From progress to backlash: Turkey’s transition from democracy to authoritarianism challenges the feminist movement.
By Ronay Bakan and Özlem Tunçel*
As a new form of feminism emerges in the 21st century, Turkey’s conservative regime has challenged the #MeToo and #TimesUp wave that might have promoted mainstream feminist ideas in the society. Turkish women struggle to speak out over gender roles, sexual abuse and violence, demanding gender equality in families, academia, politics and the workplace.
Women confront a nuanced context in countries where regimes have more hybrid characteristics, and women in Turkey confront a checkered journey. Turkey’s feminist movement dates back to 19th century, paving the way for women to attain basic civil rights during the Kemalist modernization period, early when compared with European peers. Still, disparity in income, inequality in access to education, under-representation in politics, violence and sexual abuse linger. The legal framework in Turkey, following global trends, supported equality and women’s rights during the early 2000s. Women’s organizations in Turkey came together under a framework platform called Turkish Penal Code Women’s Platform, or TCK Kadın Platformu, and participated in these policymaking processes – a period of reform overlapping with Turkey’s European Union accession process.
The relatively liberal political environment in Turkey led the early Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP – in power since 2002 – to be open toward gender-equality reforms and include feminists in this process. In such a liberal atmosphere, equality between men and women was constitutionally confirmed with changes in Article 10 in 2004. During the same year, the government overhauled the penal code to criminalize marital rape and lengthened sentences on honor killings and sexual abuse. Such changes in Turkey’s criminal and civil law extended equal rights to women in marriage, divorce and property rights even as sexual abuse and murder of women continue at an alarming rate.
Women’s organizations in Turkey gained leverage to further their demands and pursue mainstream feminist ideals. Despite these developments, cultural taboos around sexual assault linger, and reporting the crime remains burdensome for victims while sexual violence remains a pivotal issue. Men and women in Turkey report sexual harassment as the biggest issue in the workplace environment. So far in 2019, more than 470 women have lost their lives as a result of domestic violence.
Some blame the rightward turn in the ruling AKP. Particularly, the pendency in terms of EU accession process, the consolidation of power, attacks on rule of law and the constant threat against dissent portend a bleak future for the Turkish opposition and feminist movement. Despite legal improvements undertaken by the early AKP regime, the decline of secular discourse has precipitated a hostile environment for women. During the past decade, politicians have initiated institutional changes that emphasize protection of the family rather than women. Moreover, the AKP has introduced the novel concept of “gender justice,” in line with increasing authoritarian tendencies and emphasis on religion and societal values. The first manifestation of this change was in 2010 when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, stated during a meeting with women’s organizations that he did not support equality between men and women because of differences in their natures. Women from a range of sociocultural, religious and economic backgrounds responded with overwhelming criticism.
Erdoğan persisted, with increased emphasis on the role of women as mothers and wives in society and abolishment of the Ministry of State for Women and Family three days before the General Elections in 2011, despite opposition from numerous women’s organizations in Turkey. The AKP government established a new ministry called the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. At the time, Erdoğan defended the change, arguing that the family is a priority for the conservative political party.
This shift and institutional backlash contributed to a new period for gender politics in Turkey. The government, under AKP, continually frames secular women’s organizations in Turkey as opposing the values of “Turkish society” and pointedly excludes them from policymaking processes. After distancing itself from secular women’s organizations in Turkey, the AKP simultaneously constructed its own agenda regarding gender through the establishment government-organized non-governmental organization Women and Democracy Association, or KADEM, in 2013. Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, the daughter of Erdoğan, now president, is among the founding members. Since then, KADEM became a major organization in setting the agenda for gender politics in line with the AKP’s perspective.
The type of government-organized non-government organization, or GONGO, supported and funded by the government, is unlike traditional NGOs and exists to support the government rather than promote public improvements. The government’s aim is to gain full control in the political realm and dismiss any political opposition such as feminists.
Such organizations adopt the rhetoric of traditional NGOs with insidious intentions. AKP increasingly emphasizes the term “gender justice,” based on religious interpretations of the roles for men and women. According to the AKP and KADEM, men and women are naturally different, and these differences must be recognized for justice in gender relations. In other words, the AKP government celebrates gender-based inequalities between men and women in family and society as well as patriarchal norms. Counterintuitively, the government continues to emphasize women’s participation in economic life, demonstrating how an Islamic understanding of gender relations has been reinterpreted in the age of neoliberalism. Policies promote female participation in economic life through part-time and flexible work in line with “women’s domestic works and dependency of home.” The neoliberal economic vision of the AKP framed this effort as the participation of women in public life rather than promotion of equality between men and women. By stressing women’s role in domestic life, the government conformed to the patriarchal values in the society, reinforcing subjugation of women by men.
Repercussions of this new gender justice are in conflict. Women in the higher education represent 43.1 percent, yet women’s workforce participation rate remains low. Additionally, the employment rate of women is less than half of the employment rate of men while part-time employment of women is three times higher than that of men. Unfortunately, women’s hurdles in joining the workforce increase with marriage and children, suggests a recent study. Childcare services, expensive and in short supply, are another obstacle for women’s workforce participation. Besides the structural problems, traditional roles within the household and workplace remain as other drawbacks. Married women are expected to maintain domestic responsibilities even if they work.
Every regime has policies targeting women’s issues, and these policies change as regimes evolve. The Turkish case offers lessons to other countries as regimes transition from democracy to authoritarianism, reinforcing feminine and masculine roles while challenging feminism. During a conservative backlash, women must create more spaces to learn from one another’s experiences, build global solidarity networks and address these problems collectively. Women are creating online spaces via #MeToo and #TimesUp to address gender inequality and patriarchy in their local contexts. In Turkey, celebrities and artists such as Sıla, Hadise and Elit İşcan speak out about violence, censorship and sexual harassment they have endured without explicitly referring to these hashtags. Through online platforms, women point to the need for global struggle and collaboration in confronting common problems. Women must unite offline and online, with meetings, protests, conferences as well as new information technologies, connecting globally to build solidarity, networks and collaborations to oppose this conservative backlash in the age of authoritarianism.
Ronay Bakan is a 2018-2019 Fox International Fellow at Yale’s MacMillan Center. She is a research assistant and PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University, and her research interests include politics of space, social movements, gender studies, Kurdish politics and Turkish politics.
Özlem Tunçel is a research assistant and MA student at Boğaziçi University’s Department of Political Science and International Relations. Her research interests include educational policies in Turkey, hybrid regimes, institutional changes and Turkish politics.