Women in Turkey: The Role of Women in Turkish Society

This article was written by Ece Ağıroğlu – Psychology student at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey


There are quite controversial opinions about the role of women in Turkish society, with thousands of different opinions from everyone. One can observe almost every kind of opinion when it comes to women’s rights in Turkey, yet it would not be wrong to state that nowadays the general viewpoint about women started to change, and people are not staying silent for any kind of injustice.

It can be said that the reforms made in the Republican era by Ataturk changed the role of women in Turkey greatly, and it is a big milestone in terms of women’s rights in Turkey. But of course, reforms made in the legal structures are not necessarily a reason for the whole culture of a society to change suddenly, and even today one can see the traces of misogyny in Turkey. Yet, of course, feminism movements and supporting women’s rights are today at a level that has been never seen in Turkey earlier.

Of course, the variables influencing the status of women in Turkey are not just these factors, there are hundreds of milestones in the history of Turkey that may influence the role of women including religion, politics, and culture. The following article will provide comprehensive information and background about the role of women in Turkish society.

Women in Turkish Society Before Islam

Before Islam, Turkish society was a nomad society with patriarchal family regulation. Different from the normal patriarchal regulation, Turkish societies had an order where children and women have more rights than the typical patriarchal family order. The families were typically small due to the nomadic lifestyle, and the family was considered sacred and protected by various values.

The role of women in the pre-Islam Turkish societies is viewed as not misogynistic since there are written sources, laws, and evidence of women having authority in the government. Additionally, in pre-Islamic Turkish societies monogamy was the typical marriage type and polygamy was not seen as common. This is often viewed as a sign of the value assigned to women at those times. It is also known that women in pre-Islamic society were actively participating in social life.

One can see the influence of shamanism when searched for women in Turkish society before Islam. It has been said that shamans in Turkish societies were actively trying to look like women to prove their power. Important decisions were not made without a presence of a woman. Yet those are controversial issues that are today being discussed to be accepted or not, some say that this viewpoint is rather optimistic than realistic.

At those times, the surrounding countries were known to be actively engaging in misogynistic activities such as murdering the child if it was a girl, not letting women touch sacred books, and so on. Those kinds of activities support the idea that women in Turkish society before Islam were valued more than other cultures. 

Legends and sagas from pre-Islamic periods further support the idea of the great value assigned to women. Mothers and women are typically described as a kind of supernatural being, a sign of power and respect, a sort of miracle, a source of authority.

The economic and legal rights of women were to a degree that cannot be overlooked today. Such that, the house that family lived in did not only belong to the man, but it was the common property of both man and woman, in addition to having common custody over their children. As I mentioned earlier, the patriarchal order was different from others, and women having a right to divorce is not a typical thing in classical patriarchy order yet women in pre-Islamic Turkish societies hold the right of divorce. This is a practice that is not present in some societies even today.

When looked at all aspects of women in the pre-Islamic Turkish societies, women have a greater value in the society when compared with the other societies at those times.

How did Islam Affect the Role of Women in Turkish Society?

Religion is one of the important aspects that influences the overall lifestyle and values of a society, and it would be ridiculous to expect the role of women in the society after Islam. Islam brought some drastic changes to the society, rules to follow that are in favor of some categories of the society more than others, and as people obeyed those rules, the social structure changed in a way that still continues today.

As in all other religions in the world, people interpreted Islam differently and even today the viewpoint of the role of women is interpreted in many different ways. There are two main categories in terms of the role of women in Islam, one assigns a great value to women and supports that women should be protected whereas some interpret Islam as a way to oppress women and create a male-dominated society. 

Role of Women in Qur’an

In some verses of the sacred book of Islam, the Qur’an, there are clear statements about the role of women in society. Women are often described as a less valued being than men, and this was reflected as the responsibility of men protecting women. Such that, according to Qur’an, women are created by the rib bone of men.

Yet, the value assigned to women in Qur’an is not just misogynistic and disadvantaged to women. Considering the geography and life conditions of when Islam was first sent, the main purpose was to maintain social order. Such that, women and men are treated equally in the afterlife according to Qur’an, and one’s gender had no value in terms of evaluating their actions. Prophet Mohammad’s behaviors toward women are often viewed as kind and appropriate.

