The Istanbul Convention has been on the agenda in recent months. The decision of the Turkish government on March 19 to withdraw from the agreement and the 10th anniversary celebrations on May 11 have aroused great international concern. But what are the subjects of this international convention? Why did Turkey abandon this agreement? And above all, how is the political situation of women in Turkey approached? The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, or more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, is a Council of Europe agreement that follows the line begun in the 1990s to combat gender-based violence, especially against women. It was adopted at the 121st ministerial meeting in Istanbul, hence the name (Council of Europe 2021). In addition, Turkey became the first country to ratify the convention in March 2012, making it an active symbol of bringing gender-based violence from the private to the public. The convention was signed by 45 of the 47 countries of the Council of Europe with the exception of Russia and Azerbaijan and ratified by 34 of the signatories (Council of Europe 2021b).
The Turkish government has justified its withdrawal from the convention on the grounds that it is intrusive in relation to the construction of the sexes in the country, dehumanizing and colliding with the traditional values on which Turkish society is based (“Mahir Ünal açıkladı! Ayrıldı? ‘2021). It also says that this Convention has not achieved any really positive changes (“Istanbul Convention expires in Turkey on July 1, 2021”) and that the country has sufficient measures to combat gender-based violence and protect women at national level Level (“Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Agreement is the right decision” in 2021).
It is noteworthy how dealing with gender has developed in Turkey and what the above-mentioned measures are. To this end, this article will draw its theoretical framework from the historicist theory of feminism and women’s studies (Burton 1992, pp. 33-34). This article has chosen this framework to provide a detailed and overarching analysis of historical developments. It allows us to observe the (re-) shaping of the role of women in the political sphere in Turkey. Through this theory it is possible to understand and examine the different roles that women and feminist politics have played in formal politics and in civil society movements since the beginning of the 20th century.
As Simone de Beauvoir in The second sex, “Women are not born, they are made” ( 2010, p. 340). It is therefore crucial to observe how they are constructed depending on the historical moment. Feminist historicism begins to gain importance in the 1970s (Zinsser 2013, pp. 238-239). However, traditionally, Western history has been analyzed in more detail (Burton 1992, pp. 30-32). This article would also like to contribute to this and advance a historical analysis of Turkish feminism.
In order to contextualize the development of feminism in place and time and make it meaningful, feminist theory should never be ahistorical. In other words, acquiring a clear historical perspective of the present is fundamental to understanding it (Burton 1992, p. 33). The history of women, the history of feminism, and the history of the sexes are not the same and should not be merged. To this end, this article looks at the history of women in Turkey in the first section and the history of feminism in the second (Smith 2013, pp. 269-272).
In addition to the historicist theory, this analysis also takes into account the theory of gender equality mainstreaming (Daly 2005, pp. 435-437). This perspective proposed by the EU and other international organizations aims to “promote equality between men and women in all activities and at all levels of public policy” (European Commission 1996). Although criticized for its excessive technocracy, this approach is the most useful when examining the concept of gender from a political, political, and macroeconomic perspective (Daly 2005, pp. 436-440). In this perspective, the three-legged equality stool theory of Booth and Bennett (2002, pp. 440-446) is particularly relevant, which suggests analyzing the state of gender equality on the basis of public policies, laws, and discourses.
This theory was chosen because it is one of the most recognized in the area of gender mainstreaming (Lombardo, Meier & Verloo 2009, p. 5). In addition, an easily understandable and extrapolable methodology is proposed which allows us to observe in a simple and logical way how gender mainstreaming is being introduced in different areas, from legislation to public order, through discourses and associations themselves. Therefore, it is suitable this approach for this analysis due to its explanatory power and the fact that it has never been used before in the Turkish case.
Therefore, using both the historicist theory of feminism and mainstreaming gender equality, this article attempts to shed light on the historical way in which the participation and role of women in Turkey has been articulated both in the formal sphere, i.e. in parliament Legislation and the main public policies – and in the informal area through the demands of women’s organizations and feminist movements. The aim is to understand the current situation from a historical perspective and to analyze whether and how equality was redesigned at different times. It should be noted that while this is a particularly gender-specific approach, this article only deals with the role and handling of the women’s issue.
Main historical changes in the field of formal politicsso
The history of women’s rights in Turkey is very peculiar, with a sudden secularization and westernization. The legal and political position of women has changed enormously in the last century.
The starting point of this article is the late Ottoman Empire, in which women were restricted to privacy and their rights centered on what the Sharia indicated (Zilfi 2010, pp. 15-20). During the Tanzimat reforms (1839-76) the topic of women first appeared in public debate and became a topic of discussion. Although some debates have been raised about women’s rights, no tangible results have been achieved (Toledano 1998, pp. 275-277).
