Turkish Politics Essay Example

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Question 13

Examine the gender movements in Turkey. Please include in your analysis the feminist activism, LGBT movement and the position of these movements against the state and Islam.


Gender is a complex concept that is often characterised by significant controversy on how it is conceptualised and the implications that arise thereof. It extends beyond sex, the physical or physiological features that distinguish male and females. As opposed to being a biological concept, gender is often perceived as a social construction that encompasses norms, behaviours, roles, status and characteristics associated with being a male or a female in a particular social or cultural context. Since time immemorial, gender conceptualizations have brought about divisions and inequalities. For instance, the conceptualisation of the male gender as being superior and the female gender as being inferior has encouraged societal structures where women are treated unequally and are expected behave in a certain way and perform certain roles in servitude of men. In some cases women have been excluded from voting, decision-making and taking up leadership positions since they were deemed as being inferior. Gender conceptualisation further extends to issues such as sexual orientation in regards to what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate. As a result of such conceptulisation of gender, gender movements have emerged throughout history in a bid to fight for equal rights, recognition of different sexual orientations and other agendas (Kuumba 2001).

This essay seeks to examine gender movements in Turkey. It examines the history, organisation, activities and accomplishments of gender movements in Turkey. In this regard, it looks into feminist activism and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movements and their positions against the state and Islam.

Feminist Activism

Gender movements in Turkey have a long history that is somewhat difficult to trace or date when they began. Nevertheless, some scholars trace the beginning of gender movements in Turkey to the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. According to Diner & Toktaş (2010), feminist activism in Turkey can be understood in the context of three waves. The first wave started in 1839 with a number of law reforms that significantly influenced feminist activism. As a result, women organised in small group began to emerge in order to champion for their civic and political rights. The second wave began in the Republican era with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk granting women
certain rights. The third wave dates from the end of the military intervention in1980 and was largely based on Turkish women own initiatives to enhance women’s rights and development.

During the first wave which coincided with the end of the Ottoman Empire, it is believed that at a number of educated women began to organise themselves in groups as feminists. These groups sought to enhance women’s access to education, work opportunities, abolish polygamy and the Islamic veil. It was also during this era that the first women association in Turkey dubbed Ottoman Welfare Organisation of Women was established in1908. The organisation became involved in the Young Turks Movement, which was a key force in the founding of the Turkish Republic. In the course of this century renowned writers and politicians such as Halide Edip Adıvar and Fatma Aliye Topuz joined the feminist movement and began advocating for equality not only but also for women of all ethnic and religions backgrounds (Cheledin & Eliatamby 2011; Marshall, 2013). Much of the activities during this period were instigated by reform policy addressing women issues initiated by the Ottoman Empire. These reforms were influenced by Europe and were viewed as part of «modernisation». The oppression of women was considered as an obstacle for the modernisation. One of these reforms saw the education of women and the adoption of more liberal views on women.

The formation of a more liberal atmosphere saw the emergence of women movements which questioned patriarchal structures and began to demand for women rights. Some women groups began to publish journals, discussing women’s issues and building women’s groups, to helping each other ideally and materially. Overtime, women movements began to widen and grow (Erol 1992).

Nevertheless, after the policy reforms initiated by the Ottoman Empire that saw the progression of women rights, the capitulation of power by the Turkish-nationalists in 1908 brought about a number of controversies. The clothes and mobility of women began to be subjected under strict regulation. For instance, on one hand, in 1915 women were allowed to remove their ferece while working in the office environment. On the other hand, the police sent them back home if the length of their skirts was deemed to be short. Women group began to slowly protest against this type of regulation (Muftuler-Bac 1999).

