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Right Time To Promote Turkish Women's Rights

In the wake of the recent decision by Turkey's Constitutional Court not to ban the governing liberal Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), women's rights' groups and feminists' alliances are breathing a sign of relief that the uncertainty of recent months has ended.

They are also feeling hopeful that the government will now take its job of promoting women's rights more seriously.

Although many in the West may assume that the AKP, being an Islamist party, is by its nature opposed to gender equality, in reality things are more complicated.

It was during the rule of the AK party that revolutionary changes to the legal status of women were introduced, comparable only to those carried out by the founder of the Turkish nation, Kemal Ataturk. Both the Civil Code and the Penal Code were overhauled. The new civil code, adopted in 2001, grants women equal rights with men. Until then, Turkish women had unequal status under both civil and criminal law with the man of the family formally recognized as 'the head of the household'. The new Penal Code, adopted in 2004, is progressive in the sense that all previous references to chastity, morality, shame and customs were eliminated. It treats sexual crimes as violations of individual women's rights, and not as crimes against society or family. It condemns and punishes marital rape, toughens the sentencing for honor killings and contains other changes enhancing women’s rights for sexual autonomy.

But the legal reforms on their own were not enough, and the state of women's rights in Turkey remains dire. According to a government-sponsored report, the number of women victims of honour killings has actually increased since 2003. Domestic violence is widespread. There are 38 shelters for victims of violence in Turkey and, although this represents a considerable increase compared to a few years ago, it is far from sufficient.

According to women's activists, one important area where a concerted government-led effort could visibly improve the situation is education rights. 1 out of 5 women in Turkey is unable to read or write. There is a widespread drop-out of girls from school between the age of 11-15, leading to early marriages and subsequent maternal and infant health problems.

A recent UNDP report speaks of an 8 percent gap between girls' and boys' attendance at secondary schools. Girls who do not attend or complete primary school are often married early, with all the health hazards that early pregnancy entails for adolescent girls.

Gender equality in employment and political participation are also serious problems. Turkey occupies a disastrously low ranking -- 105th place, after Burkina Faso and Bahrain -- in the Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum. The country has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the labour force in Europe – only 28 percent. Salaries of those Turkish women who work are up to 25 percent lower than those of their male peers. Only 18 of Turkey’s 3234 local mayors are women. Balancing work and motherhood is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in Turkey – more than 60 percent of working women do not have young children.

An attempt earlier this year by the AKP-led government to lift the ban on wearing headscarves in universities was about a very important individual right – to freedom of religion. However, after it was carried out in a botched way, rather than in a package with other civil reforms, it's now been shelved for at least a few years. There is no way that the unofficial alliance between the military, the judiciary and the secularist opposition would allow the ban to be lifted anytime soon.

Since little can be done about this particular issue right now, the government could take upon itself the task of raising the value of education across the nation and creating better job opportunities for educated women. For example, women's groups have been lobbying to include the concept of positive discrimination in a constitutional reform. The idea has so far received little support from the government.

Since the AKP won a landslide victory in general elections a year ago, many important reforms concerning human rights have stalled, and in particular, there's been no progress in the advancement of women’s rights. Turkish women's rights' NGOs often speak of hostility from both the government and the main opposition parties. There's been no openness to dialogue on women’s rights, and women's groups were often excluded and sidelined by the government. It comes as no surprise that there is now a serious wariness towards the ruling AK party among most feminist groups. It is increasingly seen as patriarchal in mindset and there are doubts as to how sincere its leaders have been in previous reforms.

Experts say it is the right time for the AKP-led government to change that perception. The legal reforms of 2001-2004, as significant as they are for the cause of gender equality, mean little in the lives of millions of Turkish women unless they are implemented properly. For example, many judges in rural areas are still unfamiliar with the new Penal Code, proving the need for training and awareness-raising campaigns. The ruling party should realize the urgency of accelerating progress in advancing women's rights and human rights in general – and even more so, if it is serious about its declared goal of working towards joining the European Union.


This article was written by Nadira Artyk who is a New York based freelance journalist and women's rights advocate. She specializes in predominantly Muslim societies and is especially knowledgable about Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran. She has worked for the BBC News for many years, and has written for various publications in the UK, France, Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


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