A gender-segregated education system has long been one of the top goals of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party, the AKP. Until now, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been working to separate men and women attending co-ed institutions. But now, there are plans for a wholly women-only university to be opened by 2023. Such a development will be to the detriment of women’s rights in Turkey, already assailed from many directions.
Erdogan, the president, became attached to the idea of a women-only university during his visit to Japan in 2019 to attend that’s year’s G20 summit. In conjunction with the trip, he was accorded an honorary doctorate at Mukogawa Women’s University. In his acceptance speech, Erdogan said he was impressed with the idea of a women-only institution. He later asked the embassy in Tokyo to study Japan’s women-only universities, and in October last year the government announced that a women-only institution would be established under the auspices of Turkey’s latest development plan.
Aylin Nazliaka, the chair of the opposition Republican People’s Party’s Women’s Branch, issued a statement calling such a plan another way of creating “obedient women.” She further noted that the decision was made without consultation with women’s organizations, political parties or students.
In the 19th and early 20th century, women’s colleges began to be established in the US, Britain and elsewhere (Japan and what would become South Korea, included) to give women access to the higher education that had been denied them. Today, only a few US colleges – Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, for example – remain all-women institutions. In Britain, while all Oxford women’s colleges now are co-ed, three (soon to be two) at Cambridge remain women-only.
In the West and many parts elsewhere, the march toward gender equality (sadly, not a straight-line progression) has meant that women can attend almost any college previously reserved for men. The few that remain women-only see such an environment as a means of empowering women toward excellence. Ewha Womans University in Seoul, for example, is among the most prestigious universities in South Korea.
In Turkey, however, where women already long have had access to higher education, the belated creation of a women-only institution is a massive step backward, and hard to reconcile with the need to advance women’s rights.
According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Index, Turkey is down at 130 among 153 countries surveyed. While Japan is not far from Turkey, at 121 on the list, the underperformance of women is something the government and society desperately want to fix (although there often is resistance from some parties). While women-only institutions elsewhere are predicated on the idea of expanding opportunities for women, in Turkey the plan simply is to keep them away from men. The Turkish government seems obsessed with preventing women and men from mixing, advocating almost a form of society-wide modern harem.
In 2013, co-ed dorms in higher education began to be removed. The minister of youth at the time called the decision a “humanitarian one, not an Islamic one.” A couple of months later, an AKP parliamentarian said co-ed education was a “big mistake” that the AKP intended to fix.
Five years later, a new regulation removed the requirement that certain high schools and vocational training institutes should be co-ed. A spokesman for the president then made the inexplicable claim that this was meant to create a more “inclusive” education system. The Science Academy – a non-governmental organization based in Istanbul – has said that since 2015 the Turkish Council of Higher Education had stopped actively promoting gender equality in higher education.
No observer can escape the conclusion that women’s rights are being abbreviated, and that the establishment of a women-only university will only further that trend. Rather than a reflection of an aspiration for the advancement of women, the idea of segregated women-only institutions can only be seen as an attempt to downgrade the citizen status of women. It is an idea not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.