923. It was immediately banned as 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 Turk Kadin Yolu. The journal kept women informed of the union's activities, published debates on feminism and took stock of women's rights in other countries.

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

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 favour of women's right to enrol in the armed forces, stressing the need to teach girls as well as boys to participate in the nation's defence.

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. Masses of women partied on the square and the newspapers announced that they had won "the greatest right of all". Women voted for the first time on 8 February 1935 and as a result, 18 women became MPs, 4.6 percent of parliament.

The International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), founded in 1904, decided to organise its 12th congress at the Yildiz Palace in Istanbul on 24 April 1935, with the participation of delegations of women from some 30 countries. Welcoming the progress made by Turkish women and praising the country's leader, Ataturk, Corbett Ashby, the president of the alliance, called for "freedom for women and peace for humanity".

However; this appeal for peace was soon to founder amid 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 criticised and the congress was accused of propaganda in favour of the Allies, in so far as Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had not been 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 under-represented

Eighty-three years later, and despite having gained their political rights long before many European countries, women are still under-represented in Turkey.

As is the case everywhere, the establishment of rights does not always lead to concrete change - and male dominance remains deeply rooted in the political arena. Despite the fact that women are now recognised as citizens, they still do not have equal access to political responsibilities. While 4.6 percent of Turkish MPs were women in 1935, the figure  dropped to 3.7 percent after the legislative elections of 1943.

When Turkey adopted a multi-party system in 1950, their number declined dramatically to 0.6 percent. All in all, up until 2007, women MPs represented less than five percent of parliament, never equalling the original 1935 proportion.

Since the founding of the republic until this very day, Turkey has had just 22 women with the rank of minister

In the 2007 elections, however, 9.1 percent of MPs elected were women, and in 2011 the figure rose to 14.3 percent.

The record to date was achieved in June 2015, with 17.6 percent. 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 percent.

There are also very few women holding major political office. Since the founding of the republic until this very day, Turkey has had just 22 women with the rank of minister, among them Tansu Ciller of the centre-right Party of the True Path (Dogru 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 (Turkiye Isci 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 includes only two women ministers out of a total of 27: Fatma Betul Kaya, Minister of Family and Social Policies, and Julide Sarıeroglu, Minister of Labour 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 moustache'

In comparative terms, Turkey is still well below the world average of female parliamentary representation, estimated by The Interparliamentary Union at 23.5 percent. It lags well behind the Arab world's average (17.5 percent) and Europe (27.2 percent).

Despite this chronic under-representation, there has been no national effort 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 centre-left party founded by Ataturk which sets a quota of 33 percent - defined in 1996 as a minimum of significant commitment by the Council of the European Union - and the HDP, with a quota of 50 percent.

Read more: The obsession with female 'modesty' and what it tells us

In addition, although Turkish parties often tend to have women's branches, their effectiveness is questionable, because they function as auxiliaries, easily co-opted by the party leadership and the women close to it.

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 as resisting a generally misogynistic environment.

Thus, in Turkey as feminists are wont to say, "politics still wears a moustache" and women must go on fighting for a political arena in which they can not only participate, but also share.

Hazal Atay is a PhD student and INSPIRE Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in comparative politics at Sciences Po Paris. She is affiliated with the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po and works on women's political participation in Turkey.

This article is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff