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Being a Woman in Turkey and in the Middle East

What did the Arab Spring do for the rights of women in the Middle East? And how can the West help?

March 8, 2013


While women are more disadvantaged than men in all societies, this is even more true in the Middle East. The World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Index ranked Turkey 124th among a total of 135 countries surveyed.

Elsewhere in the region, only Egypt (126th), Iran (127th) and Saudi Arabia (131st) present an even worse picture. From West Africa to Central Asia, women are still expected to solely fulfill the traditional roles of good mother, wife and housewife.

But women in this part of the globe must also be enabled to show that they can also be good businesswomen, politicians and scientists.

The more women become economically independent and the more the perception of women’s inferiority can be overcome, the stronger the prospects that infringements of their rights can be prevented.

The irony is that such a strategy is bound to strengthen national economies and provide a significant and very long-lasting stimulus to growth.

Initial hopes that the Arab Spring would bring positive developments for women’s rights have been replaced with well-founded concerns about the effects of the election of Islamic parties to power.

Egypt saw protests about the lack of guarantees for political freedoms and women’s rights in the draft constitution.

People in Tunisia and Libya have the same concerns. In Syria, where a bloody civil war is going on, the expected regime change is seen as negatively affecting the lives of women.

Overall, it is a pity that the women who went to the streets and demanded change have been excluded from the reconstruction process of their countries.

Worse, there has been a relative decline in terms of women’s rights. Sadly, the Arab Spring has not brought much sunshine to women.

However, despite all the negative developments, it is too soon to tell how the Arab Spring will turn out for women. Transition periods are always difficult, and not everything has fallen into place in the region yet.

The fall of several authoritarian regimes does not mean that democracy will follow immediately. In the meantime, women remain in an uneasy situation.

To aid this difficult transition period, democratic countries in the West have a huge responsibility. In a sense, it is a sincerity test for them, too. They have ignored human rights infringements in the Middle East for decades, all for the sake of their economic interests and the stability of oil prices.

They have also collectively closed their eyes to the fate of the region’s women. Clearly, Western countries have to revise their approach. They should support efforts for economic development, democratic transformation and secularism in the region.

At the same time, this support of budding democratization must be provided carefully and respectfully. It cannot be allowed to reinforce the strong perception among Middle Eastern people that democracy is a Western cultural imposition.

In Turkey, the still very traditional structure of society and the resulting conservative mindset are the main reasons for gender inequality. This mentality traps women within the wife-mother-housewife triangle and limits their engagement in society to their own family.

This has been the dominant theme of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule in Turkey since 2002. This stands in stark contrast to the overall economic progress being registered in the country. It is rare for economic progress not to be accompanied by progress for women in terms of gender equality.

Sadly, Turkey is an exception to that general rule. Sadder still is the fact that the tendency towards conservatism on women’s issues can easily be detected in the statements of the highest level members of the Turkish government.

Politics aside, Turkish women also have to endure domestic violence, economic discrimination and the twisted perception of women in the media. Despite all the precautions, nearly 200 women in Turkey are murdered annually by their husbands, boyfriends or relatives.

Surely, it would be unrealistic to expect the decades-old problems of women to disappear overnight. In this long-term process, NGOs, politicians and the media need to be determined and insistent.

In addition to beefing up the legal regulations and enforcement efforts, public shaming — by drawing attention to problematic areas and providing continuous feedback and encouragement for the officials — will advance the process of driving down violence against women.

Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Turkish Policy Quarterly.


Sadly, the Arab Spring has not brought much sunshine to women.

From West Africa to Central Asia, women must be enabled to show that they can also be good businesswomen, politicians and scientists.

Western democratic countries have a huge responsibility, having ignored human rights in the Middle East for decades, all for the sake of stable oil prices.