You are on page 1of 2


August 31, 2009

Women in Turkey—What is on Paper,

Summary: The World Gender Gap
Index of 2008 ranked Turkey 123rd What is in Practice?
of 130 countries. Turkey’s action—or
by Nigar Göksel*
inaction—regarding female partici-
pation in local politics is crucial to
improving the place of women in
ISTANBUL — Questions about women’s inces of southeast Anatolia like Hakkari,
status in Turkey are often placed at the Urfa, and Şırnak, which can be among
Turkish society, and the place of Tur- heart of debates about whether Turkey the most inhospitable districts of Turkey
key in the world. Mechanisms must belongs to the West or to the East. A from a women’s perspective. The deep
be implemented to bring about con- vibrant woman’s movement and a conservatism in these regions has been
crete changes for the role of women relatively recent enshrinement of gender sustained by large families, quasi-feudal
equality in the penal and civil codes of social structures, high female illiteracy
in public life. Establishing gender
Turkey have marked progress in wom- rates, early marriages, and customs based
quotas is one approach to increas- en’s rights. However, like many other on protecting men’s honor. If women can
ing female participation in Turkish questions pertaining to the rule of law participate in local politics this actively
politics. It is necessary to shift from in Turkey, stronger institutional mecha- in these regions, there are clearly reasons
nisms are needed to enforce and moni- beyond the nature of constituents or the
the notion of “equality of opportu-
tor implementation of rights across the qualifications of female candidates that
nity” to “equality of result” based on country. Initiatives carried out to com- cause other parties to have so few women
the realization that even when formal bat domestic violence and educate girls representatives in the rest of the country.
barriers are removed, deep-rooted until the age of 15 are very important In terms of concrete benefits to women
societal barriers to women’s political
for basic human rights, however they are across Turkey, the local level is critical.
not enough to bring about real change in That is where the implementation or
participation need to be temporarily the role of women in public life. violation of laws occurs and where strong
compensated for. female role models will have the greatest
As a result of the March 2009 local impact on community life.
elections, only 15 of the approximately
900 district mayors and two of the 81 Participation in local politics is not the
provincial and metropolitan mayors in only area where women are lagging far
Turkey are women. The reason, represen- behind men in Turkey. Indeed, although
tatives of the leading political parties in the rate of female participation in local
Turkey say, is that in much of the country politics is not even factored into the
voters are more likely to vote for a man, World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap
and therefore fielding a female candidate Index of 2008, Turkey is ranked 123rd out
is not politically expedient. The parties of 130 countries—behind Syria and Iran,
also allege that it is difficult to find quali- two neighbors that are known for their
fied women in much of Anatolia. discriminatory gender laws. Though the
Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris
last few years have witnessed progress in
Eleven out the 15 women district rates of girls’ primary school attendance,
Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest
mayors—73 percent—and one of the two and the number of women elected to province mayors, are of the Kurdish Party, parliament has reached 9 percent for
DTP. These women were elected in prov- the first time, what drags Turkey’s rank
Nigar Goksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views ex-
pressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF or those of the European Stability Initiative.

down so low in the Index is “women’s economic participation Over 100 countries, ranging from Mozambique to Belgium, have
and opportunity.” The 2008 EU Progress Report shows women’s adopted some form of gender-based quota for more balanced
participation in the Turkish work force at 24.8 percent. In 2005, legislative representation. This is a result of a shift from the no-
ESI wrote of Kayseri, a province in Central Anatolia with tion of “equality of opportunity” to “equality of result” based
indicators around Turkey’s averages, that “the employment rate on the realization that even when formal barriers are removed,
of women is only 37 percent. Of these, the vast majority are in deep-rooted societal barriers to women’s political participa-
agriculture.” 1 Around 90 percent of women engaged in agricul- tion need to be temporarily compensated for. Turkish society is
tural labor are unpaid family workers involved in subsistence indeed one of those societies—structurally and culturally.
agricultural activity. However, unlike housewives, they appear
in state statistics as active in the labor force. And although 24.8 In fact, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself recog-
percent of women are employed, many are not actually paid. nizes that equal opportunity will not suffice, and practices forms
This is why figures of urban employment of women dropped of positive discrimination to ‘even the playing field.’ The govern-
to around 18 percent. 2 ment boasts special programs aimed to ensure that families send
their daughters to primary school—deemed necessary even
Women without any source of income often lack the ability to take though girls’ attending primary school has been mandatory
advantage of the legal opportunities available to them. Moreover, since the founding of the Republic. Moreover, when explaining
given the large proportion of informal economy, many men can the changes to the penal code in 2004 that aggravate the penalties
avert payments of alimony that would be obligatory by law if their imposed for certain forms of honor crimes, AKP MP’s them-
income were registered. There has been intense debate in Turkey selves explain that this was necessary to ensure that the penalties
about “neighborhood pressure” on women to conform to tradi- for such crimes are heavy enough to compensate for the fact that
tional roles. Breaking out of repressively close-knit environments these crimes are sanctioned by cultural norms in segments of the
is only an option for women who can sustain their livelihood society. These are positive steps. The patriarchal political scene of
without being dependent on their families. Ankara needs to be approached with the same progressive logic.

Quota a la turca In the run-up to the March 2009 local elections, Prime Minis-
ter Erdogan reprimanded local AKP branches that submitted
The Prime Minister of Turkey has a strong aversion to sug- municipal council candidate lists that did not include women.
gestions of gender quotas. In November 2008, he once again Confronted with the explanation that there was not a demand
explained his stance on this issue: “With forcibly imposed means from women to enter politics, he lashed back saying “I do not
like the quota, the desired results can not be reached. We evaluate accept empty words about there not being willing candidates;
the implementation of quotas as disrespectful to women. Imple- if need be you will go find them.”5 The numbers apparently
menting a quota confines women to men’s offering. In other increased to the desired level thereafter—granted by the Prime
words, women get into the parliament because men grant it to Minister himself rather than an institutionalized gender-quota
them. This is unacceptable. ”3 system. Is this not an a la turca form of quota?

It is on the basis of this approach that in March 2009, what had

been envisioned as a parliamentary gender equality commission
was enacted as a “Women and Men Equal Opportunities Com-
mission, because ‘equal opportunity’ does not aim to eliminate
already present inequalities but prescribes ‘equal treatment’ poli-
cies to all sides, it protects present inequalities,” stated one of the
women’s organizations that has been active in lobbying for the
establishment of this commission for almost a decade. 4

ESI Report (2005). “Islamic Calvinists: Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia.” 5
Yurdakul Şimşek. “The Prime Ministers scolding about women worked,” Radikal Daily,
Retrieved at: February 19, 2009.
World Bank (April 2006). “Turkey Labor Market Study Summary.”
“The quota is a disrespect to women.” Yeni Şafak daily, November 28, 2008.
Pınar İlkkaracan. Women for Women’s Human Rights-New Ways (WWHR).