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The Contribution of Turkish Women to the Modernization of Turkey

Judy Ayyildiz

The word “Feminism” is a term for the worldwide movement for gender equality under the law. For women, both in England and America, winning the right to vote was a long road, which began in the 1850’s, and ended only after the First World War in 1918 and 1920. And, indeed, in these two countries it was a long series of battles in which women fought government, parliament, presidents, representatives, men in general, the Christian churches, and other women -- who did not want the responsibility that equality brings. For roughly 70 years, courageous women in America and England suffered heckling, hunger strikes, arson in rail cars, imprisonment, destruction of property, civil and criminal courts, and physical abuse as they demanded their basic rights of citizenship. Women’s Suffrage – or the right to vote and hold elected office -- came to New Zealand 1893; to Australia in 1902; Finland 1906; Norway 1913; Soviet Russia 1917; England and Canada 1918; Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia 1919; US and Hungary 1920; Turkey 1934; France 1944; Italy 1945; Japan 1947.

On this Anniversary of Turkish Women’s Suffrage, we honor the sacrifice, work, and vigilance of Turkish grandmothers, great aunts, mothers, sisters, and wives of the past 70 years that has helped bring into being what we see of modernization and Westernization in their nation today. Turkish women in the past century joined their male counterparts in two revolutions: The first brought about change in the direction of a country. The second was to ultimately transform much of society from the inside out. During the first two decades of the Turkish Republic, the legal status of women was altered. Women’s emancipation and visibility was a major part of Kemal Atatürk’s radically-progressive program for the nation. But, there was a dilemma: Since the social life continued to be based on a patriarchy that designated the male as the head of family and wife as helpmate, Turkey was well into the 1980s before women as a whole were able to take advantage of the rights that the founders of the republic granted to them. It is worth considering that women’s role as an equal contributor in society in the West followed a similar path to that of Turkish women. In recent years, the feminist movement in both the US and Turkey has finally brought about change in the civil code regarding traditional gender roles of equality under law. The United States still has yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Tonight, I will examine the contributions of Turkish women to the modernization of their republic, briefly highlighting their efforts in the War of Independence, the arts, workplace, judiciary, political, social, educational, and in health care.

Following the victory of the Great Offensive, Kemal Pasha addressed the women, charging them, “Win for us the battle of education and you will do yet more for your country than we have been able to do.” He told the men in the audience, “If henceforward the women do not share in the social life of the nation, we shall never attain to our full development. We shall remain backward, incapable of treating on equal terms with the civilizations of the West.” To all, he continued, “Remain yourselves, but learn how to take from the West what is indispensable to an evolved people.” I interject here that historian Bernard Lewis says that, “Modernization speaks to progress in industry and the sciences and technology. Westernization indicates a system based on the ideals of equality and human rights.” Kemal Pasha singled out women as the group most visibly oppressed by conservative religious laws. At his own mother’s grave in 1923, he declared her a victim of the sultans’ governments. He pledged to give his life if necessary to rectify that. His Grand National Assembly abolished the caliphate in 1924.

During the Turkish War of Independence, goods were scarce. Ammunition and weapons were desperately needed at the front. A shipment of Russian arms and ammunition arrived on the Black Sea. The colossal effort to rush those supplies to the front in ox carts has become a part of the War’s epic story. Many of those who hauled the carts to the front were peasant women. The 20th Century acclaimed Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, captured the merit of these heroines in his book, Human Landscapes. Such women had always been critical to the survival of the nation, but their value was often overlooked.

During that war, every household provided for the Resistance Army one set of underclothes and boots, 40% of all stocks of cloth, leather for soap and candles, and other fundamentals. Women played a central role in the gathering of such necessities for the troops. The civilian population was starving. They had been through 10 continuous years of wars. But, they willingly sacrificed what they had left. In fact, Kemal Pasha inspired them to give up their last drop of blood if necessary. If the Nationalists lost the country, there was nothing left to live for anyway.

Halide Edip, the first Turkish graduate of the American School for Girls in Istanbul, a novelist, an outspoken and respected feminist, and a voice of inspiration for the Nationalist Movement was the only female officer in the Resistance Army. She later wrote a memoir of that war experience and perilous time entitled, The Turkish Ordeal. It was published in the US and England in 1928.

After the victory, Kemal Pasha addressed the nurses of the Red Crescent, commending them for the quality of the work they did alongside the men under horrible circumstances. He suggested that given equal conditions that women might outpace men. He went on to say that women needed to be even better educated than men in order to train children to meet modern needs. He further advised modernizing dress style, and that women should play a full part in social, economic, and academic pursuits. He also called an assembly of women and men teachers “the officers of the army of education” who would “dispel the cloud of general ignorance” which had “settled on the people.”

