Policy aiming to address Turkey’s real and persistent problem of gender inequality must be formulated in consultation with feminists. Unfortunately, there is ample reason to doubt that a government that refuses to name a problem can solve it, says Özlem Altıok.
On October 14, Anadolu Ajansi (AA), Turkey’s official news agency, reported that “The Committee on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men” (KEFEK) would be replaced with a “Committee on Family and Social Policies” as part of draft legislation to change parliamentary bylaws. A few weeks later – because their attention was focused at the time on another piece of draft legislation dubbed the “women’s employment package” – feminists called on the government to halt any such change until they could comment.
Given Turkey’s many pressing issues – including what Deniz Kandiyoti calls atangled web of religion and politics that the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) helps to weave, and the unhappy marriage between democratizing reforms undertaken to facilitate Turkey’s accession to the EU and the repression of political dissent – this issue may appear inconsequential. But what may seem like a simple change in name is important because it illustrates the fragility of the institutional mechanisms for protecting women’s rights and ensuring gender equality in Turkey.
There is some irony, too, in the fact that feminists now find themselves defending a name they did not initially like. When the Turkish parliament voted in January 2009 for the creation of a permanent “Committee for Equality of Women and Men,” feminists, who had worked for this outcome for a decade, felt victorious and happy. But their joy was dampened when, in a last minute maneuver, the JDP changed the name to “The Committee on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men.”
In a fax signed by more than 100 women’s organizations, women’s rights activists objected that their goal was “equality in practice,” not “equality of opportunity.” Arguing that the state must ensure equality between women and men by taking positive action and instituting positive discrimination, women’s organizations urged parliament to keep the original name, which had enjoyed widespread support. Ultimately, they failed to remove “of opportunity” from the committee’s name.
So why does the change in the name of this parliamentary committee – one that women’s rights activists did not even like in the beginning – upset them today?