In fact, activists and female politicians agree the republic's history of women's political rights resembles the volatile track of a rollercoaster -- climbing and falling at various unexpected speeds and at times even coming to a full stop. Zeynep Dağı, a Justice and Development (AK Party) deputy for Ankara, told Sunday's Zaman, “It is not easy to define the status of women's rights in Turkey.”
Women's rights activist Pınar İlkkaracan says “no strides have been made” regarding women's political representation. Vedat Ahsen Coşar, president of the Turkish Bar Association (TBB), echoed İlkkaracan in saying “Turkey is not in a good position regarding women's rights.”
Turkey was among the first European countries in 1934 to extend the right to vote to women. It was the first of an impressive wave of reforms the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, implemented to expand political representation for women -- and he did so years before European neighbors like France, which granted women the right to vote a decade later.
These early reforms boldly pushed the country forward, but the advancement of political representation of women in legislative bodies has been much more of a gradual climb these last seven decades.
Eighteen women obtained seats in their first opportunity to run in parliamentary elections in 1935.
Up until the mid-1940s, women held between 4 and 5 percent of the seats in Parliament. After that, women's representation dropped to 1 to 2 percent, until Prime Minister Turgut Özal's economic reforms in the 1980s. The emergence of a new middle class increased women's representation in Parliament up to 4 percent in the 1990s.
But the last decade has revealed a striking, progressive trend toward greater women's empowerment in Parliament.
In 2002, 4.4 percent of Turkish lawmakers were women. Representation doubled to 9.1 percent after the 2007 elections and 78 women (14 percent of the 550 deputies) were elected to Parliament in this summer's elections.
But women's rights activists and entrepreneurs say they are not impressed with these numbers. According to İlkkaracan and Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey (KAGİDER) President Gülden Türktan, Turkey falls far behind international standards for representation of women in Parliament.
“Women's representation in parliaments all around the world averages 19 percent; 14 percent is not acceptable,” Türktan told Sunday's Zaman.
As women make up half of the country's population, Türktan reasons, “At KAGİDER, we argue for full equality, which means 50 percent.”
İlkkaracan is disappointed, too. “We know from research there is a 30 percent threshold that must be exceeded if there is any hope for equality in representation,” she said of women's political participation in legislative bodies. “With only 14 percent, forget about any sort of change in gender equality.”
Çiller -- Turkey’s first and last female prime minister?
Representation at the national level has been even more dismal in Turkey. Currently only one of the 26 ministers in Turkey is a woman -- the family and social policy minister.
Turkey was one of the first Muslim countries to elect a female prime minister, but activists say she did more harm than good for the advancement of women's political rights.
Tansu Penbe Çiller was elected prime minister of a coalition government in 1993. At the time, İlkkaracan said she remembered the excitement surrounding her election. “It was the beginning of the '90s and many people thought we would witness a democratic revolution in Turkey. Not only because of the hype surrounding Çiller's campaign but also because of democratic movements worldwide,” she explained.
İlkkaracan's hopes for gender equality and women's empowerment were short-lived. “Çiller was worse than any male prime minister we have ever had when it came to illegal violence and violence against the Kurdish people,” she said.
“She really destroyed any hopes we had for gender equality,” İlkkaracan added.
The worst thing, the women's rights activist emphasized, was the double standard that was applied to Çiller as a female. “The fact that she was a woman was used against her. I remember feeling terribly sad,” she said.
Coşar agreed with İikkaracan that Çiller dashed chances to demonstrate the competency and skill of a female prime minister. “It was a good indicator of the value Turkey gives women, but Çiller did not use that opportunity effectively,” he said.
Çiller was the first and only woman to have been elected prime minister of Turkey. “She was the first and the last,” İlkkaracan half-joked, alluding to her devastating legacy for women's empowerment in politics.
But the TBB president, who says Turkey's women hold “great potential,” has not lost hope for the future. “That doesn't mean there can't be other prime ministers who are women in the future,” he said.
Women’s empowerment -- by the numbers
The World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2011 ranked Turkey among the 85 percent of countries that have successfully narrowed their gender gaps. But Turkey still ranked in the bottom 20 of 135 countries, providing evidence for activists' arguments that Turkey still lags in gender equality.
The United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) latest Human Development Index (HDI) report, in which the republic climbed three ranks, indicates Turkey clearly improved in development in the last year. While it is clear Turkey has expanded women's representation in politics, UNDP Project Associate Seher Alacacı told Sunday's Zaman there is a long road ahead.
Prescription for women’s empowerment in politics
To further women's empowerment in Turkish politics, İlkkaracan prescribes integrating quotas in Parliament and revamping the nomination system.
For a temporary period of time, İlkkaracan suggested that a quota for the number of female deputies elected to Parliament be adopted. International research shows that temporary quotas dictating a certain number of women are elected to legislative bodies are necessary to reaching gender equality, according to İlkkaracan. “The prime minister has said women should just do it themselves. That quotas are a form of positive discrimination. But this is simply not possible and not true,” she said.
The current system for the nomination of candidates must be changed, İlkkaracan added. “Now candidates are chosen by the party leaders, who are mostly men and who typically choose candidates who are already involved in the party and political system. If women are not given the chance to rise from the local level, they don't stand a chance,” she said.
Gauri van Gulik, global advocate for Human Rights Watch's women's division, told Sunday's Zaman the solution is multi-faceted. “Political participation is not isolated. It is intrinsically linked with illiteracy, economic opportunities and violence against women. True empowerment of women happens through progress in all these fields,” she said.