From Invisible Hand to Visible Identity of Women in Turkish Political Life

From Invisible Hand to Visible Identity of Women in Turkish Political Life


Try to imagine a country where women could not vote, attend institutions of higher learning, speak in public areas and are considered to be economic, social and political nonentities. Even though women have been citizens of Turkey since its establishment, they have never shared equally with men in the rights and obligations of democratic citizenship. Although women comprise more than half of the population, they have had to fight for equal status in the political, social, cultural and economic domains of Turkish society over the last century. Feminist organisations and women associations have worked, marched, protested and lobbied together for changes in law, health-care, and education, as well as the political system, in an effort to empower women. From this viewpoint, Turkish women’s lives are shaped not only by religion, tradition and culture, but also by the dynamics of national economic development, international relations, public policies, and the legal system. This research examines women’s status with regard to women’s political transformation and gender equality. The main point of this research is to draw attention to a very important and trending topic: the gender gap in Turkish political institutions. The issue of patriarchal roles and gender quotas will be examined and new perspectives will be provided, highlighting the current women’s movement.


Throughout history, political life in many countries has excluded women (Pateman, 1988). Although social, cultural and political developments have led to changes for women, they have rarely resulted in women actually attaining political power (Simpson 1990).  Although women’s contributions to representative democracy can be seen as more significant than men’s due to their dual roles in both the economy (in terms of production) and in the family (in terms of reproduction), their representation in every form of the political process is wholly inadequate. According to the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) (2014), the ratio of women participants in the political arena worldwide stands at only 18 percent. Although many countries’ commitments to gender equality are at an all-time high, serious problems still exist in practice, both in developed and developing countries –this, despite the watchful eye of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW, embraced by the UN General Assembly in 1979, is described as an international bill of rights for women. The main objects of the CEDAW are achieving full equality between men and women by changing the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family, establishing legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men in voting in all elections and make women eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies (UN, 2015).

In developing and developed countries, arguably, men still continue to exert power over women’s lives in many areas. Men still hold the vast majority of positions as religious leaders, ministers, provosts and judges. In fact, most authorities in the fields of education, finance, health, infrastructure, communication and transportation, as well as state agencies, are men. Women’s movements have only recently been a part of local elections, and it is important to consider representative institutions and political parties as well as civic organisations before we can begin to understand the meaning of politics from a woman’s point of view. In feminist literature, formal political representation is supported by women in non-elected positions. Therefore, female political representation in territories’ elections should be encouraged. However, doing so might not be enough to ensure women’s political empowerment. That is, the policies implemented may not have a direct effect on women’s rights and needs; on the contrary, they may actually restrict women’s access to these sources. Unfortunately, it is only the beginning of what women face. Their husbands, fathers, brothers and even uncles in some cases, have the right to make the final decisions on women’s issues such as education, work life, family planning, childcare, housework, and family expenditures. In nearly every aspect of women’s social, economic and cultural progress, men have the final say, which gives women unending grief.  Thus, the empowerment of women in political life starts where they understand, not only the reasons for being powerlessness, but ways to combat the oppressive factors and face the formidable challenges that exists.

Turkish women, whether urban or rural, educated or illiterate, adhere to a traditional division of labour and decision-making patterns that make them subservient to their husbands (Ataca & Sunar, 1999). This traditional division of labour assigns the husband as the breadwinner and the wife as the stay-at-home mother, limiting her opportunities outside the family (Geist, 2010). Furthermore, gender inequality still exists in the educational system. Particularly in rural areas, the perspective of families on education is that it is an “unnecessary luxury,” especially the education of girls (Levine, 2005). However, efforts have been made to increase women and girls’ access to education, especially after European Union (EU) negotiations, in anticipation of becoming an EU member.  Unfortunately, the level of female participation in the labour market is lower in Turkey than in the global marketplace, at only 28.9 percent (Gulcubuk, 2010).  In 2014, the rate of women in the labour force was 57.2 percent for OECD total and 58.8 percent for the twenty-eight countries of the members of EU. At the same time, the employment rate of women was 18.7 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, where women’s work is mostly unpaid (ILO, 2014). From a cultural and traditional point of view, patriarchy has a significant negative effect on women’s participation, either in the workforce or in the political arena. Patriarchy awards privileges to men in political, legal, economic and religious institutions (Sakalli et al. 2002). The concept of patriarchy often results in early marriages, subjugation to the husband or father at home, strict rules in social life that must be adhered to, traditional division of gender rules within the family, subordination to the male members in terms of income and the obligation to be a homemaker (Hosgor & Smits, 2008).