The fundamental change took place in the period of the republic since 1923, when the constitution of 1924 and the civil code of 1926 brought about a transition from the lack of specific measures for women to legal equality. This change took into account some needs of women and imposed certain restrictions, which led to an intense and extremely militant westernization (Kadioğlu 1994, p. 652). This meant that the only women who could benefit from these changes fulfilled those who, from a Kemalist-republican perspective, fulfilled what it meant to be a “good Turkish woman” (Ozkaeli 2018, p. 130 ). During this time, a variety of changes were worked out to bring women into the public eye (Mango 1999, pp. 525-643). It is noteworthy, however, as Yeşim Arat (1989, pp. 33-46) rightly points out, that these changes were introduced not under pressure from women, but from a male-oriented perspective, which led to a shift from the Ottoman patriarchate to the Turkish patriarchate.
After 1934 women were given the right to vote, and in 1935 the first 18 women entered the Grand National Assembly (Arat 1989, pp. 52-53). The proportion of women in the assembly did not increase over time, however, reaching around 3% during the one-party period (1925-1945) and then falling to around 1% in the subsequent multi-party period (Arat 1989, pp. 52-60). There has been a rising trend since the beginning of the 21st century, currently reaching 17%, the highest total number of women in the history of Turkish parliamentarians. For women in higher positions, a woman did not become a minister until 1971; a total of 25 women achieved these positions, a rising trend since the mid-1990s. These women came mainly from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) or independent candidates. There is only one woman in the cabinet out of 17 ministers. She currently heads the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs, a traditionally female ministerial office (Presidency of the Republic of Turkey 2021). There was only one prime minister in the country, Tansu Çiller, who held the post from 1993 to 1996.
Historically, after a long and turbulent political period, calls for change, particularly in the Civil Code, generally persist in the paradox between the myth of having pioneered the introduction of equality for women and the low percentage of women in the country Politics (Tekeli 1992, p. 141). It was not until the 1980s that the demands for change brought concrete results with a broad debate on certain changes to the civil code, proposals for introducing quotas for women on party lists and the commitment to create a ministry for women (Tekeli 1992.). , Pp. 141-143). However, it took time for these measures to be implemented. During this time, albeit in 1986, Turkey signed the CEDAW, an international convention for the elimination of discrimination against women (Arat 2010, p. 241). Later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the first changes were made. Significant changes to the Civil Code were passed in 2001, followed by new changes to the Criminal Code in 2004 that introduced real changes and responded to some of the feminist demands.
During the AKP’s reign, since 2002, one of the changes that received the most attention and debate was the ban on wearing the veil in public places, which was lifted in 2013 after much controversy and mobilization. In addition, several guidelines have been developed to actively introduce women to various public spheres (Çavdar & Yaşar 2020, pp. 8-15). However, a certain paradigm shift can be observed, going from “gender equality” to “gender justice” and a process of “de-Europeanization” in the way in which gender is approached, with the aim of a return to Turkish identity and traditional roles (Bodur Ün 2021, pp. 131-134).
Activism: The Other Side of Demand and Women in Politics
During the republican period (1925-1945) the changes that took place were framed in time in the first wave of feminism at the international level. However, women were used as an instrument to demonstrate change and westernization (Arat 1989, p. 46). It was during this time that legislative changes and the introduction of women into the public were initiated, but as mentioned in the previous section, these changes were made from a male perspective and geared towards a very specific profile of women who would fit the ideal of the Kemalist Turkish woman.
Due to the turbulent times after the founding of the republic, the switch to the multi-party system and three coups, it took a little longer for the second wave of feminism to arrive than in the international arena. After the 1980 coup, when the parties were closed and the previous rulers vetoed political participation, the feminist movements found an opportunity to promote political change (Diner & Toktaş 2010, p. 45). Some women’s circles began to question the discourse on gender equality that the power elites had promoted since the founding of the republic. The main themes of this second wave included sexuality, the underrepresentation of women in the media, violence against women and the use of the veil. The motto “the personal is political” defined the demands of this time (Keysan 2019, p. 52). A promising civil society emerged from which the second wave of Turkish feminism emerged, with initiatives such as Purple Needle (Mor I Purplene) or Purple Roof (Mor Çatı), which were very popular with the female public (Diner & Toktaş 2010, p . 46). The second wave of Turkish feminism is fundamental because for the first time change has been demanded from the female population themselves. Organized by a network of associations, they managed to bring about real changes and, among other things, to found research groups, magazines or networks for the advancement of women (Coşar & Onbaşi 2008, p.327).
