Süleyman DEMİRELFormer president of Turkey Let me begin with a famous phrase from Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, which I find so relevant: “Society consists of two sexes, woman and man. Can it be possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part, while the other is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains, the other half can soar into skies?” Inherent in these words lie Atatürk's deep belief in the importance of gender equality and the emancipation of women in all spheres of life. He admired immensely the heroism of Turkish women who have voluntarily taken tasks in the defense of their country, showing the same power and courage as men, during the Independence War.
In fact, what makes Atatürk a great leader, a visionary and a true humanist was most of all this deep conviction and the genius to realize a revolutionary change in the Turkish society and in the status of women, in particular.
Just like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Turkish women too were treated as second class citizens, before the establishment of the Republic. Yes, maybe there were already some efforts to establish gender equality in the 19th century, but they had very limited impact as far as the social life of Turkish women was concerned.
Radical reforms launched under Atatürk's leadership in the first decades of the Turkish Republic restructured the Turkish society that underwent a huge transformation. Atatürk's reforms were a series of significant political, legal, cultural, social and economic reforms that were implemented to transform the young Republic of Turkey into a modern, democratic and secular nation-state.
The reforms were guided by educational and scientific progress, and based on the principles of positivist and rationalist enlightenment. Their aim was to put the new Turkish state on an equal footing with, as Atatürk called it, "the contemporary civilization.”
The unification of the education Law of 1924 which centralized education under a single system, the adoption of the new civil, commercial, and penal codes based on European models in 1926, and granting of suffrage to women in 1930 and the right to be elected to Parliament in 1934 much earlier than many nations of the world, had been the most important achievements in the status of Turkish women during the formative years of the Republic. These were mainly, as we may rightly call, a "women's revolution" in Turkey.
The new civil code ascertained the status of women in society not by a religious, but by a legal formula. The educational system was secularized and women had the same right to education as men. The veil was abolished. Polygamy was abolished. The reforms included the complete separation of state and religious affairs. Indeed, secularism has been closely interrelated with women's liberation and thus the social progress of the nation as a whole. It paved the way for Turkish women to become also imbued in science and technology, to go through all levels of education which men undergo.
Women in today's Turkey:
Today, in Turkey, we take pride in the higher percentage and the qualifications of our women in science, in the business sector and, as our theme suggests, in engineering as compared to other countries. Currently, the rate of women taking university staff positions is 36 percent and the rate of women professors is 25 percent. A total of 31 percent of all architects, 29 percent of all doctors and surgeons and 26 percent of all lawyers are women. The Scientific and Technical Research Council of Turkey, for example, which is the leading institution to develop scientific and technological policies in Turkey is headed by a distinguished lady.
None of these could be possible without the “women's revolution” which I mentioned earlier. If we consider the centuries-long discrimination, what Turkish women could achieve in just 85 years of the Republic, in my opinion, is a clear sign that they are as much if not more capable than men in any area we can name. I am not saying this as a compliment but because I truly believe in it.
In fact, it is because of this strong conviction that, in 1993 before I was elected as president, I wholeheartedly wanted to hand over my place as head of my political party, to a lady, who later became the first woman prime minister of Turkey. Turkey is also one of the first countries which had a woman as president of its Constitutional Court.
But, despite all these achievements, we must also admit that there is still a long way to go to fill the huge gap in terms of gender equality. There are still women who suffer from violence, poverty and discrimination. The literacy rate for example, has still not reached the desired level. There is still also a need to change the mindset on this issue.
The need for progress:
This is true not only for Turkey, but even the most developed countries in the world. We need to have just as many women in highest positions as men in the public sector, in politics, in academics, business, industry if we want to achieve a perfect equilibrium in our societies, in our world.
Patriarchy which causes gender inequality was also an integral part of European culture, not so long ago. In Ireland, married women were banned from working in the public service until 1973. In Spain, until 1975 a woman needed her husband's permission to work, to buy property or even travel any distance. Yet, none of these values were set in stone. One generation later all these countries appear to occupy a different cultural universe. In the past two decades the women of these countries have made up the lost ground with extraordinary speed, flooding higher education and the labor market. Today, women make up more than 40 percent of Spain's judges and doctors 65 percent of school teachers and 50 percent of senior government ministers.
If this has been the case in Europe, imagine the situation women faced and are still facing in some of the least developed countries in the world. Women in those countries other than massive discrimination, still suffer from vital problems such as maternal deaths, domestic violence and honor killings. One in seven women in Niger dies in childbirth, compared to one in 8,200 in Britain, for example.
In this framework, the four international World Women Conferences that unified the international community around the goals of “gender equality, economic development and peace” had important effects. First of all, gender equality became part of the global agenda and they also helped to form the basis for setting up national structures to deal with this issue.
The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 under the title “Platform for Action for Equality, Development and Peace” reaffirmed that women's rights are human rights, put forward an agenda for women's empowerment and removal of all the obstacles to women's active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision making.
Gender equality is not only a goal in itself, but a prerequisite for reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Empowering women and strengthening their status in society indeed make up the third MDG to be achieved by 2015. In line with this goal, states have committed themselves to eliminate gender disparity at all levels.
With the momentum created by the U.N. framework, issues related to women occupy more and more the frontlines of the agenda of many other international organizations, from the OSCE and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership to the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Alliance of Civilizations.
In parallel with all these international efforts in the context of gender equality, there have also been enormous developments in Turkey since the 1980s. Turkey signed the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 and put it into force in 1986 and CEDAW's Optional Protocol in 2002. Turkey has also signed most of the ILO Conventions on rights of working women. The European Union accession process has also created a momentum for the work carried out in the field of gender equality.
Within this framework, Turkey has made significant amendments in its Constitution. The new Turkish Civil Code and the new Turkish Penal Code are adopted.New concepts like “sexual harassment at the workplace” are introduced, and qualified conditions of the crime of sexual harassment are determined. Concerning the prevention of domestic violence, Protection of Family Law, which was adopted in 1998, has a very important protection mechanism for the prevention of violence against women. With this arrangement, it was the first time that the concept of “domestic violence” was defined in Turkish legal text.
These reforms, in fact, have come about in a very different way from those of the 1920s and ‘30s. They were the result of a very effective campaign by a broad-based women's movement triggering a wide-ranging national debate. The legal development in the area of gender equality has been attained through close cooperation between public institutions, civil society organizations and universities. On the other hand, the General Directorate on the Status of Women (GDSW) which is affiliated to the Prime Ministry was established in 1990 as a coordinating body in the field of gender equality.
Diminishing the black spots:
In addition to the activities of GDSW, Ministry of Labor and Social Security also plays an important part in advancing women's rights. With regards to women's employment, all legal measures to prevent gender based discrimination in the labor market are also being taken. The principle of equal treatment has been introduced in the new Labor Law.
Considering the history of women's struggle for their rights, it is both pleasant and promising to see that very important accomplishments have been achieved. Nevertheless, there is still a long and difficult road ahead. I believe that the difficulties confronted on this road can be overcome only by uniting our efforts.
Looking at Turkey's picture from the outside world, some black spots can still be seen along with the positive and encouraging developments. We have united all our efforts to diminish these black spots so that Turkey is perceived not only with its problems, but also with its contributions to the world and humanity.
This piece is adopted from the speech Mr. Demirel gave yesterday at the workshop in the Industrial Engineering Academia at Başkent University.