After the victory of the Welfare Party in the municipal elections of March 1994, the newly-elected mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thanked the disciplined and devoted Islamist women who had campaigned door-to-door until election day. Islamist women also gave the same determined performance during the general election campaign. Contrary to expectations, however, the Welfare administration refused at the last minute to allow women to become parliamentary candidates for the general elections in December 1995. Headscarved women, they claimed, would have difficulty because of the dress code which prohibits women in public offices from wearing the headscarf, a prohibition which applies to women deputies in the parliament.

Fear among secular circles grew after Welfare emerged from the December 1995 general elections with the largest number of seats in the parliament (158 out of 550) — a full 21 percent of the vote, yet not enough to form a one-party government. Welfare leader Necmettin Erbakan assured secular circles that his party would not force women to wear headscarves. However, there is a definite lack of trust between Islamists and secularists. Erbakan argues that his party is the real defender of secularism while proponents of secularism fear that Welfare, once in power, will form an Islamic regime by filling government ranks with their followers. During election campaigning, the Motherland Party presented itself as an obstacle to Welfare’s rise to power. When the conservative Motherland seemed on the verge of forming a coalition with Welfare, its voters, especially women, voiced their strong opposition.

On March 4, 1996, I interviewed one of Turkey’s leading feminists, formerly an associate professor of political science at Istanbul University, Şirin Tekeli, about the impact of the growing Islamist movement on the feminist movement and women in Turkey.

How did the victory of Welfare in the municipal elections of March 1994 affect the feminist movement?

After the initial shock of the victory of Welfare in the municipal elections, particularly in Istanbul and Ankara, women without any political experience began to form small groups to resist anticipated anti-secular activities of the Islamist local administrations, especially those which would affect secular women.

So, in that sense, it had a positive effect, making women more sensitive and conscious of the social and political implications of Welfare’s rise to power.

I believe so. Possibly for the first time in their lives, many small groups of women began to monitor the activities of Welfare in the municipalities. They formed groups to train women in the poorer districts, thinking that people there were potential, if not already, Welfare voters. For some months after the local elections, women organized groups to monitor the Istanbul municipality’s weekly assembly. Later, perhaps because they believed it was no longer necessary, they stopped doing this. In other words, they were more interested in women’s issues when they felt that there was a threat to their freedom; when they were afraid of losing the rights they had gained under a secular regime.

When the Motherland Party attempted to form a coalition government with Welfare after the general elections in December, women voters in Motherland voiced their protest.

Most of these women voted for Motherland because during the election campaign, it presented itself as the opposition to Welfare. When, contrary to their expectations, Motherland entered negotiations with Welfare to form a government, these same women demonstrated in the streets to prevent their party from forming the coalition. Some women even sent headscarves to the wife of Motherland leader Mesut Yilmaz. They were very disillusioned when they saw that their votes would put Welfare in the government. If Motherland had formed a coalition government with Welfare these women could potentially have launched a civilian protest movement.

Why have secular men been less opposed to Welfare than secular women?

Men do not believe that Welfare activities will affect their private lives and personal identities. Women, however, do see a direct threat to their private lives. Moreover, they also do not trust secular men. They do not believe that these men will support their struggle when needed. In Algeria, for instance, though it may be an extreme example, high-school girls have been killed for not wearing headscarves. Women are justifiably afraid.

Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of Welfare, has promised that Welfare, if they come to power, will not force women to wear headscarves. How do secularists respond to this?

There is a general lack of confidence on both sides. Regardless of how many times members of Welfare claim that they will not force women to cover their heads, secular women do not trust Welfare. These women say they are Muslims with a particular understanding of Islam. For instance, many of them do fast but they do not wear headscarves.

Can secular and religious women unite around other feminist issues?

I do not think so. Women with the same concerns have discovered each other. I believe that they will continue to collaborate. Women Motherland Party voters, for example, will follow the performance of the party on these issues. By voting for Motherland, they have expressed what they do not want. They will continue to voice their opinions in the future. For instance, they may support changes in the civil code. It was a revolutionary civil code in the 1920s during the republican period; now it must be adapted to the modern world. If secular women are afraid that Welfare will take the country back to the Middle Ages, they also realize that there is a relation between their struggle against Welfare and the old civil code. Women working in organized feminist movements have an important role in encouraging secular women to continue their interest in feminist affairs. However, feminist groups in Turkey are not very powerful.

Feminist groups were able to connect with Islamist women while preparing for the Habitat II Conference. Do you think that their cooperation on this issue can be expanded to include other issues related to women rights?

Their cooperation on Habitat II is important because, I believe, Islamist women do not want to move backward. They are also struggling for better standards of living and better education. However, there are huge differences between the way each group understands certain issues. It is not easy to reach full consensus among them. Women from various political groups in Turkey began a dialogue during the Women’s Conference in Beijing that, despite their differences, has continued in preparation for Habitat II.

Will Islamist and secular women ever really support each other?

Secular women have fears that the Islamists will come to power and change the secular nature of the regime. On the other hand, Islamists feel that they are oppressed. For the time being, Islamist women give priority to home and family life. Once they become more active in the workplace, they will begin to understand the problems that feminists have been confronting for a long time. From my point of view, understanding the ways in which different segments of society approach women’s issues is the most important step toward a general understanding of women’s issues.

According to the dress code, women are not allowed to wear headscarves in public offices such as banks, post offices and schools. Yet, in the municipal offices of the newly elected Welfare administration, women with headscarves work alongside their unveiled colleagues. Are we now in a transition period moving toward tolerating Islamic dress?

In the mid-1980s, Islamic women were forbidden to wear headscarves in universities. They protested this and were given the right to wear headscarves in most universities. I am against such prohibitions. The right to education, the most sacred of rights of women, should never be hampered in this way. Welfare municipalities provided these women graduates with work opportunities. In a few years, they may also work in private banks. But it will take more time for them to work in public offices. It is difficult to change the dress code laws, and there is a lot of secular opposition to wearing head coverings in public offices.

To what extent can a secular country tolerate an Islamic style of living?

There are universal norms. Consider, for instance, the Hippocratic oath — if a female medical student refuses to treat a male patient in an emergency because of her religious beliefs, then she should not be a doctor.

If Islamists were to try to bring back polygyny, what sort of reaction might occur?

There is no way to do such a thing in Turkey. Women would rise up in protest. I do not think that Islamist women would want this either.

You are one of the founders of the Women’s Library in Istanbul, established during the municipal administration of the Social Democrats. After a year of working with the Welfare administration, what difficulties have you experienced?

We had some difficulties during the transition period. Unfortunately, the woman who coordinated between our library and the municipality was replaced by the new administration with a radical Islamist. We lost two additional personnel when the new administration canceled two positions on our staff. Later, heads of municipal cultural affairs realized their mistake. They appointed a new person, the former manager of cemeteries. We have not had any problems since then. The woman director of Istanbul city theaters was also removed from her post. I have the impression that Welfare does not want women in top managerial positions, just as it does not want women deputies in the parliament.

How to cite this article:

Nukte Devrim-Bouvard "Turkish Women and the Welfare Party," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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