But there are some controversial verses on the Qur’an that makes people think about the role of women in Islamic societies. For instance, there is a verse in Qur’an allowing men to “slightly hit to their wives” if they misbehave. The role of women in social life, economics, and legal issues are also in favor of men in Islam. Such that, a woman’s testimony alone would not be considered, a man must be present supporting the woman’s testimony. Besides, men had two times more rights in terms of legacy.

Of course, those rules are only strictly followed in countries where Moslem religious law is followed. Turkey is a secular country where religion is not a part of legal issues and politics. But today, the majority of the people in Turkey are Muslims and sometimes one can observe the social influences on Islam in everyday life.

In the second half of the 19th century, interpretations about the role of women in Islam changed with the movements of women’s rights. Today, Muslim women have the rights that they did not have years ago.

To make things clearer, the role of women might be disadvantaged in Islam but keep in mind that Turkey is a secular place where people hold the right not to obey Islam rules. There are no legal restrictions neither for telling women how to be dressed up nor they have fewer rights than men in terms of testimony or legacy rights.

Women’s Rights Movements in Turkey

The society in Turkey would not have this form if there were no women’s rights movements. Starting from the Ottoman Empire periods, various movements regarding women’s rights had been conducted in Turkey and many of them were up to creating a society that is ruled with feminism. 

Unfortunately, we would not be able to create such an environment because cultural values and beliefs are not so easy to change all of a sudden, and sudden changes have not resulted in the best way as can be observed in many incidents in history. Even the most developed countries include a way of sexism and other related issues, but the aim is always minimizing it to an optimal society.

The modernization and increasing women’s rights linked to modernization in the Ottoman Empire initially resulted from the lack of technological and military sources. The authorities were aware of the fact that a change must be made to catch up with the other governments and develop as an empire. Thus, some changes started to occur in the Ottoman Empire. Some researchers accept the Charter of Alliance (Sened-i İttifak, 1808) as the beginning of the modernization in the Ottoman Empire whereas some researchers accept the Edict of Gülhane(1839).

No matter what the initial step was to modernize the Ottoman Empire, it can be observed that it was the first thing that opened the road for the women’s rights movements. The main aim of both Edict of Gülhane and the Charter of Alliance was to establish social solidarity in the Ottoman Empire and create stability.

Small changes in the Ottoman Empire

The feminism movements in the world initially started with the French Revolution and influenced the Ottoman Empire approximately 50 years later when the Edict of Gülhane was signed. Until the Edict of Gülhane, women in the Ottoman Empire were quite disadvantaged parallel to Islamic rules, since the Muslim religious laws were valid in the Ottoman Empire. However, the Second Constitutional Era(1908) was a milestone in the Ottoman Empire in women’s rights.

The changes that occurred in the Second Constitutional Era in the Ottoman Empire were mainly aimed to catch up with the world in terms of modernity. This was not possible without people, especially oppressed women, speaking up for their rights and claiming their place in society, and so it was. The first attempt at women expressing themselves in the Ottoman Empire was via journals.

The publishment of journals with women authors is considered the first women’s rights movement in the Ottoman Empire. It might seem like a small thing but considering the living conditions and the role of women in society at that time, this was a huge step for women. This way, women had the right to speak up, communicate with others more freely, and learn more, read more.

A Turkish Miniature that shows a woman, 17th century

However, it can be observed that women were claiming their rights just to serve to patriarchy in those periods. For example, as I mentioned earlier the reason for the publishment of women journals was for women to learn more and explore more. But they did not want to do this for themselves at that time, they did this movement to be a better mom, and create better households. 

Since it was the woman who raises the children, an ignorant mother could raise a disaster. This is acceptable considering that the changes cannot happen overnight and is a good first step into women’s rights movements.

Is this real feminism? Or it’s just a fantasy?

Yet, women journal in the Ottoman Empire was not solely based on being a good mother and housewife. Instead, the criticism of the assigned gender roles can be observed in the famous author Fatma Aliye. She claimed that the main block in front of modernity and development is the inequality between men and women. It is interesting how the issues that now being constantly discussed were first started many years ago.

Fatma Aliye and Emine Semiye

Picture of Fatma Aliye on 50 Turkish Liras Banknote

Fatma Aliye’s writings were mainly aimed to mock the patriarchal order and defending that women need to have equal rights with them. She is one of the important parts of the women’s rights movement pioneers. Another important character in terms of women movements in the Ottoman Empire was Fatma Aliye’s sister, Emine Semiye. Emine Semiye’s point of women’s rights is quite parallel with the idea that feminism ideology wants to bring to the world today.