Following the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire during World War 1. The Turkish Republic was established in 1923. The rule of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a series of social, legal and educational reforms that aimed at facilitating rapid modernization, westernization and urbanization were introduced. In essence, one of the key aims of the newly established state was to build a modernized society (Diner & Toktaş 2010). In the process of implementing policies geared towards modernization, the Sultanate, Caliphate and Sharia law were abolished in 1926. In its place the Swiss Civil Code was adopted. The new laws outlawed polygamy, allowed divorce initiation by both the male or the female partner and instituted civil marriage. In 1934, women further gained the right to vote and more opportunities for women in work and education opened up.

Despite of women being granted the right to vote, further politicisation of women did not take place. The Republican regime simply brought about «state-supported feminism. At the same time the regime limited feminist activism and prevented the development of an active women’s movement led by women. Thus both women and men failed to question the existing patriarchal gender roles within Turkish society even as the Republic remained
essentially patriarchal. In order to question and subdue patriarchal ideals and practices a need for an independent feminist movement and critical consciousness became evident (Gündüz 2004).

The second wave of feminist activism in Turkey emerged following military intervention in the 1980s, which ended polarisation and brought about the depolitisation of the society. It was under these difficult circumstances that the Turkish women’s movement began to emerge as the first democratic opposition movement. In this regard, Tekeli (1995) observes that, the Turkish women’s movement emerged strongly only after the 1980s mainly because the ideologies during Kemal’s regime acted as a barrier to women movement. As a result of the military intervention in 1980’s activities on the left were outlawed thus enabling the development of a strong, democratic, pluralistic women’s movement (Tekeli 1995).

The feminist movement in the early 1980’s, was successful in strong campaign networks against domestic violence and other violation of women’s rights. In the 1990s they began organising street protest and taking their campaigns to institutions such as universities and non-governmental organisations (Gu
Savran 1989). They further adopted new frameworks and avenues for their activism. This transition led to the establishment of women’s NGOs such as the Flying Broom, women’s studies programs at universities, the Women’s Library in Istanbul and Independent Feminist Centers. Through these avenues they begun working with emerging state programs that address issues revolving around

gender and women.

In the course of this period, women movements also began participating in intergovernmental forums, fundraising activities for gender-related projects and the international civil society. Such activism brought about gender policy changes in the early 2000s (Eslen-Ziya 2007). A good example of such campaigns was the “ Purple Needle Campaign” which aimed at raising awareness and preventing sexual abuse and violence of women who used public transport. The campaign mainly employed street protest, conferences and parliamentary lobbying (Diner & Tokas 2010). Diner and Tokas (2010) further note that, during the 1980’s and 1990s, the feminist activism in Turkey was marked by the publication of hundreds of women’s periodicals and magazines. In the subsequent decade, feminist activism in Turkey has adopted new strategies and new resources that include the use of social media so as to strengthen their campaigns. Additionally with time, feminist activism in Turkey has broadened its focus from equal rights and preventing violence against women to include other issues such as division of labour, women’s involvement in politics and the division of labour. This shows the diversifying nature of feminist activism in Turkey (Marshall 2005).

Over time, there have been major advancements in the realisation of women’s human rights. Ilkkaracan (2006) argues that this has mainly been as a result of the strong advocacy efforts of feminism activist. Despite the fact that the Turkish constitution incorporates the gender equality principles, he observes that prior to the late 90s, a number of national legislations (civil, penal and labour laws) in Turkey contained discriminatory provisions against women and were based on a patriarchal perspective. However, this situation has been gradually changing as a result of women movements which have strongly championed for reforms. Women movements in Turkey have largely influenced the reforms of laws to prevent domestic violence (1998), The law on the Protection of Family, the Civil Code (2001) and the Turkish Penal Code Reform (2004). As a result of these reforms women have been able to attain legal basis to exercise their human rights. Before these reforms, the legislative system had granted men supremacy in marriage and deprived women of their social, economic and civil thus restricting women from decision making not only in the family unit but also in the society. Prior to these reforms women were regarded as sexual commodities of men, human rights violations such as forced marriages, honour killings and rape were also legitimized. As women movements gained momentum overtime many reforms in the Civil and Penal codes were realised thus leading to the adoption principles of gender equality in line with the with global human rights norms (Ilkkaracan 2006).

