On the other hand, Turkey is well known as one of the few under-developed Islamic countries where what is commonly called a ‘women’s revolution’ took place. This was carried out by a small ‘revolutionary group’ gathered around Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of the national independence war and the founder of the Turkish republic.
The centralised bureaucratic Ottoman state governed a multi-national society which had become, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a semi-colonised periphery of rapidly developing capitalist Europe [Çaglar Keyder, ‘The Political Economy of Turkish Democracy’, New Left Review 115, May-June 1979; and ‘The dissolution of the Asiatic Mode of Production’, Economy and Society, V, 2, 1976]. Kemal and his associates, representing a section of the state bureaucracy, in alliance with the slowly developing merchant bourgeoisie, aspired to modernising the old, traditional society through drastic reforms. These reforms pertained mainly to the organisation of the state and its ideology, in order to change the dominant values and norms which legitimised the old political regime. A republican state form replaced the monarchy, its legitimacy based on the theory of national sovereignty. This new secular ideology replaced the theocratic legitimacy based on the ‘Shariat’ or Islamic law. In 1923 and 1924 respectively, legal decisions abolished the Sultanate and the Caliphate. Other reforms aimed at secularising different state apparatuses (education) as well as some aspects of social life (clothing regulations forbidding women to wear the charshaf and the veil) followed. In 1926, a new civil code adopted from the Swiss replaced the old religious one, the ‘Majalla’.
From this conscious effort to make a ‘bourgeois revolution’ from the top, women benefited particularly as a social category. Women were the most oppressed social group under Islamic law, therefore its dismissal and replacement by secular institutions ameliorated women’s legal status immensely. The old system did not recognise women as full legal persons. Juridically she was a minor, her testimony equivalent to half that of a man. She did not enjoy equal rights within matrimony. Men could legally marry more than one wife, the right to divorce belonged only to men, and women had a diminished legal position concerning children, inheritance and property rights. Yet matrimonial relationships had a critical importance for women, as marriage and family life was the only acceptable form of sociability for women.
Ottoman society was segregated, women were not allowed to participate in social life [Şirin Tekeli, ‘Women in Turkish Politics’ in N. Abadan-Unat Women in Turkish Society, Leiden, Holland, 1981. Şirin Tekeli, Kadmlar ve Siyasal Toplumsal Hayat (Women and Social/Political Life), Birikim, Istanbul, 1982, pp 194-195. In the sixteenth century decrees were adopted in order to limit the professions that women were permitted to practise. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries other decrees forbad women from leaving their houses, for whatever reason, for three days per week]. Within the timid modernisation process that started after the Tanzimat in the mid-nineteenth century, some measures were taken ín favour of women. Primary schools started to admit girls in separate classes in the 1850s, secondary schools were opened to girls in the late nineteenth century and women were admitted to higher education after 1918 [Niyazi Berkes, Secularisation in Turkey, Montreal, 1974]. But of course only very few women, from the upper middle classes and living in large cities, enjoyed these rights and only a handful of these became practising ‘professionals’ before Kemal’s ‘women’s revolution’ from the top [These were mainly secondary school teachers. We should note as well that the first attempt by women to work in public services and factories was related to the particular circumstances created by the Balkan wars and the First World War, as was the case in many other countries. Cf. Tekeli, Kadmlar, p 199]. This revolution promising women full participation in social life and establishing a new juridical system that recognised a quasi-egalitarian status for men and women, was an important progressive step. Turkey was the first Islamic country to realise this sort of transition to a secular state and remains the most successful example of this transition. These drastic changes, however, were not enough to modify the material conditions of life for the great majority of women who sixty years after the foundation of the republic still experience a very deep oppression.
Feminism is the latest western ideology to have entered Turkey. It is too early to talk about a feminist movement and extremely hazardous to try and analyse its social basis, strength, organisation, strategies and impact. At this stage, it seems more relevant to analyse the historical reasons why the arrival of feminism was so delayed, in spite of the fact that the material conditions of life for women are more oppressive here than in many western countries. I shall attempt to explain this in the third section of this article.
It is important to note another paradoxical situation. Feminism makes its first steps as a political movement in particularly unfavourable circumstances. The military regime forbids formal political struggle and so feminists have refrained from creating any formal organisation. Economic conditions are equally unfavourable, the burgeoning economic crisis with unemployment close to 20 per cent does not permit us to hope that women’s working conditions will improve in the years to come. The history of western feminism shows that democracy and economic prosperity are critical pre-conditions for the development of a women’s movement. At an earlier stage of feminist struggle, suffragettes were active in the most developed and democratic societies of the age, the USA, Britain and France, and the rapidly developing German feminist movement in both its ‘bourgeois’ and ‘socialist’ forms died after the Nazis came to power in 1933 [Richard J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1933, Sage, 1976; Werner Thönnesen, Emancipation of Women, the Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy, 1863-1935, Pluto Press, 1976. Constance Rover, Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914, Kegan Paul, 1967. Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution, Vintage, 1972. M. Dogan &J. Narbonne, Les Françaises face a la Politique, A. Colin, 1955]. The new feminism, the women’s liberation movement, developed in the late 1960s and 1970s, mainly in highly industrialised western countries where large numbers of working class and middle class women were participating in the workforce [Juliet Mitchell, Women’s Estate, Penguin, 1971. A. Coote & B. Campbell, Sweet Freedom, Picador, 1982].