Other women’s rights movements in the Ottoman Empire

The women’s rights movements in the Ottoman Empire were not limited to this journal. Women had the chance to come together, support each other, and defend their rights with the help of charities. Women’s journals were a great part of women’s rights movements, the only problem was the writings on the journals were too individualistic and lacked solidarity. Charities made it possible for women to come together and create a union that can work unitedly.

Various associations were established in those times. The main aim of those associations was to help women in the patriarchal order and create a unitedness for development. These are not so different from the feminism movements today, even they can be considered as the pioneering studies of feminism, even if they were not aware.

The associations were not only for helping women who need help but to make women more into social and business life. Such that, those associations would provide an opportunity for women to work. In addition to those, associations to help women have more place in politics, science and other aspects of life were present.

The first wave of Feminism

As I mentioned earlier, the underlying pattern under those movements was still serving the patriarchal order. Women were not participating in those movements to have equal political, economic, and legal rights with men. Instead, they were just trying to do their assigned gender roles better. This thinking pattern is named “the first wave of feminism” and is being quite criticized by second-wave feminists.

From the Tanzimat period to the establishment of the republic, women’s movements were stuck between being completely modernized like Western countries and or sticking to Eastern values, and this dilemma is not solved even today. In the Republic periods, women earned so many rights including vote, travel, working, or dressing. Yet women had to give up on their sexual identity, and the traces of the first wave of feminism can be observed in the Republic period as well.

Once again women were assigned to roles to not develop as a human but to develop to service to society, the role of “mother” can be seen in all the rights assigned to women in those periods. The new viewpoint on the women brought a whole new dilemma at this point, and as women became more knowledgeable, they started to question the reason for how come they can be so “equal” with men but also need to actively have more responsibilities for things men did not even care about. An example of this is the concept of honor and virginity.

Socialism and Women in Turkey

Similar to the relation between the French Revolution and women movements in the Ottoman Empire, the Socialism movements in the world influenced the women movements in Turkey. The 1960s were the years where women movements gained a sense of socialism, by starting to form thoughts about supporting exploited working-class women. Those years were crucial since movements stuck between the expectations that the republic era brought and the new thoughts that socialism brought.

The 1970s were the years where we can clearly say women’s rights movements were officially formed. The idea of women’s rights was officially planted here, and the movements started to be in the everyday life once Turkey signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in the year 1985. In the 1980s, a clear formation of feminism movements supporting women’s rights movements can be seen in various media platforms of Turkey.

In the 1990s, supporting women’s rights was not just protesting, but became a part of corporate life as well. Official women organizations were established in those periods. Organizations such as Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation are still preserving their presence actively up to today, and still actively engaging in movements in terms of women’s rights.

Women’s Rights in Atatürk Revolutions

Modernization, which has a great link with women’s rights, mostly owes its presence to Ataturk revolutions today. Even today, one can agree that Ataturk revolutions were greatly designed in a way that predicts today’s lifestyle and needs. Women in the Turkish society gained a huge number of rights with Ataturk revolutions including political, economic, and legal rights.

The failed revolution attempts in terms of women’s rights in the Ottoman Empire finally reached its aimed purpose with the Ataturk revolutions. With the Civil Code accepted in the year 1926, Turkish women reached rights that no other country’s women had before. Ataturk’s viewpoint on women was mainly based on equality and supporting of human rights, to create a functional society. He believed that a society where an individual had more rights solely based on their gender would not function optimally.

It is known that in the year 1923, before the establishment of the republic, an organization about women’s rights was on the agenda. This organization was planned to be a place for women to socialize and get access to education. In the year 1924, this organization was officially formed and supported by the authorities of the republic.

Law of Unified Education

With the Law of Unified Education that was accepted in the year 1924, women had equal rights with men in terms of education. This was the first step of Ataturk to provide an equal environment for men and women. Education is a right that everyone should benefit from regardless of their gender, and this law was basically protecting this right legally.

Civil Code

In the year 1926, Civil Code was accepted as the law, which is a significant step in women’s rights movements. Getting rid of the Muslim religious law, created an environment where there were no restrictions over women in terms of their lifestyles. With the Civil Code, polygamy was no longer legal, and women gained rights in terms of divorce, custody, and legacy. In the social life and family order, now women had more rights than ever due to the acceptance of the civil code.

