Equality Evades Turkish Women

Discrimination is rooted in the civil code despite a constitutional right to equality. TURKEY

CAUGHT between the conservative legacy of women in the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the feminist gains that have swept across Europe, women in Turkey have only recently started to speak out for their rights. Their list of concerns address virtually every area of life, from the law forbidding a woman to work without her husband's approval to the permissive attitude toward wife beating.

Although Turkish women were among the first to be given the right to vote - it was legislated in 1934, a decade after they were allowed to go out in public without a veil - feminists here say little has been done since then.

``The situation of women in Turkey is not comparable with what you have in the states or Europe. The problem is so deep, so huge. It's imbedded in the culture, the religion,'' says Sirin Tekeli, a sociologist specializing in women's issues.

When Mustafa Kemal Atat"urk founded the Turkish republic in 1923, he instituted widespread reforms to ``Westernize'' the remains of the Ottoman Empire, emancipating women and secularizing the country.

But feminists say that what Atat"urk accomplished for women with a pen is taking a long time to be absorbed and accepted by the general public.

``Basically, Turkey is an underdeveloped and Muslim country which is Westernized,'' says G"ulner Savran, editor of Kakt"us, a bimonthly feminist journal.

The problems faced by Turkish women go beyond issues of unequal wage scales, professional discrimination, or how to break into the ``old boy'' network.

The most pressing issues are the most basic ones; the freedom to ride a bus without being pinched, to walk on streets without being accosted, or to take a taxi at night safely.

This month women's groups in Ankara and Istanbul started a campaign against sexual harassment, hoping to draw attention to a problem that is all-pervasive yet widely tolerated.

There are also plans to open a shelter in Istanbul for battered women, a situation that until a few years ago was not even considered worthy of investigation.

A study conducted last year through Hacettepe University in Ankara found that nearly 50 percent of men believe a woman should be beaten if she disobeys her husband.

``Wife battering is a very big problem and very widespread. It's almost as common as eating breakfast,'' says Ms. Savran.

Discrimination against women is rooted in the country's civil code, despite a constitutional article which states that ``all individuals are equal without any discrimination before the law, irrespective of ... sex.''

In theory, a married woman needs her husband's permission to start a company or hold a job. A woman must carry her husband's surname, and it is the husband's right to decide where the family will live and how the children will be educated. Because the husband is legally responsible for financially maintaining his family, a married woman's income is considered extra and is taxed at a higher rate.

Although the divorce laws were recently liberalized, making it easier for couples to end their marriages, grounds for adultery differ between the sexes.

``A woman commits adultery when she has sex once with another man, while a man must be living with another woman like husband and wife for six months for it to be adultery. This is in direct violation of the constitution,'' says Canan Arin, a lawyer specializing in family issues.

While Turkey might be considered liberal in that prostitution is legal, the penalty for raping a prostitute - be it in her home or on the street - is one-third less than the normal penalty for rape.

Ms. Arin and other feminist lawyers are pushing for change in such discriminatory legislation, but they are pessimistic about their chances.

Just last year, guidelines were set by the government limiting the number of female judges to 10 percent of the total. This was ostensibly done to avoid having to send women to eastern Turkey, where conditions are primitive and men are unused to women being authority figures.

``When women are teachers or nurses they go to these same places. But when it has to do with judges, suddenly everyone is thinking so deeply and nicely of women,'' says Arin.

Although total membership in feminist groups is less than 1,000, the women involved stress that they have just begun their fight.

The first ``consciousness raising'' seminars were held in 1981, while the first feminist group was formed in 1984.

Oddly enough, feminism arose in the years immediately following the 1980 military coup, when organizations were being shut down for having the slightest political platform and at least 250,000 people were detained or arrested.

``Suddenly, women were left on their own, with their husbands, brothers, lovers imprisoned, and they had time to consider their activities in a critical way,'' says Savran.

After 1983, when the military regime handed power over to a civilian administration, women who had been living abroad started returning to Turkey, bringing with them a Western sense of feminism and a new perspective on the position of women, says Savran.

But the fight for women's rights still is mainly an urban phenomenon, not yet strong enough to address the problems of women in rural Turkey, where about 45 percent of the population lives.

In the small cities and villages in central and eastern Turkey, the literacy rate for women is about 60 percent, polygamy is practiced despite being legally forbidden, and women are rarely seen on the streets without being covered in a black chador.

Meanwhile, feminists must also struggle against the lingering influence of Islam, which is pushed to the forefront by a vocal religious minority represented by the ``Holy Alliance'' deputies within the ruling Motherland party.

Last month, an opposition parliamentarian from the Social Democrats complained about a book published by the government's religious affairs department, in which women were likened to the devil and their testimony in court was said to be less valued than a man's.

Turkey's secular underpinnings are in no danger of collapsing, but feminists say such a publication is just another example of the constant pressure they are under in trying to attain equality.

Feminists say they are hopeful that Turkey's application for full membership in the European Community will force the government to ensure equality for women.

Already, Turkey has signed numerous international conventions concerning the rights of women. But, as is often the case here, the gap between signing and enacting remains wide.

``We are aware that we are not equal to men at all, no matter what the rules are or what jobs we hold,'' says Arin. ``And probably, we cannot be equal for a long time, but we will continue our struggle.''

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