Turkish women struggle to get elected

Before the July 22 legislative vote, women's groups push for more equity on male-dominated ballots.

Nursuna Memecan, a well-known Istanbul businesswoman, surprised her friends with the recent announcement that she would be running in Turkey's July 22 parliamentary elections.

Her friends were even more surprised when they found out the secular-minded Ms. Memecan would be running on the ticket of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic-rooted party that for the last few months has been facing increasing criticism that it is working to erode Turkey's secular foundations.

But it's not surprising that the AKP would pick someone like Memecan as a candidate – and not just to deflect charges that the party is antisecular. Her presence also helps the party respond to an increasingly loud demand for women to enter politics in Turkey, which has the lowest percentage of women in parliament in all of Europe.

"This election is special because everyone has realized the importance of women," says Aysegul Tuncer Topal, an Istanbul businesswoman who is deputy chairman of the city's AKP branch. "If you look at the business world and in other fields, women have started to have a more prominent role in the last ten years and political parties have started to pay attention to that."

Several mammoth pro-secularism rallies – some drawing well over a million people – were held in cities around Turkey in April and May, and women were a vocal and highly-visible part of them.

Also, in recent months, the Association for Supporting and Training Women Candidates, a Turkish nongovernmental agency known as KA-DER, launched a popular media campaign featuring famous Turkish women with bushy mustaches drawn on their faces. "Is this what you need to get into parliament?" the campaign's slick ads and billboards asked.

Although Turkish women were given the right to vote in 1934, ahead of many other countries in Europe, critics say progress has been stalled since then. The average level of women's representation in the parliament has been 2.2 percent since 1935 and currently stands at a paltry 4.4 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world. On the local level, only 18 of Turkey's 3,234 elected mayors (0.56 percent) are women.

By comparison, 47 percent of Swedish parliamentarians are women while in Bulgaria, Turkey's neighbor to the west, women make up 22 percent of the parliament.

"Politics in Turkey is very much a man's game," says Nukhet Sirman, an anthropologist at Istanbul's Bogazici University who is active in the women's movement in Turkey. "Therefore a woman cannot be a proper actor there. She cannot play the game the way the men do."

Memecan says she believes the AKP is a natural fit for her. "They are very open-minded. They are really looking to make Turkey a more democratic state with greater respect for human rights and women's rights," she says.

In the wake of the large rallies and the campaign by KA-DER, the female candidates' group, several of Turkey's parties scrambled to promote their image as women-friendly. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and AKP's leader, even promised a woman candidate in each one of Turkey's 81 provinces.

But women's organizations expressed disappointment when parties' candidate lists were announced in early June. Despite Prime Minister Erdogan's promise, AKP fielded only 63 women candidates, representing 11 percent of its total. And women made up only 10 percent of the candidates of the next largest party, the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP).

More troubling to many activists was where the women were placed on the lists. Parties fill their allotted seats in parliament starting at the top of their candidate lists in each voting district, and, although many parties fielded more women, most of the ones on the AKP's and CHP's lists were at the bottom, making their election to parliament highly unlikely.

"Part of the political system is terribly undemocratic, since it's the party leader who decides what the candidates' list will look like and these men will not name women as candidates, or will only name a small number of women just so they can be seen there," says Sirman.

Many Turkish women are now calling for the institution of a quota system in the parliament and other other political bodies to ensure gender parity.

Spain recently passed similar legislation and it also exists in some 100 countries around the world.

The AKP has blocked efforts in parliament to create gender parity laws and Erdogan has frequently expressed his opposition to a quota system.

"Although I would like to see a lot of women in parliament, I am against seeing someone on the list just based on their gender," says Tuncer Topsal, the AKP Istanbul deputy chairman.

"The main point is to get the best representation for the Turkish republic. To go from four percent representation to 50 percent at this point is unrealistic."

But critics say the current system leaves half of the Turkish population underrepresented and underserved and needs to be remedied.

"Currently, women's issues are not being dealt with properly in parliament," says Gila Benmayor, a columnist with Hurriyet, Turkey's largest daily newspaper.

"Once you have a quota in place, you can start dealing with women's issues."

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