Most notably, the representation of women in political life is of vital importance in measuring the modernisation movement and gender equity. The average number of women representatives in parliaments around the world is lower than that of men, and the representation of women in the Turkish Parliament is only 9.1 percent. Although the right to vote and participate in Parliament was given to Turkish women in 1934, female participation in politics has not effectively increased. In fact, the percentage of female representatives began to decrease at the turn of the century (Adikacti-Marshall, 2010). Especially after the military coup in 1980, the percentage of women participating in politics hovered at around four percent in the elections held between 1999 and 2007; unexpectedly, the figure increased to 9 percent in 2011.

The Politicisation of Women over time between 1923-2011

Women’s political participation is one of the most important indicators in the assessment of gender inequality in all countries. In order to increase female political representation in localities, structural, social and cultural burdens that create barriers to women’s empowerment should be considered. In the case of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s contribution should be noted. Atatürk was the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Within the light of the French Revolution and the European Enlightenment, he believed in the absolute equality between men and women. Therefore, human rights were given to women within a short period of time during nation state building. Atatürk focused on bringing modernisation to Turkey and to Turkish women, and instead of looking to the East, he looked to the West (Arat, 1998). The creation of a secular state is one of the most important aspects of the Turkish constitution, which brought many significant changes to Turkish society in a relatively short period of time. One of Atatürk’s main issues was the emancipation of women in both the economic and politic arenas (Rustow, 1968). With this in mind, the first female doctor was practicing in 1926 while a female lawyer entered the labour market in 1927 and a female judge in 1930 (ESI, 2007). In addition to these gains in status in the labour market, women gained the right to vote and to be elected in local elections in 1930 and in Grand National Assembly parliamentary elections in 1934 (Yaraman, 1999). During this same period, only 27 countries apart from Turkey gave women the right to vote for their political leaders. French women, for example, did not gain the right to vote until 1944, Italian women in 1945 and Belgian women in 1948. Turkey’s position was comparatively progressive in a global context, especially when the country was fully occupied with building a new nation state. 18 women became members of parliament soon after they gained voting rights in 1935. Although the number of women interested in politics has begun to increase recently, the ratio of female members of parliaments has always been lower than during Atatürk’s period. In comparison, in the 1999 parliamentary national election, 22 out of 555 representatives were women (4 percent). The percentage of women in parliament reached 9.5 percent in 2007 and dropped to 4 percent again in 2014. 9.5 percent in 2007 was the highest percentage in the history of Turkey’s democracy and it has since declined (TUIK, 2014). Consequently, Turkey is behind many developing countries in providing seats to women in parliament.

Turkey clearly lies on opposite ends of the spectrum from developed nations. Nonetheless, it is difficult to measure the progressiveness of a nation towards gender parity because of the multiple aspects with which it can be measured, such as political, economic, and social. Even within these different scopes of life, there is no objective way to measure gender equality. For example, in the United States, where women have had the right to vote since 1919, there has yet to be a female president, and men continue to comprise a disproportionately large percentage of seated politicians. In comparison, in other nations, such as Switzerland, which gave women the right to vote much later, there are already women in important political positions, including vice president.  Comparing these two developed nations, it is difficult to say which has progressed further. Women’s suffrage in the United States has inarguably played a key role in bringing such controversial topics about women’s rights such as abortion and contraception to the forefront of American politics, and subsequently has led to the passing of landmark legislation. However, despite all this, women in the political sphere still remain largely advocates, attempting to effect change by persuading those in power, rather than assuming the positions of power themselves. Therefore, it can be argued that, in this measure of the equal division of political power, even the United States lags behind many countries, and just like Turkey, still has room for improvement.