To evaluate the prospects of development of a feminist movement in Turkey in the 1980s, I should like to describe first the oppression of Turkish women. I hope this will show the objective basis for a feminist movement in Turkey and its potential for growth, as well as some structural limits which might hinder its develo’pment. Then I shall more specifically examine the political participation of women in Turkey in order to show that party politics has been out of the reach of women in the past and to argue that in the future feminist women have to find other types of organisation to fight for their emancipation. In the final part of the paper I shall analyse some of the ideological difficulties that the new feminism confronts in the present circumstances.
Some dimensions of women’s oppression in Turkey
As Turkey is still a semi-industrialised and underdeveloped country where a majority of the population is living in the countryside and working in agriculture, women’s oppression takes varied forms, but in each their oppression is deeper than the oppression and exploitation of women in western countries. Here women are oppressed in every aspect of their lives in such a way that women’s oppression is not only relative, compared to men, but a situation of total oppression which I will call ‘absolute’ oppression. It is a condition different in nature from the oppression of western women.
Women are oppressed physically by their working conditions which are far harder than those of western women. Their legal status, apparently the most ‘egalitarian’ aspect of their general condition needs important revisions in the light of recent changes in western countries, where the women’s liberation movement has been rather successful in precipitating ‘legal’ equalities. Women’s share in the use of political power is nil and, last but not least, their cultural and moral oppression is much deeper and well interiorised by women themselves.
In illustrating these different dimensions ofwomens oppression I shall be selective [For a more systematic treatment of different dimensions of women’s oppression, see Abadan-Unat op cit and Çigdem Kagitcibaşi, Sex Roles, Family and Community, Indiana, 1982]. The first and deepest form of oppression is the physical violence to which the female body is subjected. Physical violence takes different forms: beating and rape are very common in Turkey and the more one goes into rural areas and the subordinate classes, the more it becomes an ordinary and daily practice. And yet one important trait of this oppression is that neither rape nor beating are seen as undeniable signs of worn ens oppression. Evidence of this is the rarity oflegal cases as well as the lack of systematic data and research done on the subject. Legally, wife beating is a reason for divorce. But Turkey has a very low divorce rate, even by the standards of a developing country. In 1976, the crude divorce rate was 0.35 per 1000 population, one of the lowest rates to be found among Islamic mediterranean countries [Marriage Statistics, DIE, and Ned Levine, ‘Social Change and Family Crisis: the Nature of Turkish Divorce’ in Kagitcibaşi op cit]. This means that although beating is prevalent, battered women do not divorce or sue their husbands.
The same lack of ‘evidence’ is true of violation and rape, which is also very widespread. This problem is generally seen as related to the concept of ‘honour’, which is a central value in traditional Turkish culture [See J.G. Peristiany, Ed., Honour and Shame: the Values of Mediterranean Society, London, 1965]. Honour refers to a man’s reputation as determined by the chastity of the women of his family. The behaviour ofa man’s wife, unmarried daughter or sister may bring a taint to his honour in which case punishment is called for. One important implication of this value is that men control the sexuality of ‘their’ women. Virginity of a young, unmarried girl is the proof of her chastity and adultery for a married woman is widely con- sidered as the most unchaste behaviour. A presumed transgression by a woman may lead easily to a ‘crime of honour’ in which the guilty male offender and perhaps the guilty women are both killed [S. Özgür & D. Sunar, ‘Social Psychological Patterns of Homicide in Turkey: a Comparison of Male and Female Convicted Murderers’, in Kagitcibaşi, op cit p 350]. As this widely interiorised value recognises only man’s honour, public consciousness is entirely insensitive to the situation of the violated woman. So much so that if the violator marries the violated girl, it is believed that there is no matter of dishonour and no legal case is constituted against him [There is no systematic study of rape or beating of women in Turkey. But some demographical studies show that the percentage of young mothers is very important. It should be noted that the minimum age for women to marry is 16 (lower than 18 which is the age at which civil status is acquired). Women younger than this need their parents’ approval. It is suspected that among the important number of mothers of 12, 13 or 14years old are many raped women].
