🌈 The burden of de-democratisation: gender (in)equality in Turkey

The less democratic the political regime, the more asymmetrical gender relations become. Raquel Santos Fernandes terms this phenomenon ‘gendering de-democratisation’. Based on data from Turkey, she explains how the process increasingly excludes women, and limits their experiences of citizenship in politics, in the economy, and in their intimate lives

Gendering de-democratisation

Turkey is a competitive authoritarian political regime. Its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led for two decades by Tayyip Erdoğan, has fuelled the country's relentless de-democratisation. AKP controls most of the media, disregards the judiciary, and abuses and misuses state power.

Opposition to gender equality is a core mechanism of democratic erosion, as Conny Roggeband and Andrea Krizsán showed in their opening piece for this series. Turkey’s political regime is a prime example, fostering unequal gender relations, and encouraging women's exclusion from the public sphere. Sociologist Sylvia Walby bases her definition of 'deep democracy' on gender-equal representation. In Turkey, under-representation of women, and a lack of political response to their needs, are unambiguous evidence of a democratic deficit.

In Turkey, under-representation of women, and a lack of political response to their needs, are unambiguous evidence of a democratic deficit

I call this obvious link between non-democratic gendered and political dynamics ‘gendering de-democratisation’. The process has diminished women's public role in Turkey, and driven them back into domestic roles. Turkey's 2021 withdrawal from the so-called Istanbul Convention is the culmination of long-standing policies in Turkey that have worked to roll back gender equality.

Returning to a culture of domesticity

Referencing Sylvia Walby again, I define Turkey's gender regime as a hybrid because women are excluded in a number of ways. The country is moving away from the Europeanisation of the early 2000s, and women are increasingly excluded from public life. Violence against women is condoned, and women are under-represented in the labour market and in politics. Women's sexual and intimate issues, what Ken Plummer called ‘intimate troubles’, are badly neglected.

The AKP has politicised women's private lives. Indeed, its 2012 Education Reform (4+4+4) allowed children to be home-schooled after around the age of ten, and for formal education to be abandoned. It is a move likely to affect girls far more than boys. Indeed, the policy chimes with AKP's promotion of the religious housewife as the ideal of a native Turkish woman.

By 2020, women's employment had reached a low point, and Turkey had regressed to a cultural nationalism reminiscent of the 1950s

In 2013, protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park staged a sit-in protest that spread to many other areas of Turkey. The ruling party used the Gezi protests to polarise Turkish citizens into opposing political camps. Although both veiled and unveiled women support the AKP, the party attacked protesting 'secular feminists' and praised non-protesting 'religious mothers'. In her article on the intersectionality of gender and religion in Turkey, Nil Mutluer explains skilfully how gender and sexuality play a central role in reshaping the secular-religious divide.

Moreover, by 2020, women's employment had reached a low point, and Turkey had regressed to a cultural nationalism reminiscent of the 1950s. It's no surprise, then, that Turkey has the lowest OECD early childhood education enrolment rates. The country's long-term economic crisis, and the AKP's politics of family and flexible employment, all contributed to this dismal state of affairs.

Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention

Turkey's 2021 withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention added insult to injury. It exposed clearly the country's ongoing gender de-democratisation. It's worth noting how legal shifts during Europeanisation distorted early signs of de-democratisation. For instance, the 2010 European Commission Progress Report praised Turkey for advancing toward gender equality. Legal changes, often misidentified as effective implementation in the right direction, allowed for stealthy de-democratisation, to which withdrawal from the Convention gave voice.

Withdrawal from the convention reflected Turkey's political regime, which had been eroding democracy and encouraging a culture of domesticity

Withdrawal from the convention reflected Turkey's political regime, which had been eroding democracy and encouraging a culture of domesticity. It deprived women of their rights across three different aspects of their lives:

1 Political citizenship

Women in Turkey have extremely limited opportunities in political life. Turkey has the lowest representation of women in ministerial positions, and one of the lowest rates of parliamentary representation, of any OECD country.

Yet, it's not just a lack of representativeness that makes equal gender political representation hard to attain. The gendering of local politics, the near-absence of women in ministerial positions, and the dearth of policymakers representing women's interests, also inhibit representation. Non-parliamentary forms of participation, such as online activism and street politics, have now become the main expression of women's political citizenship in Turkey.

2 Economic citizenship

Turkey also lies at the bottom of OECD tables on economic citizenship. The government is pushing for part-time work options for women instead of full-time jobs. It wants them to undertake caring duties in the home that the state (or the private sector) should provide. Furthermore, the gap between unemployed and working women is of little significance compared with men's employment. Evidence suggests that women don't figure in the labour market because they are staying at home to act as carers and homemakers. As Gamze Çavdar and Yavuz Yaşar's spot-on analysis reveals, not only are women not participating in the market, they aren't even attempting to enter it.

The 4+4+4 Reform in 2012 lengthened mandatory education from eight to twelve years. That may sound like progress, but the Reform means that girls can drop out of school legitimately after primary school and receive no formal tuition thereafter. It steals from those girls the social elevator of education.

3 Intimate citizenship

In matters of women's health and legal rights, the regime is hurtling even faster towards a culture of domesticity. Access to contraception and the HPV vaccine is increasingly limited, and the AKP has attempted to criminalise abortion. Abortion remains legal in Turkey, but less than 4% of public hospitals provide unrestricted services.

Similarly, divorce is being mediated by religious cadres and is becoming more difficult to access. The AKP, which gained new parliamentary backing following the May elections, is pushing for further opposition to alimony. Given that expressing a desire for divorce is the leading cause of femicide, the implications of this approach to gender-based violence are chilling.

A call for responsiveness and autonomy

The AKP has now held office for more than 20 years. In the early days of its rule, Europeanisation seemed to relieve it of the burden of de-democratisation. Yet, opposition to gender equality was already there, as the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention proved.

If Turkey is to reverse this journey towards a culture of domesticity, the country must develop policies that respond to women's economic needs, and to their bodily autonomy. This is of the utmost importance for women's return to the public sphere and for the promotion of gender equality, in Turkey and anywhere else.

No.13 in a Loop thread on Gendering Democracy. Look out for the 🌈 to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Raquel Santos Fernandes
Raquel Santos Fernandes
Doctoral Researcher, Department of Political Sciences, University of Minho

After graduating in communication sciences, Raquel gained a Master's degree in political science.

Raquel's lines of research include gender and politics, gender equality policies, political regimes, democratisation / de-democratisation, and Turkish politics.

She is particularly interested in how gender inequality is promoted in non-democratic political regimes.

Her most recent research is on unequal power relations emerging within Turkish institutions and structures.

Raquel is a member of Minho's Research Centre in Political Science (CICP).

She tweets @fsantsraquel

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