A brief history of women's role in conservative Turkish politics

ESRA ÖZDIL GÜMÜŞ
Published 30.10.2019 00:32
Updated 30.10.2019 00:38
A brief history of women's role in conservative Turkish politics

As women take prominent roles in the creation of state policies and establishing societal reactions, the conservative movement in Turkey would be incomplete without women's experiences. Therefore, the history of the movement should be rewritten to include women's experiences that do not merely address or are limited to the private sphere. A movement of this magnitude would constitute a shift in discourse.

The segregated history of women does not directly overlap the current mainstream political trajectory and requires a new agenda. From this viewpoint, conservative women's history could roughly be divided into three periods, namely: marginalization, victimization and the contemporary era.

State-led feminism

The marginalization period refers to the early years of the republic, which was a period of state-led feminism in Turkey. Nationalist and secularist discourse dominated their religious counterparts, and Turkish citizenship was defined by the new regime along with new roles for women.

While the new state was building on the elements of Western modernization and secularism, the image of the modern woman became one of the fulcrums of reformism and the demonstration of the development.

As a result, the image, education and daily lives of women were introduced to the agenda of state-imposed policies and have carried political and social messages since the beginning of the country's first steps toward modernization.

Women's rights were another determiner of the legitimacy and development of the new state. Hence, through legal arrangements, a Western civil code that granted legal equality in marriage, divorce, child-rearing and inheritance was introduced.

Moreover, women were granted equal rights in education, business and the political arena. In line with secularization, the removal of headscarves was encouraged and became compulsory in universities and public institutions.

However, modernization did not let women set their own agenda; on the contrary, it strictly constrained and controlled feminist movements within a prefabricated framework. The roles of women were identified as mothers and homemakers within the limits of a novel ideal femininity while constructing the nationalist family.

The ideal republican woman should be modest, hardworking, single-hearted, Western-looking but observant to tradition in private, dedicated to the principles of the republic, a good wife and a self-sacrificing mother to raise enlightened generations.

The antagonism of modern versus conservative evolves from this viewpoint. Religion was considered the most important conservative area to be modernized. Creating a new united secular society meant the most importance was placed on appearances and symbols in the public space.

The secularization of the public and political domains was accompanied by a strong emphasis on transitioning religion to a matter of private and individual faith. By defining a certain image of womanhood by providing advantages to mainly urban middle and upper classes, state policies worsened the positions of women with different ethnic, religious and class backgrounds.

Alongside other disadvantaged groups, conservative women were marginalized and labeled as outdated, backward and traditional, and forced to live religious lives in private.

Through these state-led, apparently progressive policies, the government defined a primarily domestic role for women which put conservative women in a doubly disadvantaged position. Firstly, the emancipation movements restricted women's issues to the private sphere, which facilitates the continuance of gender inequality as well as reinforcing patriarchal structures, and secondly, conservative women were slowly turned into "the other" for republican modern women.

Political expansion

Conservativism in Turkey as an ideology remained passive until the 1950s, lacking the intellectual spirit to push its specific values, but continued its existence hidden in everyday life. When Turkey adopted the multiparty system in 1946, the harshest criticism of Islamists about the 27-year rule of the single party surrounded barring the Muslim population from praying freely, and these accusations came from newly established parties with an affinity for the religious segment of society.

With the rule of the Democrat Party in the 1950s, these groups had a freer sphere to speak up. In this era, Islamism was still articulated to right-wing movements but gained some strength in cultural, social and political areas.

Beginning in the 1950s, Turkey witnessed a dense and rapid mass migration from rural to urban, which was accepted as a milestone for dramatic demographic change, which has also seen political results. The social mobility and urbanization paved the way for the reawakening of the conservative movement by pushing the strict limits of public space.

It should be noted that the conservative movement was not organized by political parties; on the contrary, the social activism of the people was the force that organized the political sphere. That's why the closure of the political parties and political barriers to the movement could not halt the social organization of the conservatives and their political demands.

The 1980s were considered a renaissance for the movement. The shift from periphery areas to city centers created new opportunities for secular education and upward social movement, which eventually resulted in redefining Turkish modernity.

However, the reconciliation of modernization and Islam heated debates in public and intelligentsia. Media peaked in this era as a crucial tool to organize a mass movement by means of daily newspapers, weekly and monthly journals, private radio and TV channels, movies and cartoon agencies.

Conservative intellectuals were strongly opposed to the hegemony of the West and modernity in their daily lives, and they earnestly warned Muslims to be cautious about the lure of modernity, capitalism and moral decline.

Moreover, many of them were critical of the imposition of secular reforms, expressing criticism of the ongoing rule and in the end, started to demand a fair and just system. All aspects of life were reconsidered within the Islamic perspective and the non-Islamic way of living was slowly being eliminated from both social and political spheres.

Women's demands

As conservatives gained strength economically, politically and socially, women also began to organize according to a second wave of feminism under the slogan "The Personal Is Political."

Beginning in the 1970s, conservative women whose roles were limited to within the home and neighborhoods began to break the boundaries of their imposed social roles and gave a voice to their demands in social, political, economic and cultural areas.

The 1980s witnessed the emergence of conservative women as a category apart from mainstream, male-based conservatism. The increase in the level of women's education also solidified demands.

Besides, the dramatic rise of nongovernment organizations, university clubs, charity foundations and women's branches of political party organizations not only enhance women's visibility but also reinforced their places in the public space. Islam's come back into the public domain signified a rapid increase in the visibility of agents, discourses and issues marked as Islamic.

Until the late 1990s, the decisive agenda of the women was shared by men, and women did not speak from an individual or female perspective but instead internalized a collective approach. Because of traditionally patriarchal systems, women spoke up in private feminine groups and legitimized their position within the bonds of sisterhood.

This etiquette strengthened the respected and decent stance of women while they cooperated with men publicly. Although the label of sisterhood is a gendered definition, it also creates distance for the feminine identity and allows them to demasculinize themselves.

The golden age of Islamic rule and fitting into the obligations of Islam were the ideals to pursue. In this mission, headscarves were worn as badges of honor for women protecting themselves from corruption while they also attributed a sacred significance for the conservative woman and all the values she represents, innocence, reliability, faithfulness and purity.

For the strength of this mission, activists should not dress like Western women and should also maintain their opposition to the rule and effects of capitalism.

Conservative women's first major challenge of the hegemony of secularism was being publicly visible through wearing headscarves in universities. The victimization of women began due to this rule alongside the military memorandum passed in 1997.

The prohibition of wearing headscarves in universities went into effect on Oct. 23, 1998, with a circular issued by the rector of Istanbul University and remained in place until 2010 in public and private universities.

This widespread discrimination in educational institutions expanded its scope into the public sector and services and became one of the most discussed issues for the following two decades. In this era, the women, now educated actors with demands of working and starting families, began discussing their diversified problems and struggled to find solutions.

The profoundness of the restrictions fostered the intellectual quest for women to become active agents by supporting individual rights. Moreover, during that period hundreds of women went abroad for education or set up businesses in private sectors.

Hence, the women created a way out for themselves and started to organize around foundations and homes that strengthened social ties among themselves. For decades, they educated themselves in both Islamic knowledge and other spheres.

Until the early 2000s, the upsurge of this movement also brought the dispute of conservatives and secularists to the fore, and women were forced to face the dilemmas of traditional versus modern, conservative versus laic and reactionist versus modernist.

* Ph.D. candidate in the Ataturk Institute for Modern Turkish History of Boğaziçi University

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