Women's r-evolution in Turkey under Erdogan's AKP

Women's r-evolution in Turkey under Erdogan's AKP
Comment: Women's rights and freedoms under Erdogan's government have improved significantly, writes Hilal Kaplan.
7 min read
22 Jun, 2018
The Turkish election will take place this Sunday 24th June [Getty]
The first political party in Turkey was not the Republican People's Party (CHP), but the Women's People Party  (KHP).

But, in 1923 when it was formed by Nezihe Muhittin and 13 other women, its bid to receive official recognition was rejected by the governorship after eight months.

Instead, the CHP came to be known as the first political party in Turkey's history. This scenario seems to me like a perfect example of a system that excluded women from the political arena; a system that managed to become secular, but still failed to distance itself from patriarchy.

KHP's founder Nezihe Muhittin was a feminist pioneer who had fought for women's rights since the Ottoman Empire.

Women's associations, which initially campaigned for early education to be compulsory, and for girls' high schools to be spread across the country, started to fight for the recognition of women's right to vote, and to run in elections.

The KHP, which transformed into the Turkish Women's Union after it was denied permission officially establish as a party, would now take this demand to the political realm.

The secularist flagship newspaper Cumhuriyet's disparaging of women's demand for the right to run in elections, with headlines such as, "They will debate fashion in parliament" summarises the stance of the regime elites on the issue.

There is no doubt that Turkish women's suffrage, which was achieved on 5 December 1934, was a positive development, yet it was the product of a struggle going on since the Ottoman Empire.

Women have become more visible in every aspect of public life thanks to the removal of the headscarf ban by the AK Party

However, since the founding principles of the regime were built on "secular, Turkish and male" identities, the norms concerning the 'ideal woman' were defined by men, too, and women violating these norms were excluded from the political arena. As a result, the right to be run for election was granted to women in 1934, but it was only extended to women wearing the hijab, in 2013.

Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, religious people have also been excluded from the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, Erdogan - with his explicit religious identity - was imprisoned by the Kemalist juristocracy when he was the mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

The Justice and Development (AK) Party experience and success could therefore also be described as "the return of the oppressed". For the first time, and for 16 years now, a government with an explicit religious identity has ruled Turkey. Perhaps surprisingly, during the AK Party's rule, large segments of society have made peace with the secular identity of the regime and have started to embrace secular concepts in their own lives.

The realm of women's rights is replete with examples of this shift.

In making these statements, Erdogan was declaring war against male hegemony, both secular and Islamist

For instance, during the AK Party's term, the clause in the Turkish constitution stating that "the head of the family is the man" was amended to "both husband and wife run the union of marriage together".

Likewise, an additional provision stating "the family relies on equality between spouses" was added following the sentence "family is the foundation of the Turkish society".

According to the former law, in case of disagreement on child custody, the father's opinion went unchallenged. However, the AK Party has since given priority to the mother's wishes. Marital rape has also been defined as a crime and incorporated into the criminal code under the AK Party's rule.

In addition, the labour law, whose orientalist bias led it to consider the the AK Party "a religious movement trying to lock women inside the house", was amended in 2003 by the AK Party. 

For a different viewpoint, read: 'Turkey's HDP radically reclaims women's place in society'

By virtue of these amendments, gender-based discrimination at work, such as being fired because of pregnancy, has been made illegal, and the equal pay for equal work principle is now enshrined in law.

Moreover, in order to encourage employers to hire more women, it was decided that the insurance premiums of all women above the age of 18 would be paid by the government for the first 48 months. The role of these amendments is significant in improving women's labour rights and their professional lives.

President Erdogan attends a rally that draws huge crowds in Sanliurfa, Turkey on June 20th 2018 ahead of the election [Getty]

Moreover, under the AK Party, the paid maternity leave period was extended to 16 weeks. Women are entitled to their full-time wage, with part-time work in the post-maternity leave period, and can also be granted up to three hours leave each day for nursing their babies.

The number of kindergartens has increased, and many have been established with the support of the AK Party in 10 different organised industrial zones of Turkey. Mothers wishing to enroll their children in kindergartens are also awarded an annual state benfit of about $225. 

Women wearing the hijab who were for many decades deprived of their right to higher education, as well as the right to stand for election, and the right to employment in the public sector, have become more visible in every aspect of public life thanks to the removal of the headscarf ban by the AK Party.

Marital rape has also been defined as a crime and incorporated into the criminal code under the AK Party's rule

Following the lifting of the ban, women who chose to wear the headscarf can enjoy access to higher education and work, which greatly contributed to the seven percent increase in the number of women graduates in Turkey last year.

Erdogan tried to break taboos in the Islamic world when he said to Muslim Brotherhood members that the Egyptian constitution should be secular. Likewise, at home he is standing up to the the secular or Islamist but male-dominated perception that puts women in the background.

For instance, when a well-known preacher issued a fatwa justifying violence against women few months ago, Erdogan showed one of the harshest reactions, saying: "These people show up as preachers and make statements which have no place in our religion... We do not live in the same century as them, apparently."

Read more: Turkey's suffragettes: Politics still wears a moustache

In another speech, he said: "We will trample every ignorant tradition. We will continue this fight until the women become fully equal citizens of this country." In making these statements, Erdogan was declaring war against male hegemony, both secular and Islamist.

But Erdogan's sensitivity on women's issues is not new.

He himself said that one of the most important factors enabling him to win the municipal elections was the efforts of the Welfare Party's Women's branch, that he had helped develop.

Erdogan has made sure that women have occupied senior positions within the party

Since then, Erdogan has made sure that women have occupied senior positions within the party. Today, if the AK Party has the largest women's organisation - with approximately 5 million members - it's thanks to this attitude that prioritises women.

The mothers of many of the women who support the AK Party did not have access to higher education or professional life. But under the AK Party, these women have gained opportunities that allow them to stand on their two feet with confidence. The birth and shaping of this new subjectivity will help shape the future of Turkey's women from all walks of life.

Four decades have passed since Edward Said wrote that Orientalists use the authority of their standing as experts, to deny - no, to cover - their deep-seated feelings about Islam with a carpet of jargon whose purpose is to certify their 'objectivity'.

Yet, not much has changed since then. The great women's revolution in Turkey does not mean much for 'Turkey experts', and they still look for headlines confirming their Orientalist biases.

When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says "justice is needed in man-women's relationship, not equality", and when he continues his sentence "you cannot treat a pregnant working woman in the same way as you treat a man," The headlines appear as "Erdogan says women and men are not equal."

So when the large majority of women in Turkey vote for Erdogan and the AK Party again on Sunday, this article may help you understand why.

Hilal Kaplan is a columnist with Sabah and Daily Sabah, and a political commentator for A News. She received her BA in Psychology from Bilgi University and MA in Sociology from Bosphorus University.

Follow her on twitter: @HilalKaplanEng

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.