Turkish Woman in the Twentieth Century (Past to Present).
Women’s attainment of social rights has followed a parallel course with Turkey’s Westernization. In this presentation, the social and legal position of the Turkish women will be discussed beginning from the last years of the Ottoman Empire up to the present. Our evaluation will consist of three parts. Firstly, how the changes in traditional structures that began in the last period of the Ottoman State was reflected in the status of women will be discussed. Then the rights given to women in the first years of the Republic will be examined. In the last part, the point reached in this last thirty years will be brought under the lens, and the statistics will be evaluated in the light of the gains and losses.
Women in the Ottoman Period
It is generally accepted that family life in the traditional Ottoman society was shaped by Islamic rules. In principle, it was possible for men to marry more than one woman under the existing legal structure. Women were entitled to inherit only half as much as men. In court, a woman’s testimony was valued as half of a man’s testimony. However, regional and class differences always remained a factor. İlber Ortaylı, by giving examples from court records of the period, draws our attention to the dominance of tradition which took precedence over religious rules in different regions. There were women and girls from rich, powerful families who established foundations. There were also women poets, musicians and novelists such as Zeynep Hanım, Tuti Hatun, Hubbi Hatun, Nigar Hanım and Fatma Aliye Hanim who belonged to aristocratic, educated families who were prominent figures in society.
In the nineteenth century there were great changes in the Ottoman State and society. The westernization attempts that began in the military sphere in the eighteenth century influenced state institutions in the first half of the nineteenth century, and social life in the second half. Midwives brought from Europe in 1842 began to give courses to women in the school of medicine. In the following years, girls’ schools began to be opened. In 1858, the first girl’s middle school, in 1860 a girls’ teacher school, and in 1868 the industrial school for girls were opened. Thus, educated, working women with a profession emerged. They were a small community found in a few cities like Istanbul and Thessaloniki. But change had begun. In 1888, the Terakki newspaper, which was launched in 1868, began to print a supplement for women named Muhadderat. Later, women’s newspapers such as Vakit, Şükufezar, İnsaniyet, Ayine, Parça Bohçası and Aile were published. Most of them were short-lived newspapers. The most important of the women’s newspapers published in this period was the Hanımlara Mahsus Gazete. The most important name among the group of women who published newspapers was Fatma Aliye Hanim. Three good qualities of women were emphasized in that period: being a good mother, a good wife, and a good Muslim .
As a result of the increased contacts with Europe in the nineteenth century, liberal ideas as well as new technologies, institutions and laws were introduced. The position of women had been criticized by Ottoman intellectuals, writers and poets such as Şinasi, Namık Kemal, Abdülhak Hamid, Şemsettin Sami, Ahmet Mithat, who had written articles advocating women’s rights. At the beginning of the twentieth century, writings criticizing the existing practices increased. Ziya Gokalp, one of the most important thinkers of the time said, «If woman does not rise, the homeland declines.» He criticized existing practices by saying, «A girl who is half a man in inheritance, a quarter in a marriage / neither a family nor a country raises.»
In 1912, two articles were published under the title «A Very Lively Dream» in the İçtihad magazine, which was one of the publications of western thinkers. In the articles, the desires of the pro-western intellectuals, which were presented almost like a social program, were summarized. In several articles the group’s wishes in subjects ranging from political to religious life were laid out. Some of them were related to women’s rights: The Sultan will only have one wife and no right to take any concubines; women should dress as they like, but not extravagantly; women and young girls will not run away and hide from men like their Bosnian and Circassian counterparts; there will be a school of medicine for girls in addition to other schools, etc.
Return to constitutional rule in 1908 created great freedom in the Ottoman society, at least in the first years. Numerous political and cultural societies were established, and newspapers and magazines published. This enthusiasm was manifested by women in the form of many associations such as the Assistance Society, the Ottoman Women’s Compassionate Society, the Society for the Elevation of Women, the Ottoman Women’s Assistance Society, the Civil Society, the Ottoman Red Crescent Society Women’s Branch, and the Ottoman Women’s National Defense Society were established. Some of these were charity associations founded after natural disasters or wars. Some were set up to defend women’s rights. Some had national, ethnic and political aims, and others were established for different purposes. Political parties of the period, as well as the Union and Progress Party, discussed and advocated women’s rights, carried out activities for women and have very few women members.
During this period, about 20 newspapers and magazines began to be published for women. Kadınlar Dünyası, Osmanlı Kadınlar Alemi, Demet, Mehasin, Kadın were some of them. Kadınlar Dünyası was a journal run by women, and whose owners and writers were also women. Demet covered politics as well as women’s education, child raising, fashion and skin care. Mehasin was the first colored and illustrated women’s magazine. It published news and articles about art, literature, fashion and current events. Kadın came out in Thessaloniki. It was the first women’s paper to appear there, and was associated with the Union and Progress Party.