A second dimension of physical oppression is related to child-bearing. Turkey’s population growth rate is about 3% per year. In spite of the family planning policy adopted by the state in 1965, a recent fertility survey showed clearly that women were not able to control their fertility as they wished. Among married women aged 45-49, the mean number of children ever-born was 6.3 (for women of all fertile ages this mean was 3.9) and within this same age group, women giving birth to more than 7 children was 45%. On the other hand, nearly 90% of women stated that they desired 2,3 and at most 4 children. Therefore a majority of women who have more than 3 living children had desired less children than they actually have, 57% of currently married women said that they wanted no more children, and among those who were asked whether they wanted another child at the time of their last pregnancy 38% said no [Turkish Fertility Survey, Hacettepe Institute of Population Studies, 1978, pp 102-108].
This oppression as well is related to deep rooted cultural values rather than the economic rationality of an agricultural society. According to the well established norms and values concerning family and children, women’s role is to give birth to as many children as possible. Motherhood is the highest status for a woman and the more children she has the higher her value and status. This traditional culture is more widespread in rural areas where children fulfil an economically important function as unpaid household helps and constitute practically the only means of social security for the old age of the agricultural workers [Çigdem Kagitcibaşi, The Changing Value of Children in Turkey, Honolulu, 1982]. As giving birth to a male child is more valuable from this point of view, women usually continue to have children until they have at least one boy, and if a woman fails to give birth to a boy, her husband is believed to be free to take legitimately a second or third wife, in spite of the fact that polygamy was officially abolished by the adoption of the civil code.
Another set of impediments concerning the high number of children born to women in Turkey relates to the unavailability of modern contraceptives and to the fact that, until recently, abortion was illegal. Until March 1983, when a modification was made in the law, women, as well as those who helped them, faced severe penalties for abortion. In spite of this, as modern means of birth control were not easily available to the female (or male) population, especially in rural areas, women were forced to have abortions. Research done has shown that this is very common: more than 200,000 women have induced miscarriages each year with about 50,000 casualties (death or infirmity). 70 per cent of married women over 44 years of age have had recourse to abortion one or more times during their fertile life [Sabahat Tezcan, ‘A Comparative Study of Induced Miscarriage in Turkey using the random response technique versus direct questionnaire’, Ph.D. thesis, Chapel Hill, 1977]. Recourse to abortion was more widespread among women living in urban areas, but the rural majority used traditional means which increased casualties dramatically.
The new law which makes abortion legal under specific circumstances is prepared entirely from the point of view of population control. It legalises abortion within ten weeks of pregnancy, for health, social or psychological reasons if both husband and wife agree. It is too early to say whether this law will be applied extensively and will have any practical consequences diminishing women’s oppression. On the one hand an important proportion of doctors are known to be opposed to abortion for either moral or financial reasons (abortions in state hospitals and clinics will be free of charge according to the law). On the other hand, the clause requiring the common agreement among husband and wife will be an impediment. It is not uncommon to read in daily newspapers that women who try to use contraceptives without the approval of their husbands are beaten savagely. The recent law has the characteristic ambiguity of giving a right to women with one hand and limiting that right by protecting traditional male supremacy with the other.
The second critical dimension of women’s oppression concerns the working conditions of Turkish women. As a result of Turkey’s being a semi-industrialised country, women’s participation in the work force is low compared to more industrialised countries and diminishes in the process of industrialisation. In 1975, women’s share in the total workforce was 35.7 per cent and this was 5.4 percentage points lower than their rate of participation in 1955 (43.1 %).
Economic oppression of women has different aspects. The first mainly concerns women living in the urban sector. In non-agricultural sectors, women’s rate of participation in the workforce has remained a stable 10 per cent since the 1950s. This is an exceedingly low percentage compared to industrialised countries [Gülten Kazgan, ‘Labour Force participation, occupational distribution, educational attainment and socio-economic status of women in the Turkish economy’ in Abadan-Unat op cit]. These women, who form a small ‘privileged’ minority among the female population of active age, are more exploited compared to men of the same position but, as they are in general working for a wage, they are less oppressed compared to the great majority of the female population. Women working as wage labourers in capitalist enterprises and the state bureaucracy face all the problems of women who occupy (in greater numbers) similar positions in developed capitalist countries: namely they work in low paid jobs, requiring less experience in the extra-domestic economy; they are the last to be given a job and the first to be fired when there is a recession (despite the fact that male wages are on average 30 per cent higher than their female counterparts). When women lose their jobs they are not even considered ‘unemployed’ in official statistics, as they are supposed to return to their ‘normal’ status as ‘housewives’.
This situation is explained both by the functioning of the capitalist economy and deep-rooted traditional values, concerning women’s work. Indeed, according to the latter, a woman’s normal workplace is the household, and this belief is shared extensively by working women themselves [Oya Çitçi, IÇadm Sorunu ve Türkiye’de Kamu Görevlisi Kadmlar (Women Public Servants), TODIAE, Ankara, 1982]. Therefore when women of lower and middle classes work, mainly out of economic necessity, they themselves as well as society as a whole consider their wage as merely a subsidiary element of the family budget. Therefore their work is not perceived as a material basis for their economic independence.
