Against conservatism and liberalism: Women’s emancipation and struggle in Turkey

Özlem Aydın, Communist Party of Turkey, Women Bureau

The first significant step towards women’s emancipation in Turkey is the establishment of a republican state, which included criminalization of forced marriages, implementation of civil and educational rights and many other progressive achievements. The new bourgeois republican government of Turkey, anti-communist by birth, kept introducing political and social reforms promoting capitalist progress, while it always preserved religion as a potential means of oppression against a potential awakening of the growing working class.

Reformist and liberal groups that worked as allies in challenging of the republican state, helped  AKP in facilitating its legitimization among masses and in sustaining its power for the past fifteen years with their “conservative libertarian” project.  

Today women constitute a growing portion of salaried workers, yet they work for lower salaries, under harder conditions and diminished security. AKP’s attempts to deteriorate the gains of the republic is directly proportional to the degree that women are drowned in religious reactionary interventions.

Women’s struggle in Turkey shall not underestimate the gains introduced by the bourgeois revolution, despite their withdrawal has been done by the same bourgeois class. It shall be one of the essential principles of communists to relocate these gains in a different class context and demonstrate that they can only be advanced by true liberation of working class.

Status of Women Before the Establishment of the Republic

The history of all societies is the history of class struggles. Among a range of inequalities raised as consequences of oppression of one class by another, there has been a particular one: The inequality between men and women. The increase in surplus and material wealth has changed the status of women and the cause of oppression on women became dependent on the relationship between the division of labor among classes and among sexes. Following the development of modes of production that exceeded small household scales and the increase in the demand in labour, women obtained new roles within family and society as reproducers of labour forces and as part of the workforce.

The emergence of women’s struggle for freedom parallels the rise of man’s inquiry for equality and liberty. The Enlightenment marks a distinct era of questioning of many presumptions in natural sciences, art and society and radical transformations in the intellectual world. The brave revolt of French people for equality and liberty against monarchy, namely the French Revolution, was a great step forward in the history of humanity. Such changes also stimulated women’s seek of their rights and freedom, exemplified in the concept of “deficient citizen”. The organized demand of women during the French Revolution resulted in this incomplete yet progressive development for women prior to the achievement of full citizenship rights.

The nineteenth century saw the idea of socialism spreading among the working class and the first acts of it as a revolutionary force. Women joined the revolutionary struggle for socialism as advocates of women’s rights within it.

The first footprints of women’s demands for freedom can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century under the Ottoman Empire, which was at that time governed by a monarchy and caliphate. Few women, especially in urban settings, started to enter the labor market, thus became part of the working class during the constitutional monarchy. Small groups of bourgeois women who were exposed to western culture and modernism sought emancipation together with their male counterparts. Although these movements were sparse and discontinuous, they constitute the early steps of women’s struggle.

Nonetheless, distinctive measures towards the emancipation of women have taken place within the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Despite its bourgeois framework, the advancements of the republic towards secularity enabled women to become constitutionally equal citizens contrary to their previous role in society as servants. For centuries, it was the overdetermining impact of Islamic norms on social life in urban and rural regions of Anatolia that deemed women unequal in terms of intellect and responsibility. It was a must for women to cover their bodies with the onset of puberty. Their testimonies were not counted according to the sharia law. They were denied from the rights of inheritance or custody for their children and in some instances were not allowed to be in public without a male family member accompanying them. It was through the republican transformation of the society and associated secular reforms that this gloomy picture has changed. Now, despite all the reactionary and conservative actions of the current government, status of women in Turkey is still comparably ahead of other countries in which majority of the population claims to be Muslim.

As a means of exploitation in feudal and bourgeois societies, religion reproduced the oppression of men and women, yet of women significantly greater. The social function of religion is accomplished through families as a unit of society and through the control of property and body. The most consistent aspect of religion is reflected in its attitudes towards women. Islam in particular regards women as secondary and their bodies and acts are always subject to supervision of men. Several practical reflections can be found in the idealization of “genuine femininity” and motherhood, trapping women in religious stereotypes, inhibiting them from freely expressing and enacting themselves. It requires the obedience of women not only to god but also to men. These are very effective ideological weapons that result in womens’ internalization of such obedient manners, dangerously enhancing the realization and re-realization of oppression. The diagnosis and disavowal of this internalization arms women for a serious challenge of reactionarism.

