On the 83rd anniversary of women getting the right to vote in Turkey, a right which they garnered ahead of their counterparts in many European countries, gender issues are still a hot topic. Women constitute half of the population of around 80 million but are yet to fulfill their ambitions due to a traditional patriarchal environment and strict gender roles.
The participation of women in the labor force, their representation in politics, literacy and enrolment rates, domestic violence, honor killings and their uncontested presence in the public sphere are now the burning issues women in Turkey face on International Women’s Day and throughout the year.
It is true that Turkish women are becoming more and more visible and active in the public sphere. But these shifting gender norms controversially challenge the existing order. Meanwhile, the deeply-rooted conservative political setting in Turkey tries to push women back to the confines of the family sphere.
In Turkey, politics is mainly seen as a man’s game. Currently, there are 79 women in the Turkish Parliament out of 550 members. There is only one woman in the Cabinet and she heads the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. Out of Turkey’s 81 provinces, only one has a female governor.
Statistics are also not in favor of Turkish women’s place in society. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2016, Turkey ranks 130th out of 144 countries. In political participation, it held the 113th place and in economic participation, it stood at 129th.
Although the participation of women is a fundamental prerequisite for the economy’s survival, female employment rates are still low. Compared with 75.3 percent of men aged 20-64 in employment, only 32.5 percent of Turkish women are employed. The government target is to increase the female labor force up to 41 percent by 2023 through vocational training and flexible working schemes for women with children.
Meanwhile, violence against women, the “bleeding wound of Turkey,” according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, continues to be a serious and systematic challenge with rates rising above the average of European countries. The lack of penal disincentives for offenders, the insufficiency of protective services for the victims and the lack of implementation of dedicated laws feed into this vicious circle.
Although reports vary, it is safe to say hundreds of women have been murdered in Turkey in recent years, with one lawyer stating in 2015 that reasons can be as arbitrary as putting too much salt in food. In January 2017 alone, 37 women were killed in Turkey, according to reports. Strikingly, a municipality in southeast Turkey recently distributed a marriage guide to newlyweds to detail instances when beating up a woman is supposedly necessary.
It is quite telling that at the political level, the discussion over women’s rights in Turkey centers on their bodies and the ways men think they should be dressing. Since 2002, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey, there have been various attempts to lift the ban on wearing a headscarf in the public sector — an interdiction that has been applied since the 1980s when secularism was upheld.
Although the participation of women is a fundamental prerequisite for the economy’s survival, female employment rates are still low. Compared with 75.3 percent of men aged 20-64 in employment, only 32.5 percent of Turkish women are employed.
Recently, the Turkish military lifted the ban on the headscarf for female army personnel. In 2007, university students were also allowed to wear the hijab at school, followed by government employees and women in the police force who have been permitted to cover their heads while on duty. These steps have given more freedom to Turkish women who had previously been alienated in such circles.
On the other hand, women are more and more referred to in political rhetoric as being “first and foremost mothers” and are being asked to have at least three children to make the nation most populous — a polemic that has drawn ire from women’s rights advocates.
However, there are also brilliant references that show what Turkish women can achieve. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) latest data on women researchers in science and technology, Turkey ranked 11th among 30 countries.
Dr. Zeynep Alemdar, founder of the Istanbul-based Women in Foreign Policy initiative, thinks that the place of women in Turkish society illustrates very well the duality that exists in the country.
“On the one hand, women are more aware of their rights, more vocal whenever they can be. Certain measures have been taken to increase women’s participation in the labor force and some businesses are putting in place principles to empower women in the workplace,” Alemdar told Arab News.
“Yet, femicide is increasing, the end of domestic abuse is nowhere in sight, the mainstream media’s portrayal of women is dismal and as class and ethnic differences impact women more, vulnerabilities have increased. Mobbing is widespread in the workplace and equal pay for equal work is a dream,” she added.
“We still have a long way to go and it starts not only with women but also with men,” she said.
Canan Gullu, president of the Ankara-based Federation of Turkish Women’s Association (TKFD), said the economic downturn in Turkey also influenced women in formal labor markets who have been replaced by the cheaper labor force of Syrian refugees who work without social security.
“On the other hand, the recent reforms undertaken by the government do not have an adequate infrastructure at the practical level to integrate women into the labor market in a sustainable way. For instance, you cannot keep women in the private sector unless you open more childcare facilities,” Gullu told Arab News.
According to Gullu, the absence of Turkish women in relevant decision-making mechanisms prevents them from having a say on issues that directly impact them.
“Recently, a public bus driver sexually assaulted a woman in the capital city Ankara and unfortunately women parliamentarians did not come together for a joint statement on such savagery,” she noted.
So, this Women’s Day, the streets of Turkey will be colored in red, a shade championed by female advocacy groups after paltry sentences were given to offenders who killed women who were wearing red clothes or lipstick.
As a country that aims to be among the world’s top 10 economies by 2023, Turkey still has a long way to go in terms of women’s rights. Change cannot occur merely through a change in the nation’s laws. As long as women in Turkey take more initiatives in social, economic and political spheres by recognizing their own value and discovering their untapped potential, they can pave the way for others to follow in their footsteps.