In the summer of 1993, True Path Party delegates — 99.8 percent of them males — selected Tansu Çiller as chairperson of their party and thus their candidate for prime minister. For the first time since 1934, when women gained the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament, a woman became prime minister of Turkey. If citizenship involves the rights and responsibilities of membership to a state, here was a woman who had fully exercised her right to head the government of her country.

Not all women were so successful. Only 12 of the 1,169 party delegates were women, and only eight women were among the 450-member parliament of 1991. When Tansu Çiller campaigned, a party member claimed “a woman cannot be a prime minister; a woman cannot even lead a funeral prayer!” Others said their party cannot “shoulder” a woman president; they want a leader they can (literally) carry on their shoulders. [1] These and other remarks revealed the limits of tolerance (there were others on other fronts) of women’s exercise of their citizenship rights.

Perhaps what throws more light on the gendered nature of citizenship in Turkey was Tansu Çiller’s pronouncement that Özer Çiller, her husband, is the head of their family at home, despite Özer’s objections and his insistence that decision-making is democratic in their home. After her election as prime minister in 1993, True Path Party delegates argued that this was only a natural reflection of Islamic as well as Turkish and Anatolian tradition. The Turkish civil code holds that the husband is the head of the family. [2] Democracy at home is not compatible with, let alone a necessity for, democracy in the public realm. In a country where interpersonal relations are hierarchic, and most women publicly accept this state of affairs, perhaps it follows that there are very few female party delegates and MPs, that men dominate the public realm, and that women have to campaign against sexist remarks.

Regardless of Özer Çiller’s status in the home, Tansu Çiller, in the public realm, was keen to exhibit a Thatcher-like image of an “iron lady,” unfettered by women’s concerns and interests. Though she appealed to women when she needed their votes, she acted like a man in politics. The caricature by Turhan Selçuk in Milliyet has Çiller sitting with legs crossed — improper behavior for a Turkish woman — before President Süleyman Demirel. Popular discourse refers to Demirel as “baba” (father) and Tansu Çiller as his “daughter.” In this cartoon “baba” is telling his “daughter” not that she could not be prime minister but that she could not be a woman.

The role of prime minister is not compatible with being a woman in the Turkish context. The woman prime minister must juggle different roles and redefine her rights in different realms. She must publicly affirm that in the private realm she plays the role of a woman while in the public realm she plays the role of a man.

At the formal level, female citizens in Turkey are exposed to problems similar to those that women in Western democracies confront. Yet, even though women have formally acquired many of the citizenship rights of men, women’s experiences of citizenship vary over a wide spectrum involving differences of class, region or religiosity. We shall refer to some contemporary examples.

Formal Status as Citizens

When Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish Republic in 1920, he initiated what could be called “citizenship from above.” [3] Citizens were expected to be passive agents and accept those civil, political and social rights granted to them. Women soon gained access to these rights, with some limits, along with men. The 1926 civil code, which replaced the şeriat (Islamic law), gave women equal rights in divorce and inheritance, abolished polygamy and made civil marriage a state requirement. In 1934 suffrage was granted. The 1961 and 1982 constitutions elaborated civil and social liberties men and women could possess without gender discrimination.

But feminists today are critical of the shortcomings of the present legal framework, especially the civil and the penal codes. As mentioned, the civil code still maintains the husband as the head of the family (Article 153), expects the wife to be under the surveillance of the husband (Article 152), allows the husband to choose the place of family residence (Article 21), obliges the woman to use her husband’s surname (Article 153) and, in cases of divorce, gives priority to the father’s decision over custody (Article 263).

The legal framework, even if it were more egalitarian, exposes women in Turkey to the same problems and biases to which women in liberal Western societies are exposed. To the extent that Turkey formally aspires to be a liberal Western democracy, its female citizens are assumed to have signed their “social contract” to become individual bearers of rights with constitutionally guaranteed gender equality. The exclusionary nature of the liberal concept of citizenship remains. Women are treated as ahistorical beings who assume inconsequential gender roles in the use of their citizenship rights. Yet as feminist critics have shown us, it matters how gender roles are played. [4] Because mothers have the responsibility to care for children, cook and clean 12 hours a day, there are only eight women of the 450-member parliament that decides policy. If fathers shared domestic chores, mothers could at least be more informed and active citizens and set different role models for their daughters. Maternal roles or how they are defined are intimately related to how citizenship rights are exercised in Turkey (as in other places). Similarly, where 73.13 percent of inter-household property belongs to men and 8.71 percent belongs to women, having equal rights to inheritance as equal citizens means little. [5]