Republic of Turkey: Gains versus Dilemmas

The secular mindset of the Republic first and foremost dismissed the religious constructs dominating the society. People have become citizens in its fullest sense. Notwithstanding its bourgeois character, religious references regarding the government were discharged. Discrimination against and suppression of women were remarkably eliminated. For instance women achieved their political rights to vote and of being elected in 1934, quite long before many other European countries. Mainly in big cities and in public sectors, including health, education and administration, large numbers of women received economical independence by joining the labour force.

In contrast with the vast illiteracy of women before the Republic, denial of educational rights from masses and private education of daughters of bourgeois families able to afford such, the Republic brought constitutional orders facilitating the education of women and organising educational institutions to which boys and girls can attend together. The dichotomy between religious and secular education was omitted in favour of a single secular public mode of education. Civil rights of women in marriage, divorce, parenting rights and child custody were legally secured.

Along with social and cultural fields, the visibility of women among intellectuals eventually improved. They became more and more involved in arts, sports or in professions with male-predominance. Women joined labour forces especially in urban settings and in public sectors, which helped them be actively integrated in social life as well as laying the base for their class identity. Reflections of this can be seen as many female figures acting as vanguards in economical and political struggles of working class in the following years.

At this point, the influence of October Revolution on the enlightened characteristics of republic should be stressed. Those early years of the twentieth century marked the onset of socialist era, which entailed rethinking and redefinition of all concepts related to socialism, not only in where it was born but in all the world. This is valid not only for the struggle for independence in Anatolia but also for the establishment of a republican state in Turkey.

The above mentioned progressive actions constitute invaluable achievements for women, however, it was its own bourgeois hypocritical structure and will for an integration to imperialist system which impeded a radical change and full endorsement of secularity in society’s daily life. Moreover, religious roots of the society were not fully eliminated and the relation of reactionary groups with the state were never fully broken. Instead, they were limited to a degree that could be later restored as tools of oppressing or manipulating masses with its consolidating character. During and after the 1940s, the new bourgeois republican government of Turkey, anti-communist by birth, kept introducing political and social reforms promoting capitalist progress, while it always preserved religion as a potential means of oppression against a potential awakening of the growing working class. The communist movement, that could have been a source of hope for this awakening, had been subjected to various pressures since its inception.This dilemma has not only delineated the limits of bourgeois modernism but also ended up in total ruination of the secular structure of politics.

Conservatism on the rise

The counter-revolutionary interventions of the bourgeoisie against the gains of socialism and organised power of working-class have shaped the last quarter of the twentieth century.  The outcomes of this counter-revolutionary attack were not limited to the disintegration of socialist countries one after another or the weakening of working classes. Many rights gained by the peoples of the world were questioned and eventually taken away. In our country, the greatest achievements of the republic, even the end of monarchy and caliphate, were challenged. The period of monarchy and caliphate was legitimized and openly defended.

The rise of conservatism is a consequence of this dissolution. Turgut Özal, in our country, Reagan and Thatcher in other parts of the world had appeared as prominent figures representing conservative ideas. The impact of religion upon political regimes and social life increased considerably while policies against economic gains of the working class and welfare state provisions were being endorsed. Liberalism was advocated by the bourgeoisie under the cover of “free economy”; labour and local resources were bestowed in the hands of domestic and foreign capitalists. This period also marks an upheaval in reactionary ideologies’ power, dissemination of religious organisations over sects, imposition of conservative perceptions and premises as authentic values of the society and the “freedom” of practising them as wished.   

The most significant result of this conservative “libertarian” project was a political party that emerged out of religious organisations attaining power. AKP’s political mindset was defined as follows in one of its earliest leaflets:

"Conservatism implies a political philosophy, an intellectual tradition and the political ideology derived from these, shaped by contributions of authors, philosophers and politicians, that opposes to some adverse outcomes of enlightenment, of contemporary political projects and activities associated with transformation of the society in line with them, aims to limit rationalist politics and protect the society from a revolutionary sort of transformation projects." (Yalçın Akdoğan, Conservative Democracy, AK Parti Publications, Ankara 2003)

Liberalism behind the wheel

The military coup in 1980 forced a great discharge on Turkey’s left. Liberals tried to fill the gap remained in left after this offense and the dissolution of Soviet socialism. With the support of some fractions that claimed to be leftist yet lost their hopes for socialism, their main agenda was to challenge the republic. They argued that republic was a forced imposition against people’s values: An imposition ignoring values and norms of a muslim society.

