In the past two decades, a movement of some 30 Turkish non-governmental women’s rights organisations has spearheaded legal, political and social change to promote equality and eliminate violence against women. Change, however, is not coming easily as these NGOs try to battle ingrained traditional views toward women amidst much turmoil.
Today in Turkey, people’s lives are severely disrupted by the continued militarisation in the Middle East and rising conservatism globally. As a result of the armed conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels in east and southeast Turkey, and recent bombings in Istanbul and Izmir, issues such as women’s demands for equality, the elimination of gender-based violence and the rule of law have fallen behind in the public agenda.
With rising security measures in the country, including security forces on the streets and identification checks by police, particularly in Kurdish cities such as Diyarbakir and Van, many people venture out only for basic needs, and many families do not allow women to leave the house at all, due to fear for their safety.
In this tense atmosphere, women’s NGOs are concerned about increased violence, its psychological effects on women and limitations to their right to move around freely. With societal pressure focused predominantly on women’s immediate physical safety, these groups hope to eventually guide communities away from “protecting women”, and toward “protecting women’s rights”.
At the end of August 2008, 60 women from several organisations that work on women’s issues came together in the small eastern city of Elazig for a three-day workshop to discuss women’s rights issues at the national and regional levels. Participating groups included the Saray Women’s Association, Van Women’s Association, Yaka-Koop and Bitlis Guldunya Women’s Center, as well as the Filmmor Women’s Cooperative and Women for Women’s Human Rights.
Participants discussed ongoing issues affecting women, including the right to be free from violence, sexual and reproductive rights, freedom of association – and especially the effect that recent violence has had on Turkish women.
All agreed that the rise of militarism in the country has been perpetuating the patriarchal hegemony in Turkish society and that NGOs have to work to reverse outdated attitudes resulting from armed conflict and uncertainty, attitudes that have restricted women’s equal participation in social, economic and political life.
These attitudes have only made it more difficult for such NGOs to accomplish their goals, as restrictions on movement are preventing women from organising around their own needs and networking. Some in Turkey have attempted to justify these attitudes by arguing that independent women’s organisations exist only to undermine “family values” and “public morality”, break apart families, and help women get divorces.
The current atmosphere requires this already strong network of women’s NGOs throughout the country to continue to work to achieve gender equality, even in this increasingly militant and conservative atmosphere.
After all, Turkish women have stepped up to similar challenges.
The women’s movement in Turkey has been successful in bringing about a number of revolutionary legal changes, such as the reform of the Civil Code in 2001, which now recognises the equality of women and men in all matters related to marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance and property. The Penal Code was also reformed in 2004, and now guarantees women’s autonomy and acknowledges women’s ownership over their own bodies and sexuality.
Last year, the women’s movement in Turkey again flexed its political muscle by demonstrating against a constitutional amendment by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) that would remove the clause “men and women are equal” from the current constitution, which eventually led to the demise of this amendment.
Women and women’s NGOs in Turkey must not lose sight of their goals, especially during the current militaristic atmosphere, and must continue to work alongside one another to achieve full equality between the sexes. The movement should build on the momentum and political clout it has generated over past years by continuing to push for non-violent and fair solutions to achieve their goals.
* Evre Kaynak is an activist working for Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR)-New Ways (www.wwhr.org) in Istanbul, Turkey. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.