In the history of the Turkish Republic, there have been two periods when major improvements were made to the status of women. One was the 1920s, the early years of the Republic, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk outlawed polygamy and abolished Islamic courts in favour of secular institutions. This first period of reforms is well known and celebrated in Turkey.
The second major reform era has been the period since 2001. Reforms to the Turkish Civil Code have granted women and men equal rights in marriage, divorce and property ownership. A new Penal Code treats female sexuality for the first time as a matter of individual rights, rather than family honour. Amendments to the Turkish Constitution oblige the Turkish state to take all necessary measures to promote gender equality. Family courts have been established, employment laws amended and there are new programmes to tackle domestic violence and improve access to education for girls. These are the most radical changes to the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years. As a result, for the first time in its history, Turkey has the legal framework of a post-patriarchal society.
The reforms of the 1920s were carried out by an authoritarian one-party regime. Women were given the right to vote at a time when there were no free elections. Generations of Turkish women were taught to be grateful for Ataturk's gift of freedom and equality. However, legal inequality of men and women remained in place in Turkey throughout the 20th century, long after it was abolished in the rest of Europe.
The reforms of the last few years have come about in a very different way from those of the 1920s. They were the result of a very effective campaign by a broad-based women's movement, triggering a wide-ranging national debate. The current AKP government proved willing to work constructively with civil society and the main opposition party, CHP. This open and participatory process produced the most liberal Penal Code in Turkish history. It represents a significant maturing in Turkish democracy.
Turkey has a long road ahead of it in narrowing its gender gap. In a recent international study, it ranked an embarrassing 105th of 115 countries – far behind the worst-ranking EU member. Improving gender equality will involve tackling a series of deeply entrenched problems, from improving access to education in rural regions to removing the institutional and social barriers to women's participation in the workforce.
Discussing women's rights: Inci Bespinar in her office in Kadikoy
Many problems remain. At 28 percent, the labour force participation rate for women in Turkey is less than half of the EU average. Even this figure is misleading. Forty-two percent of women who work are actually unpaid family workers, mainly in agriculture. In urban areas, the participation rate stands at only 18 percent.
In Turkey, balancing work and motherhood remains very difficult – as evidenced by the fact that 63 percent of women who work do not have a child under six years of age. Childcare facilities are extremely limited, or absent altogether.
Closing the gender gap in education is also a major challenge. In theory, primary school attendance is compulsory and free of charge. Across the country, however, it was estimated (in 2002) that 873,000 girls and 562,000 boys between the ages of 6 and 14 are not enrolled in school. In rural eastern Turkey, many girls are not registered at birth, placing them beyond the reach of the state.
Since 2003, a series of new initiatives to boost enrolment, including a national campaign, Haydi Kizlar Okula (Girls, let's go to school), have been launched to achieve 100 percent primary school enrolment. Of the 273,000 girls involved, 223,000 were enrolled by 2006. Teachers worked with village muhtars (headmen) and imams to convince parents to send their daughters to school. A monthly cash incentive was offered for each child, and the funds distributed directly to mothers through accounts opened in their name. For poor families, this amounted to a significant sum.
Levels of education are increasing and every generation of Turkish women is better educated than their mothers. In the 20-24 years age group, some 34 percent of women have completed secondary or third-level education, compared with 16 percent of women aged 40-44 years and just 3 percent of women aged over 60 years.