In 1926, the Turkish Assembly passed laws of secularization. Women and men got equal inheritance rights. Divorce could no longer occur at the whim of a husband. Either parent might receive child custody. However, men still held the position as head of the household, and women could not work outside the home or travel abroad without the permission of the husband. But, with the new laws, women could not only teach in girls’ schools but in mixed primary and middle schools. Women, furthermore, could begin careers in law, medicine, and public services -- although social change was gradual and limited. Life in the countryside went on much as before. While the law no longer recognized religious or polygamous marriages, conservative rural society still did. President M. Kemal delivered a number of speeches in the early twenties that insisted on the full emancipation of women in the Turkish state and society. “Our most urgent present task,” he repeatedly said, “is to catch up with the modern world,” and furthermore, that, “We shall not catch up with the modern world if we only modernize half the population.”

In 1930, women were given the right to vote and be elected in municipal balloting. Ataturk’s adopted daughter Afet, the first woman to enroll in the People’s Party, became an active speech-maker. She later became a professor of history.

At this time, women began to take their place in large numbers in the expanding work force. In his book, The Making of Modern Turkey, author Feroz Ahmad describes what was happening: “The need for labor continued to grow as the state industrialized and opened factories throughout Anatolia. In the cities, women took to the professions and became teachers, lawyers, and judges, and even the police force was opened to them. Women began to marry according to their own wishes. The nuclear family began to emerge in the cities. Women like Keriman Halis, Miss Turkey and Miss Universe 1932 became the symbol of the newly-found freedom. Women saw themselves a part of the Kemalist revolution. With economic progress came a certain amount of freedom for women. They had always worked on the land, but now every major industry from textiles to cigarettes used their labor.”

Women were elected to village councils in 1933. Conservative rural society accepted it but considered it a very radical step. Finally, on 5 December 1934, women won the vote in parliamentary elections. 16 of them were urban, three with middle school diplomas, one with high school education, the rest had higher education except for a disabled soldier’s peasant wife -- who had previously been elected village head. She was personally chosen by Ataturk to become one of these new Members of Parliament. These 18 women took seats in the Parliament in 1935 alongside 382 men. This Turkish Republic was to give the world its first female supreme court judge. Eventually, Sabriye, one of Ataturk’s adopted daughters became a judge.

In April of 1935, The Turkish Women’s Union hosted the Twelfth Congress of the International Alliance for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Yildiz Palace in Istanbul. The Nationalist Turkish Hearth organizations became known as the People’s Houses. It must be pointed out that in 1938, 90% of Turkey’s population was peasant, according to Bernard Lewis. Reaching the number nationwide of 500, the People’s Houses became active social clubs, with drama, music groups, and sports facilities. Their function was to bring Western civilization to the people. The first of the Girls’ Institutes had been opened in Ankara in 1930. These institutes taught Western ideas and homemaking skills. Women took leading roles in the music conservatories, dramatic arts, opera, and radio. Some of the women who ultimately became internationally known in these arts are actress Yildiz Kenter, piano virtuoso Idil Biret, opera divas Leyla Gencer and Suna Korad, and writers Sennur Sezer, Pinar Kur, Melisa Gurpinar, Tomris Uyar, Nezihe Meric, and Adalet Agaoglu.

These suffrage rights and other equality rights certainly came about within the first seven years of the Turkish Republic because Kemal Ataturk was able to sever the new State’s laws from the religious laws that withheld equal rights to women. He said, “If a society does not wage a common struggle to attain a common goal with its women and men, scientifically there is no way for it to get civilized or developed.” Kemal knew the power of the conservative forces he sought to change. Lord Kinross, the author of the famous biography, Ataturk, put it this way: “...Kemal risked insurgencies if he attempted to revolutionize the status of Turkish women too quickly. The fez could be abolished. The veil could not. ...(Kemal) had his adopted daughters brought up as models of the Kemalist woman; one (Sabiha) was trained as a pilot on active duty.”

The achievements that Kemal Ataturk brought about for Women’s Rights in such a short amount of time cannot be understated. Earlier, I referred to the long battle for equal rights waged by women on behalf of themselves here in the United States and in England. I listed a few hardships they went through; but that list does not begin to tell the horrible story of their struggle for suffrage. In the Republic of Turkey, these rights were granted to women because of the progressive and humanistic Kemal Ataturk. As one who has lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, I am forever conscious of the fragile state of any country’s civil and equal rights. Laws can change overnight. The world of the Middle Ages seems to be always waiting behind the curtains.

Ataturk’s liberal idealism gave feminists the opportunity to air social topics and problems such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, general patriarchal oppression, love, abortion, violence against women, war, and environmentalism. And yet, by and large, the majority of Turkish women were not able to take advantage of these new freedoms. Most still worked the land. Most remained under the social control of men. Turkey’s industrial class was small. It was largely an agrarian society with a small middle class. Ataturk died at age 57 in 1938, his life, indeed, given over to the salvation, founding, building, and preservation of his nation. His visions are still on-going ideals and struggles today.

Since the 1950’s, Turkish women in the workforce has steadily increased, although the rate of growth in the workforce was rather slow until the eighties. With the sixties, industry and light manufacturing employed more females although most of the working women were seen in the fields of teaching, health care, and clerical work.

