Feminist Movements in Turkey

„Feminist Movements in Turkey“
by Charlotte Binder, Natalie Richman

This article gives a brief overview of the diverse feminist movements as they have progressed in Turkey. After a brief historical outline {Koç 2009; Tekeli 1997} the article describes the multifaceted feminist movements in present-day Turkey and examines the important debates, projects, and campaigns currently taking place. Finally, it depicts the institutionalization of feminist discourses in Turkey and the relationship between feminism and the state as well as civil society.

At the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century educated women began organizing themselves as feminists within the elites of Istanbul. These feminists fought to increase women’s access to education and paid work, to abolish polygamy, and the peçe, an Islamic veil. Early feminists published woman magazines in different languages and established different organizations dedicated to the advancement of women. Also during this time the first women association in Turkey Ottoman Welfare Organization of Women was founded in 1908 and became partially involved in the Young Turks Movement which was a driving force in the founding of the Turkish Republic. During the turn of the century accomplished writers and politicians such as Fatma Aliye Topuz (1862-1936), Nezihe Muhiddin (1889-1958) and Halide Edip Adıvar (1884-1964) also joined the movement not only for advocating equality of Muslim women, but for women of all religions and ethnic backgrounds.

After the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the feminist movement gradually became integrated into state polity, which inherently inhibited its practice outside the state. The so called “state feminism” established itself as a part of the Kemalist modernization efforts to copy the model of western societies. Polygamy was banned where as divorce and inheritance rights were finally made equal. The right to vote, which Ottoman and feminists in Turkey had demanded for decades, was finally granted in 1934 by the Republican People’s Party CHP under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. From this time onward women in Turkey were portrayed as emancipated and liberated. There still remained, however, a large discrepancy between formal rights and the social position of women in Turkey. Women were in particular perceived as mothers of the republic and as blind supporters of Atatürk’s one party government and his CHP. The image of the modern women in Turkey was that of being a teacher and educating the young Turkish citizens.

The social movements in Turkey that occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, were more focused on reconstructing the Turkish state and society with socialist ideals in mind. In the 1980’s, women’s movements truly became more independent of the reconstruction efforts to modify the state. A coup was led by the Turkish military in the 1980’s in retaliation against the state’s prohibition of all political associations. After the coup women from both urban and academic milieus began to meet in reading groups and discuss feminist literature together – especially translations from the US, Britain or France. In these “awareness-raising groups”, which were built notably in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, the women reflected upon their own socialist past and analyzed specifically the patriarchal relations that were found in the left-wing movements of Turkey. From a feminist perspective, they criticized the standard construction of the family in Turkey as well as the gender specific role behavior that was forced on women. For the first time women rejected the notion that only the state would advocate for women’s rights. Instead women began to politicize the inequality present in private life for the first time.
Independent feminist women’s magazines like Pazartesi and Kaktüs were founded to expose the frequency of sexual harassment and violence against women in the patriarchal society in Turkey. In 1987 feminists organized the first public protest against male violence. It was followed by campaigns fighting against sexual harassment, “purple needle”, and campaigns seeking the right of self-determination over the female body. These campaigns arose due to women’s wish to reject the traditional patriarchal code of ethics, honor, and religion which left men to decide the fate of the female body.

During the same period, feminist movements fought against many laws that restricted the freedom of women. Groups of women would go to court to divorce their husbands in a symbolic gesture that criticized the concept of the patriarchal family. This also emphasized the importance of female sexuality independent from women’s reproductive duties. Many different forms of protests were used by feminists such as night marches led by women, and the occupation of all male coffee houses and night clubs in Istanbul. By rejecting the idea that these coffee houses and night clubs were only for men, feminists attempted to break male domination of the public sphere while simultaneously breaking their stereotypical roles in the private sphere.
Güneş Koç summarized in her article that the second wave of the women’s movement in Turkey reached a wider and far more diverse group of women than the first women’s movement during the Ottoman Empire. The second wave criticized the oppressive patriarchal structures that laid the foundation of not only the Turkish state and society, but located inside the left-wing movement as well.