Gender identity is still a significant obstacle for female participation in politics. Many male deputies display disparaging attitudes toward female deputies to drive home their beliefs that politics are not a woman’s domain (Sanasarian, 1990). In addition, the roles of women differ substantially from the roles of men in the political arena (Arat, 1994). While men participate in major political affairs, it is generally accepted that women become politically involved through male relatives and party recruitment. Therefore, some women blame men for the reduced roles and status of women in parliament while others believe that they are respected by their male colleagues and are warmly accepted by the electorate. (Sanasarian, 1990).  Indeed, the logic behind this common perception is that still many women in politics or women candidates for deputy in parliament see the elections as a temporary position rather than a career. This can be explained by traditional Islamic values, which clash with Western values. Women are somehow in conflict between a secular and traditional religious life. It is because of the lack of knowledge on the feminist discourses of Muslim women, which is a social, intellectual and political problem. This issue highlights the difficulty of sociological and political perspectives to reflect upon Muslim women beyond a simple resistance of religious patriarchy. Regarding knowledge about Muslim women, it is common to analyse present Islam as the main cause of women’s subordination and a central pillar of patriarchy (Sultana, 2011). Whether concerning Muslim-majority countries or studies on Muslim communities, it is accepted as an idea of women as victims of Islam. From this perspective, the more Muslim women ‘are westernised’ and give the impression of rejecting Islam, the more they project the image of empowered women freeing themselves of a misogynistic religion. The terms Islamic feminism are also used within the literature to address a social and intellectual movement (Badran, 2007) where democratic space is limited and controlled. Therefore, Islamic feminism can be understood as a movement that gives women a political voice to advocate for their rights. The work of Wadud (2006) emphasises that Islam has a patriarchal character, but for her, this is a distortion that has allowed religion to be part of a system already in place. Hence, the question is how to better understand the subjectivity of women and Muslim feminists where they are subject to a social differentiation; in other words, how to build the subject woman and/or Muslim feminist within the power relations work in in the name of gender equality and secularism in Turkey.

Women’s Political Participation in Turkey

Women have been able to vote since 1930 and could be elected into political office since 1934. However, the political representation of women is still very low in Turkey compared with the countries in the same class. In 1999, with the application for EU membership looming, a number of changes in law were made to qualify for membership. From the gender inequality point of view, there was greater compliance with the CEDAW. In addition, many of the earlier allocations to the CEDAW were redesigned. Turkey also signed the Beijing Platform for Action without any allocations in 1995 (Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry, 2004). There were only five female political party leaders with one female prime minister.

[1] There have been 78 female deputies in Turkey with one female minister, Ayşe Nur Islam, who is currently minister since the 2011 election. Islam is the minister of family and social policies. In 2011, women were elected as mayors in the municipalities only 27 out of 2,975 times; women were elected to Municipal Council 1,340 out of 33,130 times, and only 110 women were elected to Provincial Council, out of 3,489 possible positions (TUIK, 2014).

Turkey has shown a critical drop on the Global Gender inequality Index[2] since 2009. While Turkey ranked 106 among 142 countries in 2009, it has recently fallen 19 places, and it is currently at 125th place, proving that despite the legislation of gender equality in every aspect of life and the strengthening of the legal framework to protect women from violence, women are still struggling with inequality. Bear in mind that Turkey ranks at 82th with women in Parliament. Concerning political empowerment, Turkey ranks 98th with women in Parliament, 121st with women in ministerial positions but 35th for years with female heads of state within the last 50 years. Tansu Çiller, the 22nd prime minister of Turkey, was in office from 1993 to 1996 and remains the country’s sole female prime minister to date. Within the ‘Political Empowerment’ index as illustrated below:


Source: Bekhouche and Zahidi, (2013)
Table 1: Political Empowerment in Turkey


There have been many explanations in literature on why women are not equally represented in the political arena. One of the main reasons is that women are supposed to look after their children and do housework; otherwise, they are being judged. Since gender roles within the family are shared, being in politics is a less role compared to their role in the family. This particularly illustrates how gender stereotyping considerably affects women and their position in Turkish politics. The problem is that low representation of women in politics is not seemed as a problem for the government; it is, unfortunately, a problem when women are not well represented in the parliament for democracy. Women’s representation in politics begins with being selected at the top of the election lists as a candidate. That is the one major result of having more women representatives in parliament.