The Mecelle was the first Ottoman civil law prepared between 1868 and 1878. Though written with traditional Islamic codes, the Mecelle had an important place in the Islamic world in terms of the transition from fatwa to civil law. The Law on Family Legislation was issued in 1917 in order to complete the missing family law section of the Mecelle. It is noteworthy for the rights given to women by forcing the limits of traditional law. It gave women the right to divorce if their husbands took a second wife. Women could also demand that their husbands not take another wife. These kinds of rights, compelling single marriages mark an important step in the provision of women’s rights in legal texts.
Turkish Women During the Early Republican Era
The Ottoman State was defeated during the First World War. After the war, the armies of the Entente Powers began to occupy the Anatolia as well as Istanbul. Under these conditions, some defense organizations were established spontaneously, demonstrating resistance against invasion. Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the dispersed forces joined a new political organization in Ankara. This new government established in Ankara conducted the National Struggle on different fronts. In this context Turkish women contributed greatly to the independence movement. Some women fought against the enemy, some carried weapons and ammunition to the resistance. They helped the fighters and held protest rallies. The Anatolian Women’s Homeland Defense Society had a special place among the women’s associations established for this purpose. There were branches in almost every city of Anatolia, and they took part in the national struggle in every way. They sent telegrams and organized rallies to protest the occupations.
The leader of the successful National Struggle, founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as a young officer had thought a great deal about the problems of his country. It is known that during the First World War, while he was fighting on the Eastern Front, he had made notes in his notebook on the rights of Turkish women. He was convinced that women had to have more rights, had to be better educated, and had to be more active in working life. During the National Struggle, the sacrifice of Turkish women for the nation’s independence reinforced Mustafa Kemal’s convictions. After the victory in 1923, he expressed his respect for the struggle of women in this way: «In terms of hard work, Turkish women were the champions of all the nations in the world. None of the women in this world can claim that they worked or sacrificed more than the Anatolian women in serving their country.
«The Law Revolution,” which took place in 1926 with the adoption of the Swiss Civil Code, provided unique rights to Turkish women. First of all, marriage was treated as a social institution that was dealt with by the state. Male-female inequality was abolished, preventing men from being able to marry more than one woman and easily divorce their wives. Women were given the same right to divorce as men. By bringing a marriage-age limit, marriages at a young age were prevented. The only legal, official marriage was a civil marriage. The provisions were put in place to protect the rights of women and children in the event of divorce. The procedure of a marriage being concluded by a representative for the girl was eliminated. Women were also guaranteed a share of inheritance equal to that of men.
There were a limited number of educational institutions in the late Ottoman period, and in them girls and boys were taught separately. After several boycotts, boys and girls in the university (Darülfünun) were taught together in the same classes. The issue of girls and boys being taught together at the secondary education institutions was also discussed. In August 1924, the government decided that primary school education would be mixed. In the 1927-28 academic year, girls and boys were educated together at secondary education institutions. While boys’ and girls’ schools maintained their existence, new mixed secondary schools were opened. While the number of male and female schools declined in the following years, new mixed schools multiplied. Co-education in high schools started in the 1934-35 school year. Initially, mixed education started in 19 places which were previously single-sex high schools. This number increased in the following years.
Thus, after the equality of men and women in the legal sense had been provided, the time had come for women to obtain their political rights. In 1930 the Municipal Law was adopted to allow women to participate in municipal elections. Participation in local elections opened the way for participation in general elections. Women were becoming members of political parties, and Atatürk personally registered his sister with the newly founded opposition party, the Free Republican Party. In 1933, women were allowed to become district representative and elected to city councils. Finally, in 1934 women were given the right to vote and to be elected in the general elections, thus completing the political rights agenda. 18 women deputies entered parliament in the first general elections in 1935. In some European countries, for example in Switzerland, while Turkish women had the right to vote and be elected in this way, European women did not have this right.
With the reforms made in the first years of the Republic, gender equality was legally granted, then political equality was realized. In addition to these, the requirement for covering women with the veil and chador that forced the women out of society was abolished. In the years following the foundation of the Republic, the importance of men and women alike on the way to equality between men and women was emphasized. Kemal Atatürk wanted social, scientific and cultural meetings not to consist solely of men. He became an example by attending activities with his wife. He promoted the participation of women in official visits, and supported the development of talented Turkish girls. One of his adopted daughters, Afet Inan earned a doctorate in Switzerland and became a social scientist. Another adopted daughter, Sabiha Gökçen, became a pilot. Gökçen was the first Turkish female combat pilot, and made a Balkan tour by Turkish aircraft. She represented Turkish women in the best way.
Being a Turkish Woman in the Present Time
Rights that have been acquired need to be applied and exercised. Fully digesting the sweeping legal and administrative steps taken in this period was a long process. 1920s and 30s were the years of establishing the new regime with its new codes and institutions. Their full implementation and adaptation needed decades, and women’s rights issues were a part of this process.
