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  • An Appeal for Secular Feminisms in Turkey
  • Handan Koç (bio)

The military coup in 1980 transitioned Turkey to a neoliberal economic and political development model led by Turgut Özal, who held high-level positions, including prime minister and president, between 1980 and 1993. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan founded the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; AKP) in 2001 and led it until 2014. In 2002 party leaders, declaring it a conservative democratic party, announced that it was breaking from its classic Islamist roots. Erdoğan also claimed that he was committed to Özal’s economic and political policies. The AKP won the general election in 2002, tolerated by nearly every segment of society, including the Kurdish and Turkish oppositions and liberal-leftist intellectuals. In 2007 and 2010 the party expanded its powers by referendum, and in 2010 Prime Minister Erdoğan took dictatorial control.

The head scarf movement and women were of central importance to the rise of Turkey’s Islamist conservatism. In the 1980s updated booklets (ilmihal) about Islamist rules and principles for daily life brought Islamist rebirth to large numbers of women. Islamist discourse sheltered women from the immoralities and crises of modern life. Many Islamist women debated with Islamist men and became actively involved and politically vocal. In the 1990s women’s votes facilitated the rise of the classic Islamist Welfare Party. Islamist women demanded the democratic right to live in line with their beliefs.

In the spirit of equal opportunity, many feminists support women’s right to wear the head scarf in public settings, although other secular women support state prohibitions on the head scarf. In Turkey we divide feminism into three temporal frames, beginning with the feminists who lobbied for equality in the early twentieth [End Page 350] century. The second wave emerged in the 1980s. In the current third wave multiple feminist projects coexist, including the Kurdish feminist movement, transfeminism, anarchofeminism, Islamic feminism, and queer feminism, among others. The sweeping category of “the Middle East” misses the complexity of the feminist terrain in Turkey, and those who do not read Turkish-language sources or are unfamiliar with the history of feminism in Turkey find it difficult to understand. Influential theories published in English or French often treat such histories and experiences as tangential even if they present major challenges and grounds for differing theories, including secularism.

While feminist thinking, activism, and scholarship have established the constructs, changeability, and plurality of masculinities and femininities, many Islamists in Turkey, including AKP ministers, rely on the foundational concept of fıtrat to understand sexual difference and gender relations. The word fıtrat evokes the religious idea of “first creation,” where men and women are assumed to have specified and natural social roles. In Turkey fıtrat is invoked in hegemonic Islamist-conservative discourse to challenge feminist analysis of sexual and gender relations. Essentialist ideas of immutable fate and fıtrat should be key sites of feminist struggle.

As a materialist feminist, I understand that women’s labor has always been exploited by men, bosses, landowners, and heads of families. When feminism is reduced to a critique of modernity, we ignore the importance of women’s economic independence based on wage earning and recognition as individuals outside the family. The particulars of patriarchy in Turkey, moreover, are based as much on the ethnic cultures of Turks and Kurds as on Islam. Patriarchal constructs could also be studied in terms of Aegean culture. In addition Turkey includes Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Christians. Today the majority of the population may be Muslim, but as Ahmet Yaşar Ocak (1999, 86) argues, the Ottoman “administrative establishment” replaced the “people’s Islam with Quran-based Sunni Islam” in the fifteenth century. The Alevi tradition of Anatolia shares no resemblance with Sunni Arab culture. Turkey borders Arab countries, and some of its citizens have Arab roots, but it also borders Christian countries in the East and the West. Byzantine and Mediterranean traces in patriarchal structures intrigue scholars. According to the global boundaries drawn during the Cold War, however, Turkey is in the East, and its military and governmental structure was designed to combat communism and social uprisings. But it was...


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pp. 350-353
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