Women’s movement in Turkey at the crossroads

Women’s movement in Turkey at the crossroads

The November election created a big question in the mind of women’s rights NGOs in Turkey. After decades of struggle, the women’s liberation movement in Turkey has come to a point of pushing for quotas, 50-50 equal representation in parliament, judicial reforms on domestic violence, etc. Then came the results… Then came the internal fights…

Along with the diplomatic and political struggle raging in Turkey, there is a simmering problem in liberal circles these days about women’s role in politics and society. Center-left movements and NGOs are going through particularly hard times. In September, Turkey’s first all-female film festival event FILMMOR lost some of its critical members. Fourteen women resigned from the festival, citing opaque management, unjust personnel policies, mobbing, and personal agenda pursuits. 

The Women for Peace Initiative has gone through difficulties as well. Some of its incredible members died in the Ankara terrorist attack in October. Its projects and campaigns had fallen on deaf ears in the mainstream media and middle class society during the Kurdish peace process, but the one thing that kept its members together was the Kurdish issue. The initiative organized a long and informative conference on Dec. 20, titled “What is happening during war? How are we changing our struggle for peace?” So there is still hope for women on the peace talks. Indeed, those talks - despite all that has happened since June - are still the main concern of ordinary people across the country, Turks and Kurds alike. But curfews, clashes, and the assassination of Diyarbakır Bar Association head Tahir Elçi, show us that Turkey’s southeast is set to have a very harsh winter. 

Another NGO that had women up in arms is again from the left: The Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB), which had a tumultuous general assembly. The TMMOB’s women members held a separate convention where there was a lively protest against the chamber’s top male management. The chronic disease here and in other trade unions is that women on the left of the political spectrum feel they are left out and marginalized by their male colleagues. While leftist men are sought after for political positions, women are dismissed as “angry, dissatisfied old maids.”

One hopeful sign came from the Association for Promotion of Women Candidates in Politics (Ka-Der) convention over this past weekend. Turkey’s leading political women NGO, Ka-Der had a very rough internal fight after the June election. Many members complained that NGO positions had simply become a stepping stone to a political career. Luckily, Ka-Der’s founders stepped in and reasserted its real values of having a non-partisan approach and maintaining equidistance from all political parties. 

So what to do now? Turkey’s women’s rights movements, especially on the left of the spectrum, are looking for new approaches, new goals and new perspectives. While the world is applauding women leaders like Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde, Turkish NGO’s should immediately look for and promote stronger, better women role models. They should be more than just pop stars or soap opera starlets. It is time to raise the bar and raise the debate on women.