Women’s Experience of Citizenship

Turkish women’s experiences of citizenship and their status as citizens are reflected at one level, in official schooling statistics. According to 1990 figures, 31 percent of women are illiterate. Some 46 percent of elementary school graduates and 41 percent of secondary school graduates are women. Of those with higher education diplomas, 35 percent are women. [6] Where they live, their age and their income all shape their access to education. Illiteracy of women is twice as high in rural areas and for older women.

Labor force participation rates give some idea of how women use their rights to employment in relation to male citizens. In 1992, women constituted 32 percent of the labor force; 50 percent of women’s labor force participation is in rural areas. Women are 65 percent of the unpaid family workers. Women’s activism in the public realm shows a stark difference compared to men. In 1990, women constituted 30 percent of those employed in central government, and only 18 percent of civil servants employed in local administrations. [7]

Male and female citizens perhaps have the sharpest difference in their political participation through formal institutions. As mentioned above, less than 2 percent of the 450 MPs in the 1991 elections were women. The 1995 elections brought 13 women to a 550-member parliament. The figures have never been higher than 2 percent since 1946 when the first multi-party elections were held in Turkey. Neither in provincial nor municipal councils have the figures shown much improvement.

These statistics and ratios present an inadequate picture of women’s experiences of their citizenship. Women relate to the state in diverse ways: on the one hand, indigenous forces undermine women’s recognition of their citizenship rights; on the other hand, women actively seek to restructure their relationship to the state. The following examples reflect a range of women’s experiences of citizenship.

Cotton Weavers

Suad Joseph’s observation that in Lebanon women experience their rights and obligations primarily with reference to their immediate communal group rather than with the state seems to reflect the experience of many women in Turkey as well. [8] Among the carpet weavers in central Anatolia, we are told that when girls are born the fathers exclaim “it’s a factory,” which they can exchange and from which they profit. The few “rights” these women have emerge from the context of kinship. It is in the context of family relations that women engage in what Deniz Kandiyoti calls the “patriarchal bargain,” and work in arduous conditions weaving carpets. [9] The state might be considered responsible for the unfair deal these women are getting, or for their lack of social security. For the women involved, though, rights, interests, advantages and obligations originate in the context of kinship which organizes and regulates carpet weaving. Mothers-in-law rather than civil servants help to regulate and ensure sons’ and fathers’ control over the labor of women weavers. [10]


For many Islamist women who are politically active in the public realm, citizenship rights are a means to promote their Islamic worldview. These women engage in protest activities to be permitted to cover their heads in public institutions, especially universities, or they work as activists in the ranks of the Welfare Party, the main Islamist political force in Turkey. Their “contract” is with God. They are the citizens of a holy community where rights and obligations are defined by God. Since the sacred community they endorse does not have a political state, and since they have to function in an allegedly secular and liberal republic, many appeal to the constitutional framework and the citizens’ rights asserted by the republic. These women proclaim their need to cover their heads with reference to their civil right to practice religion without the hindrance of the state. [11] Paradoxically, in doing so they propagate a belief system where civil rights as such have no relevance.

During the summer of 1995, an Islamist woman’s appeal to civil rights became headline news in the School of Health in the Republican University of Sivas, which provides education for professional nurses. After a decade-long convoluted process of redefining civil rights, wearing the headscarf in public universities has been permitted since the constitutional court resolution of April 9, 1991. Yet, the principal of the school did not allow the woman who had the highest grade point average, Beniye Karadeniz, to be the class valedictorian and did not allow her to receive her diploma with her headscarf beneath her nurse’s cap. Physical skirmishes took place, and Karadeniz appealed to the public prosecutor, claiming that she would “seek her legal rights to the end.” [12]


As a final example of how women experience their citizenship in Turkey, the demands of contemporary feminists can be cited. Since the early 1980s, women calling themselves feminists have been politically active in civil society. Unlike carpet weavers or Islamists, feminists act politically to expand their citizenship rights in pursuit of personal liberation in a secular context. Unlike in Egypt, women’s protest against the state has not been a republican tradition in Turkey. [13] It was only in the 1980s that feminists sought liberation beyond emancipation, and women began to criticize the state in defense of their civil and social rights.

