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May 06, 2012, Sunday

Women in Turkey

Turkey’s reputation is not so great abroad. I’ve been asked many silly questions such as “Do you travel by camel?”* and “How many wives does your husband have?” and “What do you wear in your country?” People often complement me by saying “You don’t look Turkish,” not knowing they are insulting me as a Turk at the same time.

Last week I talked about women in Turkey at a panel discussion at the Lender School of Business Center at Quinnipiac University.

With the rise in violence against women, gender equality problems, child brides, lack of education of women and a recently published New York Times article about gender-based violence in Turkey, you might guess how challenging it was.

In world history we see the name “Turk” appear to refer to a nation in the early eighth century in the Orhkhon (aka Göktürk) inscriptions in Mongolia. In this first document of Turkish history we see the statement “A holy Turkish God on top, organized the holy Turkish land and water. [He] created my father İlteriş Khan and he held and raised my mother İlbilge Hatun from the sky,” indicating that a queen was as important to mention as a king. Even with only this sentence we can easily understand that woman and man were equally respected at that time.

Turks started converting to Islam in the ninth century, and in the 11th century Islam became the official religion. To understand Islam’s perspective on women it’s good to look at the Quran. Sura 49, Hujurat 13 says: “O mankind, lo! We have created you male and female... The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. Allah is aware.” Basically, here we can see that according to Islam women and men are equal in the eyes of God.

With the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish women gained many of their current social, cultural and political rights, between 1923 and 1934. Before many countries such as France and Switzerland, Turkey recognized women’s right to vote and run for public office.

In spite of all this positive history, ironically, Turkish women nowadays are dealing with enormous discrimination. The Global Gender Gap Index 2011 shows that in terms of women’s economic participation and opportunity, Turkey is ranked 132nd out of 135, and educational accomplishment puts it at 106th out of 135.

According to the International Strategic Research Agency (USAK) child marriages in Turkey constitute 14 percent of all marriages.

Women’s Status Directorate General (KSSGM) statistics demonstrate that almost 4 million women in Turkey are illiterate.

In addition, a United Nations report published last July indicates 39 percent of women in Turkey have experienced physical violence.

According to The Media Monitoring Center (MTM), the Turkish media sector is not good to women, either: “There are no female editors-in-chief in the national print press. Still, only 15 percent of managing editors are women … 17 percent of all 1,599 columnists in the national press [are] women.” Yet the media have a crucial role to identify women’s rights as well as to educate the community on the importance of gender equality.

This March the Turkish Parliament passed several pieces of legislation to support women. Also, temporary quotas and positive discrimination are certainly helpful solutions. However, there is a crucial need for the political will to turn official rules into gender equality in all dimensions of real life.

Providing education and training women to empower them to be self sufficient and independent should be the most important starting point. Moreover, men need education to understand the importance of gender equality.

Also, in the big picture, as a nation, we should understand each other’s mindsets and values to protect ourselves from being lost in the crush of Western and Eastern cultures. The values that we had for centuries and the lifestyle we adopted have combined with our lack of education to produce a confused society with identity problems.

I have to mention one more thing. When I was speaking at Quinnipiac University I saw some young ladies with headscarves in the audience. I could easily see that they were Turkish. Then I realized those girls must have been there to continue their education as they weren’t accepted at a college in Turkey because of their headscarves. The bitter truth is while rights groups are screaming for democracy and gender equality for women, they neglect those women who dress themselves according to their religious values. In the last 15 years many of our women who prefer to wear headscarves have been going abroad to complete their college education. For the most part they do not return because it’s not easy to have a career in Turkey as a woman with a headscarf. Isn’t that an important democracy and gender equality problem we should also be thinking about?

*The Camel cigarette brand promotes its tobacco as a “Turkish blend” and uses a camel mascot. I believe that in the past this gave some Americans the impression that Turks still travel by camel.

Previous articles of the columnist