In 1934, women were given the right to vote and to be elected, and 18 women deputies entered the parliament in the first election held in 1935. In other words, women constituted 4.5% of the parliament. It can be said that it was a good rate for the start. However, in the following years this ratio has decreased. In 1950, 1954, 1961 and 1977, the percentage of female parliamentarians in parliament even fell below 1%. As can be seen in Table I, in 2007 the percentage of female MPs in the Parliament rose to 9.1%, so that for the first time the rate not only equaled, but surpassed that of 1935. In the parliamentary elections held in 2011, the percentage of women parliamentarians increased to 14.4%. We see that this ratio has increased to 14.7% in the last elections held in 2015. With these ratios Turkey ranked the 134th in the world for women representation. Among the countries with higher rates of women representatives than Turkey are the Russian Federation with 15.8%, the United States with 19.4%, China with 24.9%, Germany with 30.7%, the UK with 32%, France with 39%, and Sweden with 43.6%.
Number and percentage of women MPs in Turkey (1935-2015)
Year Number Percentage %
1935 18 4.5
1950 3 0.6
1965 8 1.8
1983 12 3.0
2007 50 9.1
2011 79 14.4
2015 81 14.7
Source: http://www.tuik.gov.tr/PreTablo.do?alt_id=1068 (Accessed, 05.06.2018)
Turkish cabinets saw a woman minister (Türkan Akyol) in 1971 for the first time. After that, one or two women became ministers in the Turkish cabinets. For the first time in 1994, a woman (Tansu Çiller) became prime minister after her succession to the party leadership (True Path Party). Another woman (Meral Akşener), who was Minister of Interior in the government of Tansu Çiller, founded the Good Party, whose leader she became in 2017. Then she became a candidate for president in the 2018 presidential election. Another woman, Pervin Buldan, is the co-chairman of the Democratic Party of Peoples, which is the third largest party in the parliament at present.
In local governments, the situation is even worse in terms of women’s presence and effectiveness. While the rate of women mayors was 0.6% and the rate of municipal council members was 1.6% in 1999, the ratio of the mayor and municipal councilors was 2.9% and 10.7% in 2014 respectively. Although the numbers are still very low, there is an increase in recent years. Women are the mayors of the metropolitan cities. It is obvious that women’s equality cannot be achieved to the extent that they are not adequately represented in Turkish politics at either the local or national political level.
Table II gives the literacy rate by gender in Turkey from 1935 to 2016. In 1935, only 20% of the total population was literate. 70.7% of males and 90.2% of females were illiterate. Until the 1970s, the majority of the population was illiterate. For the first time in the total population, the percentage of illiterates in the 1970 census fell below 50%. In order to reach illiteracy rates below 50% for women, it is necessary to come to the 1980s. As of 2016, the total population of Turkey was 71,348,896, with 396,138 men and 2,086,294 women illiterate. The rate of illiteracy among males was 1.1%, and among females it was 5.9%. As can be seen, the rate of illiteracy among women is always higher than men.
Male and Female Population and Literacy Rates in Turkey (1935-2016)
(6 years and older)
Year Total Male Population Percentage of Male Illiterate Total Female Population Percentage of Female İlliterate
1935 6,213,276 70.7 6,649,478 90.2
1950 8,944,072 54.5 8,912,793 80.6
1975 17,256,413 36.3 16,274,192 49.5
2000 30,245,445 6.1 29,613,798 19.4
2016 35.721.318 1.1 35,627,578 5.9
Source: http://www.tuik.gov.tr/PreTablo.do?alt_id=1068 (Accessed, 05.06.2018)
Data from the State Statistics Institute on men and women’s education in Turkey in the last 40 years, raises a more positive picture. In 1975, of citizens 25 years and over, 3.0% of men and 0.7% of women were university graduates, but in 2016 this proportion rose to 18.7% among males and 14.1% among females. While the proportion of women who graduate from universities is increasing rapidly, the gap between men and women is also narrowing in this sense. When we look at the students who study in higher education, we see that the number is almost equal. Higher Education Council (HEC) education statistics released for the 2016-2017 academic year in universities in Turkey show a total of 7,198,987 students. Of these, 3,886,107 were male and 3,312,880 were female students.
One of the areas with the highest rates of inequality between men and women in Turkey is in working life. In the period between 2004 and 2017, a statistical analysis of the inclusion of people aged 15 and older shows that the labor force participation rate of women is not even half as high as that of men. While the participation rate of males in the above mentioned period is 70.3% in 2004 and 72.5% in 2017, the labor force participation rate of women is 23.3% in 2004 and 33.6% in 2017. When we look at the gender of people in managerial positions in business life, we are faced with a worse picture. While the proportion of women in managerial positions in 2012 was 14.4%, in 2017 it was only 17.3%.
The only field of equality for men and women in working life is education. According to data from the State Statistics Institute, in the 1992-93 academic year, 248,605 teachers were men in Turkey, while 182,045 were women, the number of male teachers in the 2016-17 academic year, is 437,997 are men, and 606,433 has been the number of female teachers. According to another report on the Ministry of National Education website, during 2016-2017 academic year, the total number of teachers in Turkey was 989,231. 43.11% of them were male and 56.89% were females. The number of female academics in higher education institutions is also close to men. In the academic year 2016-2017, 84,958 male academics worked in Turkey, while 66,805 of the academics were women.
History Department, Middle East Technical University, Ankara