Questioning Turkish Feminism and Modernity

AHA Session 89
Coordinating Council for Women in History 3
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Laura Bier, Georgia Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

Since World War II, the West has positioned Turkey as a role model for the Islamic world and a gateway to the Middle East.  A secular nation with a parliamentary system, Turkey, which occupies the eastern-most corner of Europe, and the western-most corner of Asia, is the only Muslim nation with European Union candidacy status.  However, despite its EU status and membership in NATO, it is a country that is still caught between its Eastern heritage and the “modernity” of the West.  Thus, it is a nation that eludes categorization: part of Europe and Asia, but somehow not comfortable with the socially-constructed label “Eurasian”; bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, but somehow not “Mediterranean”; contiguous with the Middle East, but not “Middle Eastern.”

While ninety plus percent of Turkey’s over seventy million inhabitants identify themselves as followers of one of the branches of Islam (the majority being Sunnis), there is a strict separation between religion and state—or secularism— that is enforced by the Turkish military.[1]  This secular-religious divide that serves as the backbone of the Republic of Turkey was established by its first President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, and includes a series of political, social, and cultural reforms, such as the institution of a public dress code, that deconstructed the patriarchal hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire and increased women’s rights.

            This panel seeks to explore Kemalist feminism in modern Turkey.  These papers discuss the rise of the Turkish Republic, specifically with Atatürk’s reforms aimed at women.  These reforms instituted state dress codes (1924), which forbade the wearing of headscarves in public buildings.  Of course, this law stood until 2012 when students at religious school were permitted to wear them.  Yet, throughout this more modern-day controversy concerning the headscarf, Turkish women have been continuously engaged in feminist politics.  The myth that Turkey stands ahead of the West in regards to gender equality will be examined here, in terms of women’s activism and demands for expanded rights within the public sphere, international community and organizing, and the use of fashion as a political tool and marker of discourse. 

            In the late 1960s gender emerged as a category for analysis, and the studies from this movement act as texts of women’s lives.  These juxtapose nicely alongside the letters and accounts of YWCA workers seeking to develop a Christian community and global connection of women in the early twentieth century.  Of course, media forces, advertisements, and a sense of global social pressure structured the Turkish women’s front.  Just as these women were fighting for a place within their own nation—a land on the metaphorical and literal border of modernity and western—their acts for rights and social and political acceptance forced personal and political debates to color their lives and actions. 

[1] Bariş Kiliçbay and Mutlu Binark, “Consumer Culture, Islam and the Politics of Lifestyle: Fashion for Veiling in Contemporary Turkey,” European Journal of Communication Vol. 17, No. 4 (2002): 496.

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