[REPORT] Evolution of Women’s Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy

Evolution of Women's Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy
Turkish woman proudly holding up the national flag. Source: BBC.

Within the aftermath of the First World War and the arrival of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, the instauration of a new republic based on modern, western values came as a necessity. Indeed, in 1923, the founder wished to establish a new and progressive Turkish Republic. Henceforth, Ataturk renounced the old standards of the country as he believed in modernization. This change in morals was notably carried out in favor of the improvement of women’s rights.

Indeed, as the state modernization project enhanced by Ataturk’s reforms was based on women, the government promoted gender equality within the public sphere. Women represented a tool of the state’s mutation. In State Feminism, Modernization and the Turkish Republican Woman, Jenny White defined the feminist state as

“a male-dominated state that made women’s equality in the public sphere a national policy.”

Hence, the republican government started to define what modern women should incarnate. The new Turkish republican woman is “unveiled, educated, socially progressive, urban and has to behave in what the stated defined as modern”. These modernist transformations incarnated themselves in the emancipation of the feminine part of the population. They became the image of a “new common civilized way of living”.

The Modern Republican Woman

Kemalist’s Reforms

Legal reforms started to pave the way for women’s liberation. In 1926, Islamic laws were replaced by a secular civil code, giving women more rights. Turkish women were granted the right to vote in 1934. One year later, eighteen women took full part in the decision-making process by being elected to the Grand National Assembly. Thus, the implication of democratic reforms implemented prior to 1923 has taken on the democratic aspects by ensuring universal suffrage.

Evolution of Women's Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy
A Turkish woman votes in the local elections held in Izmir in 1935. Source: Daily News.

Women’s rights were considered an imminent condition for the instauration of the new Turkish Republic. Thus, the instrumentalization of the role of women was a major pivot in the transformation of Turkish society. The establishment of its democracy was notably rooted in the improvement of women’s legal conditions and thus the abolition of a society solely divided by gender.

The Consolidation of the Turkish Democracy

In the early 1980s, the young Turkish democracy was fortified by the flourishing of secular feminist civil-society movements. Indeed, women gradually “became involved in activism”, according to Tekeli (1995), and after the coup of 1980 women’s NGOs began to gather.

The emergence of independent networks was used to “maintain stability” after the military putsch that occurred on the 12th of September, 1980. An apolitical atmosphere marked the aftermath of the coup. This left room for the emergence of civil societies networks, including one of the secular women’s organizations. These networks had time to organize themselves into structures without fearing government pressure.

Feminist networks started to raise concerns regarding domestic issues and were filled with a strong desire to question the gendered nature of Turkish society. Considering the lack of political debate on women’s rights issues in the private sector, secular feminist organizations became aware of the complementarity of their actions to those of the leaders.

They were critical of the gendered nature of their civil rights and called for reforms. Thus, the notion of lobbying became a necessity and was used as a means to gain influence. Feminists became political entrepreneurs serving a cause. Since the pluralism of opinion is a fertile ground for democracy, Turkish civil society was playing an important role in consolidating it. Therefore, the modernism of Turkey was accomplished under the yoke of the expansion of feminist civil societies.

The Europeanization Process

In December 1999, Turkey was officially been accepted as a candidate for EU membership. Henceforth, a Europeanization process started to come into effect in order to comply with EU democratic values. Within the redefinition of Turkish norms, women’s organizations contemplated the opportunity to extend their influence within civil society. Indeed, women’s NGOs started to seriously pressure the government to “alleviate the gender discriminatory laws”. For instance, the Women’s Working Group on the Penal Code (WWG) initiated dialogue with the high political sphere. A legal battle emerged when women’s associations found themselves in the position of combatants.

Evolution of Women's Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy
Members of the European Parliament hold placards in favour of the opening of membership talks with Turkey
Source: Insight Turkey

Legal and Democratic Advancement

Actions for reforms in favor of women’s rights began to gain ground, notably with the suppression of Article 438 of the Penal Code; a law that previously reduced a rapist’s sentence if the victim was a prostitute. Seeing the light at the end of a legal tunnel formed by gendered, discriminatory laws, more and more Turkish feminist NGOs called for reforming the Turkish civil code.

According to the WWHR, the new civil code, passed in November 2001, was the embodiment of a founding change in favor of gender equality and the improvement of women’s rights, once set aside. Indeed, the reformed civil code abolished the supremacy of men in conjugal unions. It also 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”.

In terms of democracy advancement, the constitutional reform of 2010 was seen as a genuine turning point. Indeed, a constitutional amendment’s referendum was held in 2010 and has been accepted by 58%, to comply with EU standards. The package of 26 constitutional amendments was meant to improve freedom, women’s rights, as well as restructure the high judiciary courts.

Thus, the EU accession process has been enhanced by the progress of adaption of Turkish law, ‘marking the period of democratization and rights-based reforms’.

