August 31, 2009

Summary: The World Gender Gap Index of 2008 ranked Turkey 123rd of 130 countries. Turkey’s action—or inaction—regarding female participation in local politics is crucial to improving the place of women in Turkish society, and the place of Turkey in the world. Mechanisms must be implemented to bring about concrete changes for the role of women in public life. Establishing gender quotas is one approach to increasing female participation in Turkish politics. It is necessary to shift from the notion of “equality of opportunity” to “equality of result” based on the realization that even when formal barriers are removed, deep-rooted societal barriers to women’s political participation need to be temporarily compensated for.

Women in Turkey—What is on Paper, What is in Practice?
by Nigar Göksel*
ISTANBUL — Questions about women’s status in Turkey are often placed at the heart of debates about whether Turkey belongs to the West or to the East. A vibrant woman’s movement and a relatively recent enshrinement of gender equality in the penal and civil codes of Turkey have marked progress in women’s rights. However, like many other questions pertaining to the rule of law in Turkey, stronger institutional mechanisms are needed to enforce and monitor implementation of rights across the country. Initiatives carried out to combat domestic violence and educate girls until the age of 15 are very important for basic human rights, however they are not enough to bring about real change in the role of women in public life. As a result of the March 2009 local elections, only 15 of the approximately 900 district mayors and two of the 81 provincial and metropolitan mayors in Turkey are women. The reason, representatives of the leading political parties in Turkey say, is that in much of the country voters are more likely to vote for a man, and therefore fielding a female candidate is not politically expedient. The parties also allege that it is difficult to find qualified women in much of Anatolia. Eleven out the 15 women district mayors—73 percent—and one of the two province mayors, are of the Kurdish Party, DTP. These women were elected in prov*

inces of southeast Anatolia like Hakkari, Urfa, and Şırnak, which can be among the most inhospitable districts of Turkey from a women’s perspective. The deep conservatism in these regions has been sustained by large families, quasi-feudal social structures, high female illiteracy rates, early marriages, and customs based on protecting men’s honor. If women can participate in local politics this actively in these regions, there are clearly reasons beyond the nature of constituents or the qualifications of female candidates that cause other parties to have so few women representatives in the rest of the country. In terms of concrete benefits to women across Turkey, the local level is critical. That is where the implementation or violation of laws occurs and where strong female role models will have the greatest impact on community life. Participation in local politics is not the only area where women are lagging far behind men in Turkey. Indeed, although the rate of female participation in local politics is not even factored into the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index of 2008, Turkey is ranked 123rd out of 130 countries—behind Syria and Iran, two neighbors that are known for their discriminatory gender laws. Though the last few years have witnessed progress in rates of girls’ primary school attendance, and the number of women elected to parliament has reached 9 percent for the first time, what drags Turkey’s rank

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Nigar Goksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views expressed 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 and opportunity.” The 2008 EU Progress Report shows women’s participation in the Turkish work force at 24.8 percent. In 2005, ESI wrote of Kayseri, a province in Central Anatolia with indicators around Turkey’s averages, that “the employment rate of women is only 37 percent. Of these, the vast majority are in agriculture.” 1 Around 90 percent of women engaged in agricultural labor are unpaid family workers involved in subsistence agricultural activity. However, unlike housewives, they appear in state statistics as active in the labor force. And although 24.8 percent of women are employed, many are not actually paid. This is why figures of urban employment of women dropped to around 18 percent. 2 Women without any source of income often lack the ability to take advantage of the legal opportunities available to them. Moreover, given the large proportion of informal economy, many men can avert payments of alimony that would be obligatory by law if their income were registered. There has been intense debate in Turkey about “neighborhood pressure” on women to conform to traditional roles. Breaking out of repressively close-knit environments is only an option for women who can sustain their livelihood without being dependent on their families. Quota a la turca The Prime Minister of Turkey has a strong aversion to suggestions of gender quotas. In November 2008, he once again explained his stance on this issue: “With forcibly imposed means like the quota, the desired results can not be reached. We evaluate the implementation of quotas as disrespectful to women. Implementing a quota confines women to men’s offering. In other words, women get into the parliament because men grant it to them. This is unacceptable. ”3 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 Commission, because ‘equal opportunity’ does not aim to eliminate already present inequalities but prescribes ‘equal treatment’ policies 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.” Retrieved at: 2 World Bank (April 2006). “Turkey Labor Market Study Summary.” 3 “The quota is a disrespect to women.” Yeni Şafak daily, November 28, 2008. 4 Pınar İlkkaracan. Women for Women’s Human Rights-New Ways (WWHR).

Over 100 countries, ranging from Mozambique to Belgium, have adopted some form of gender-based quota for more balanced legislative representation. This is a result of a shift from the notion of “equality of opportunity” to “equality of result” based on the realization that even when formal barriers are removed, deep-rooted societal barriers to women’s political participation need to be temporarily compensated for. Turkish society is indeed one of those societies—structurally and culturally. In fact, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself recognizes that equal opportunity will not suffice, and practices forms of positive discrimination to ‘even the playing field.’ The government boasts special programs aimed to ensure that families send their daughters to primary school—deemed necessary even though girls’ attending primary school has been mandatory since the founding of the Republic. Moreover, when explaining the changes to the penal code in 2004 that aggravate the penalties imposed for certain forms of honor crimes, AKP MP’s themselves explain that this was necessary to ensure that the penalties for such crimes are heavy enough to compensate for the fact that these crimes are sanctioned by cultural norms in segments of the society. These are positive steps. The patriarchal political scene of Ankara needs to be approached with the same progressive logic. In the run-up to the March 2009 local elections, Prime Minister Erdogan reprimanded local AKP branches that submitted municipal council candidate lists that did not include women. Confronted with the explanation that there was not a demand from women to enter politics, he lashed back saying “I do not accept empty words about there not being willing candidates; if need be you will go find them.”5 The numbers apparently increased to the desired level thereafter—granted by the Prime Minister himself rather than an institutionalized gender-quota system. Is this not an a la turca form of quota?

Yurdakul Şimşek. “The Prime Ministers scolding about women worked,” Radikal Daily, February 19, 2009.