The second aspect of the oppressive nature of women’s work is related to the fact that housework and childcare are seen as solely women’s responsibility. Traditional culture based on a traditional sexual division of labour is widespread, including among the most modernised, highly educated, urban sectors of the society. Even among apparently open-minded, radical intellectuals, the recent change of moeurs introduced through the women’s liberation movement in the West, the understanding that domestic labour is shared, is unknown and the idea regarded with sarcasm and scepticism.
We should also underline the fact that the institutional framework for childcare is much less developed than in advanced countries and that at home women enjoy much less of the help of modern machinery for housework. In rural areas, it is still quite common for women to bake their daily bread, and in many urban families who could find industrially produced consumer goods on the market it is traditional to prepare jams, tomato sauce and the like at home. As a result, the housewife’s total working hours greatly exceed those of an average European women, and for the small minority who work for a wage in the extra-domestic economy these are even longer and more tiring [There is no systematic study of the distribution of Turkish women’s time. A rough estimate of their average working week is 90 hours, nearly twice the 48 hour maximum stipulated by labour legislation].
Another aspect of the oppressive nature of work conditions derives from the fact that the majority of the economically active women work in agriculture. Most of them are ‘unpaid family helps’ who not only work on the land in addition to working in the house (where they have a lot of children to take care of and machinery is rare) but also they earn nothing. In spite of the fact they are actively working in the economy, their particular mode of involvement through the family household determines that these women are the most oppressed and dependent. They depend entirely on the family and the male for their living as the property belongs largely to the husband. In 1975, 88.4 per cent of economically active women were working in agriculture and 90.6 per cent of these were in the position of ‘unpaid family helps’ [Active Population Statistics, DIE].
In sum, women’s oppression in Turkey is determined by economic structures. On the whole, their lives are determined by their submission to the family institution and even in the exceptional case where they work in the extra-domestic economy, the work is not sufficient to gain economic independence.
It is this submission to the family institution which constitutes the material basis of women’s oppression in Turkey. While the traditional extended family tends to disappear even in the rural areas, as a result of economic and social changes since the 1950s two structural elements of this type of family have remained intact within the nuclear family which is replacing it: the family is based upon extremely rigid sex roles and for women the family is the central locus of social relationships. This is the reason why marriage is quasi~universal among women in urban as well as rural areas. Only 1 per cent of urban women and 1-2 per cent in western, relatively more developed regions never marry, the divorce rate is low and marriage is relatively early. 90 per cent or more of women aged 25-29 are married and the mean age of marriage for women over 30 is around 17.6 years [Fertility Survey, p 53. See also Serim Timur, Turkiye’de Aile Yapisi (Structure of the Family), Ankara, 1972; Alan Duben, ‘The Significance of Family and Kinship in Urban Turkey’, in Sex Roles, Family and Community, op cit].
Submission of women to the family and within it to men’s authority is maintained through an extremely deep-rooted culture of male domination. The language reflects this clearly. A small survey of about 17,000 proverbs and idioms showed that of 300 expressions (1.7 per cent) related to women, their role, status, assumed character and so forth, nearly all had a negative connotation [Şirin Tekeli, ‘Halk Deyişlerinde Kadmlara Biçile Deger’ (The value of women in proverbs), Somut,19, 20 June 1983]. Women were despised for their incapacity to do anything worthwhile and their unreliability on such matters of honour. Two different sources of this extremely male culture are Islam and the ancient hero-based non-religious culture which worships the male as soldier [There is not yet any systematic study of the male chauvinist content of religious and secular-military value systems. Islam might not differ much from other great religions such as Christianity or Judaism. For an analysis of their content see Simone de Beauvoir La Deuxième Sexe, volume 1, part 2, Paris, 1949; also, Georges Duby, Le Chevalier, la femme etle prêtre, Paris, 1981].
Women’s legal status and political participation
Compared to the harsh reality of oppression Turkish women suffer in economic and cultural life mediated through the family, the legal and even political status enjoyed by women seems more egalitarian.
Their legal status especially, when regarded historically, represents real progress. As I have already mentioned, women did not have the status oflegal persons under Ottoman rule. After the establishment of the Ottoman state and especially after the conquest of Byzantium which brought the Ottomans in touch with the slave structures of the Byzantine Empire, women’s status had changed drastically. The harem was an institution that crystallised what Engels calls women’s ‘domestic slavery’ [Frederick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, New York, 1972. For a description of women’s life in a harem see Lady Mary Montagu, L’Islam au peril des femmes; une anglaise en Turquie au XVIIeme siècle, Paris, 1981]. Islam, which was relatively progressive at its beginning became, especially after the sixteenth century with the theocratic transformation of the Ottoman state, the principal ideological medium maintaining this domestic slavery. According to the new interpretation of religious dogma, women did not have a legal existence equal to men.
