Turkey was one of the first countries in the world to give its women the right to vote and be elected in 1934. Even today, it is recognized as one of the few predominantly Islamic countries where women can hold political office.
Yet, surprisingly, the status of Turkish women remains low with high levels of female illiteracy, failing health services, rising domestic violence, honor killings and fewer job opportunities.
The women's movement in Turkey has, to some extent, been successful in revising a number of discriminatory laws by raising its voice against the State and the gender discriminatory system promoted by the fundamentalist political forces in the country. But some loopholes in the existing laws continue to perpetuate the inequalities. Violence against women remains one of the biggest challenges facing the women's movement, while issues concerning sexuality are simply not addressed.
These startling facts were revealed by a group of 14 Turkish women who recently arrived in the capital at the invitation of Delhi-based women's NGO, Jagori. According to Zelal Ayman of the Women's Solidarity Foundation, a women's NGO based in Istanbul, the Turkish government does not support any women's development programs. "Earlier, we had a women's ministry, but after the elections last year the new government scrapped it and reduced it to a directorate," she remarked. "Till today, nobody knows under which ministry the Directorate for Women comes."
With the introduction of the Turkish Civil Code in 1926, women were granted a number of rights hitherto denied, such as equal rights in divorce and child custody cases. Polygamy was banned while women's equal right to work was recognized. However, contradictions and discrepancies in some articles of the Turkish Civil Code ensure that women are still denied access to most of these rights.
Quoting an example, Ayman says, while the law recognizes an equal right to work for men and women, there is a provision stating that jobs should not harm the unity and peace of the family. "In practice, this creates a major obstacle for women," she observes.
Similarly, in the matter of property rights within marriage, the law recognizes the equality of labor in both partners, whether at home or outside. Unfortunately, this new property law only applies to marriages which have taken place after January 2002, thus effectively denying property rights to 17 million married women in Turkey, says Ayman.
Another disturbing trend noted by the visiting women activists is the declining number of women in the Turkish workforce. It plummeted from a creditable 70 per cent in the 1950s to just 30 per cent in the '90s. Simultaneously, the rate of women who define themselves as unpaid homemakers increased from 75 to 82 per cent.
Desertion during disaster has turned into another major problem. Situated in a sensitive seismic zone, the country has been rocked by many earthquakes. In 1999 for instance, women severely injured and handicapped in the earthquake in Duzce, near Istanbul, were deserted by their partners, informs Ozlem Ulutas of the Community Based Rehabilitation Project in Duzce. In many cases, the man deserted his wife if any of their children were disabled. "Men preferred to run away from the emotional burden of having a handicapped child instead of dealing with it," felt Ulutas.
Responding to the needs of the quake-stricken women, Ulutas's organization started a family support program to educate the women on their legal rights. Psychological counselling was also provided to them under the program. "We are starting a similar program in Istanbul for handicapped people, especially women and children," she added.
Experience has shown women activists that organizations built by the disadvantaged communities and groups themselves can go a long way in promoting social, health and economic well being. With this wisdom, the Women's Solidarity Foundation has launched an ambitious multi-purpose women's complex, aimed at empowering and mainstreaming women into the social fabric, in the earthquake-prone region of Kocaeli, a 90-minute drive from Istanbul.
This 1500 square meter "New Step Site" complex is expected to be complete soon. Here, impoverished women who have lost their spouses or families in the quake will be rehabilitated. The complex will include a 25-bed shelter for deserted women or victims of domestic violence. Also, it will have special training programs to enable women get employment in nearby factories.
Turkey is also witness to an alarming rate of 'virtue murders' - women killed by their family for allegedly bringing shame and dishonor to the house. Nebahat Akkoe of Ka-mer, a women's group established in 1977 to fight feudalism and gender disparities, says, "Before the murder, the woman is accused of doing something wrong and punished by the 'divan', who is an elderly male of the family."
Ka-mer supports social and economic empowerment projects in southern and southeastern Anatolia, where over 95 per cent of the murders are committed. "We evaluate each case separately to save the woman's life. Simultaneously, we try to create public opinion against this practice," says Akkoe.
Despite all the obstacles raised by an indifferent regime, the gritty Turkish women in Delhi revealed different shades of optimism. With the knowledge that their struggle would continue, and that a sustained advocacy and public awareness campaign will gradually work towards bridging the gender divide.