Monday, June 18, 2007

Gender equality and Islam in Turkey

Here is an interesting issue that highlights the complexity of the Islam-secularism opposition: women.
It is also one of the "hot"issues concerning human rights in the EU accession dossiers. Turkey is considered not to be advanced enough in the field. It is not wrong, actually. But the situation, as usual, is more complex than that.

The occasion to speak of this issue has been given to me by a Turkish Daily Times article, Gender equality given carrot and stick in ESI report, where we can read:

The European Stability Initiative (ESI), the Berlin-based think tank, launched a report on gender equality in Turkey last week. The report titled “Sex and power in Turkey” claims that gender equality in Turkey is largely a popular myth, which lays down the fact that legislation was reformed only recently to grant equal status to women.

The report distinguishes two periods in the history of the Turkish Republic when major improvements were made to the status of women: the reforms of Atatürk in 1920s and the period since 2001.


What strikes me in the second chapter is the last part: one of the two periods in the whole history of the Turkish Republic when women saw major improvements starts in 2001. Which, as you know, is the period when the Akp, the "Islamist" party, went to power.

Please don't get me wrong. I know I may look like a fan of Akp. I'm not. I mean, I'm fully aware of their many faults - not only in the last weeks - and I know they are far from being the solution to Turkey's problems. But I must recognise Turkey has made lots of improvements under their rule.

Now that I have made this point clear, let me go back to the subject of this post. A couple of years ago, in Istanbul, I met the leader of a feminist organization. One of the things she said that struck me most was: "There are two kinds of discriminated women in Turkey: those who don't want to wear the headscarf, and are forced to; and those who want to wear the headscarf, and are forced not to".

Of course, one could think that a headscarf is just a piece of tissue and that women have far worse problems to think of. But don't forget that Atatürk, just to abolish the fez, didn't hesitate to kill the men who wore it. For women who wear the headscarf, this may mean not having access to university. Or renouncing a political career. Is this fair?

Now, I have heard many arguments against the Islamic headscarf in public places. None of them ever convinced me, in Turkey or in France. While I heard women who are against the scarf but, in spite of that, think that the France law against it is one of the most stupid things the French government could have done. One of them is Nobel Prize Shirin Ebadi. I agree one hundred percent with them.

I won't go into details on this specific issue, I only want to point out that the "Islamist" party many are so afraid of is the one that, according to a European think-tank, has made the biggest improvements in the condition of women ever. Or, as the article says,

the reforms of the last two years have been “the most radical changes in the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years.”
I wish one could say the same of Italy!

“For the first time in its history, Turkey has the legal framework of a post-patriarchal society. The period since 2001 is the second period since the 1920s when the state has improved women's rights. Reforms to the Turkish Civil Code have granted women and men equal rights in marriage, divorce and property ownership.”
The credit, of course, does not go entirely to politics.
The report states that the recent reforms have come about in a very different way from those of the 1920s: “as the result of a very effective campaign by a broad-based women's movement, triggering a wide-ranging national debate.”

Knaus says that the changes in the last two years are spectacular and that they are mainly due to the active lobbying of women's organizations.

“What is even more significant is that in the past years, women's organizations have actually been able to affect the political process. The current government has been largely open to be influenced regardless of its conservative voters and agreed to change the penal code. Also, the Turkish media has visibly shaped the debate in recent years,” Knaus explains.
But the part I'm most interested in is the one titled Fears of Shariah not based on reality:
The ESI report also questions the fears of those who accuse the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for trying to introduce Islamic Shariah law in Turkey.

“There are some who fear that Turkey may be turning its back on its secular traditions. Some of the loudest voices come from Kemalist women, who insist that the rise of ‘political Islam' represents an acute threat to the rights and freedoms of Turkish women,” it says.

“There have even been calls for restrictions to Turkish democracy, to protect women's rights. Yet such ‘authoritarian feminism' is out of touch with the reality of contemporary Turkey and the achievements of recent years,” the report says.

Today, in 2007, Germany, the president of the European Union, is ruled by a Christian-Democrat government. Nobody objects to it. Italy was ruled by Christian-Democrat governments for half a century, and nobody ever had anything to object. It is also true that during the CD rule Italy made laws on divorce and abortion, and the church had little or no influence on politics. Today things are different: a law about civil unions (Dico, something similar to the French Pacs, but much less radical) is stuck in parliament because of the catholic lobbies. And it's only the tip of the iceberg. As an Italian, I'm convinced Italy has a bigger problem with secularism than Turkey.

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