Unfortunately, the gender gap in Turkish political institutions is worse than the world average. So analysing any change, regardless of its size, is of importance. But more importantly, the reason for this dramatic gender gap overwhelmingly depends on the attitudes and decisions of Turkish parties. Thus, it is inevitable that parties find solutions to narrow this gap. Using gender quotas,[3] as many countries already do, would be the most effective means of increasing women’s representation. With the help of gender quotas, the presence of women from all social, cultural and economic background in political institutions is important for improving the quality of democracy and the political legitimacy of those institutions. Nevertheless, in many respects, Turkey’s stance towards continuing progress for gender equality in labour market due course of law is leaps and bounds ahead of the policies of some other nations although it needs to be revised in many realms.

The major problem to consider is how traditional roles are defined for Turkish culture. In many nations with a state-sanctioned religion, particularly in Turkey, gender roles are heavily defined by their religious texts. Thus, the debate in the country is still centred on whether women should be allowed to be a part of the society or not, an issue that has never arisen in many other developed nations. Such a strict adherence to religious texts means that there is little acceptance for women who stray outside these restrictive boundaries and little to no tolerance for any advocates of more progressive policies. It is fair to say that if momentous change does not occur, the status of gender parity will forever be immobilised and will never reach a level equal to that of developed nations. Similarly, although numerous statistics have been produced about women in the workforce, a look at economic parity should involve much more than just numbers. Despite the fact that the number of women working has increased annually, many continue to do so at wage levels that are lower than their male counterparts. Although countless pieces of legislation, such as Article 5, 9, 10 and 12 of Labour Code (‘Labour Law’) No. 4857, have been changed mandating that men and women receive the same wages for the same work, this continues to be the cause of controversy. Needless to say, in other countries, where the employment of women is higher, women at least do have the power to fight for their rights, and without a woman in power to advocate on their behalf, the idea of equal wages is, at present, unattainable. Also, while looking purely at employment statistics, it is important to keep in mind that these fail to accurately convey important distinctions, such as whether women have made headway into traditionally male fields such as science and engineering, whether they are contract workers or permanently employed, and whether they work as menial labourers or in higher management level jobs. These are all as significant factors as empirical measures of the percentage of women in the workforce. Also, many women have a much harder time accessing financial resources, such as loans, which are usually necessary for the development of businesses and other economic endeavours. While it is impossible for banks to provide loans to every person who needs one, it is equally impossible to expect non-governmental organisations to fill in that remaining gap. But to this point, it is important to note that microloans and the concept of person-to-person funding through private organisations can be a tool in order to make money much more accessible to women.

However, the source of the greatest disparity is the social realm. While many issues can be placed under this label, the one that is of the greatest interest is the way in which ambition (and likewise success) is viewed differently for men and women, because it reflects many of the underlying perceptions and double standards when it comes to comparing and contrasting the expectations of men and women and thusly the gender inequality that arises. Ambition, generally seen as a positive trait when talking about men, assumes a negative connotation when used to describe women. Women who are described as ambitious are often seen as unrightfully so. That is, they are ruthless or conniving or have some other undesirable trait that is the source of their success. This unfavourable portrayal is damaging, not only personally to these women, but also to other women in the workplace and even younger ones, who are discouraged from pursuing similar roles themselves. Thus, any comprehensive plan towards achieving gender equality in all scopes of life must address both the prominent issues facing women in our society today and the question of how to prevent this inequality from replicating itself in the next generation of women. Education plays a large role in this. Undoubtedly, the opportunity to receive an education, on any level, should be a right and not a privilege for girls, as it would provide the basis for any long-lasting and significant change. It is unrealistic to expect them to be the next wave of change, to break down the boundaries that continue to create inequality, without education as the main tool through which a country can empower, not only women, but also individuals in general.

