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Friday, August 19, 2011

Democracy Includes Feminists

by Richard Peres, published in Sunday's Zaman, July 31, 2011

The sad state of affairs for women in Turkey is well documented. The Global Gender Gap Report for 2010, a compilation based on five years of data by the World Economic Forum, is but one of many such indicators and reports.

In the report, Turkey is ranked 126th of 134 countries, behind even Egypt, Syria and Iran. The report focuses on four fundamental areas to measure how well women are doing compared to men in their country: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. For example, labor force participation by women in Turkey is just 26 percent, the lowest in Europe, which includes rural women who work without pay. Also, women in Turkey earn about a fourth of what men earn and do not generally receive equal pay for equal work compared to men. Other reports by international and Turkish NGO’s further document the situation for women in Turkey, including continuing violence against women, lack of protection by the judiciary and law enforcement, and widespread employment discrimination. In addition, there is the additional burden borne by headscarf-wearing women, who only recently gained entrance into universities and continue to be unable to enter teaching jobs, state employment, and professional occupations.

Enter Fatma Şahin

Fatma Şahin was recently appointed minister of family and social policies, which is the new name for what was previously called the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs. Women’s groups lobbied unsuccessfully for this change not to occur, because it reduces the state’s focus on women. Fatma Şahin has an excellent reputation for championing the interests of women as a member of Parliament and head of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) Women’s Branch. However, she opposes affirmative action for women, has voiced belief in a “strong family” over “free women,” and recently stated that “feminism has not benefited anyone until now and will not in the future.” When I read this last statement of hers I was stunned. I asked myself, how is it possible for a women’s advocate to speak so strongly against other women who are also fighting for women’s causes?

As a possible explanation, Nicole Pope of Today’s Zaman wrote in a recent column that conservatives in Turkey associate feminism “with immorality, or they view the women’s movement as a Western construct.” In explaining the ministry’s name change, the prime minister said, “We are a conservative democratic party. The family is important to us.” For me these explanations fall short. I do not doubt or question the values put forth by conservatives from all parties regarding moral principles and customs. The issue in question is the imposition of those values to the exclusion of others, in this case, condemning advocates of women’s rights, equal treatment and safety simply because they call themselves “feminists.” This suggests not just a moral issue or a lack of sympathy with Western cultural constructs. It indicates an incomplete understanding of democracy. In a true democracy, rights and freedoms are not dealt with from only from the viewpoint of the majority, but from an all-inclusive perspective including women and minorities. Does not the AK Party government, as the ruling party, represent all of Turkey’s people, including all of Turkey’s women? How is it that the only woman minister in a cabinet of men doesn’t have a kind word for women’s organizations?

Feminists in Turkey

The most disturbing thing about Fatma Şahin’s comments is their lack of validity. In the early twentieth century women’s organizations advocated civil and political liberties for women, ideals which were adopted by the new Turkish Republic and were a major tenet of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s revolution. Beginning in the 1980s women’s organizations in Turkey fought against violence inflicted on women. However, a decade later identity politics began to fragment the feminist movement. For example, while Islamic feminist activists took up the issue of the headscarf ban, protesting in the streets and at university gates, secular feminist organizations went their own way.

In the last 40 years or so, feminist organizations in Turkey have progressed far beyond demonstrations and marches. They have become significant NGOs that bolster Turkey’s civil society and take an active role in social development programs in support of women, including efforts to improve literacy, provide health information and job training, to build women’s shelters and provide legal assistance. In some respects the government is just catching up to the work of these “feminist” women’s groups. Meanwhile, these organizations are in leadership roles, providing consulting to the World Bank and being funded by the United Nations. It seems obvious that these groups have benefited Turkey and will continue to do so in the future.

Divisiveness weakens the cause

The movement in the US to gain women the right to vote, which began in 1848, suffered changes in leadership and internal conflicts for generations, but eventually saw victory more than 70 years later, in 1920, thanks to the collective and increasing support of most women in the country. In the 1960’s women like Simone de Beauvoir in France, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and many others in America fought for equal pay and anti-discrimination laws. By the 1980s those laws were not only passed but implemented with substantial funding and institutional support at local, state and federal levels. Early US feminists were often subject to ridicule and opposition by men but managed by their sheer numbers and organization to affect substantial change in employment practices, the implementation of equitable civil laws, and increased protection against violence.

Unfortunately, the feminist movement in Turkey remains highly fragmented. Many conservative women do not support feminists and seem even revolted by the mere mention of the word, even though they have benefited from their increasing public presence, and from their pressuring government, the courts and other institutions to provide more freedom and better treatment for women. In addition, secular and Islamic women’s groups are not empathetic toward each other and do not cooperate nor collaborate – a sad state of affairs. Much like MÜSIAD and TÜSIAD they go their separate ways in lobbying the government. KADER, which supports the political rights of women, for example, shows no interest in supporting headscarf-wearing women. Lacking unity, the struggle to face the gender bias of men at work, in the courts, and in social life, seems insurmountable. Cultural values and the secular-Islamic split take precedence over solidarity and empathy. When women raised within this milieu of incomplete democracy and failure to understand what feminism stands for hold public office, the damage to the cause of women is that much more significant. Fatma Şahin’s comments about feminists within this context are not surprising.

Women have the numbers and accumulated wisdom to matter in Turkey, influence government and society, positively impact their status, and move Turkey out of its embarrassing ranking in the world regarding gender equality. The question is, will women respect the differing cultural values of their “sisters” and see the commonality of their cause? Will they come together on issues of freedom and equality over their own cultural preferences and personal values? I hope that the next generation of women in Turkey can figure out how to make this happen. All signs indicate that the current generation of Turkish women cannot seem to get their act “together” to support their own cause.


*Richard Peres is an author and journalist living in İstanbul.