03/07/2008, 00.00
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For Turkish women the veil hides marginalisation

by Mavi Zambak
Despite being half of the active workforce, women are victims of family violence, arranged marriages, marginalisation on the job, and illiteracy. A rally is planned for tomorrow in favour of a truly secular state.

Izmir (AsiaNews) – The Turkish Women’s Federation (TKCF) with the support of some universities and NGOs is planning a great demonstration for tomorrow in Izmir, a city on the Aegean Sea, candidate for Expo 2015 and birthplace of Kemalism. Their goal is to mark International Women’s Day and demand that Turkey become a truly secular state rather than one that adopts laws allowing women to wear the veil in universities but does little to protect women’s rights.  The commemoration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state and promoter of many reforms for greater women’s equality, will be at the centre of the event.

Despite the authorities’ best efforts, the status of women in Turkey still falls short of Western standards. The legal framework for women’s rights might be generally adequate, but the actual, on-the-ground daily enforcement of the law is imperfect, full of ambiguities and contradictory.

Turkish women may represent about 50 per cent of the active population and occupy important posts in society (including stock exchanges or new technologies), but their illiteracy rate is three times that of men and their rights are constantly being questioned.

Turkish women got the right to women in 1934, more than a decade before women could vote in some Western countries like Italy. And yet sexual crimes are still considered violations of “public morality and the family order” rather than offences against the human person.

Recent data released by the Women’s Federation revealed that 87 per cent of all women have been victims of some kind of violence within the family. In 34 per cent of cases it is physical violence (16.3 per cent involving habitual sexual violence) against 53 per cent which is verbal.

Four Turkish women in ten are forced into arranged marriages; 20 per cent are married outside regular channels and so their marriage is not recognised by the state. About 64 per cent of all pregnant women have not undergone any pre-natal check-up.

One woman in five can neither read nor write. Among those who went to school, 2 per cent obtained a university degree. Among those between 15 and 24 years of age with a secondary school diploma, 39.6 per cent are unemployed. Only 25 per cent of woman work (against an EU average of 55 per cent).

Only 17 of the country’s 850 prefectures are run by women. Among lawyers only 18 per cent are women and in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament only 24 are occupied by women. For every thousand mayors five are women.

Given these figures the Women’s Federation wants exemplary punishment for honour crimes, forced marriages and underground polygamy. They also want the government to take steps to solve problems confronting women like illiteracy, marginal role in politics and labour market discrimination. They complain that in some areas of south-eastern Turkey some baby girls are not registered at birth, a practice which weakens the struggle against forced marriage and honour crimes.

They are also concerned that civil authorities only partially enforce laws protecting the family.

In the eyes of public opinion, solidarity among women rather than politicians’ promises has usually put women’s issues front and centre. It is women also who have tried to find concrete solutions.

For example, 40-year-old Arzuhan Yalçındağ, chairwoman of Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD), is using her social standing to promote women’s causes.

During a series of visits to different Turkish cities from north to the south, east to west, she criticised in no uncertain terms discrimination against women, saying that “the best way to overcome discrimination against women is through temporary affirmative action to encourage women’s participation in the country’s political life and labour markets, creating a new image for women in society.”

For her one of the main problems underlying the under-representation of women in labour markets is the “lack of institutionalised, generalised, accessible and affordable facilities providing services for children, the elderly and the disabled, something which is forcing women to care for them at home.”

It is no accident that Cemile Bitargil, an energetic Christian mother of three, was the first to set up a home for the mentally disabled in the Hatay, a southern province on the border with Syria where residents and their families receive much needed human and moral help, support and special training so that these people with special needs can become integrated in the wider society rather than be shunned and secreted away as “God’s curse”.

After many years in Germany working as a seamstress, Nazire Kil, also a Greek-Orthodox, chose to retire back home where she provides economic and human support to the various retirement homes that are starting to appear around the country.

“All this shows,” said Nazire with conviction, “that the veil is not the question. Sadly it is not used only to cover women’s hair but also a much deeper discrimination against women and their rights.”

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