Women in Turkey

Slow Road to Gender Equity

Turkey doesn't give the best impression when it comes to gender equality in the country. Women are economically dependent, and it looks like domestic violence is still part of many women's daily life. Ulrike Mast-Kirschning reports

Turkey doesn't give the best impression when it comes to gender equality in the country. Women are economically dependent, and it looks like domestic violence is still part of many women's daily life in Turkey. Ulrike Mast-Kirschning reports

Turkish Kurdish women marched toward parliament as legislators prepared to debate proposed amendments to the country's penal code that include a measure outlawing adultery
Today women have become an active part of the Turkish civil society

​​When police forces in Istanbul violently dissolved a demonstration of men and women at the International Women's Day last year, this caused an outcry among many Europeans, who were aware of the question of whether or not Turkey should become a member of the European Union.

A vital part of Turkish civil society

And yet, the traditional and multilayered Turkish society is undergoing a transition: Women's organisations have become an active part of the Turkish civil society.

"For March 8th last year we announced a monument on Taksim square will be put up to commemorate all housewives who are exploited as cheap labour," Beyham Demir says. "Women are expected to be good wives and mothers. With this monument we wanted to show our protest against this attitude. And everyone who saw us demonstrate in Taksim said, yes, that's the way it is."

Beyham Demir of the feminist women's magazine "Pazartesi" wasn't the only one who took part in the officially approved peaceful demonstrations in Istanbul, on international women's day. Without being harassed by policemen's clubs several groups fought for their convictions in public: women's groups, unions, political parties, and female trade unionists.

"Gecekondus" – home to the poorest

Turkey is one of the countries in Europe with the highest number of citizens - only Germany has more. The country is full of contradictions. More than 40 percent of the Turkish workforce earn their living from agriculture.

But out of the entire population more than three quarters live in the cities, a lot of them in so called "Gecekondus" which are simple shacks that were built over night to enforce the builders' claims to the piece of land.

Often the "Gecekondus" are slums and home to the poorest. In the very beginning, most of them don't have water or electricity, and no infrastructure. In 2003, Turkey's per capita GDP amounted to about 5,500 euros. In countries like Germany, per capita GDP in the same year was about five times higher. Turkish women have 2.2 children on average- about twice as much as German women.

Those hit hardest by poverty are families with children, women and old people. The East and Southeast are Turkey's poorest regions. And in these areas women help women by offering them mostly hands-on social work:

"We help not just by talking to the women," Yurdusev Özsökmenler, the mayor of Baglar says, "instead, we try to give them access to the job market and to train them for a proper profession. We offer computer courses and trainings to become a tailor. The women can show what they're capable of and they feel the strength of solidarity between women."

Rescue women from tight control

Yurdusev Özsökmenler is a trained anthropologist and for a long time used to be the head of a unionist labour club. She worked as a journalist, spent some time in prison – like many of her fellow countrymen – and eventually she became the candidate for one of Turkey's 3,000 positions as mayor.

In the elections, Yurdusev Özsökmenler won an impressive 63 percent of the vote and became the head of Baglar's city parliament in 2004. She was quick in introducing a gender quote in the positions to be filled in the city's administration which was a new experience for the patriarchal feudal society.

But now, most people in Baglar have got used to the female mayor. Even to the fact that she's trying to rescue the women from the tight control of their families, and provide them with the chance to lead a life of their own.

The city's administration offers literacy courses, and women can study for a certificate in basic education. On the agenda are visits to the theatre or movie nights, a women's choir has been established which even performs in public, and women can attend courses for painting and display their works. Women are increasingly becoming visible in Baglar – outside their families homes.

But poverty remains their biggest problem. Unemployment in the region amounts to 70 percent. Few people have access to social insurance which is aimed at counteracting poverty. Many can't even afford to buy food. There is a lack of everything, and so even the traditional division of roles no longer provides stability, says mayor Özsökmenler:

"Society is characterised in a very feudalistic way in this region. Until last year, children would look after their parents, but for a year now we've noticed old people out on the streets all by themselves. Women have become homeless, and they need medical attention and we have to find places for them to stay. Poverty is the reason why men who can't look after their families disappear, and then women and children are left alone."

To guarantee at least a minimum of food, baking houses provide the poorest with flour. To the women from the slums, washing houses are places of refuge where they're supported in their struggle to survive. One of these washing houses is in the heart of the historical old city of Diyarbakir, about 5 kilometres away from Baglar.

Diyarbakir used to be a rich commercial metropolis on the Silk Route. It's close to the border to Syria and Iraq. And it's still the most important city in the region. Ever since the Turkish military and the PKK started leading an unofficial war against one another, there's been a daily wave of people who come to the city from far away.

Domestic violence

Many of them were forced to leave their villages, and to leave behind all their belongings, their fields, cattle and their gardens. They come to Diyarbakir to look for work, and are usually not successful in their quest. Many families lead a desolate life, and the situation of many women is desperate.

"The biggest problem we're faced with is domestic violence," says a spokeswoman from "Selis", a Turkish aid organisation for women. "War leaves behind tragic traces and creates problems itself. Many people have left their villages, and they have problems integrating. We deal with people who have been tortured, and often they're traumatised. Many women are close to committing suicide. So integration and domestic violence are our two biggest problems."

The counseling centre in one of the more modern neighbourhoods of Diyarbakir offers legal and psychological aid, they offer educational programmes and sometimes even jobs. Out on the countryside "Selis" has founded a sewing workshop which makes traditional dresses. This creates jobs and self-esteem amongst the women, and it helps finance "Selis", which is a non-governmental organisation.

About half the women who come to "Selis" to look for advice, say the "Selis" counselers, have experienced domestic violence. But only a handful of them are willing to report their husbands, and to let the Turkish state decide on their fate. Meral Danis-Bestas of the Centre for Women's Rights says it's even more difficult for women who have been raped by Turkish soldiers.

Co-operations and initiatives for women

She's in charge of coordinating legal advice and representation of women in the Chamber of Lawyers in Diyarbakir. Together with other Turkish organisations for women, Danis Bestas has organised initiatives to educate women. These initiatives try to provide the women with more opportunities to become active.

In the most conservative parts of the Anatolian society, whenever women and girls try to escape from control, especially from the control of their sexual life, they end up in a conflict with their own families.

"Unfortunately, there are very few possibilities to avoid being murdered for honour," Bestas says. "The women simply have to find a very safe place to hide. Society simply hasn't reached the point yet where the victims can sit and talk about it together. That's why we're in close co-operation with the city, the police, and with other organisations for women. Just to save these women's lives."

Domestic violence is still one of the biggest problems in Turkey, and not just amongst the poorer part of the population, which has more traditional orientations.

According to surveys for the whole of Turkey, 23 percent of women in families with medium and high income have allegedly been attacked and beaten up by their husbands. Almost 40 percent of Turkish women even accept that husbands have the right to beat up their wives.

These statistics show an existing tendency, says Feride Acar, political scientist at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. Until 2005, she was the head of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

The agreement legally binds the signatory states to deliver reports on their activities and on the situation in their countries. These reports are then commented and judged upon by the Committee.

The latest edition of the criminal and public code is now free of terms which stand for a patriarchal view of the world, such as "chastity and honour", "public morality and tradition of society", "dishonour and immoral behaviour". The same strategy has also been implemented in fields like education, and representation of women in the job market and in parliament.

Turkish women's organisations have managed to reach a lot all over the country and they're well organised. And even though this trend didn't start when Turkey started to move closer to the EU, Professor Feride Acar believes things have really started moving now.

Ulrike Mast-Kirschning

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2006

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