"Education is a precept for all Muslims, women and men"
(Inscription over the entrance to Ulug Bey Madrasah in Bukhara, built in 1420)

The women’s high schools and universities established during the latter period of the Ottoman Empire were instrumental in producing a significant number of well-educated women who later came to play prominent roles in the formative years of the Republic. More than forty women’s magazines, many edited and authored by women, were published in the empire before 1923, and several women’s associations and groups had been established to demand women’s rights in education, work, and political participation. However, the absence of a supportive political and legal structure as well as the pervasive influence of patriarchal norms and values in society prohibited women from being visible, and handicapped their efforts to be active in the public arena. This situation changed dramatically with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 when a series of political and legal reforms were undertaken by M. Kemal Atatürk and his colleagues to build a modern, secular state in Turkey. The Republican reforms brought radical changes to the status and conditions of women in the country to an extent unprecedented and unmatched to date in any Muslim country in the world.

The creation of a secular state, the first-ever in a Muslim country made it possible to pass legislation that recognized women as equal and free citizens vis-a-vis the state, and revolutionized family law. For instance, in 1926, the introduction of the Turkish Civil Code banned polygamy and granted women equal rights in matters of divorce and child custody. Turkish women were also granted suffrage rights first in local elections in 1930, then in national elections in 1934 and they have been exercising these rights for the last sixty-seven years. The underlying aim of these reforms was to position women securely in the public sphere, to make them active and competitive in education, employment, and all aspects of social life. In consequence, many women in Turkey were able to get educated, have careers and jobs, become economically independent and participate in politics. The social and political reforms of the Republic pertained most effectively to legal and formal aspects of social life and were able to change the roles, life styles and status of women in urban areas and relatively higher social classes. Although they also influenced some aspects of cultural and informal relations in society they have not changed women’s lives equally in all segments of the population. Today, while the enrollment rate of boys and girls in elementary education is equal, almost one third of adult Turkish women are still illiterate. Illiteracy among women is three times as much as that among men and is mostly found in rural areas of the eastern and southeastern provinces. At the same time, more than one third of medical doctors, more than one quarter of practicing lawyers and judges, and one third of university professors in the country, are women. The achievements of the Republic in seventy-five years have paved the way for women’s equal citizenship rights and their uncontested presence in the public sphere in modern Turkey, However, laws and public sphere transformations do not define all life conditions.

Today, women in Turkey still often have to cope with problems that emanate from the continuation of traditional patriarchal values and male-dominated relations in many aspects of life. They also often demand further improvement of existing laws in accordance with the changing standards of “women’s human rights” in contemporary Western societies. Existing social norms are now being questioned by the Turkish women’s movement which has been playing an important role in bringing women’s issues to the political and social agenda since the 1980s. Women’s issues, common to all societies and increasingly questioned in many, such as gender discrimination in education and the workplace; domestic violence; inadequate representation in decision making positions, etc., are now being questioned from the woman’s point of view in Turkey, too. To this end, new institutions such as women’s studies graduate programmes and women’s research centres in the universities have been established. These institutions together with women’s nongovernmental organizations help create a new type of visibility for women in the Turkish political and social scene. The guiding principle in evaluating women’s conditions and discussing women’s issues in Turkey today, is the globally accepted women’s human rights standards. The development of such a contemporary stand could be made possible only with the presence of legal rights guaranteed by the secular Turkish Republic and the cultural and social heritage of the Kemalist viewpoint.

Reference: Conditions and Rights by Gender and Women’s Studies Programme Middle East Technical University

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