During and after the 1980’s, these changes were appraised by the alliance of reformist political moves and liberals for the sake of “liberty”, “democracy” or “opposition”; sects were regarded as non-governmental organisations, religious leaders as public opinion-makers and freedom for sects was demanded. Modernism was reintroduced as coerciveness or authoritarianism, and islamic identities as its victim. Parallel to the changes in other countries, theses stating that the struggle for women’s rights should detach from class politics gained momentum. Academical and political activities of liberal women’s movements and feminist organisations were supported by various capitalist groups and their ideological influence was promoted.

Retrospectively challenging bourgeois revolutions by political actors including the liberals served for the dismantling of worker’s rights and production of new fields for international monopolies to make profit from. It was women workers who were harmed tremendously by this operation. Flexible, cheap, piecework modes of production, putting out, harsh and exhausting working conditions were reflections of the neoliberal attacks of capital towards women workers, on top of a hostile environment against their social and political existence, their rights of living, struggling, producing or simply enjoying life. Covering women’s heads by veils at a very young age or childhood or the increasingly religious content of formal education was proposed as being in peace with people’s values.

The process, which we will be describing below in detail, is an unfortunate success of liberals who were able to create the misperception of AKP as being legitimate in one part of the society and at least not as dangerous to some other people. This short history is full of important lessons to take, on how easily friend and foe can be confused when class politics are replaced with concepts of identity or oppressed groups, on how easily one can actually get distanced from socialism while speaking in the name of it.

A closer look into the years under AKP

The AKP government, which came to power in 2002, devalued women’s labor in line with both contemporary needs of capitalism and aggravated oppression on them as part of religionization. Women constitute a growing portion of salaried workers, yet they work for lower salaries, under harder conditions and diminished security.

By the end of their mandate’s fifteenth year, religious reactionism has become one of the most important determinants of social life. A reactionary generation was actively brought up in politics and also in sects, in religious formal and informal schools, ending up in popularization of reactionism among masses, in agreement with the agenda of capitalism. They gained consent of the majority through their populistic campaigns in the fields of business, education or social policies together with their religious discourse. Reactionism shadows every aspect of women’s life as oppression, bullying and discrimination. “Women and men are not equal”, “women should be beside their husbands”, “motherhood is the holiest of jobs”, “3 children for each home” are examples of how politicians define the social role of women. Studies conducted have shown that every one out of three women in Turkey suffered from physical violence in 2007. This figure have not decreased throughout the years, culminating in the fact that 36% of married women were hit by their husbands at least once during their marriage in 2014 (Altınay, Arat, Violence Against Women in Turkey, 2007, Study on Violence Against Women in Turkey, 2014).

Going out late at night or dressing “openly” were counted as excuses of violence and sexual harassment and helped offenders gain abatements of sentences in courts. Offenders received good conduct abatement just by standing in front of the judges in suits and for unjust provocation because the women they abused put on mini skirts. The intentions to de facto prohibit abortion after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sensational expression “Abortion is murder” in 2012 were widely condemned. Last year, a similar attempt to legalise rape marriages, which allowed pardoning of the offenders if they married the victim, was withdrawn after public resentment. Religious marriages with more than one women is no longer a crime in the penal code and has become free in practice. All these steps taken count among the reactionary interventions of the AKP government against women’s physical integrity, security and civil rights.

The latest blow of the AKP government over women’s rights is the law that allows muslim clerics (mufti or imams) to conduct civil marriages. Furthermore, resources estimate that a third of adult married women in Turkey were married under the age of 18, for some of those this is even under 15 year of age. With this bill, childhood marriages will be legitimized. This is facilitation of child abuse by the government and selling of girls without any supervision by marriages conducted by imams. Expert jurists’ opinion on this allowance are worrying: “Civil code, an important milestone in progression into secular state, is totally overturned” (Ali Rıza Aydın, former reporter of the supreme court, October 2017)

Women have always been of key political and ideological importance during the battle of AKP with the republican state. Veils were defended as a matter of freedom; allowance of women with veils in public posts and universities became a top-priority issue. The main opposition party CHP and liberals, who had the same approach, approved and supported this attitude. They may not be able to convince workers but successfully pacificated them.

