Gendered Politics in Turkey

  • Fatih KeskinEmail author
Living reference work entry



Gender, different from sex, or being biologically male or female, manifests itself in a person’s social and psychological characteristics. Inequality is a neutral concept, used by socialist tradition like repression or subjugation, which for is ineffectual, but which ultimately replaces the ideas that symbolize rebellion against the power/government. It is claimed that gender is determined by cultural, religious, and ideological norms and the existing society, and it is not defined by birth, and thus it can be changed by the very same society. Today, the dominant “gender mainstream” is criticized for integrating the women organizations into the system without transforming the patriarchal institutions, so feminist theorists of the socialist tradition prefer “gender relations” and “gender orientation.”


Like “social problem” and the “national problem,” the “women’s problem” is regarded as one of the most significant political movements in the second half of the nineteenth century. This movement and its politically active women have long headed for three spheres: the education of girls and young women, the improvement of admission criteria for higher education, and the right to have professions, participating freely in work life and joining politics with equal rights. The first women’s movement struggled in particular to ensure that all the rights declared by the French Revolution also apply to women. The failure to keep the promises of equality triggered the second women’s movement, and oppressive practices applied on women led to the dismissal of institutions. The point is to bring out the positive traits of being a woman and achieve social transformation by making them a norm, rather than solely aiming at equality in the existing gender-based systems. The third wave of women movement, which was shaped by the postmodern thought, focused on homogenization of women through differentiation and subjected the distinction between sex and gender to deconstruction.

The viewpoint on the concepts of state and democracy also changed during this process. New women movement commenced in the 1970s by directing its criticism toward the limited capacity of formal democratic institutions with regard to equal rights of men and women to social resources. The state was defined as the “headquarters” of patriarchy and its institutions as power mechanisms of formal democracy that subordinate women to men. In the 1980s, attention shifted from government and democratic institutions to the fields of work, family, education, socialization, and law. From the 1990s onward, gender issues have become more prevalent in state and democracy theories. While one group maintained the critical state traditions, Anglo-American and Scandinavian philosophers have drawn attention to the elements of state policies encouraging women (Genetti 2003). Today, people are skeptical about approaches that render totalitarian government institutions. Therefore, considering them as the intensification of societal conflicts is also welcome, which entails Eva Kreisky’s such arguments as “masculinity as a system” or “politics as men’s unity” (Kreisky 2000), as well as Birgit Sauer’s statements that the state is not only the “executive board” of men, it does not have a “monolithic structure” and that it also involves gender conflicts (Sauer 2009).

Much has changed in gender relations since inequality was placed onto the agenda, e.g., acknowledgment of constitutional equality of genders by the state, or elimination of the existing disadvantages, reform of family law, initiation of equal opportunities officer, quota practices, or encouragement of women in certain fields. Furthermore, gender mainstreaming offered alternative ways to eradicate the present inequality between genders (European Parliament 2003).

Nevertheless, despite these positive developments, it is pointed out that gender-based designs have remained in organizations, social relations, and rules. These findings point to the fact that “gender system” (Kerner 2007; Haug 2010a, b) is still the current practice (Meissner 2008). The government’s role in the determination of normative gender roles and orders has in a way been confirmed. In other words, state policy’s generation of specific gender relations and discrimination; their tendency to employ discourse, institutions, and practices justifying gender identities and inequality; and the way these policies define the boundaries between public and private space have been disclosed.

In Turkey, similar to other countries, gender has been a determining factor in the regulation of social relations and the establishment of social hierarchy in economic, political, and cultural areas. This, in turn, causes the traditional problems of capitalism and patriarchy to recur in the analysis of social reconstruction. In this recurrence, the basic assumption is that the problem is not only economic but also social, and the general guidelines are formulated by governments. In retrospect, the constituents of this problem in the political history of Turkey are generally as follows: ideological differences, attempts of political power/governments to idealize certain gender stereotypes, or the conditions set forth by cooperation organizations such as the EU. What is more, although the policies in this field expanded some freedoms and increased the visibility of women in the public sphere, it also brought about various democratic paradoxes by, at the same time, disregarding endeavors for gender equality and somehow disseminating patriarchal sexist norms.

Top-Down Modernization and State Feminism

Women’s movements and related demands were reflected in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century in the form of claims for education, voting rights, and citizenship. Women prepared leaflets, wrote novels, sent letters to journalists, published their own journals, participated in discussions with men, and founded associations. Although change was supported during Tanzimat, conservativeness in terms of women rights was maintained, and Ottoman values were preserved through women. This has further increased the control and influence of the state on women (Berber 2017).