With the adoption of the new civil code in 1926, women suddenly became the legal equals of men in such domains as the ‘law of persons’ and ‘family law’. Yet the new law had its limitations. As was the case for women in the bourgeois societies of the age, the principal limitation pertained to the right to work. Women’s general status was always considered within the framework of the marriage institution, and as the head of the family was always the husband and the law required that the wife obey the will of the head of the family, a woman needed her husband’s approval in order to work (Articles 151 and 152) [Let us note that since the military coup, a commission has been established to modify the civil code. Feminists are demanding the alteration of articles 151 and 152 to bring full equality of rights for women, as well as the abolition of the ‘head of the family’ statute. Lastly, we have learned that the commission will postpone its deadline for achieving the preparatory work to 1984. We cannot predict anything yet. There is a small chance that it will bring these changes to satisfy middle class women and to consolidate the image that the military are the legitimate followers of Kemal, as they have already attempted with their ‘progressive’ changes made to the law prohibiting abortion. This situation creates a problem for feminists concerning the correct attitude to adopt to the military regime. Up to now, their tactic has been to formulate issues from their own perspective and therefore to criticise the measures taken or proposed by the military concerning women. They have always addressed public opinion and never directly the military authorities].
In terms of political power, we should mention from the beginning that here women are in the most ambiguous situation. From one point of view one is inclined to see politics as one of the aspects of social life ‒ similar to the legal system ‒ where women have full equality, from another point of view, politics is that aspect oflife that reflects the oppression of women in Turkish society in its ‘purest’ form. Let me try to explain this ambiguity. Turkish women acquired equal political rights quite early. They first obtained them at the level of local politics, then at national level in 1931 and 1934 respectively. This was prior to French women and at a time when German women had lost their rights already. Also, at that time, the parliamentary or Congressional representation of both British and American women was very low. In fact, Turkish women’s representation in parliament from 1935 to 1946 was among the highest of any country: the number of women representatives was 18, 15 and 16 (4.5%, 3.7% 3.7%) respectively in the three chambers that were elected in that period [Tekeli, ‘Women’, p 300].
But after 1946, the date of the transition to a multi-party democracy in Turkey, women’s representation dropped suddenly to an average ofless than 1 % until 1980, and there were never more than 11 women (8 deputies and 3 senators were elected in 1965) at one time in parliament.
The number of women dropped so suddenly and so definitely because their representation under the one party regime was artificially enlarged for symbolic reasons [Ibid, pp 298-299. The author argues that political rights given to women aimed at something more than bringing women into political participation: to demonstrate in a symbolic way that the political regime of the time, a one-party dictatorship, was different in nature from the one party fascist dictatorships spreading in Europe after the First World War. Indeed, it was very significant that women not only acquired the right to vote in 1935, but there were 18 women deputies elected in the election following in the same year. This symbolic ‘democratisation’ of the Turkish political regime contrasted with what was happening to women’s political participation in Nazi Germany]. Under a competitive party system they could not hope to have more seats than they actually had [Ibid, p 301. Indeed, for the entire period of 1961-1977 the total number of women candidates for national elections was 351, and their ‘handicap factor’ was 2:1, only twice that of the male candidates in the same period. This was due to women more often being candidates for smaller parties wirh less chance of election to parliament].
In the whole period from 1935 to 1980, there were only two women members of cabinet. One of them served as the Minister of Health in an ‘extraordinary’ government (that is, one formed during a military regime) for 11 months in 1971, and the other belonged, as the Minister of Culture to another extraordinary government in 1974 that never obtained a vote of confidence from the National Assembly [Ibid, p 304].
Most of this handful of women were highly educated professionals. During the ‘Republican period’, the authoritarian one-party regime established the rule that politics was the affair of the elite (including women belonging to that elite). Within this elitist mode of representation, a few women, who were the ‘elite of the elite’ sharing practically nothing in common with the female population of the country, were either nominated or elected to office.
Clearly women never have had an important share of political power in Turkey. Moreover, the 69 women deputies to have served from 1935 to 1980 were all backbenchers. Women also played a very limited role in political parties for this entire period; no more than 10 per cent of party members were women, and women who did playa relatively active role in political parties were the representatives of special ‘women’s branches’. After the military coup of 12 September 1980, women’s political position worsened. In the Consultative Assembly which was appointed by the military to prepare the new constitution and the legislation concerning political parties and the new electoral law, there were only three women members. The new constitution, adopted by referendum on 7 November 1982, stipulates that henceforth political parties will not have youth or women’s sections, just as they are forbidden from having organised links with trade unions or other grass roots organisations.
