Feminism, Turkish-style

Senay Ozdemir was the first Turkish TV host in Europe. She lives in the Netherlands, where she is the publisher of SEN magazine.

Seen around the world, photographs of Sunday’s parliamentary election in Turkey showed women -- their happy faces framed by head scarves -- cheering the overwhelming victory of the Justice and Development Party, known in Turkey as the AKP.

How should Americans read these images? To those who worry about the rise of political Islam, it may look like another step toward strict Muslim control over the long-secular nation of 70 million. The conservative AKP, those photos recall, is the party that tried to lift a ban on head scarves and outlaw adultery a few years ago. Are veils and Sharia law secretly on the AKP agenda?

I don’t think so. I believe that the AKP, despite its religious roots, has been good not just for democracy but for women’s rights.


The secular state created by Kemal Ataturk 84 years ago gave Turkish women their first taste of freedom, ending centuries of Islamic law and polygamy. But it is only since Turkey began pursuing membership in the European Union six years ago that Turkish women have made their biggest breakthroughs.

They still have a long way to go. I have spoken to too many Turkish women who say that they don’t yet feel free to go to school, to choose who they marry, to work outside the home, to decide how many children to bear. Two government education campaigns have made great strides, but 15% of women remain illiterate. In Istanbul and other cities, the situation of women has improved significantly, but the villages lag far behind.

But since 2001, Turkey has undergone enormous political and social improvement. There is plenty to criticize about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but more feminist organizations have been founded under the AKP than during any part of Turkey’s 80-year democracy. These women’s organizations were smart: They got their issues on the national agenda just as Turkey needed to show the EU that it was making progress on human rights.

As a result, finally, men and women in Turkey have equal rights concerning marriage, divorce and property ownership. For the first time, the law says explicitly that women have autonomy over their own bodies. Before this change, women belonged to their male relatives or husbands. Turkish feminist Duygu Asena, the granddaughter of Ataturk’s personal secretary, died a year ago but, happily, lived long enough to see this profound change in the law. Her women’s magazines and newspaper columns were an inspiration to a generation of Turkish women. She was the first to dare speak the word “orgasm” in public, and she shocked Turkey with her 1987 book, “The Woman has No Name,” excoriating marital oppression.

While Westerners wring their hands about secularism, they miss the larger point: Turkey is getting more and more democratic. The lively public debate leading up to the election illustrates the progress that was already visible in legislation, media, employment and politics. Fifteen years ago, few people argued politics or took a public stance for one party or another. Now everybody is free to do so.

Yes, a party led by religious conservatives remains in power. But my expectations of progress for Turkish women remain high. The mentality is changing there -- across the secular-religious spectrum. Religious women may not be associated with feminism, but they now use the same laws to gain access to schools, universities and the media. Even if they wear head scarves, shouldn’t we encourage them in these pursuits? Aren’t religious women allowed to be ambitious? Isn’t that pure democracy?

I see similar changes in mentality among men, who want to benefit from the nation’s economic boom. Economic necessity and the desire for more freedom (mobility, property) are bringing men around to the idea that women can work and earn their own income. Highly educated Turks in particular are proud of their successful wives and supportive of their careers. They’re learning about successful women from the source: 50% of Turkish professors are female. So are 57% of senior managers, those who run banks, private industry and museums.

After Sunday’s election, there also will be 50 women in parliament -- twice as many as in 2002 -- 30 representing the AKP. Europe and the United States would be wise to look at those photos of cheering female voters and see progress and the future of Turkey’s democracy. Although I don’t personally support the AKP, I hope all Turkish women -- secular or religious -- will hang on to its slogan: Don’t Stop, Move On.


Senay Ozdemir was the first Turkish TV host in Europe. She lives in the Netherlands, where she is the publisher of SEN magazine.