Metin Camcigil, Former President of ASA

We are assembled today to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Turkish women’s right to vote, as well as the 80th anniversary of co-education in Turkey. The law recognizing the voting rights was passed on December 5th, 1934, and the one on co-education on March 3rd, 1924. This does not mean however that an equally important legislation that consolidated women’s equality with men, the Civil Code of February 4th, 1926, should be forgotten.

Such historical facts sound very hollow if we do not consider them within their own contemporary circumstances. Like many giant leaps Turkey took from the 19th to the 20th century it leaped to the emancipation of women thanks to the leadership of Atatürk. Turkey is among the first states that recognized women’s voting rights. Women’s equality was introduced in Turkey at a time polygamy was a religious right, and women were second-class citizens like in most other 19th century societies irrespective of their religious adherence. Furthermore, the new Turkey in which women were given recognition was not a modern prosperous society like Switzerland when it recognized women’s right in 1971. Illiteracy in Turkey of 1920s was 90 %; the country was trying to recover from three years of foreign occupation, and was repaying heavy debts of a bankrupt Empire, which did not leave behind any industrial infrastructure. Over and above this heavy burden, the country was launching a new, secular, democratic state where theocracy ruled for the preceding 600 years. Nevertheless women’s issues were not relegated to second place. These were the circumstances in which Atatürk introduced women’s equality in Turkey.

Ataturk’s view on women’s rights is formally expressed in the schoolbook on civil and civic studies prepared under his supervision: “There is no logical explanation for women’s political disenfranchisement. Any hesitation and negative mentality on this subject is nothing more than a fading social phenomenon of the past. ……Women must have the right to vote and to be elected, because democracy dictates that, because there are interests that women must defend, and because there are societal duties that women must perform.” (Afet Inan, Medeni Bilgiler, Turk Tarih Kurumu 1998). He also stated in a speech “If a society does not march towards its goal with all its women and men together, it is scientifically impossible for it to progress and to become civilized. It should be realized that everything we see on earth is the product of women” (Gurbuz Tufekci, Universality of Ataturk’s Philosophy, Turkish Min. of Foreign Affairs, 1981)

As a result of reforms, literacy in Turkey today reached 80% and its economic potential is rated among the first twenty in the world. In the past 80 years Turkey produced internationally acclaimed female musicians, operatic performers, physicians, engineers, business executives, and Olympic champions. While this contribution of Turkish women to the contemporary civilization is remarkable, I believe Turkish women could have achieved even more if given more freedom. Let me share with you some facts about the present day Turkey. According to the State Statistics Office records:

  • While illiteracy in Turkey in 2000 was 6.1% for men it was 19.4% among women. Keeping school age girls at home results in 600.000 girls annually becoming uneducated.
  • 70% of female workforce is unemployed as against 11% of men.
  • Participation of women in local administrations is below 1%; in the judicial system 17%, in the academia 33.3%.
  • There were 18 women out of a total of 395 representatives in the Fifth National Assembly elected in 1935 after the entry into force of the law on women’s voting rights. A ratio of 4.5 %. In the Parliament of 70 years later there are 24 women out of 550 representatives, a ratio of 4.4 %.

Clearly not legal but cultural obstacles and daily politics impeded a wider participation of women in Turkey’s progress. There was in 1920s and 30s a vibrant and visible public enthusiasm for change and progress. Halkevleri opened and served millions of people with libraries, performing arts, concerts, publications, sports activities, etc. throughout the country. There was no debate in Turkey over religious issues such as converting all schools to Imam schools (17.9.94 Cumhuriyet), favoring Sharia (8.1.95 Hurriyet), or covering woman’s hair until the race for votes in the multi-party system started in 1949.

This past June five 16-year-old girls from a Koran school near Izmir went to the beach chaperoned by their Koran teachers. The girls, in due course, could not resist the temptation of the inviting blue waters of the Aegean and hand in hand walked out into the water. Of course, all were dressed from head to toe to protect their purity from the gazes of men. Soon the power of tide and the weight of their dresses started pulling them under. Some men on the beach attempted to respond to their cries for help, but the teachers prevented them from approaching the girls lest their purity be lost forever. Needless to say all the girls drowned; thus their purity was saved but their lives were lost. Onlookers were not outraged. Neither the parents nor the public protested. No criminal prosecution followed. The incident did not even make news in Turkey. One newspaper picked up the story from a shocked Italian paper (Corriere della Sera). I guess the event was met with religious fatalism. It was Opus Dei. In its relentless testing the ground with one bill after another to reintroduce religious traditions into public life, particularly those concerning education and women’s freedom, the Turkish politicians also recently tried to criminalize adultery, only to back down after warnings from the European Union – not from the Turkish people mind you. Such incidents compare with the likes in Saudi Arabia, but I will refrain from giving bad examples from Saudi Arabia in line with the current U.S. policy on this close ally.