The Expansion of Women’s Civil Societies

In line with the EU enlargement process, Turkish women’s organizations considerably broadened their influence. Indeed, they benefited from the collaboration of other European feminist NGOs. By recognizing the importance of civil society, the Turkish government will further its EU application procedure and has helped build learning cooperation with European feminist organizations. Hande Eslen-Ziya and Nazli Kazanoglu explained that Turkish civil society and particular feminist organizations “saw it as a bridge between Western feminism and Turkish feminism”.

Therefore, the Europeanization process has had considerable influence on the expansion of women’s rights through the Turkish legal system. The consolidation of women’s civil society incarnated the first step of Turkey’s entry into the EU. Thus, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the period of acceptance of Turkey as an official EU membership candidate and the proliferation of women’s rights pursuant to the constant efforts of Turkish NGOs to demand the re-establishment of the women’s equality project.

Disillusionment

After Turkey’s disappointment regarding its status as an EU-member state, AKP’s popularity rose sharply. Erdoğan’s government won the 2011 general election by a large majority. His rise to power was accompanied by a new conservative, nation-centered revival.

Due to the reluctance of the ruling party to continue building the EU accession project, a considerable turn in democracy-building occurred. This retroversion has been the fertile ground for weakening efforts to improve the cause of women. Hande Eslen-Ziya and Nazlı Kazanoğlu define De-democratization as “the weakening of human rights, more specifically the weakening of gender equality discourses “. Such a definition could be compared with the De-Europeanization process. Symansky defined it as the “loss of democratic quality, experienced by countries that modify their regime from democratic to non-democratic”.

Evolution of Women's Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy
President Erdogan at a European congress. Source: DW

This de-Europeanization process has been escorted by a certain determination to de-construct policies implemented accordingly with EU standards such as the one on women’s rights.

The Consequence of the De-Europeanization of Women’s Rights

It appears that in the new Turkish era, driven by the AKP government, the understanding of women is based under the umbrella of family. After the 2000s, Turkey enhanced the protection of conservative and religious values as well as neo-liberal policies while favoring ‘motherhood behavior’. According to President Erdoğan, giving equal status to women and men would run counter to their fitrah: the ‘God-given nature.’ This statement, which appreciates the conception of a divided and gendered society, shines a spotlight on the implication of patriarchy. Indeed, it seems that gender equality, a fundamental principle of human rights, is against nature, this the decline of women’s rights under the ‘New Turkey’ has been in effect.

A certain gap between the Europeanization process led by policy reforms, and the reality of Turkish women’s rights have become more and more visible. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report ranked Turkey as 130 out of 144. The last report of Freedom house 2020, testifies the underrepresentation of women in positions of power within the AKP government. Hence, in the last parliamentary election in 2018, women won 104 seat,s which put their presence around 17 %. In light of those rankings and despite the considerable legislative efforts to renew Turkey’s image by making it a master of progressivism, a paradox began to emerge.

Women protesting for their rights in Kizilay, Ankara on 8 March 2020
Women protesting for their rights in Kizilay, Ankara on March 8, 2020. Shot by Margaux Seigneur

The Conservative Turn of Turkey

This mindset change emphasizes women’s roles as mothers, wives, and sisters. To protect the family vision of Turkey, the paradigm of domestic violence has shifted. The ruling government considered diminishing domestic violence protection to disincentivize women from seeking a divorce. In 2016 the parliament recommended that “women should prove their partner’s violence to receive extended police protection”.

Turkey’s government does not seem to see violence against women as a problem of inequality. It is rather considered to be a potential threat to the domestic equilibrium. The failure to make efforts to end violence against women manifests itself as a violation of the Istanbul Convention, officially known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, adopted in 2011. Turkey was the first signatory as well as the first one to withdraw from it on March 20, 2021.

Protests after Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention
Protests after Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. Source: Security Praxis

The Abortion Case Study

On 25 May 2012, President Erdoğan equated abortion with murder saying, “there is no difference between killing a baby in its mother’s stomach or killing it after birth.” Regarding this statement, Mustafa Akyol said that “politically this will serve him” since most people living in Turkey are against abortion. This turn on the structuration of Turkish society goes along more Islamic conservative lines at the expense of women’s rights.

In his opening cannonade against abortion, President Erdoğan also claimed that abortion was

“part of a plan to hold back Turkey’s population from growing and be part of the world’s top 10 economies by 2023”.

Indeed, women can fuel that economic rise by having “at least three children”, the Turkish president said. Erdoğan’s government has paved the way for constant acceleration of population growth where women are purely playing a maternal role. Within the economic motivation of Erdoğan, the place of women is fundamental in the sense that it actuates procreation.

According to Alexander Christie-Miller, women are considered to be determining factors to weigh in the balance of global competition. President Erdoğan’s efforts to reduce access to abortion were meant to protect Turkish society from Western deviances. Henceforth, the Turkish government led a campaign to ban abortion. This campaign was not successful due to the resistance of feminist organizations which all came together to protest the decision. Thus, in theory, the government did not question the 1983 law authorizing abortion. In practice, however, under pressure from the Ministry of Health, many public hospitals stopped performing abortions. Across Turkey, “only 7.8 percent of the total of 431 public hospitals perform abortions” announced Kadir Has University study.

