Analysis: The struggle for gender equality in Turkey goes back a long way

Istanbul is the most iconic city for women's emancipation in Turkey and today Istanbul's name is also associated with the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, writes Elife Biçer-Deveci

Istanbul is the most iconic city for women's emancipation in Turkey. In the late 19th century, it became central to women's associations in the Ottoman Empire and formed a connection between international feminism and women from the Muslim world. Today, Istanbul's name is also associated with the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence This convention is a human rights treaty meant to implement preventive and legal measures in cases involving violence against women and domestic violence. It was opened for signature in May 2011 in Istanbul. Turkey was one of first countries to ratify the treaty, in March 2012 - though also among the first to debate possibly withdrawing from it. Against the backdrop of the current pandemic , there have been countrywide protests accusing the government of turning Turkey into an Islamic state. All of the achievements since the formation of the Republic of Turkey 1923 are crumbling, also the women's equal rights,  say various critical groups.

You can read the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence here

A strong national women's movement currently exists, based on global standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Istanbul Convention is itself a set of principles promoting global gender equality. There is, however, a political apathy toward the implementation of the convention in Turkey. This apathy is a sign of reaction against the strength of the emancipatory movement's centuries-old roots.

The first global women's organisation, the International Council of Women, was established in 1888, and members soon looked for allies in Istanbul with initial contact made through missionary schools. Florence A. Fensham (1861-1912), dean of one such school, participated in 1902 in the founding congress of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Washington with other members of the Council, reporting that "Musalman law gives woman rights denied her by many nations of the Western world" and that "there is a growing intelligence and desire for education" among women in Turkey." (Report, First International Woman Suffrage Conference, Held at Washington, USA, February 12-18, 1902, pp. 118-119.)

To achieve their goals, equal access to education was first required and the struggle for political rights would follow, as formulated by Ulviye Mevlan (1893-1964), founder of the Ottoman Association for Women's Rights in 1913, in the journal Kadınlar Dünyası (Women's World) in 1913. Islam was the primary source of inspiration for those involved, particularly Prophet Mohammad's advice to "go and learn, even if the knowledge is in China". Mevlan repeatedly quoted this to justify the education of Ottoman women and to support sending them to Europe for relatively advanced academic training in the several issues of Kadınlar Dünyası.

Proponents of first-wave feminism held that modernity and progress were based on the improvement of women's status. They understood equal citizenship to be a constitutive element of modern civilisation and were convinced that world peace would only be possible when women had equal access to every sphere of life. International organisations like the Council and the Alliance held conferences and published extensively to spread these views and slowly shaped political discourse to include women's status as an indicator of civilisation. At the conferences, women from different parts of the world were invited to report on the situation in their respective countries. Selma Rıza (1872-1931), the first female journalist in Turkey, attended one Alliance congress in 1913 as the country's representative and delivered several updates on Muslim women's activities supporting war orphans and soldiers during the years 1910-1913. These gatherings were, amongst other things, dedicated to the potential of women to promote the peace that had been destroyed by wars lead by men. In women's journals such as Jus Suffragii of the Alliance and Bulletin of the Council, as well as Kadınlar Dünyası, female writers presented their views on war and politics and to raise awareness about the relevance of equal rights to the peaceful cohabitation of all nations.

With the slow acknowledgement of women's rights after the First World War, the Alliance held its meetings in the capitals of countries that had moved towards emancipation by guaranteeing women's suffrage. In April 1935, the 12th conference was held in Istanbul to celebrate the inclusion of full citizenship for women in the Turkish constitution and the election of 19 women to Turkey's Grand Assembly. In comparison to several European countries, women's development in Turkey was progressive.

Accordingly, the Turkish government used the conference to present its own modernity and to break with its "backward" Ottoman past. It sponsored the meeting by producing postage stamps dedicated to leaders of the international feminist movement and to Atatürk, pictured as the liberator of Turkish women. The state also opened Yıldız Palace, former residence of Sultan Abdulhamit II, to host the event and to emphasize the progress made.

However, Turkish women were excluded from the constitutional reform process relating to women's status, even though there was feminist public feeling dominated by the Turkish Women's Union. Instead, the state pursued the reforms based on European models so that in 1926, for example, polygamy was abolished through the introduction of the Swiss Civil Code of 1912. Municipal votes for women were subsequently introduced in 1930 as a part of modernization efforts.

The Turkish Women's Union was formed in 1923, shortly after the Republic of Turkey was founded, with the aim of sending female candidates into the new government. These efforts were supressed by the state, sometimes by police force as with the 1927 imprisonment of Union president Nezihe Muhittin following her harsh public criticism of parliament's rejection of women's political rights.

As an affiliate of the Alliance, the Union hosted the 12th congress in 1935 but was dissolved two weeks later with the argument that Turkish women have reached the same rights as men, so an independent women's organisation is not necessary anymore. In reality, the dissolution was forced by the state; the Union had fulfilled its function of illustrating Turkey's progressiveness and had therefore become redundant. The Alliance, and the international press, perceived this as a cynical irony of Atatürk's one-party regime. Women's rights were introduced on paper but no steps were taken to implement them.

Former Union members started traveling the country informing women about their newly won rights, implicitly filling the gap left by the state. In 1947, the Union was officially reformed with more strength and international connections. Global developments were particularly empowering in the Turkish struggle for gender equality, and the country is known today for its vivid feminist activism and thousands of women’s associations. Islam remains an important source of inspiration.

The Istanbul Convention is another achievement in which women’s associations have gained support in their work against violence but for which the government’s lack of implementation has been criticised. The current government continues to use women’s status as a political tool on the international stage, but today’s policy is a reaction to the strength of a globally connected women’s movement which has extended its agenda to protect all genders from any violence and is also involved in the international climate change movement.

source: Elife Biçer-Deveci is historian at ETH Zurich with expertise on the history of Turkey, international relations, and global reform movements ( This article for is based on Biçer-Deveci, Elife. Die osmanisch-türkische Frauenbewegung im internationalen Kontext. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2017.

photo: 12th International Feminist Congress in Yildiz Sarayi, 24 April 1935  (picture available at



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