What made Turks nostalgic of the Ottoman era and led them to reverse the reforms? Or did they decide to identify themselves with Arabs rather than with the other Turkic nations? Are they still in search of identity despite the resurrection of their own history and culture by Ataturk? The confusion emanates, in my opinion, from the skewed education in the country. Children are taught the Ottoman past as a glorious Muslim ancestry. They are not informed of the reality that the Ottoman Empire was not unified by culture and nationality, but identified itself more with the religion than with the Turkish nation, and in the multi-national Empire Turks were even denigrated. Such a dual rationalist and religious education system reminiscent of the Ottoman system is a stealthy method of reshaping the society to conform to religious standards As a result of this wrong history education an identity crisis occurred.

This traditionalism and religiosity reflected on politics. Turkish politicians, in their effort to reconcile modernity with traditionalism, argue that freedom and democracy ought to respect local culture, thence they claim a moderate Islam. With this redefinition of freedom and democracy women’s unequal status in the society will continue. How can the politicians claim with honesty that freedom and democracy can exist while one half of the society cannot enjoy them to the fullest?

The influential Turkish sociologist Bozkurt Guvenc sums up the situation admirably in his book “The Turkish Identity”, 1996: “Instead of fooling ourselves with the arguments that we are separating or have separated religion and state, it would be more realistic and effective secularist policy to aim at women’s participation in the labor market. It was found that there is one working woman for two working men in the country. It appears that man/woman differences and men’s privileges will continue, because religion dominated politics cannot practice separation between religion and state….In other words, secularism can succeed at the same rate as women reach equal status in society.”

The influence of stubborn religious traditionalism on women’s social, economic and political status is by no means peculiar to Turkey or to Islam. In her captivatingly stark book “Freethinkers”, 2004, Susan Jacoby gives a detailed account of women’s long struggle with the religious establishment for gaining their human rights in the U.S. “From the 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the current battle over abortion, no cause has better demonstrated the conflict between America’s religious and secular values than the drive for women’s rights. As soon as news of the Seneca Falls convention began to circulate, feminism began to be portrayed by its opponents as a threat to religion……The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave the right to vote to emancipated male slaves, but women of all colors were still excluded.” Further on Jacoby reminds us that a suffrage amendment in 1887 was overwhelmingly defeated in the Senate. Not until 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. But the fight for the equality of women continued. Jacoby notes that in later years conservative organizations pressed hard to continue the censorship introduced by McCarthyism against communist activities. Movies like Anatomy of a Murder were banned under censorship laws “solely because the words rape and contraceptive were uttered in it.” The publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned until 1959 because it portrayed the freedom of a woman. (Here I will open a parenthesis to recount a personal experience for the sake of an interesting comparison with the early years of the Turkish Republic. It so happens that I read the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Turkish translation in 1940s, at least 10 years earlier than in the U.S.). Jacoby then rightly suggests that the way out of this traditionalist vise is an aggressive policy to secularize education: “The real enemies of fundamentalism are rationalism and the modern world, and while this observation is most frequently applied by American pundits to radical Islamist theocracies, it also applies in some measure to any religion, fundamentalist or not, that treats women as the inferior of men.” I do not know whether Ms. Jacoby studied Ataturk’s political philosophy, but her conclusions sound very familiar indeed.

The Presidential Commission on the Status of Women established in 1961 by President Kennedy and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt determined there was discrimination against women. Forty three years later today we are reading in daily newspapers about the 75 million dollar compensation paid by Morgan Stanley to underpaid and promotion denied women, about the nation’s largest retailer WalMart and the financial institution Meryll Lynch prosecuted for similar practices. And also women’s participation in Congress still stands at 12%. The UN reported in 2000 that five years after the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing “no country has fully implemented the recommendations of Beijing or fully achieved de facto equality for women and men. Some countries have even experienced a reversal of some of the gains made by women.” I am not aware whether Turkey and the US are among those countries, but Prof. J. Turley of GW University wrote not long ago in Washington Post, “Like 23 other states, Virginia still might prosecute if a husband or wife has consensual sex outside the marriage….Like many fundamentalist Islamic states, the US uses criminal penalties to police the morality of its citizens. These morality laws go back to the church-based ‘bawdy courts’ of 13th century England.”

To finish on a positive tone I will note that the World Congress on Matriarchal Studies held in Luxemburg in 2003 reported that the remnants of some historical matriarchal societies still exist in Southwest China, Northwest India, North Africa, Sumatra and some Polynesian islands. A closer look may show that these are in fact egalitarian rather than matriarchal societies. I wonder whether the more we become industrialized the more macho and misogynistic we become. If so it is no surprise that we went to Afghanistan and Iraq to bring them freedom and democracy, and their newly adopted constitutions require conformity of civil law with their religious/canonic law, thereby not guaranteeing full freedom and equality for women.

If Man is still failing to show due respect to half of his own species after all this advancement in civility and struggle for equality, he is no man despite all the claims he may make for civilization. I can only speak for myself, that I could not have been the Man I am if it were not for my mother’s care and nurturing, for my wife’s intellectual support and love, for the joy and intellectual exchange coming from my daughter, and for the feeling of cultural belonging provided by my sister. The other half is what makes a man whole, just like you cannot have freedom and democracy with one half of the population.