Women’s Bodies: A Matter of State

Large photos depict the faces of women prevented from speaking by the bloody hands on their faces
Large photos depict the faces of women prevented from speaking by the bloody hands on their faces. Source: Discover society

Abortion in Turkey has become a state matter, loosening the conservative philosophy of the government. Women’s bodies are being manipulated with the sole purpose of serving the government’s determination to curb Turkey’s falling birth rates. In his interview Pouvoir et Savoir with Hasumi, Foucault gave the definition of power as a form of truth;

“Truth (…) is carried under the effect of multiple forms of constraint. Each society has its own regime of truth: that is to say, the types of discourse it accepts as true.”

In the case of the current Turkish government, conservative norms and thirst for economic power are the truth. Foucault mentions the fact that the omnipresence of power results in ‘the dressage of bodies’. Thus, the so-called knowledge of the government forcibly penetrates the mentality of the individuals whose bodies must submit to it. The abortion case study highlights the willingness to conform women’s bodies to the discourse of truth of power. Henceforth, the instrumentalization of the female body is at the service of the conservative and religious conception of the state.

The fundamental freedom of women to make choices about their own bodies comes into conflict with the interest of the state. Inevitably, this collision violates the democratic principle of independence between the provisions of legal power and government ideologies. Democratic consolidation implies the process of freezing democratic norms. By calling into question the right to abortion, the government is carrying out a process of norm change that considerably endangers Turkey’s democracy.

Feminism: The Dissenting Voice to be Shut Down

A strong democracy finds its roots in a developed and pluralistic civil society (lobbying, information asymmetry, judicialization tactics, etc.). As analyzed earlier, the reform of Ataturk gave the opportunity to women to express themselves as individuals. The advancement of Turkish feminism from a group’s perspective toward a more individual-oriented conception allowed women’s networking strategies to gain a major place within civil society. The implication of the de-democratization process that followed had a catastrophic impact on secular feminist organizations and on the rights obtained by and for Turkish women.

The Government’s Strategy of Homogenization

Evolution of Women's Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy
Sümeyye Erdoğan and her father, president Erdoğan (Source: Evrensel)

In the light of the importance gained by the pro-government women’s organization, the hardening of the conditions of feminist organizations became evident. Hence, to achieve the regeneration of a country based on the fusion of conservative Islam and nationalism, the government launched a collaboration with civil society women’s organizations. Those are “often co-founded by relatives of AKP leaders”. The multiplication of these collaborations has resulted in a tacit agreement between women’s movements and governments that have agreed ideologically. The creation of the KADEM (Women and Democracy Association) aimed at preserving traditional gender division within Turkish society. A splendid coincidence considering that it is the President’s daughter, Sumeyye Erdoğan who runs this organization. Once KADEM was founded “it slowly blocked the communication between the government and secular women’s organizations.” This authoritarian drift involves the homogenization of opinions and the stigmatization of criticism.

The Repression of Civil Societies

Evolution of Women's Rights in Turkey: The Fall of a Democracy
A caricature made by the Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff (Source: Kronos34.news)

Following the public affront of the prominent feminist Pinar Ilkkaracan denouncing KADEM as the ‘government’s fake civil society organizations‘, the president’s daughter filed a lawsuit against her. Thus, in addition to crushing feminist organizations, the government discredits the voice of the opposition. They also prevented them from having a separatist impact on the political scene.

Since debate and confrontation of ideas are necessary for the good health of democracy, the homogenization of the conception of feminism endangers its values of freedom. By empowering pro-government women’s groups, the tendency of the government to silence and, indeed, ignore civil society, is symptomatic of the repressive and authoritarian drift that Turkey is undergoing.

The Dismantling of Turkish Democracy

October 4, 2021, Ankara – Restrictions on press freedom continue sharply in Turkey. Journalists Büşra Taşkıran and Öznur Değer were impeded by the police during their street interview in Ankara (Source: CFWIJ)

A breakdown of the dismantling process of the Turkish democracy is presented below.

  1. The de-Europeanization process highlighted the considerable regression in the status of women.
  2. In the name of the current governmental ideology, the understanding of gender has changed in favour of a biological and thus, asymmetric perception.
  3. Erdogan’s determination to reduce feminist criticism undermines the plurality of civil societies and the freedom of expression.
  4. The lack of transparency has been reflected by the president’s control over women’s organisations.
  5. The conservative policy drifts dangerously towards threatening women’s rights and, as a result, the democratic dynamic established by Ataturk’s reforms.

Women’s roles and status have always been a fundamental pillar for the construction of different political projects in Turkey. There is an intrinsic relationship between the rights allocated to women and the current political situation. Hence, the stability and expansion of women’s rights remain a determining factor in assessing the consolidation of democracy.

Whenever Turkish democratic principles are threatened, women’s rights suffer the consequences from it. Given this feature, Turkey can no longer be considered a democracy, but as a fallen one.


This article is the product of The Second Voice – TNGO’s Department of Investigative Journalism focused on women’s rights across the world. You can read the latest updates of our investigative analyses and reports on the dedicated page.

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