Events

Women, Islam and the Future of Turkish Democracy

October 25, 2007 // 2:30pm4:00pm

Turkey's cultural and social direction has both emitted and been subject to many conflicting signals and divergent views recently. As the question of Turkey's 'Europeanness' is at the forefront of much discussion and is oftentimes articulated through the increasing prominence of Islam and the headscarf debate, Turkey's internal approach to women's issues has become a good indicator of its direction. This topic will be explored through several different prisms: in terms of the influence of the significant socio-economic changes that have taken place over the years, the existence and effectiveness of legislative changes, and, finally, in light of the rising profile of Islam and the headscarf debate.

The post-1980 socio-economic transition exemplified by the conservative religious central Anatolian province of Cayse has had a significant impact on the current status of women's rights in Turkey. As a wide segment of Anatolian entrepreneurs began focusing on export-oriented industrial production in the 1980s, this economic growth with minimal state interference due to lax liberalization policies in favor of market growth simultaneously facilitated an enhanced financial status for a large percentage of the newly urbanized central Anatolian workers. The social ramifications, however, are more complex. Although this strata was generally able to reconcile its religious tenets with the ways of modern living, this compromise has been completely absent in terms of women's economic integration into the workforce. Only 34 percent of women are employed in Cayse, and, of those, 90 percent are engaged in unpaid agricultural jobs. Nationwide, 25-28 percent of women work, and once again the majority of these positions, at 70 percent, are unpaid. To further illustrate the point, Turkey ranked 105th out of 115 countries in a recent survey collectively measuring economic integration into the labor force, educational attainment, health, and political participation, a low ranking disproportionately affected by the country's poor performance in the first category.

Although many have thus far considered integration unnecessary since rapid urbanization has rendered peasants capable of satisfying market demands, Cayse's competitiveness with similarly-sized European cities will eventually be hindered by its stifled workforce. At this point, society will have to decide whether Islam will continue to pose an obstacle to its economic productivity or whether the concept of women working can also be reconciled to modern living, as have European integration and other economically related development issues. However, because rapid population growth will continue to fulfill market demands in the foreseeable future, the state will need to step in to compensate for this reality.

Positively, the status of women has been central to the Turkish reform agenda since the founding of the Turkish republic. The official rhetoric promoted equality as a Turkish and therefore nationalist standard as a means of distinction from the Ottoman period in which external influences were supposedly to blame for the degradation of women. In line with this rhetoric and in response to feminist movements in parallel with their European counterparts at the turn of the century, dramatic changes in the penal and civil code were suggested to have satisfied these expectations and, as a result, women's rights remained a closed subject until the late 1970s. The superficiality of this equality became clear and the debate was reopened only following a study of rural Anatolia by women sociologists and after Turkey's unwillingness to sign the 1985 UN Convention for Elimination of Discrimination against Women as is. At this time it became clear that early marriage, polygamy, lack of education, and general lack of empowerment was rampant in rural areas, and that the state bureaucracy was to blame in addition to the traditional culprits of Islam and rural patriarchy.

The second and very significant revolution in women's rights has taken place since 2000, primarily in response to European pressure. Dramatic and concrete changes have not only taken place with the adoption of a new civil code in 2002, a new penal code in 2004, the establishment of family courts and a new education program, child and elderly care facilities, and government initiatives aimed at combating violence toward women, but have very importantly also been the result of a transparent, participatory, and cooperative process. However, although this progress is immense and not to be downplayed, a very real problem remains with its limited and disparate implementation.

This divergence in implementation is made clear by a comparison of Kodikoy, a wealthy Istanbul district, and Van, an impoverished province on the Iranian border with a primarily Kurdish population and feudal social structures. Although both districts have been the recipients of massive migration, the difference in social composition between the two is striking, as is the difference in the rights of women. In Kodikoy, the existing intellectual and material capital has been sufficient to absorb the migration that has occurred over the years. As a strong municipality with committed women's groups and sufficient private funding, the establishment of women's literacy courses, vocational training, and family consultation centers has served to reduce Kodikoy's gender gap.

In Van, however, feudal kinship-based social structures have superseded the state in influence and rendered the empowerment of women very difficult and progress almost non-existent. Although 82 percent of women claim they are subject to regular violence, no form of shelter is provided. The example of Van serves to illuminate the challenges the Turkish state faces in empowering the individual beyond informal state structures. It has been found across the board on every issue that when the state does not step in, it is informal social bodies that do. So when the rule of law fails to protect women, it is precisely those power and value structures which support these inequalities that are left to resolve their problems. Because women are not economically independent enough to break escape these structures, there is little reason to expect that the situation will change.

The final lens to be explored is the way in which the headscarf issue and the rise of Islam have paralleled the women's rights movement since the late 1970s. In a sense, the headscarf is a symbol, but in reality its meaning is nuanced among different segments of the conservative religious community. As religious women began to question the norms to which they were subject, it became clear that they were not necessarily a product of Islam itself, but rather of its traditionally male interpretations. In fact, the headscarf has even, in its own way, been a vehicle for women's empowerment, as many women mobilized for now Prime Minister Erdogan's 1994 campaign supporting their right to wear the headscarf in universities. While their usefulness may have been limited to the campaign process and they afterward returned home, this example is demonstrative of the nuanced role the headscarf continues to play in Turkish society.

Although several studies have shown that there has been an incremental reduction in the percentage of women wearing the headscarf over the past six or seven years, from the low 70s to the high 60s, its presence is clearly more visible in Istanbul today than in the 1960s. Yet, once again, this observation is deceptive, as closer examination shows that this picture is distorted by the fact that 24.4 million fewer people were urbanized, rendering the practice still existent, but simply less visible to the casual observer. In fact, only 25 percent of women at that time were literate. As explored earlier with the economic participation of women as products of their socio-economic environment, the role of the headscarf must also be articulated as varying according to the prevailing socio-economic situation.

In many ways, the status of women's rights in Turkey today parallels their position in Spain in the late 1970s. With the necessary political will, Spain was able to undergo a rapid and dramatic change in a decade or two from conservative, Catholic-based policy to what is now at the forefront of women's empowerment. The lesson to be learned from this example is that new values will follow if policies are pursued accordingly. It is still, however, unclear if the necessary political will to stimulate these changes is existent in Turkey. So far, the political debate has been diverted away from the core issues aimed at addressing the root problem—public administration, the development gap, economic growth, and ensuring enforcement—by more superficial discussions about the headscarf and nationalism and by the general cronyism and politicking that exists between politicians and the leaders of the informal social structures explored above. As a result, until Turkish policymakers refocus the agenda and adopt the approach of empowering the individual, progress will remain limited.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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