Feminist activism, in the form of public demonstrations, petitions and journals, though humble in its scope, has radically challenged the prevailing conceptions of citizenship. Feminists not only have criticized the legal framework of the state, its civil, penal and various other codes, but they have also sought a new, gendered definition of the relationship of citizens to the state insisting that the private is political in the Turkish context as well. Women’s subordination in private, they argue, has to be politically accommodated. A neutral concept of citizenship ignores the radical political implications of the private.

In a private interview, Ayşe Düzkan responded to criticism that this feminism is not indigenous: “Neither did socialism blossom on the plateaus of Konya.” Unhampered by the influence of the West, and voicing similar concerns they shared with feminists abroad, they have worked on reconstructing a gendered concept of citizenship.

Their concept of citizenship is new not because they advocate more egalitarian laws or because they are active rather than passive citizens, but because they have politicized and brought to public attention problems women have as women, which cannot be accommodated within the allegedly neutral concept of citizenship. Their major campaign has been against domestic violence. They then initiated the Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation to provide shelter for victims of domestic violence. With most of the state-initiated shelters of 1990-1992 now closed, feminists secured financial support from the state minister responsible for women’s affairs for their own shelter. Feminist journals have focused on issues of marital rape and sexual harassment. [14] They have proposed amendments to the existing laws to accommodate victims of domestic violence, and have led the state to open shelters against domestic violence. Feminists argue that egalitarian laws are not enough: a fair concept of citizenship requires pushing for civil and social rights that recognize women’s special needs.

Women’s experiences of citizenship reveal, in Turkey, that the seemingly neutral concept of citizenship is indeed gendered. Turkish women experience citizenship in many ways. Whereas citizenship is irrelevant for women whose rights and responsibilities are communally defined, others use it as a means to promote a religious worldview in which a secular concept of citizenship is irrelevant. For yet another group, citizenship is a gendered relationship that needs to be redefined in order to establish a more egalitarian, politically fair community.


[1] Quotations from Filiz Koçali and Serpil Gülgün, “Binaenaleyh Tansu Çiller,” Kim 15 (July 1993), p. 55.
[2] Ibid., p. 59-60. See especially the comments from Hamdi Üçpınarlar and Fevzi Şıhanlıoğlu.
[3] For a critical discussion of the difference between citizenship from above and below, see Bryan Turner, “Outline of a Theory of Citizenship,” in Chantal Mouffe, Dimensions of Radical Democracy (London: Verso, 1992).
[4] For a feminist critique of the liberal concept of citizenship, see Carol Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988); Kathleen Jones, “Citizenship in a Woman-Friendly Polity,” Signs 15/4 (1990); Mary Dietz, “Context Is All: Feminism and Theories of Citizenship” Daedalus 116/4 (1987).
[5] State Planning Organization (SPO), “Turkish Family Structure, 1992,” in The Status of Women in Turkey: The Turkish National Report to the Fourth World Conference on Women (Ankara, 1994), p. 61.
[6] State Institute of Statistics, 1990 General Population Census and Formal Education Series.
[7] SPO, pp. 6-7.
[8] See “Gender and Civil Society: An Interview with Suad Joseph,” Middle East Report 183 (July-August 1993); Suad Joseph, “Problematizing Gender and Relational Rights: Experiences from Lebanon,” Social Politics (Fall 1994).
[9] Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy, Gender and Society,” Gender and Society 2/3 (1988).
[10] Günseli Berik, “Born Factories: Women’s Labor in Carpet Workshops in Rural Turkey,” Working Paper 177, Michigan State University, February 1989.
[11] Yeşim Arat, “Islamic Fundamentalism and Women in Turkey,” The Muslim World (January 1990).
[12] Milliyet, July 19, 1995.
[13] On Egyptian feminism, see Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam and Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). On contemporary feminists in Turkey, see Yeşim Arat, “Toward a Democratic Society: The Women’s Movement in Turkey,” Women’s Studies International Forum 17/2-3, 1994.
[14] See the April, May, June and July 1995 issues of the feminist monthly Pazartesi.

How to cite this article:

Yesim Arat "On Gender and Citizenship in Turkey," Middle East Report 198 (Spring 1996).

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