As a whole, urban middle-class women continued to have higher education than the lower classes. Rural women began migrating to the cities. Many of these settled in shanty houses, and many of them sought employment as maids, although a number of them did not work outside the home. Many urban working-class women quit after five years to get married. Women who continued to work and contribute to the family income enjoyed a degree of independence and enhanced status. During these years -- like in America -- women who worked outside the home generally worked a second job in the home, a third job giving birth, and a fourth job tending to the children. My own mother did that. No wonder Ataturk said women could outpace men!

The 1980’s women’s movement in Turkey consisted of a small group of intellectual and professional women, journalists, academics, artists, lawyers, medical doctors, university students, and less educated women. In years like 1984, there were no women mayors; but, the literary scene saw a second-generation of women writers such as Duygu Asena, Aysel Ozakin, Nazli Eray, and Latife Tekin.. They wrote about the complicated individual’s existence as laid against her environment, background, and society.

Turkey’s first public feminist event was held in 1986 in Ankara and Istanbul. The Feminists sought a way to urge the government to implement the 1985 UN Convention, which demanded the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Turkey had signed the convention. It was not implementing it. In 1987, there was a sit-in and hunger strike by ultra-religious female students demanding the right to cover their heads in the university classrooms while, at the very same time, a group of feminists were marching through the streets protesting violence against women.

In 1989, because domestic violence against women continued to be a problem, feminists established The Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation, as well as a women’s library in Istanbul, and a consulting center in Ankara. A national Directorate General on the Status and Problems of Women was established under the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. Many local municipalities set up departments to focus on women’s rights and protection. Universities began to establish women’s studies programs.

In a survey taken in 1991, only 18% of all professionals were women. These were mostly in the large cities, and generally of the upper class. One-third of all bank clerks were reportedly female. In 1994, 0.4% of the country’s mayors were women.

18 women were first placed in Parliament in 1935. Since then, the percentage of women to win those seats would not have impressed Kemal Ataturk. Since 1935, there have been a total of only 117 female Members of Parliament out of 6639. But, in 1987, a female Parliamentarian became the Minister of State. In 1991, a female MP became State Economy Minister. In the years between 1993-95, the female Prime Minister Tansu Ciller held office. Nevertheless, until 1994, only five women held ten ministerial posts in different cabinets. However, it must be said that women’s participation in government on the local level has been higher than on the State level. In the US, since 1920, only 216 women have served in the House and Senate out of a total of 11, 698. The 77 women who serve in the 108th Congress sets a new record but still accounts for only 14.26% of the 540 members according to thegendergap.com. It is interesting that both Turkey and the US can claim only around 2% total of women elected to national seats representing the populations of their countries.

In the present workforce, the number of female Turkish executives tends to decrease in the higher ranks because of traditional social mores, marriage, or children. A woman in the Ministry of Interior must spend as much as 9 additional years to achieve the same status as a man. Discrimination is declining, but slowly. Sitting female judges preside, but there have been restricting quotas. The rate of women as prosecutors and judges was 19.7% in 2001, according to the Directorate General in Ankara.

Today, there are many associations for women in Turkey aiming to integrate women in social, economic, and political life. They are publishing, meeting, and conducting campaigns. Women and men in the arts, which have been funded and supported since Ataturk, flourish and include visual arts, traditional and contemporary weaving, glass design, the rebirth of old crafts such as production of Iznik tile, opera, theater, playwriting, music, film, painting and many others.

Women’s status in Turkey is still a complex issue. The law gives women equal pay for equal work, but gender segregation is often the social norm in the workplace and in other public spaces. Even urban, educated, professional women run up against traditional and religious values with regard to gender roles. Women’s opportunities in Turkey today are varied. Tourism -- where women play a major role -- has changed the women more radically than the men because it’s opened up the world to even the most remote village. The media has played the same role in widening the view of the rural woman, who seeks education and takes such fields as architecture and archeology. Women in secular higher education is close to one third of men. Women in the work force is 30 % of men. It’s interesting to note that a majority of women within this force still labor in the agricultural sector as non-paid family workers. However, professional women are represented at high ratios in university professorships and in the fields of medicine, dentistry, and law.

Turkish society sees that more middle class women are remaining single and living alone because work and careers have become fundamental to their lives. I have seen that young Turkish fathers are assuming their fair role in parenting and child care. Nevertheless, maternity and child-care continue to present employment obstacles for women. One may despair that divorce continues to rise -- until one realizes that today Turkish women have access to more choices, and that many of them are taking control of their own lives. Today, in Turkey, we see women and men working together in every walk of life, though my female lawyer friend hangs her law degree six inches below her husband’s law degree because he is the man of the house -- although she theoretically believes in equality. But, the way she hangs the degrees pleases her husband; and so, she submits to his good will in that. This example symbolizes to me that double standard of values that I noted earlier.

In conclusion, Turkish women have done more than their share to establish and maintain the modernization and Westernization of the Turkish Republic. With opportunity, they will continue to do much more. May the great spirit that inspired the worldwide movement for equal rights between women and men continue to find power in the hands of those like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Like Ataturk, I think education is the key to freedom for us all. May the women of Turkey be protected by law as they reach toward a future where their country takes on an increasing international role. May it be a world of Ataturk’s motto of: Peace at home and peace in the world. That is also my wish for the women of the United States and the whole world as well.
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