Being a woman in Turkey, Middle East

Being a woman in Turkey, Middle East

It is well known that women are more disadvantaged than men in all societies, even more so in the Middle East. The 2012 Global Gender Gap Index ranks Turkey 124th among a total of 135 countries.

While Egypt (126th), Iran (127th), and Saudi Arabia (131st), present an even worse picture.

From West Africa to Central Asia, women are expected to solely fulfill the traditional roles of a good mother, wife, and housewife. Women in this geography must show that they can also be good businesswomen, politicians and scientists. The more women become economically independent, the more the perception of women being inferior can be overcome and the infringement of their rights can be prevented.

Initial hopes that the Arab Spring would bring positive development regarding women’s rights have been replaced with rightful concerns due to the elections of Islamic parties to power. In Egypt, there were significant protests due to the lack of guarantees for political freedoms and women’s rights in the drafted Constitution. The people in Tunisia and Libya have the same concerns. In Syria, where a bloody civil war is going on, the opinion that the expected regime change will negatively affect the lives of women prevails. It is a pity that women who went to the streets and demanded change have been excluded from the reconstruction process of their countries.

Considering recent attempts to undermine gender equality with legal amendments in Tunisia and Egypt, they can also be considered to be in relative decline in terms of women’s rights. Sadly, the Arab Spring has not brought much sunshine to women.

However, despite all the negative developments, it is too soon to tell how the Arab Spring will turn out for women. Transition periods are always difficult, and not everything has fallen into place in the region yet. The fall of several authoritarian regimes does not mean that democracy will follow immediately. In the meantime, women remain uneasy.

To aid in this difficult transition period, democratic countries have a huge responsibility. In a sense, it is a sincerity test for them too. Having ignored human rights infringements in the Middle East for the sake of their economic benefits and the stability of oil prices, and having closed their eyes to women who have been ignored in the region, Western countries have to revise their approach and should support the efforts for economic development, democratic transformation and secularism in the region. Also this support of democratization should not reinforce the strong perception among Middle Eastern people of democracy being a Western cultural imposition.

In Turkey, the traditional social structure and the resulting mentality are the main reasons for gender inequality. This mentality that traps women within the wife-mother-housewife triangle and limits women’s role in society to her family has been dominant for more than a decade of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule in Turkey since 2002. The following expression from the “shadow report” by Women’s NGOs to the CEDAW Monitoring Committee in 2010, states: “The increasing conservatism in Turkey during the reporting period poses a threat to women’s ability to enjoy their rights and freedoms. The already acquired legal rights of women are subject to backlash and efforts that aim to eradicate existing discrimination are usually met with resistance.” The tendency toward conservatism can easily be detected in the statements of the highest level members of the government.

Turkish women also have to endure domestic violence, economic discrimination and the twisted perception of women in the media. Despite all the precautions, nearly 200 women are murdered annually by their husbands, boyfriends or relatives. Surely it would be unrealistic to expect the decades-old problems of women to disappear overnight. In this long-term process, all NGOs, politicians and the media need to be determined and insistent. Following up on the legal regulations and enforcement efforts, drawing attention to problematic areas and continuous feedback and encouragement for officials will facilitate this process.

Sedef Küçük is a Member of Parliament of the Republican People's Party (CHP), and a Member of the Equal Opportunities Commission in the Parliament. This article is originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ). This one is an abbreviated version of the piece. For more information, please visit