Atatürk’s legacy and women in Turkey

Atatürk’s legacy and women in Turkey

Nov. 10 will be the 75th anniversary of the passing away of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of Turkey’s War of Independence and the founder of the Republic.

The statement and ceremonies to mark this date are not expected to be as shining as in former years. At the beginning of last week the government lifted his silhouette from Turkey’s highest decoration together with the initials “T.C.,” which stand for “Turkish Republic.” Later in the week, an arch with one of his most well-known mottos written on it, “Happy is the one who calls him or herself a Turk” was taken down in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır. This happened after a lawyer had filed a petition with the local governor, saying the sign contradicted the ongoing dialogue between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a political solution to the country’s painful Kurdish problem. 

There are two main reasons for the loss of shine of Turkey’s national hero. The first is the decades of overdose of his name and image for political and ideological reasons. And not only by the military which abused his legacy as an excuse for their political interventions and coup d’états and generally to create an atmosphere of intimidation. Right after the military coup in 1980, even torture sessions were witnessed in chambers under that motto - not only in Diyarbakır, but elsewhere across the country. Political, judiciary and bureaucratic elites have also abused his name and legacy for their daily purposes. Ceremonies to mark his passing used to take a week, and no need to say that there was almost no free discussion or criticism possible regarding the implementations of the Atatürk era without being denounced as the enemy of the republic. Busts and sculptures of Atatürk with no aesthetic concern were raised at every corner, both turning his name into a cult and also emptying the content of his reforms and legacy.

Secondly, it is not a secret that there is a factor of reaction against this overdose in the consecutive election victories of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), which has pious Muslim-conservative grassroots that for years mourned that in the Atatürk era the imposition of religion over the state was lifted and some practices were restricted. The leaders of the AK Parti are careful in their public remarks regarding Atatürk, yet there are interesting nuances. For example, President Abdullah Gül had no problem in naming Atatürk as Atatürk and praising him as the country’s leader, whereas Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan refrains from using the surname, which means “Father of Turks” and prefers to call him as Mustafa Kemal, with the “Gazi” adjective in front of it, which has religious connotations and means “veteran of war.”

As in many other areas, Turkey swings from one end to another; this time in marking its founding father. But the reforms he led in the 1920s and 30s are not possible for many Muslim-populated countries even today. He was the one who separated state affairs from religious ones with a radical move to abolish the Caliphate owned by the Ottoman dynasty. Then changing the alphabet from Arabic script to Latin, as well as the calendar and measurements, in order to shift the intellectual references from East to West, describing the latter as “contemporary civilization.”

However, the most important reform of Atatürk was to try to make women visible in society. Perhaps the steps were too radical and backfired at certain points, like imposing bans on women’s outfits. In political terms, the Cold War played a role in the return of the religious factor in politics when the Western system led by the U.S. needed Muslim religious elements surrounding the Soviet Union to undermine it. They succeeded with that, but we can observe the cost of that in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and even parts of civil war-hit Syria, where radical Islamist elements have taken control. Women who become invisible in society are paying the price.

Perhaps that’s the reason why a younger generation sensitive to women rights and secularism has now started to rediscover an Atatürk with neither soldiers nor ideologues imposing anything on him.