Nevertheless, Diner & Tokas (2010) argue despite of the achievements made through feminist activism in Turkey, the lack of a central organising body is one of the reasons behind the movement achieving minimal success. This realisation compelled the establishment of a division within the Prime Ministry that was charged with the mandate of improving the rights and status of women in society.

LGBT Movements

The second wave of feminist activism also coincided with the emergence of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movements in Turkey. As modernization and individualism began to take root in Turkey, many discussions on patriarchy, and human rights became popularised. In the process, issues pertaining to the rights of bisexuals and people of different sexual orientation began to feature in discussions. Issues pertaining to LGBT movement were first discussed openly in the 1990’s. Even as issues revolving around LGBT were highlighted in discussions, there was negative representation of LGBTs in the media as a result of religious belief on the immorality of same-sex relationships. Turkey being a predominantly Islamic country, being gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual was considered immoral and illegal. LGBT groups were also subject to discrimination and oppression. Consequently, the need to develop a movement of LGBTs was felt in order to advocate for their rights and recognition in society (Rodriguez et al 2013).

One of the most notable political developments in the history of the Turkish republic as far as women activism and LGBT movement is concerned was the formation of the Radical Democrat Green Party after the 1980 coup intervention. The party’s key political agenda was to address issues of political activism revolving around feminism, LGBT, ecology, atheism and anti-militarism (ILGA 2004). Although the party was ineffective in gaining influence within the political scene, it gave the LGBT movement a political voice such that they were able to carry out their activism through protests, convening conferences (1993) and publication of LGBT magazines. Despite government ban in 1993, the LGBT movement become partially successful by facilitating acquisition of the legal status for transsexuals in 1988 and establishment of the first gay and lesbian group Kaos GL Group.

Over time, different groups, organisations and students forum began to emerge in support of LGBT rights. Additionally, more LGBT issues were voiced in radio and television shows (1996), magazines (1994) and public libraries. On the other hand, state suppression, violence and discrimination of LGBTS was also becoming more rampant. This was particularly evident in the Ulker Street case in 1996 where many transgendered individuals were driven out of their homes, displaced and subjected to arrests and torture (ILGA, 2004).

As a result of the rapid rate of globalisation in 2000s, the LGBT movement in Turkey began to build close ties and networks with other movements across Europe, North America and other countries around the world. This further helped to strengthen their activism and influence. In June 2003, the first pride march was organised in Istanbul which attracted a small number of people. In the subsequent years, as cases of violence, oppression and discrimination of LGBTs increased, more LGBTs organisations and groups emerged in a bid to defend their rights. Even so, many of these LGBT organisations have faced legal cases against the state, which called for them to be shouting down. However, against the background of the Turkish constitution, which supports the right to association, these organisations have managed to defeat prosecutors and stay operational (Rodriguez et al 2013).


Gender movements in Turkey particularly those relating to feminist and LGBT activism have evolved over time. The evolution of these movements have been largely been influenced by political developments in the country and globalization. As Turkey began to become modernized, many discussions on patriarchy, and human rights became popularised. In the process, issues pertaining to the rights of women bisexuals and people of different sexual orientation began to feature in discussions. The subjection of women and LGBTs to unequal rights, violence, discrimination and oppression propelled women and LGBT movements to emerge in a bid to fight for the rights of women. Through a wide range of approaches such as street protests, lobbying lawmakers, conferencing these over time these movements have been able to influence policy reforms and enhance the consciousness of the society on their rights. Nevertheless, the reforms championed by women and LGBT movements in Turkey were met by strong opposition and resistance from conservative forces from the government, Parliament and Islamic religious bodies. Consequently, these movements had to carryout their activism in a volatile political and social atmosphere.


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