The third wave of Turkish feminism began in the 1990s and is closely related to the development of identity politics. During this time, the introduction of new identities for Turkish women was the focus. The third wave was marked by the criticism of Islamic and Kurdish women’s movements against the mainstream of Turkish feminism (Diner & Toktaş 2010, p.47-48). From the sphere of the Islamic women’s organizations, the main criticism focused on the excessive secularization of the state and pleaded for the free use of the veil as an instrument for women’s liberation (Keysan 2019, p.79). With regard to the Kurdish women’s movement, her main criticism focused on male dominance in the Kurdish social structure and the ignorance of traditional Turkish feminism towards this social group and its particular problems (Keysan 2019, 56).
Even in the 1990s, with the possibility of Turkey joining the EU, women’s groups from different backgrounds stood up and worked together to ensure that their interests and demands were included in the harmonization and adaptation of the acquis communautaire (Kabasakal Arat 2017, P. 253). Kemalist, Kurdish and Islamist women also worked on the recommendations for the amendment of the German Civil Code in 2002 (Arat 2010, p. 241).
After the feminist movement was institutionalized in the 1990s, a variety of organizations related to this field began to emerge. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s there has been a trend towards NGOisation of feminism, with an increasingly dense network of associations and project-based feminism with its supporters and serious criticism within the movement (Keysan 2019, p.54-58). This process is partly due to the EU’s support to civil society, which has allocated significant resources and programs for bottom-up participation. The discourse also changed in the first decade of the AKP period. The party tried to present itself as a representative of civil society and increasingly spoke about the integration and participation of organizations in the debate. (Keysan 2019, p. 85)
During the ACP period, two phases can be defied: the first from 2002 to 2011 with strong involvement of civil society and the second from 2011 to today, both with a discourse shift (Keysan 2019, 95) and with the implementation of measures such as transformation from the Ministry of Women and Family to the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs. In this final phase, public discourses focused on gender equality rather than gender equality, highlighting and underlining the role of women as mothers. Civil society denounces that only a few organizations are involved in political decision-making processes and as advisors, as is the case with the KADEM organization (Negron Gonzales 2016, p. 206). Therefore, there are more and more clashes between civil society demands and state measures (Keysan 2019, pp. 95-98).
This article has shown that a historical perspective is required to understand or capture the current state of gender politics. It is important to look at the history and key milestones women in politics in Turkey have experienced and reached in order to understand the current situation and how it came about. Without considering the republican era, the various feminist waves or the AKP era, among others, and observing how the figure of women was constructed and treated in each of these phases, it is not possible to understand the debates that are emerging today.
So we can observe that in the last century gender politics and feminism in Turkish politics have been abruptly and constantly reshaped, from the Ottoman patriarchate to the Turkish patriarchate and from the advocacy for women’s rights to organized activism. During the time of the Turkish patriarchy, there were several phases in dealing with women, from the male-oriented Kemalism to the introduction of women’s demands, the organization of Islamist and Kurdish women, to an increasing tendency towards NGOs towards civil society participation in politics. As this article has shown, the government’s gender discourse has shifted from 2011 to the present (Keysan 2019, p. 96) and a tendency to become more complex with new national and international actors.
Based on the methodology of mainstreaming the equality analysis of the three-legged equality stool proposed by Booth and Bennett (2002, pp. 440-446), it can be observed that in the Turkish case this stool never all of its “legs” at the same time. However, greater equality was achieved in the mid-1990s and in the first phase of the AKP government. During this period, a greater number of legislative measures were implemented, with the changes to the civil and criminal codes, the introduction of a specific public policy strongly focused on the needs of the women’s movements, and the involvement of national NGOs and international bodies. Therefore, the “three legs” had a somewhat more harmonious development pattern during this time. However, other periods show a less balanced development or progression. This is the case in the period analyzed between the republican era and the 1980 coup, when the “leg” of associations and discourses developed to a lesser extent. Unlike the 1980s until today, this “leg” is highly developed, with rapid progress and implications, something that describes and illuminates the current debates in the country. Therefore, this analytical tool enables us to capture and explain the dynamics and patterns of change in gender mainstreaming.
However, with the changes in the current government discourse aimed at gender equality instead of gender equality, there is a new reshaping of the figure of women. This leads to some clashes between the demands of civil society and state measures, such as the entire debate on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention.
