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Turkish women's rights beyond Islamists and secularists

- December 10, 2014

A woman shouts through a megaphone during a march on Istiklal Avenue in the Turkish city of Istanbul as part of International Women’s Day on March 8. (Ozan Koseozan Zose/AFP/Getty Images)
On Nov. 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at a women’s rights conference that he did not believe in gender equality because it contradicted the laws of nature. Erdogan’s comments angered many people within and outside Turkey, who accused the president and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of misogyny. Secular critics of Erdogan and his party argue that women’s rights have regressed in Turkey under the 12 years of AKP rule since 2002. They are right about the scope of the problems facing Turkish women today, but wrong to blame those deeply rooted problems only on Islamists.
Turkey before the 2002 election of the AKP was no feminist utopia. In 2001, under the rule of a secular coalition government led by the social democrat Bulent Ecevit, Turkey ranked only 81 out of 175 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s Gender-related Development Index, which measures the gender gap in human development in terms of health, education and income. Turkey lagged behind not only the Western European democracies but also such Muslim-majority states as Saudi Arabia (68), Lebanon (70), Jordan (75) and Tunisia (76). Similarly, according to the UNDP’s 2001 Gender Empowerment Measure, which captures inequality in key areas of economic and political participation and decision-making, Turkey ranked 66 out of 70 states, again coming behind such countries as Namibia (29), Botswana (31), Malaysia (45) and Pakistan (58).
In pre-AKP Turkey, about one in 10 women in the east lived in polygamous marriages (despite the prohibition of polygamy since 1926), and about 200 girls and women every year were killed by close relatives in the name of protecting “family honor.” In July 2001, the social democratic-led coalition government passed a regulation requiring female nursing students to undergo virginity tests before being admitted into their studies. Merve Kavakci, a democratically elected member of parliament, was expelled from the National Assembly because her head was covered. To prevent Kavakci from taking oath with her headscarf, Ecevit, the left-leaning prime minister at the time, chanted from the podium “put this woman in her place!” Such was the “place” of women in Turkey before the AKP ascended to power.
The first AKP government under Erdogan’s premiership was actually cause for some hope among many Turkish women. In 2004, Erdogan’s government passed a new penal code greeted by many as an important step toward gender equality and protection of women’s sexual and bodily rights. It criminalized marital rape, eliminated the old penal code’s patriarchal and gender-biased language and imposed a number of measures to prevent sentence reductions traditionally granted by Turkish courts to perpetrators of honor crimes. In August 2012, the AKP-controlled parliament also adopted a new domestic violence law.
Despite these positive legislative initiatives, things have not improved on the ground. Indeed, Turkey has become one of the worst countries in terms of violence against women. For example, between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate of women skyrocketed by 1,400 percent. Since 2002 about 7,000 women have been murdered in Turkey. According to official figures, in 2013 alone, about 28,000 women were assaulted. As many argue, Erdogan’s sexist policies and perpetuation of machismo culture are largely responsible for the country’s rampant gender-based violence problem.
Nor has economic growth offered significant improvements. According to the UNDP, Turkey’s GDP per capita income (in 2011 purchasing power parity terms) rose from $13,090 in 2000 to $18,167 in 2012. In other words, there was about a 39 percent increase in per capita income over a period of 12 years – the last 10 years of which were under AKP rule. According to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, in 2013 Turkey ranked 123 out of 136 countries in terms of women’s participation in the labor force with only 30 percent. In comparison, the ratio of female participation in the labor force in neighboring Greece was almost double at 59 percent.
On the same index, Turkey ranked 103 in terms of women’s political empowerment. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, 22 percent of seat victories on the AKP list went to women, compared to 17 percent of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) list victories. In the last municipal elections, of the 662 city and borough mayoralties won by the AKP, only six were won by women. CHP’s results were a little better but still shamefully low: of 186 mayoralties won by the party, only seven went to female candidates. When it comes to women’s empowerment, Turkey’s Islamists and secularists have a lot to learn from the Kurdish Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) – 23 of 83 mayoralties the party won in the last elections went to female candidates.
What is more, according to the UNDP, economic expansion did not translate into better health and education opportunities for Turkish women. In 2002, Turkey ranked 70 out of 169 countries on UNDP’s GDI. In 2007, about five years after AKP came to power, Turkey was still 70 on the GDI index, even though its rank on the Human Development Index improved from 88 to 79 over the same period. In 2008 on UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII, a composite index that replaced the earlier GDI and GEM) Turkey ranked 77, while in 2013 it ranked 69 out of 187 countries. Over the same period, Turkey’s HDI rank also improved from 83 to 69. Despite an overall increase in income and access to education and health care, the Turkish government has largely failed to improve the status of women and reduce persisting gender inequalities, especially with respect to women’s participation in the labor force and political empowerment.
While this sorry record reflects poorly on the AKP governments, it should not be used to forget the long history of struggles for Turkish women. Turkey was one of the worse places in the world to be a woman before the AKP, and it still is today.
Yüksel Sezgin is an assistant professor of political science and the director of Middle East Studies Program at Syracuse University.