Today it is recognized that there are infinite ways to construct female identity. Currently the main focus of international feminist debates has shifted to questions of identities and related power positions of women. Thus radical feminists, autonomous feminists, socialist feminists, Muslim, Kemalist, Kurdish, Armenian feminists, and other women’s movements group all construct different feminist identities for themselves. There are over 250 Turkish women’s groups that organize themselves to form women’s associations, clubs, lobby groups, feminist circles, magazines, women’s libraries, blogs, and Internet newspapers. The formation of the Homo-, Bisexual-, and Transgender-Movement in Turkey and the related questioning of heterosexual norms lead to even further development of feminist perspectives. Another new phenomenon is Islamic Feminism which criticizes the unquestioned transfer of western feminist theory into the Turkish context. This includes the “Headscarf Debate” on whether headscarves should be banned or if it is a woman’s individual right to wear them.
Even though there are many ideological differences between women’s groups in Turkey today, feminists come together to work on common issues and publicly denounce harmful social themes. Present-day feminists hold mostly an anti-militaristic position despite popular opinion supporting the Turkish army in its conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the east of Turkey since the 1990’s. In addition the already opened discourse from the 1980’s continued to criticize stereotypical gender roles and patriarchal structures in family, economy, army, state and religion. Modern feminists relied heavily on politicizing the private life in order to bring attention to the sexual harassment and violence ever present in society. Topics that were not commonly discussed such as infamous honor killings, family and child planning, household labor, sexuality, and abortion were finally brought to the forefront of the women’s rights movement. In the early 1990’s the establishment of women’s shelters and increased public awareness of these shelters was a critical step in the women’s movement in Turkey. The most famous being Mor Çatı, a women’s shelter foundation, that provides judicial, social and psychological support for women exposed to violence. With the beginning of the 21st century a new way of financing feminist projects was introduced in Turkey. Organizations applied for grants were able to obtain money internationally which allowed them to target widespread problems such as violence within the family structure, female illiteracy, and unemployment.
On an institutional level, discussions finally began about the concepts of gender mainstreaming, how to reduce gender based discrimination, as well as introducing a quota system for political parties. For example the association KA.DER was founded in 1997 to support the nominations of women both within the political parties and also publicly at general elections. Since the 1990’s, feminist discourse has become institutionalized by the foundation of women’s studies centers and university programs at universities such as Marmara Üniversitesi or as İstanbul Üniversitesi. Along with academic discussions at Turkish Universities, Armargi publishes a magazine every three months that plays a vital role in continuing to analyze current feminist theory, activism, and to criticizing sexist practices in Turkey.
Many women still continue to evaluate Turkish legislation from a feminist point of view and realize that legal equality has not yet been achieved. In 2002 the Turkish government reformed Turkish criminal and civil law due to the accession negotiation with the European Union as well as the pressure of the women’s movement. Since than the rights of women and men during marriage, divorce, and any subsequent property rights have all been equalized. For the first time, a criminal law has been established that deals with the female sexuality as a matter of individual rights rather than as a matter of family honor. Additions to the Turkish constitution oblige the state to use all the necessary means to promote the equality of the sexes. In the last couple of years family courts were created, labor laws were instituted to prohibit sexism, and programs were created to educate against domestic violence and to improve access to education for girls.

● European Stability Initiative: Geschlecht und Macht in der Türkei. Feminismus, Islam und die Stärkung der türkischen Demokratie (2007). Available here.
● Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (Editor): The Debate on Gender Mainstreaming in Turkey. Istanbul 2007.
● Koç, Güneş: Ein Überblick über die Geschichte der Frauenbewegung in der Türkei vom 19. Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart (2009), in: Grundrisse. Available here.
● Neusüß, Claudia; Topçu-Brestrich, Emel: Multiple Moderne. Proteste der fliegenden Besen (2005), in: Freitag. Available here.
● Somersan, Bihter: Geschlechterverhältnisse in der Türkei – Hegemoniale Männlichkeit und Frauenbewegung, in: lker Atac; Bülent Küçük; Ulas Sener (Editors): Perspektiven auf die Türkei. Ökonomische und gesellschaftliche (Dis)Kontinuitäten im Kontext der Europäisierung. Münster 2008. S. 342-360.
● Tekeli, Sirin: Die erste und die zweite Welle der Frauenbewegung in der Türkei, in: Claudia Schöning-Kalender; Ayla Neusel; Mechtild M. Jansen (Editors): Feminismus, Islam, Nation. Frauenbewegungen im Maghreb, in Zentralasien und in der Türkei. Frankfurt, New York 1997. S. 73-93.


For a German version of this article click here.

For a Spanish version of this article click here.

For more information about feminist theory and activism in today’s Turkey you can read in this blog interviews with activists of Amargi.

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