It is quite clear from the data presented about the participation patterns of women in politics until 1980 and from the new ‘rules of the game’ that women, the most oppressed section of Turkish society, will not be able to change their social status through party politics.
Particular difficulties feminism confronts in Turkey
Feminism old and new has a long history. It is interesting to note that the Ottoman Empire felt the need to reform some of its basic institutions like the army and the bureaucracy under pressure from the industrialising West at a time when feminism was making its entry into history. Selim III, the first reformist Sultan was contemporary with the great French revolution. But the aim of the reformist Sultans as well as other modernisers was to modify some state apparatuses in order to keep intact the social order of the Empire. Even after the Tanzimat, social change was very slow in coming and women’s status as well as family life which determined women’s place in society were unaffected by the reforms of the state. The new Republic inherited these basic structures and in spite of the much vaunted ‘women’s revolution’ made by Kemal and his associates, women’s status did not change qualitatively ‒ as I tried to show above.
One important consequence of this situation is that feminism, as an ideology, had a very limited impact on Turkish society during all of its modern history. One exception to this is the brief period of the 1908 Revolution (the first attempt at a bourgeois revolution ‘from above’) when some of the women and men gathered around the Union and Progress Party defended publicly for the first time feminist principles. These first defenders of feminism were from bourgeois backgrounds, they lived in great towns like Istanbul and Salonica, they were highly educated, and most of them were the daughters and sisters of influential intellectuals of the age [Tekeli, Kadm, pp 264-267. The first book bearing on feminism was published in 1910. The writer, Celal Nuri (a man) was a prominent intellectual of the Union and Progress Party. The book summarised the claims of the suffragettes and defended feminists].
After the first world war during the period of the occupation of Istanbul, there were a few mass meetings, organised in order to protest the peace conditions, in which some prominent women participated. One of these, Halide Edip was a well known writer and the founder of the first feminist organisation. She was the first muslim woman to address the crowds. Yet her feminism was rather peculiar as she saw the family institution and marriage as the most important guarantee that women had in their lives and she, as well as other feminists, fought for modifications of the marriage law in order to limit polygamy and the right of husbands to divorce their wives without indemnity.
During the war of Independence the participation in public life of women from different sections of the society went further and some of them joined in the war effort, not only through taking jobs that men had left during the war but also as combatants, at least in the beginning, when the war had the character of guerrilla fighting. After the war, however, they returned home. In a sense, Turkish women lived for the first time what would become the experience of Algerian women and, later, Vietnamese women.
They returned home to the age of Kemalist reforms. As mentioned previously the adoption of the civil code in 1926 meant a drastic change in women’s status. But this reform as well as others (such as the educational reform that gave equal rights to women at every level of education, and the abolition of the Caliphate which opened the way to reform of costume banning the veil and the charshaf while ending the religious basis of the social structure) had this important particularity: they were made by the small Kemalist minority without consent or consultation from women. This was perhaps the most clear example of ‘state feminism’ in history [One can advance the hypothesis that Kemal and his followers were not making these reforms because they were fervent believers in women’s rights or that there was any pressure from women coming in this direction. Rather, these reforms, as well as the political ones to follow (see note 26, above) had a critical significance from the point of view of the stability of the newly created political regime. For a minority that waged war against established institutions, in order to get and keep power, women’s status had a strategic importance. Wasn’t it at the same time that the newly established Soviet regime was launching a fight against the charshafand veil in order to revolutionise the women of the Asian steppes, still under the domination of feudalism and Islam? But there, the authorities were trying to mobilise masses of women whereas in Turkey they wanted not their mobilisation but their passive approval. This they succeeded in obtaining. Therefore, through women’s changing status a fatal blow was dealt to the religious authorities. See also Gregory J. Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat ‒ Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia 1919-1929, Princeton, 1974].
As the state assumed the responsibility of realising the reforms that would drastically change women’s lives, women themselves did not move. This would establish the pattern for women’s relation to the state in the new republican era. Feminists of this period ‒ some of them are still alive and in their early seventies ‒ became Kemalists, in fact more Kemalist than feminist [Tezer Taşkiran is one of these women. See her book in English, Turkish Women, Redhouse, 1970. She was also a deputy for three terms].
For these women, who founded the classical women’s organisations such as the ‘Turkish Mothers Union’ or the ‘Union ofSoroptimists’ and the ‘Union of Women University Graduates’, if the feminism of Kemalism had failed it was becuase after 1950, counter-revolutionary elites had taken power. In their analysis, the Democrat Party which came to office in 1950 made undue concessions to religion and traditional values and if there have been some setbacks in the ongoing process of women’s emancipation, it is because of this attempt to return to the old system.
