Women Were the Most Important Beneficiaries of the Republic

Yeşim Arat RC 74, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University, writes about the contributions of women and feminists to the Republic.

Women were, arguably, the most important beneficiaries of the Republic and its reforms. While they had sought civil and political rights in the Ottoman Empire and played their part in the War of Independence, women’s extensive citizenship rights were legally recognized in the context of the Republican project of modernization. It was mostly the urban middle-class women that the Republic could reach.

With their new rights and liberties, urban middle-class women ardently endorsed the reforms and contributed to the modernization of the Republic. Reforms linked to secularism opened more space for women’s agency as they removed religious restrictions on women’s rights and public presence. “Women of the Republic” became leaders in many professions and helped build a secular modern Turkey.  In the 1970s, women were particularly visible in law, medicine and education, and served as role models for the next generation of women.

By the 1980s, daughters of first-generation Republican women began to identify themselves as feminists. They pointed to the shortcomings of the Republican reforms as they became conscious of the inequalities in their lives. Feminists sought substantive rather than merely formal equality in the private as well as the public realm. They sought to express themselves more freely as women. Domestic violence in women’s lives was a taboo that required public attention and eradication. The Civil Code and the Penal Code had to be amended in line with changing conceptions of gender norms.

The feminist call was democratizing. Firstly, feminists extended democratic inclusion as they participated in politics through grassroots organizations and effective campaigns. Over time, women’s numbers in parliament increased, from 4.5 percent in 1934 to 20 percent in 2023, though still not enough. Secondly, the women’s movement led by feminists broadened the canopy of civil liberties for all as they succeeded in extending women’s rights. A ministry for women’s issues was established. Women’s Studies programs in universities began to disseminate women-centered knowledge and norms. In 1998, the parliament passed an important law to prevent domestic violence against women. In 2001 the Civil Code was amended. The new Code introduced the joint ownership of property regime where property acquired during marriage had to be shared in cases of divorce. In 2004, the amended Penal Code recognized sexual crimes as crimes committed against individuals rather than public morality and increased and extended the scope of punishment for gender-based violence.  Women’s organizations enriched and strengthened civil society.

Feminists had initiated a women’s movement that had its cleavages based on ethnicity and religion. Different groups collaborated over important issues, including domestic violence and abortion rights.

Feminists and the women they mobilize continue to resist individually or with their organizations and networks daily, whenever their rights are encroached, to protect those rights. As such, they are the most reliable defenders of the Republican reforms they criticized.

Published January 2024

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