President Erdoğan said in 2011: “I do not believe in equality between men and women. I believe in equal opportunities. Men and women are different and complement each other. ”(Kandiyoti & Heinen 2011, p. 10). Therefore, the development of this new trend needs to be carefully analyzed in terms of its future impact on the role of women in politics in Turkey.
Arat, Y 1989, ‘The patriarchal paradox. Politicians in Turkey Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, Cranbury.
Arat, Y 2010, “Women’s Rights and Islam in Turkish Politics: Changing the Civil Code” Middle East magazine, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 235-251.
Beauvoir de, S.  2010, ‘The second gender “ Vintage books, New York.
Bodur Ün, M 2021, “From“ Gender Equality ”to“ Gender Justice ”. De-Europeanization of Gender Equality Policy in Turkey “, in A. Aslı Bilgin (Ed.), EU / Turkey relations in the shadow of the crisis. Separation or Resuscitation?, Lexington Books, Maryland, pp. 133-154.
Booth, C & Bennett, C 2002 “Gender Mainstreaming in the European Union: Towards a New Concept and Practice of Equal Opportunities?” European journal for women’s studies, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 430-446.
Burton, A. 1992, “History” is Now: Feminist Theory and the Production of Historical Feminisms “, Review of the history of women, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 25-39.
Council of Europe 2021, Istanbul Convention. Historical background, Council of Europe, accessed May 14, 2021
Council of Europe 2021b, Diagram of the Signatures and Ratifications of Treaty 210, European Council.
avdar, G & Yaşar, Y 2020, ‘Women in Turkey. Silent consensus in the age of neoliberalism and Islamic conservatism’Routledge, New York.
Coşar, S & Onbaşi, FG 2008 “Women’s Movement in Turkey at a Crossroads: From Women’s Rights to Feminism” Southern European Society & Politics, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 325-344.
Daly, M 2005, “Gender Mainstreaming in Theory and Practice”, Social Policy: International Studies on Gender, State & Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 433-450.
Diner, C & Toktaş Ş 2010, “Waves of Feminism in Turkey: Kemalist, Islamist and Kurdish Women’s Movements in an Era of Globalization”, Journal of Balkan and Middle East Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1. pp. 41-57.
European Commission 1996, Communication on mainstreaming equal opportunities for women and men in all Community policies and activities, Brussels, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
“Istanbul Agreement expires in Turkey on July 1st” 2021, Daily Sabah, 04/30
Kabasakal Arat, ZF 2017 “Political Parties and Women’s Rights in Turkey” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 240-254.
Kadioğlu, A 1994, “Subordination of Women in Turkey: Is Islam Really the Villain?”, The Middle East Journal, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 645-660.
Kandiyoti, D & Heinen, J 2011 “A Tangled Web: The Politics of Gender in Turkey”. Cahiers you genre, Vol. 3, pp. 109-117.
Keysan, AÖ 2019, ‘Activism and Women’s NGOs in Turkey: Civil Society, Feminism and Politics ” Bloomsbury Publishing House, New York.
Lombardo, E. Meier, P. & Verloo, M 2009, ‘The Discursive Politics of Gender Equality: Stretching, Bending and Policy-Making “ Routledge, New York.
“Mahir Ünal açıkladı! Türkiye İstanbul Sözleşmesi’nden neden ayrıldı? ‘2021, Yeni Akit, March 21st.
Mango, A 1999, ‘Ataturk ’, John Murray, London.
Negron Gonzales, M 2016 “The Feminist Movement During the AKP Era in Turkey: Challenges and Opportunities”, Middle East Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, pp. 198-214.
Ozkaleli, U 2018, “Intersectionality in Gender Mainstreaming: Equal Opportunities in Turkey” Magazine for women, politics & politics, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 127-150.
Presidency of the Republic of Turkey 2021, Presidential Cabinet. https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/cabinet/
Smith, B. G. 2013, Gender I: From Women’s History to Gender History. In: Partner, N. and Foot, S. ed. The SAGE Handbook of History Theory Historical. SAGE, pp. 282-293.
Tekeli S 1992, “Europe, European Feminism and Women in Turkey”, International Forum for Women’s Studies, vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 139-143.
Toledano, ER 1998, ‘Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East “ University of Washington Press.
“Turkey’s resignation via the Istanbul Agreement is the right decision” in 2021, Yeni Şafak, March 30.
Zilfi, M 2010, ‘Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference“Cambridge University Press, New York.
Zinsser, J.P. 2013, Women’s History / Feminist History. In: Partner, N. and Foot, S. ed. The SAGE Handbook of History Theory Historical. SAGE, pp. 238-281.
Further reading on e-international relations