One of the most polarizing issues between the West and the Islamic world is gender inequality. In the eyes of many in the West, nothing captures female subjugation more vividly than the image of Muslim women forced to cover their face, their hair, their body. Alongside this, the idea that some women in the Arab world should be grateful just to be allowed to drive, to apply for a job or to receive an education is the quintessential symbol of patriarchalism. For most Western observers, such patriarchy is legitimized by Islam.
Turkey, however, was supposed to be different. And for a time, it was. But it is no longer today. The reason is that Turkey’s supposed enlightenment was enabled, ironically, by patriarchalism itself. And such “gifts” as might be proffered can just as easily be retracted.
To be sure, Turkey, until relatively recent times, was apparently a shining example of gender emancipation. For those who pay particular attention to the sartorial aspect of gender rights, here was a Muslim country where headscarves were banned in schools and government offices. The liberalization of women was, indeed, at the heart of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s modernization mission. The Kemalist founding fathers were determined to free their newly established republic from Islamic legal and social norms in their drive for rapid Westernization.
Ataturk’s republic encouraged women to attend universities, to obtain professional qualifications and to pursue careers in medicine, law, engineering, the natural sciences, as well as the arts.
The secular civil code of 1926 gave Turkish women equal civil rights to men. Religious and polygamous marriages were no longer recognized, and women gained the right to initiate divorce. By 1930, long before many Western countries, Turkish women could vote and even run for political office. In 1935, there were 18 women elected to the Turkish parliament, at a time when just eight women served in the US congress and only nine sat in the British parliament. In France and Italy, women didn’t gain the franchise until 1945 – 15 years after women in Turkey.
Turkey’s current poor record on gender equality is ironic considering such a progressive history.
In Erdogan’s conservative Turkey, secular Westernized elites often look back with nostalgia to those formative decades of “state-sponsored feminism.” They rightly lament the current gender deficit in areas of political empowerment, economic participation, educational attainment and health. They are also increasingly alarmed by the rising level of violence against women.
For indeed, Turkey’s recent performance is dismal in these same areas as measured by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index. In 2018, Turkey ranked 130th among 149 countries, behind Tunisia, Algeria and many Gulf countries such as Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar.
Yet, those nostalgic for the Kemalist era of state feminism miss the point. They should be aware that this golden age had serious deficiencies, and that these shortfalls explain why conservative twitches have so easily found resonance in today’s Turkey.
Any praise for the emancipation of women in the 1930s should acknowledge that like most Kemalist reforms, laws empowering women were confined to urban centers and embraced only by the progressive and educated segments of society. Eradicating outdated laws that discriminated against women is much easier than changing a deeply rooted patriarchal political culture.
Next, the Kemalist reforms emancipating women came in the spirit of “modernization from above.” They were not the culmination of powerful, grassroots social mobilization and political struggles. Rather, they were “generous gifts” from a patriarchal state to its “passive daughters” – rights offered by the state in search of a short-cut to Westernization, not civil liberties earned by feminists seeking equality. To be sure, there were of course feminists fighting for such gains, but their battle for fundamental change was short-circuited by top-down fiat. The reforms did not have strong and deep roots.
State feminism was all about the public space. It had little concern for what happened behind closed doors. The primary objective was to empower women as a class, but not necessarily as individuals. For instance, it was only in the 1990s that laws stipulating that women needed permission from their husbands to work outside the home or to travel abroad were repealed.
While it’s true such antiquated laws were repudiated, Turkey cared more about the legal façade than the social reality of the country. Turkey was the first to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, and a year later, in 2012, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a national plan for gender equality. Yet violence against women continued to rise to alarming levels, with very few of the perpetrators punished to the full extent of the law. So while the legal and pollical façade looked impressive, the culture of impunity prevailed.
It is not hard to understand why. In a 2014 speech at a summit on justice for women, Erdogan said: “Women and men could not be treated equally. It is against nature.” He has also famously accused feminists of “rejecting motherhood” and argued that women who are not mothers were “incomplete.” He urged them not to use birth control and to have at least three children to ensure the growth of Turkey’s population.
Adopting seemingly progressive laws is easy. What is difficult is eradicating the patriarchalism that dominates politics at the very top. Sadly, this predicament neither is new nor confined to Islamists. After all, it was none other than Ataturk himself, the architect of state feminism, who once declared that “a woman’s highest duty is motherhood.”
So beware the patriarchy that comes bearing gifts, for it can just as easily withdraw them, as Turkish women have come to understand.
Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.