Turkey’s women’s movement, a century in the making

Turkey’s women’s movement, a century in the making

Emrah Güler
Turkey’s women’s movement, a century in the making This week marks 92 years since the establishment of Turkey’s first women’s organization, which is nearly as old as the Republic of Turkey itself. The organization was initially founded as a political party; in fact, the newly-founded Turkey’s first party amazingly catered specifically to women’s rights. Kadınlar Halk Fırkası, or the People’s Party of Women, was founded to institute the political and social rights of women.

There was a single name behind such a bold action for a country just transitioning into democracy: Nezihe Muhiddin, an Ottoman women’s rights activist, journalist and writer. The party, unfortunately, was a nonstarter from the moment of its initiation. It was not recognized officially due to the 1909 election law forbidding women from participation in politics.

Muhiddin soon founded Türk Kadınlar Birliği (the Turkish Women’s Association), continuing to advocate political equality and inclusion for women, remaining the chair until 1927. The association nominated Muhiddin, along with famous novelist and women’s rights advocate Halide Edip Adıvar, as members of parliament to raise awareness on women’s participation in politics. It was yet another nonstarter.

“We, the Turkish women, need to assert our rightful places in social and political life. First, we need to raise awareness, then we need to educate,” Muhiddin had said in a speech directed at the members of the association. “We need to show women to want more and how to reach what they want. Our goal is establishing social, economic and political equality among women and men.”

Rise of the women’s movement

When, in 1927, Muhiddin had made sure the association’s statute included an article on “working towards women’s inclusion into politics and winning them their political rights,” there was an immediate backlash and she was removed from the administration for an infraction of the rules. Only in 1930 would Turkish women achieve their rights in local elections and four years later gain full universal suffrage.

In the fifth general elections of the newly-founded Republic of Turkey, held in 1935, 18 women were elected to parliament. Since then, women have accounted for an average of 5 percent of MPs, the number dropping to 1 percent for four decades after the 1940s. The number of women in the Turkish parliament right now accounts for 14.7 percent following the general elections in November 2015, with 81 women in parliament.

The women’s movement, however, flourished throughout Turkey after the 1980s with the revival of civil society at around the same time. Campaigns and protests feminists organized after the 1980s, such as the March Against Violence, Purple Needle, Whistle and Saturday Mothers, helped the women’s movement become organized.

The very first women’s organizations engaged in the immediate problems of women, with the fight against domestic violence taking the forefront, kick-starting help centers and shelters, like the Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation and the Women’s Solidarity Association. Organizations focusing on women’s education and employment, like Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) and the New Ways and Women Entrepreneurs Association (KAGİDER), soon followed. 

Feminists taking charge

Political participation by women was yet another priority area which brought feminists together, exemplified by the pioneering Association for Supporting and Training Women Candidates (KADER). Women’s health, as well as lobbying and advocacy on both a national and international level, were the areas that gained momentum later, in the 1990s, with the Mavi Kalem Association as an example of the former and the Civil Law Women’s Platform of the latter.

Education for women’s human rights, awareness-raising, women’s participation in the work force and representation of women in the media and arts are a few of the areas organized women’s movements have been tackling since then. “We, the Turkish women, need to assert our rightful places in social and political life,” Muhiddin had said, nearly a century ago. What has the diversity and assertiveness in the women’s movement and the proliferation of organizations achieved since then?

We know that a lot has changed since then, at least in the perception and awareness of women, thanks to a research done by A&G for daily Hürriyet last year. Conducted with over 2,000 women in 36 cities and 116 villages, the research found that 36.9 percent of the respondents called themselves feminists, a whopping 86 percent supported groups advocating women’s rights and more than half wanted to join such a group.

Muhiddin’s sentiments for “social, economic and political equality among women and men” were shared by most women, according to the research. Over 75 percent though women could work in whatever job they wanted to, while those who believed that women needed economic support from men were around 30 percent. Some 83 percent thought there should be equal opportunities for women and men in every sphere, and 61 percent thought the political environment would prosper if more women entered the parliament. Change is the next step after awareness.