In my view, this anaysis is not only short-sighted but fundamentally wrong. Kemalism was bound to fail to bring about women’s emancipation because it attempted to bring change only formally (eg through laws guaranteeing equality between the sexes and the adoption of a legal framework in which women had equality in education,) but it did not make any effort to change real social relations; more than that, Kemalism discouraged women from searching for their own emancipation [Tekeli, Kadm, p284. Women lived a very interesting episode of this discouragement in the 1930s. When they were convinced that women would be given the right to vote in coming elections, the Women’s Union tried to organise a rally to support it. The Istanbul branch of the single Kemalist party, the RPP, immediately requested the Union not to organise a demonstration requesting that the women have confidence in the government to do what was best for women].
The next historically relevant stage for feminism in Turkey was the late 1960s. The constitution of 1961 created a rather liberal framework for political struggle. Young intellectuals turned their eyes to the West once more and eagerly studied ‘new’ ideologies of socialism and Marxism. One discovered the realities of Turkey for the first time in this period through the mediation of these ideologies and schools of thought. One discovered that Turkey was an underdeveloped peripheral capitalist country, that it needed planning for its industrial development and so forth. Towards the end of the decade, the 1968 effervescence in many countries which started with protests against the war in Vietnam stimulated especially the student movement to new ideologies. Nearly all new (and old) ideologies had their representatives in the Turkish student movement of the late 1960s except one: feminism. Women were active in student movements but were deprived of their own ideology. These political groups which had profound differences of analysis as to general revolutionary strategy were united on one strategically important matter: there was a ‘holy alliance’ on the dismissal of feminism.
There was not a conspiracy of any sort here. What is more interesting is the fact that feminism seemed ‘irrelevant’. Most of the young revolutionaries thought that women were the equals of men (as the Kemalists pretended) and that any marginal discrepancies of status, especially in the more backward regions of the country, would be ended by socialist transformation. Therefore women should fight for socialism which would bring their emancipation. They did not see the need for women to organise around their own particular oppression.
This approach remained valid in the following period (1973-1980) where different socialist groups started to form their own women’s sections, following in that the classical bourgeois party type organisation [The Turkish Workers Party was an exception, refusing to have separate organisations for youth and women]. Among these various movements which started to wage political war on one another, the best-organised was the IKD (Progressive Women’s Organisation) a branch of the illegal pro-Soviet Communist Party (TKP). They could gather 50,000 women at a ‘Rally Against Fascism’ and their monthly publication sold 20,000 copies. Yet this was an anti-feminist movement, as one can guess from its organic relation to the TKP; their ultimate aim was to mobilise women around such issues ‘as’ Motherhood’ , ‘Women Against Fascism’ and ‘Women for Peace’, and enlarge the basis of the party. Once more women were deprived of their own voice in a period where each ethnic or other ‘minority’ group had its own particular organisation or journal around which it could gather.
Ironically, the first time in Turkish history when feminist women were able to speak out their revolt in their own name, was in the period following the military coup of September 1980 which put an end to all political struggle in the country. This political conjuncture limits severely women’s ability to organise and publish a journal of their own. But, paradoxically this is the first time when feminist women are gathering to form small ‘consciousness raising groups’, in order to understand the dimensions of oppression under which they have lived throughout the entire Republican era – to limit us only to the modern era ‒ and to write about it modestly. They had, for a certain period, one page in a weekly journal Somut.
The women who are gathered around this new publication and who may possibly form the leadership of the ‘likely to be’ feminist movement are in their early thirties; they are educated and from a wide range of professions: doctors, sociologists, lawyers, architects, secretaries, teachers, economists. Most of them are married but they do not have the same concept of the family as their predecessors at the turn of the century. Most of them are reluctant to have children, though some of them have. They are conscious about the difficulties of being a feminist in this society; they try to transform first their own individual lives, and most of them are unsuccessful, despite the fact that they are generally married to men that they have met in student movements, school or work circles, ie the most ‘openminded and progressive men’ that they could find in Turkish society. Among them unmarried women as well as those who are unwilling to get married are quite exceptional, they think generally that an unmarried woman is more vulnerable than a feminist woman who is married [See note 20 above on the marriage institution]. They get married to have the guarantee of being a ‘protected’ woman. They need this status very badly.
One of the most critical of the many difficulties confronting feminism in Turkey is the ideologically hostile environment in which feminists are starting their combat. This environment is made up of different components. One of these is the Ottoman legacy which though latent is still very effective. This legacy has its religious and non-religious elements. The non-religious traditionalists as well as the islamic fundamentalists share the idea that women’s search for independence is doomed to failure ‘because it is against the natural order of society which recognises for women’ an ‘honourable’ role: to procreate. The second opposition comes from Kemalists who think that the Kemalist Republic has done most of what can be done for women through legal reforms. Women should therefore be content with what they have and, if there is any need to ameliorate women’s condition, the state will do it better, without any necessity for women to organise themselves. The current military regime adopts entirely this attitude [See note 24].