Experiences of Balkan Wars and World War I politicized and encouraged women. Women gained the right to study at universities and work at government offices and factories. With the Ottoman Family Law Degree dated 1917, Muslim women, as well as other congregations, benefited from developments, restricting polygamy and recognizing the right to divorce.

The Republican period and the process of nation-state building is the turning point in the formation of female identity. In this period, sex was attached a central role in national discourses and in the modernization projects of the nation state. The policies of the republican period were described as a “state feminism,” which had developed toward the improvement of women’s legal status and provision of their political rights (Tekeli 1991; Binder et al. 2015). There were so-called attempts to draw a contemporary image of woman during the governance of bureaucratic elite and in the leadership of a charismatic leader, who sees himself as the father, teacher, and governor of the nation at the very top of the political system. These efforts were conceived as symbols of demands for modernization and enlightening (Kreile 2012). However, it was pointed out that women were still defined, first and foremost, inside the house despite the reforms, their position has not gone beyond being the biological producer of the nation, and they were appointed the mission of reconstructing ideological collectivity; thus that “gender discrimination” was resolved with the Republic was indeed a created illusion (Berber 2017).

Women Rights Policies from the 1980s to 2000s

The formative initial years of the republic have had far-reaching effects on the dynamics of gender politics. Most remarkable are the exaggerated notion of state, masculine quality of the government, gender equality policies which are generally led by the governments, restricted existence of women in politics, and differentiation of career opportunities for women in this field, less inclusion of women in structural decision-making processes, and, last but not least, subordination of women politicians to their men counterparts by the media. It is possible to notice the elements of the paradox Carole Pateman eloquently summarizes: women are “included into and excluded from” the political order “right because of having the same qualities and competences” (Pateman 1992). Although this paradox is especially evident in the political scene, it has had reflections on different areas.

Starting from the 1980s, Turkish society has gone through a profound and dazzling transformation. In neoliberal restructuring period, which goes far beyond solely being an ideological rhetoric, the state approached some demands of women positively, yet it continued paternalist policies toward them. On the other hand, after a delay of 10 years when compared to the West and at a time that coincides with when the world politics is shaped by a new liberal/conservative ideological wave, new women organizations generated policies not over equality and freedom but policies that call for identity and culture recognition, which would also influence the years to come (Serpil n.d.).

Women’s movement and politics of the 1990s was shaped by on the one hand the crisis of Kemalist modernization and on the other hand the rise of ethnic and conservative politics. It was stated that Kemalist modernization, which was owned as historical heritage, led to a closure in terms of women’s rights in Turkey and turned out to be inadequate and authoritarian. Besides the patriarchal ideologies that penetrated into the public view in Turkey, the women image attached to women by Kemalist community projects and Turkish nationalism and republican modernization projects were criticized in terms of gender roles. Women, who were active in their own organizations in the beginning of the Republic, disappeared from the stage between 1935 and 1980, which has been associated with the state feminism. The rise of ethnic and conservative politics reduced “advocacy” of women’s rights from improvement of gender relations to defend secularism. This led to a break in relations between women’s organizations and institutions advocating women’s rights and separation of the women’s movement in itself.

Women Rights and Family Policies

The ongoing years of the new government, which started in 2002, have also begun a different era in terms of women’s problems and politics. EU membership negotiations and the evolving civil society orientation have led to the period of political liberalization, and radical reforms toward true legal equality of women in terms of gender politics have been put into effect. In line with the Copenhagen criteria, positive steps have been taken toward democracy, human rights, and minority rights. These advancements have been widely appreciated in Turkey and abroad. Moreover, with the good governance concept, women organizations in Turkey have been enabled to cooperate with supranational organizations and implement their own projects by the help of new financial resources. However, stagnation in this endeavor and a slowdown in the reform process have been recent realities.


The concept of gender and politics aims to analyze in particular the state’s influence on establishing and sustaining normative gender roles and systems.

This influence cannot be attributed to a particular party or ideology, nor is it specific to a certain geography. Though with varying degrees, it signifies a general and universal problem. This process is unique in Turkey in that the gateway to women rights and gender issues doesn’t seem to be wide enough.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Communication, Public Relations and AdvertisingAnkara UniversityAnkaraTurkey