Women's Rights in the New Turkish Constitution

In Favor of the Man

In Turkey, a growing number of women's rights advocates and feminists are critical of the draft constitution. The government's planned reform does not expand women's rights but substantially restricts them. Dilek Zaptcioglu reports from Istanbul

Hülya Gülbahar, president of Kader, Turkey's largest women's organization, was astonished when she was chided from the top level of government this autumn. In the presence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan she had dared to call for a women's quota in the new constitution.

"Even Rwanda's constitution has a quota provision as a means of positive discrimination in favor of women," she said to Erdogan. To which he replied with a smile, "If you would prefer to live in Rwanda, no one is stopping you."

One thing is already certain – Turkey will have a new constitution in 2008. But with what content? Opinions still differ on this point. Sharp conflicts between various social groups can be anticipated – not only between employees and employers, but also between women and men.

Constitutional reform under fire from all sides

No one questions the fact that Turkey must fundamentally overhaul its constitution, which was adopted in 1982 after the military coup. Because the political parties could not reach an agreement on the content, however, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had a draft constitution written behind closed doors by a group of experts.

Scarcely had the details of the draft leaked out in early autumn when it came under fire. The main points of dispute are: How are laicism, i.e., the separation of religion and state, Kemalism, and the centralized state formulated in the preamble? For example, is the wearing of Islamic headscarves allowed for civil servants and at universities?

The AKP responded to the hasty criticism of its opponents that it wanted to delete laicism and Kemalism from the preamble and turn the centralized state into a "federative multiracial republic" by promptly withdrawing the draft. The criticism was completely unwarranted, according to government circles.

"We will not alter the existing preamble," AKP deputy chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat finally declared and emphasized that there would also be no "freedom for the headscarf" in the new constitution.

Whether and in what form the new Turkish constitution, which must be approved by the parliament by a two-thirds majority, deals with the headscarf question remains unclear for the time being.

Controversial women's quota

The reason that Kader president Gülbahar was chided by Prime Minister Erdogan, namely the women's quota, has since become a higher priority for the women's organization than the troublesome headscarf issue, however.

Women's rights activists are of the opinion that the government's draft constitution does not expand women's rights but substantially restricts them.

The debate centers around the change in Article 10 of the existing constitution – "Equality before the Law." It states that "Everyone, regardless of language, race, gender, political views, philosophy of life, religion, membership in a sect, or other characteristics, is equal before the law. Women and men enjoy the same rights. The state is obliged to ensure that this equality is put into practice."

The sentence on the equality of men and women was incorporated into the constitution in 2004, thanks to a fierce struggle by women's organizations. This sentence democratized the spirit of the constitution – at least in the interests of women.

Women's platform for a new constitution

This addition has been deleted in the new draft, however, and replaced with the following wording: "Everyone . . . is equal before the law. Measures for the protection of groups in need of special protection, such as women, children, the elderly, and disabled persons, shall not be interpreted to the detriment of the principle of equality."

The idea that the equality of man and woman, which was explicitly laid down in the constitution after a decade of endless struggle, should now be abolished and women should be reduced to a "group in need of protection," along with "children, disabled persons, and the elderly," is unacceptable to Turkish women's organizations and feminists.

Eighty-six different organizations of every political stripe, from Kurdish to Turkish and secular to Islamic, met in Istanbul in October and founded the Women's Platform for a New Constitution. After lengthy meetings they reached an agreement on a rewording of the article on equality.

Bound by international conventions

The women, among them many lawyers, decided to summarize their demands in a dossier and submit it to Prime Minister Erdogan by the end of November. It will also remind the government of the international conventions that Turkey has already signed – including the UN and EU resolutions on the protection of women's rights.

Although half of Turkey's 80 million inhabitants are women, only 48 of the 550 seats in the parliament are held by women. Nevertheless, at least there was one woman on the commission of experts who wrote the draft constitution for the government.

Dilek Zaptcioglu

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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