Women’s choice in Turkey

Women’s choice in Turkey

Seda Demiralp

In the past years a coalition of women’s rights groups was formed in Turkey.  It brought together secularist and Islamist activists to end violence against women, an enduring problem that women have been fighting since the 1980s.  This coalition politics achieved significant results in uniting otherwise ideologically opposite groups and pushing government officials to take meaningful actions, such as a series of legislation changes and new government services to prevent domestic violence and support its victims.

Yet, there is a catch, especially for feminist women. Instead of focusing on gender equality, the coalition embraced a discourse that highlighted the role of women in the family, suggesting that violence against women hurts the family institution.  This reference to “the protection of the family” was part of a discursive strategy. It responded to the conservative agenda of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government that insistently emphasized women’s roles as wives and mothers. For some feminists this change was too big of a concession and had to be avoided. Yet others appreciated the practical gains that came with it.

The adaptive strategy that Turkish activists embraced is not unique.  Movements often chose to adapt to the legislative and cultural contexts in which they operate, to escape restrictions and exploit opportunities. 

In many cases, this involves pursuing an indirect route to the desired outcome and focusing on smaller changes that matter,  instead of seeking radical transformations that are guaranteed to face strong resistance.  

Examples are many and they show that women who operate within Islamic legal or cultural frameworks have learned from them.  In “Rewriting Divorce in Egypt” Diane Singerman considers how Egyptian women fought for the right to no-fault divorce.  After several years of unsuccesful  attempts to secularize Egypt’s Sharia-based personal status law and thereby grant women the right to seek no-fault divorce, Egyptian women went through a strategic change during the late 1990s.  Forming a coalition with Islamic feminists and using Islamic sources (such as the Qur’an and early Islamic court archives), they chose to seek change from within the Islamic law system.  With this adaptive strategy they convinced Islamic authorities that women actually enjoyed the right to no-fault divorce under Islamic law, as early as in the 7th century. Consequently, a change to the constitution in 2000 legalized “khul divorce” for women who wished to end their marriages without any fault on the part of their husbands.  

A similar adaptive move was embraced by Malaysian women, led by the Sisters in Islam, who chose to fight polygamy from within an Islamic discourse.  Instead of seeking a total ban on polygamy, they suggested that in most cases polygamy violates superior Islamic principles, such as justice.  Sisters in Islam succeded to push the government to tighten the procedure for polygamous marriages to prevent injustices that may result from them (see Selangor Sharia Law Enactment, 5 May 2003).  As a result, the number of polygamous marriages decreased tremendously, even though polygamy was not technically outlawed. 

Today, Turkish women continue to live under a secular law system but Islamic and non-Islamic patriarchal traditions have an increasing influence in politics.  Under the circumstances, women’s rights defenders in Turkey increasingly face a choice that their counterparts in other Muslim societies did a while ago.  One option is to continue to push for full gender equality, directly and without concessions, even though it will face resistance in the short run and achievements may only come in the long run.  Another one is to give up demanding fundamental change and adapt to the conservative political structure, focusing on short term practical gains that allow indirect but significant empowerment.  So far, it seems that Turkish women are leaning towards the second choice.