Friday, 5 December 2014

Women in Turkey granted full voting rights 80 years ago today

Halide Edip (R), the only female officer during the Turkish War of Independence & an outspoken feminist, and Nezihe Muhittin, co-founder of the Turkish Women's Union that campaigned for women's suffrage

On December 5, 1934, women in Turkey were granted full universal suffrage. They participated in parliamentary elections for the first time on February 8, 1935, winning 18 seats. While many countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Russian Republic had granted this right earlier, Turkey was ahead of states such as France, Italy, Holland and Japan that granted full suffrage a decade later.

Women in Turkey had won the right to vote in municipal elections back in March 1930. Their political rights formed part of an important raft of reforms implemented by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to modernise the country.

Turkish women played a vital role in the War of Independence, which is detailed in Human Landscapes, a book by acclaimed Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and separately by Halide Edip. Edip was a novelist and respected feminist, and became one of the inspirational voices of the Nationalist Movement. She was the only female officer in the Resistance Army, which she wrote about in her memoire The Turkish Ordeal, published in 1928.

After the Turks’ epic victory in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was keen for women to continue to help the country progress by being allowed to fully participate in political, social, economic, and academic areas of life. In his public addresses, he talked of the need to have women even better educated than men in order to train children to meet the needs of a modern Turkey.

Atatürk: "Our most urgent present task is to catch up with the modern world. We shall not catch up if we only modernize half the population.”

The run-up to full suffrage is summarised by author Judy Ayyildiz: “In 1926, the Turkish Assembly passed laws of secularization. Women and men got equal inheritance rights. Divorce could no longer occur at the whim of a husband. Either parent might receive child custody. However, men still held the position as head of the household, and women could not work outside the home or travel abroad without the permission of the husband. But, with the new laws, women could not only teach in girls’ schools but in mixed primary and middle schools. Women, furthermore, could begin careers in law, medicine, and public services -- although social change was gradual and limited. Life in the countryside went on much as before. While the law no longer recognized religious or polygamous marriages, conservative rural society still did.”

“President M. Kemal [Atatürk] delivered a number of speeches in the early twenties that insisted on the full emancipation of women in the Turkish state and society. “Our most urgent present task,” he repeatedly said, “is to catch up with the modern world,” and furthermore, that, “We shall not catch up with the modern world if we only modernize half the population.”

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk championed the full voting rights and equality of women in Turkey
In 1930, women were given the right to vote and be elected in municipal balloting. Atatürk’s adopted daughter Afet became the first woman to enrol in the People’s Party and worked as a speech writer. She later became a professor of history. In the 1933 local elections, Gül Esin became the first female muhtar for Karpuzlu village in Aydın, in western Turkey.

On 5th December 1934, 258 of the 317 Turkish MPs voted in a change to the Turkish Constitution. Women aged 22 and over were given the right to vote and those aged 30 and above could stand for elections. As soon as the law was formally published two days later, the Turkish Women’s Union, which had been formed a decade earlier by Nezihe Muhittin, Latife Bekir (Çeyrekbaşı) and Sabiha Zekeriye (Sertel), organised a massive march from Istanbul’s Beyazıt Square to Taksim to celebrate this huge milestone in Turkish history.

Today, there are 79 female MPs out of a possible 548 seats in the Turkish Parliament. With 46 female deputies, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has the most female representation. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has 19 women MPs, while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has just three. The smaller Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has eight female politicians. People's Democracy Party (HDP) has one female MP and there are two independent female MPs.

First 18 female MPs in Turkey, following the 1935 General Elections
On this the 80th anniversary of Turkish Women’s Suffrage, T-VINE is proud to honour the dedication work and sacrifices made by Turkish grandmothers, aunts, mothers, sisters, and wives who have collectively helped Turkey evolve into a modern, democratic society.

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