Turkish Civil Code is significant in many terms. First, religious laws were a big block in front of women having the freedom and being an active member of the society since there were lots of rules for preventing women to live as they would like. Polygamy not being legal was important as well since the opinion of women in the marriage was not considered valuable in polygamic marriages.

Ataturk revolutions in the social life and education

Ataturk revolutions showed their influence on social life after a short while as well. Women were now actively participating in business life and social events. The first women lawyer of Turkey was first assigned to the bar association in the year 1927. Besides, the organization that was established in the year 1924 started to actively speak up for the political rights of women.

In the year 1928, 5 women students graduated from the faculty of science for the first time, as chemists. The year 1928 was also marked in history by a woman getting accepted from the higher engineering school in Turkey. Women were not preferring to study medicine due to a law of compulsory medicine service, so in order to prevent this, a law for women being exempt from the law of compulsory medicine service was legislated. Indeed, the new law encouraged women to participate in the medical field more and after 1930, women started to graduate from medical schools in Turkey.

Again, in the year 1928, an organization for supporting women socially and protecting their health was found. This organization was also serving as a daycare for working women’s children. In the year 1933, a special education organization for women to learn occupational retraining was found. In the year 1936, a law for particularly organizing women’s business life was legalized. 

Turkish Women in the Political Life

The participation of Turkish women in political life became an issue by the time of the third Great National Assembly of Turkey. As I mentioned earlier, Ataturk was aware of the fact that a society that favors one solely based on gender would not be modern and optimal, so he was actively bringing up reforms and revolutions to change this order. Of course, big changes cannot happen overnight, and Turkish women being a part of the political life included a process.

In the year 1930, the right to vote and to be elected in the city councils was legalized for women in Turkey. Voting and electing rights of women were given in Turkey before France, Switzerland and many more countries gave the right of voting and electing rights to women. Besides, the first International Women Congress in the world was gathered under the auspices of Ataturk in the year 1935.

How Ataturk Revolutions Influenced the Women Movements in Turkey?

The fact that the Ataturk revolutions influenced the women’s movements cannot be overlooked today. We have access to knowledge and media more than ever now, and everyone is aware of what are basic human rights and how humans should be treated. Getting rid of the influence of a culture is a difficult process, and even though so many years have passed since the Ataturk revolutions, one cannot say that those revolutions are now sitting very well in everyone’s mind.

An elderly woman reads a poem for Ataturk.

An elderly woman reads a poem for Ataturk. Photo 38929046 © Ahmet AriturkDreamstime.com

 

But it goes without saying that those revolutions lead to more like an open-minded generation, in every next generation. People are now aware of everything more than ever, and they know that patriarchy and the roles assigned to genders are just social constructs. Ataturk’s role in terms of being modernized and valuing women cannot be overlooked in today’s women’s movements.

With the Ataturk revolutions, people recognized that patriarchy is not the only way a society can function. Today, still patriarchy is the main order in Turkey but each generation is getting more aware of everything than the former generation.m

Women in Modern Turkey

The role of women in modern Turkey is such a controversial issue that you may witness opposite lifestyles if you observe the lifestyles of two women in different locations of Turkey. Even though the legal rights of women are completely the same in every region of Turkey, the culture has a tremendous effect on the role of women in society. 

You can see a strong independent woman who does not need anyone in one part of Turkey, and you can see an abused woman with no choice in another part of Turkey. Yet it goes without saying that this issue is not specific to Turkey, this is a situation that you can witness in every area of the world.

Legal Rights

Turkish Civil Code was legalized by not taking the Muslim religious law into consideration, which allows much more equality between genders, yet still, there are some inequalities between men and women in the Turkish Civil Code. Article 10 of the constitution highlights that men and women are equal in terms of legal rights. Even though some contradicting articles have been removed from the constitution, there are still some that are contradicting with the 10th article.

A woman protester during Gezi Park Protests

A woman protester during Gezi Park Protests Photo 31404613 © Ufuk UyanikDreamstime.com

Ece Ağıroğlu

Hello, my name is Ece and I am a psychology student at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. I love everything about social sciences. I am especially into social psychology and cultural psychology.

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