CEFTUS Joint Forum ‘Experience of Women in Contemporary Turkey’


23 March 2015, Portcullis House

The Centre for Turkey Studies (CEFTUS) in partnership with SOAS Turkish Society organised a timely debate on gender equality and violence against women with keynote speaker Professor Binnaz Toprak, People’s Republican Party (CHP) MP for Istanbul. Other speakers of the panel were Ms Arwa Ibrahim of Middle East Eye and Dr Funda Ustek of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Chaired by Dr Ayca Cubukcu of LSE, this forum was kindly hosted by George Howarth Labour MP for Knowsley. Mr Howarth in his opening speech expressed his support for equality between men and women and stated that more women need to be in parliaments as gender equality is a key issue worldwide.

Prof Binnaz Toprak spoke first and detailed the gender inequality experienced in Turkey by providing striking statistics:

UNDP, Human Development Report, Gender Inequality Index:

  • Turkey: 69th among 187 countries
  • % of women MPs: 14.3 (at present, 2011 elections)
  • 1 woman Cabinet Minister out of 26
  • Municipal governments; 3 women mayors out of 30 metropolitan city mayors (10%), 37 women mayors of 1351 townships (2.7%), 2, 198 women members of municipal parliaments out of 20,498 members (10.7%)
  • Permanent under-secretaries in ministries: 1 out of 25
  • Governors: 2 out of 81
  • High level judges; Constitutional Court: none, Other top judicial boards: 1 out of 7
  • Top level bureaucrats: 663 out of 8, 288 (8%)
  • Chairs of professional organisations: 1 (TUSIAD) out of 14
  • Chairs of political party organisations: 6 out of 81, (Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is exception: co-chairs 67 out of 67)
  • Employment: Male 65%, Female 27%
  • Illiteracy: Male 2%, Female 9%
  • Population with secondary education: Male 60%, Female 39%
  • Population with University education: Male 15%, Female 11%
  • % of women in academia: Professors 29%, Associate Profs 34% and Assistant Profs 38% women
  • Judges: 37% women
  • Violence against women increased by 1400% in the last 7 years

Toprak in response to the statistics above stated that women in contemporary Turkey suffers from deep issues that require urgent attention. She added that not only the current AKP government but also all previous governments of the Republic are to blame for the current status of women in Turkey. However, she added, the statements made by President Erdogan and some AKP officials over the years regarding women’s choices from abortion to public behaviour do only worsen the situation of women. Prof Toprak argued that the ultimate issue in this matter is that women are seen as part of family, not as part of the society. That is to say, she added, women have to comply to family rules and punishments as opposed to the state protection for law abiding citizens of the society. Hence, she argued, judiciary and the police do not take women’s complaints seriously and fail to protect them against violence. She added that there is only one woman minister in the Turkish cabinet and that she is the Minister of Family and Social Policy, with clear reference to women’s positionality in family, isolated from the public sphere.

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Prof Toprak argued that child brides, honour killings and incest in family are some of the dreadful problems in relation to women’s oppression in Turkey. She suggested that the government and politicians in general have a lot to answer, but a movement coming from grassroots would liberate women.

Dr Funda Ustek, agreeing with Prof Toprak with regards to women’s confinement to family, presented her findings of her study on women’s informal employment in Turkey. Dr Ustek indicated that, according to World Economic Forum Gender Equality Index, Turkey, in terms of women employment, ranks 125th in the labour market among the 142 countries listed. Although only 30% of women are recorded in the labour market, she argued that more than 70% of women are actually working. Dr Ustek added that employment of women in Turkey are invisible as their work is classified as informal work. Women as cleaners, nannies, cooks and so on are very much in the centre of the public life, but their presence lacks recognition in employment records and their labour is devoid of employment rights. Dr Ustek argued that women in Turkey almost prefer to remain invisible in public life as it is a safer option for themselves. She said that a recent study on women without men shows unmarried, widowed and single women faces the highest risk of poverty, social isolation and sexual and physical harassment. On the other hand, women are not necessarily safe in their families, she stated, as in 2014 alone, almost 70% of women were killed by their partners, husbands and/or male kin. Dr Ustek, in her conclusion, looking at women in family and public life, said that her findings and other researches show that women feel in danger with no appropriate social security rights despite improvements in recent years.

The final speaker Ms Arwa Ibrahim shared her observations of women in Turkey. Ms Ibrahim suggested that women are very much in the public eye in Turkey and that there are many strong women fighting against not only gender inequality but all sorts of issues affecting their lives and families. She argued that civil society organisations, especially women organisations, offer a positive outlook for the future of women and that more information on violence against women is coming out. According to Ms Ibrahim, gender inequality and violence against women are globally experienced and the case in Turkey needs to be evaluated with this global perspective. She pointed out that the fact that 40% of women in Turkey have experienced harassment demonstrates that this issue is across all classes and groups of different education and financial status.

Referring to honour killings, Ms Ibrahim stated that Islam does not dictate violence against women, on the contrary, it encourages honouring women. She argued that women’s bodies have been used for political gains as it was the case in war propaganda in the past and headscarf debate in Turkey over the last decades.

The discussion was followed by a Q&A with the audience.