Aside from education, there is a conscious effort to foster political skills in women. Therefore, just as easily, there is inherently nothing unequal about the capabilities of men and women. This is not to say that ignorance is the answer; on the contrary, teaching and bringing awareness to avoid the inequalities in every aspect of women’s lives can be designed to bring about an improvement.

Concluding Reflections

To cover the negative impact of the patriarchal values and increase the political participation of women, positive discrimination could be a strong solution, especially in encouraging women to run, at least in local elections. Political parties and non-governmental organisations should ensure gender sensitive activities and policies by cooperating with civil societies and women candidates. Since women are not independent from their parents and/or spouses even in political standings, NGOs and activists should use as much social media as possible to increase public awareness of the needs for women’s political participation. On the other hand, the most important thing here is that women themselves need to be the proponents of change, especially in Turkey where their voices are not as easily expressed and not as readily heard. The entire population, and not just half of it, realises that the society we live in today does not provide equal opportunities for men and women. There are countless, important, female figures in Turkish history that have gotten a lucky break and thus been able to make their mark on history. The most important change that could be made in this Century is to eliminate that prerequisite, and make success an attainable goal for women.

Female politicians, already seated in the parliament, regrettably assume that their primary responsibility is being a housewife. Traditional roles as well as the cultural attitudes in society hit them like a ton of bricks in every politicisation process. The foremost difference of this political representation is indeed very simple. Men are politicised in return for their political participation in every political movement while women can only be involved in political life by virtue of their husband, father or another male family member. They still do not have the power of self-advocacy, which means that women still do not recognise that being a career politician is a possibility for them. They do not understand that a career brings privileges to them that can help them advocate change for other women. Hence, they give their male counterparts authorisation in making decisions in every single female rule and regulation. Bearing in mind all those consequences, it seems that one means of redress for increasing women’s political demands should be party leaders. If leaders are convinced, they could create opportunities. To convince them, female cadres of existing parties, including leaders of women’s organisations, feminist NGOs and female activists should play the role of interlocutors. It must be clearly elucidated that women’s advancement of equal representation in politics is vital for the success of parties. That would be another path to garner male attention. All in all, it is impossible to ensure a sustainable development without understanding women’s requirements, giving the priorities to their economic and political participation as well as empowering their position in civil society. If reforms and regulations are not improved, women’s empowerment will not be strengthened in a sustainable manner. Hereby, although reforms and re-designed laws throughout the negotiations with EU are modified, they have not yet been implemented even in women’s economic, social and political life. As stated, freedom of expression is still not available to all women, so we should commend those who endeavour to find a remedy.

Associate Professor Meltem İnce Yenilmez, Department of Economics, Yaşar University, İzmir

Please cite this publication as follows:

Yenilmez, M. (January, 2016), “From Invisible Hand to Visible Identity of Women in Turkish Political Life” Vol. V, Issue 1, pp.15-28, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, Research Turkey (


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[1] (i) Behice Boran: chairman of Workers Party of Turkey between 1970-1980, (ii) Mübeccel Göktuna: leader of the National Women’s Party of Turkey between 1972-1981, (iii) Tansu Çiller: leader of the True Path Party between 1993 -2002 and also the first and the last female Prime Minister of Turkey as of today between 1993 -1996, (iv) Rahşan Ecevit: leader of the Democratic Left Party between 1985-1987 and (v) Nesrin Nas: leader of the Motherland Party between 2003-2004.

[2] The index is based on a range of factors that influence the status of women in a society like maternal mortality rates, adolescent fertility rates, and percentage of seats in parliament, population with at least a secondary education, labour force participation rate and births attended by skilled health personnel.

[3] Aim of increasing women’s political representation in publicly elected institutions like governments, parliaments and local councils by drawing legitimacy from the discourse of exclusion and minimising the challenges of their under-representation in political parties.



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