The deterioration of the gains of the republic by AKP is directly proportional to the degree that women are drowned in religious reactionary interventions. The escalating pressure AKP creates over social life provoked an imminent resistance in people upholding republican values. It shall be emphasized that there exists a strong enlightened urban working class that will never obey the rules of AKP regime. Women, who constitute an important part of the working class, are under greater oppression, which is exactly the reason why organized women workers have the potential of displaying the intervention of capital executed by AKP and finally overthrowing it. A key example was demonstrated during the “June Resistance”. Women’s brave uprising and persistence during the June Resistance reveals that they will never submit to such oppressive actions. Yet, at the same time, it shows that such resistance of people will not be enough when political content is lacking.

Women’s struggle in Turkey: Then how?

Today in Turkey, women’s struggle is of particular importance for the struggle of the working class. First and foremost, interventions against women are hand in hand with attacks against working class’ tools for its organisation and struggle. It won’t be unpredictable that assaults against one half of the society and a significant part of labourers would result in working class losing its strength. This issue has many different dimensions that deserve a broader evaluation:

  1. Women’s struggle in Turkey shall not underestimate the gains that were introduced by the bourgeois revolution, although they were withdrawn by the same bourgeois class. It shall be one of the essential principles of communists to relocate these gains in a different class context and demonstrate that they can only be advanced by true liberation of the working class.
  2. Based on this, especially in countries where majority of the population is muslim, secularization of political and social life cannot be considered as an outdated issue, pertaining to bourgeois revolutions, as the past 20 years of Turkey clearly shows. Liquidation will be inevitable for a working class incapable of defending itself against religious reactionism.
  3. Another threat associated with this is the detachment of the struggle for secularisation from the struggle for socialism, paving the way to evolutionary strategies linked with slogans such as “independence”, “democracy”, “against all monopolies” and so forth. As in the rest of the Middle East, religion in Turkey is not an outdated issue valid in the pre-capitalist period. On the contrary, its political and social influence is increasing as a consequence of evolving relations of production. Struggle for secularity shall, therefore, not be confined to earlier periods of history, but shall rather be considered as a stimulating component of socialist struggle.
  4. It is possible for the communist movement in Turkey to organise women only through an urban modern identity respecting freedom loving motives. Women can resist against religious reactionism in regions where they are more involved in production. It is apparent that working women can refrain from the influence of conservative ideologies much easier.
  5. More effort shall be put into associating the resistances against rape, violence against women or femicides to class struggle. Otherwise such problems drive women to irrelevant struggles targeting men instead of capitalists. The communist movement cannot abandon these issues for both ethical and political reasons. But it shall not be forgotten that all of the can be linked to the organisation of working class toward the goal of socialism.
  6. The muslim eastern republics of USSR represent a very informative experience in terms of women’s emancipation. The revolutionary laws in the USSR criminalized practices that were dishonoring women such as child marriages, polygamy or “bride price”, literacy and schooling rates greatly increased and women became actively involved in science, production, education and the creation of a modern society. This valuable experience of an intense ideological struggle liberating a society from the religious traditions that used to shape it shall be promoted
  7. On the other hand, the priority of communists in terms of women’s struggle is to organize women at workplaces as an essential part of working class. “The question of women” shoul be included as an integral part of the working class goals and struggle, which will improve it. Capitalism exploits not only bodies or sexual identities of women but also its labour. Therefore some alleviations in the status of civil and social rights, better education or job opportunities will not be enough for true emancipation of women. The responsibility of communists is to give clear sight of this fact while struggling against all violence and oppression and to point out that true emancipation for both men and women can only be achieved under socialism. Opponents of religious reactionism are the dynamics in society for communists to politicize and gain into their struggle.
  8. The idea that women’s struggle is an issue for only women workers should be abandoned. Obviously more women shall become vanguards of this struggle, nevertheless it can be successful only by contributions of all workers, men and women. Liberal and feminist attempts of disengaging men from this struggle should be actively rejected.
  9. In accordance with the immediacy and importance of the duty of politically organising women, its fulfillment by the leninist party should disemploy all the arrangements that somehow subordinate women. Implementing formal measures such as quota, which in fact humiliate women, instead of revolutionary methods, must be refused. Doors of a leninist party has to be shut on dissemination of a conservative culture.
  10. Communists should never form alliances of those with non-class perspectives or those who would encourage “employer/business women” to join women’s struggle. On the other hand, standing aside the defence of bourgeois modernist achievements -which are now under threat of backfiring bourgeoisie itself, especially the defence of palpable collective demands, for the sake of ideological perfectionism and obtaining a sectarian attitude will be inappropriate. On the contrary, communists should act as the most advanced components of such a defence. Unquestionably, formation of class perspective on women’s question will not be accomplished overnight and is a matter of persistent effort.