The third and most aggressive opposition comes from the ‘socialist left’. Whatever their divisions, socialists are united in condemning feminism as a ‘divisive’ and ‘bourgeois’ movement. Quite paradoxically, one of the signs that feminists, though they are not yet well organised, have a certain effectiveness in society is the polemic being voiced against them in many of the more leftist newspapers through cartoons, satirical essays and the like. Juliet Mitchell once wrote ‘The women’s liberation movement is the most revolutionary movement ever to have existed in concept and organisation. Able to make the most revolutionary statement in public without anyone seeming bothered’ [Mitchell, op cit]. This seeming unseriousness which is the basis of the ability to escape the control of the military in power makes the feminist movement the most privileged target of the left. Here doctrinal reasons meet the tactics of political struggle under the conditions of the dictatorship, and leftists use feminism as the medium through which they try to pronounce what they cannot say publicly otherwise. Being against feminism means being socialist in the present context.
Yet one interesting point that socialists do not consider is that among the feminists in Turkey are many socialist feminists, belonging to different tendencies, who are all united in believing that in the 1968-1980 period their voices were cut down because they were women. Now they want to speak out their particular grievances. Among feminists, perhaps the most combative are those women who once belonged to socialist organisations and who experienced the chauvinism of leftist men.
Let’s try to summarise the different difficulties that feminism meets in Turkey in the 1980s. Beyond the structural limitations that come from the global aspects of the society itself (underdevelopment, semi-industrialisation, insufficient participation of women in the workforce, effectiveness of traditional islamic culture, etc.), there are political (the character of the current regime even after the limited elections) and ideological (virulence of traditional, Kemalist and leftist oppositions…) barriers that feminism must confront.
Within this particularly disadvantageous conjuncture, who are feminism’s prospective allies? I think one of the most critical is the international alliance among feminists of different allegiances all over the world. Up to now, feminists in Turkey looked to western feminism for their source of theoretical analysis. Thìs was both inevitable and disappointing. Feminists in Turkey feel that they desperately need a theory of their own, to analyse their particular situation, to struggle with different currents opposed to feminism, to formulate issues in order to mobilise the mass of women. They know perfectly well that neither ‘classical socialist theory in its rigidly codified version of class struggle first, and class struggle for all forms of exploitation and/or oppression’, nor ‘bourgeois developmentalist theories’ are sufficient for their aim. But as feminism as a movement does not have its own historical experience here, it is bound to look elsewhere, where this history and praxis exists, to borrow relevant key concepts. But the theoretical confusion that reigns among socialist feminists of western countries does not make this easy for them. The ‘patriarchy versus domestic labour’ debate is certainly passionate, but Turkish feminists, though trying to grasp its subtleties are mostly sceptical about the validity of these theories as the historical background and social and cultural conditions of their country are deeply different from developed capitalist-christian or more correctly secular societies where the main body of this theory is produced.
Without a reliable theory of their own how can Turkish women develop the right fighting strategy? Here the main dilemma is choosing or being forced to choose a strategy to fight on all fronts. In the name of the purity of their own ideology, and because they are attacked from left and right, feminists can hardly achieve a mass movement alone and therefore risk remaining an elitist intellectual opposition current, the equivalent of the ‘elite of an elite’ position that a few politically active women assumed in the Kemal period. So what alliances should feminists form? With whom and under what conditions? To decide on this matter of priorities (democracy first, socialism first, development of a civil society first, etc) as well as the concessions to be made (in a broad anti-military front feminism risks losing its identity, as it does in collaborating with different civil forces within their respective institutions, parties, unions, associtions etc.) is an extremely complicated problem demanding great political maturity. It is too optimistic to expect this from a newly born ‘movement’.
What I can say at this stage is only this: feminism must create its own identity in necessary conflict with all main oppositional currents in our society ‒ Islam-traditional, Kemalist, socialist. Among these, the only current that could be convinced to support feminist objectives in the long run ‒ were they able to develop a suitable discourse ‒ is the socialist movement. Turkish feminists have to be able to convince them that feminist struggle is not necessarily contradictory to class struggle and that mobilising women for their own liberation brings a new momentum to this, as well as new strength. But to be able to achieve this specific aim, it is necessary to fight first for the democratisation of the society and also to try and democratise the socialist movement itself. This subtle and complicated search for the best strategy seems to represent the most interesting and promising political effort in Turkey’s recent history and only feminism has the potential (with its principles of non-hierarchical leaderless organisation) to democratise the left if feminists can succeed in becoming a valued interlocutor for the movement [Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Pragmems, London, 1979].
I am grateful to Paul Hoag, Carol Brown, Gita Sen, Maria Garcia Castro and Ruth Wangerin for their valuable comments and criticisms on a previous version of this paper.