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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 11:21 GMT 12:21 UK
Spotlight on Turkish women's rights
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Before they signed up to the EU, Catholic recruits Malta and Poland secured guarantees that - whatever reservations Brussels had about the compatibility of their strict abortion laws with women's rights - there would be no meddling.

Turkish women in Ankara
Turkish women have only recently been declared legal equals of men

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was never likely to have much luck persuading the European Commission that his proposal to make adultery a crime should receive a similarly sympathetic hearing on religious grounds.

To opponents of Turkey's bid for EU entry, the effort to re-introduce an adultery ban - repealed in 1998 because of its disproportionately negative impact on women - was further evidence that the country is just too Muslim for the club.

It had, however, been part of a package of currently stalled reforms to the country's penal code which are for the most part seen as improving women's lot and bringing the country closer in line with the EU.

"The adultery law has been held up as an example of women's oppression in an Islamic country," says Anna Karamanou, the former Greek head of the European Parliament's women's committee.

"I'm totally against such a ban, but the problem is that it has overshadowed the fact that women's rights are improving there - slowly but surely. Some of us EU members might do well to remember where we were when we joined all those years back."

Murdered

Turkish women do enjoy greater freedoms than those in many other Muslim nations. For decades they have had the right to vote, access to education, the right to divorce and the right to abortion. Turks even elected a female prime minister in 1993.

But by present EU standards, there is still a long way to go.

Violence is a concern frequently cited as one of the key problems by Western non-governmental organisations. A recent report by Amnesty International estimated that at least one third of Turkish women are victims of domestic violence in which they are "hit, raped and, in some cases, killed or forced to commit suicide".

Honour killings - murders of women accused of bringing shame on the family by conducting illicit affairs - affect Turkish society as they do other Muslim cultures. But, as elsewhere, the true figure for these deaths is shrouded in mystery.

Obviously nothing is going to change overnight - and there are still cultural issues to get over, mentalities to change in what is still a very patriarchal society
Selma Acuner,
Kader

The reforms of the penal code took on some of these issues. If the row at home and in Brussels over the inclusion of adultery is resolved and the overhaul of the code approved, provocation will no longer be a defence in such killings. The concept of "honour", a societal code, is to go.

It will also see that rape in marriage and sexual harassment are treated as crimes. However, to the consternation of women's groups, while it will limit rights to carry out virginity tests on women, it will not explicitly ban them.

"The virginity testing is still an issue, a problem. But these are on the whole significant reforms for Turkey," says Selma Acuner, of the Kader women's rights group.

"Obviously nothing is going to change overnight - and there are still cultural issues to get over, mentalities to change in what is still a very patriarchal society.

"But we shouldn't underestimate what's going on here. The EU shouldn't neglect what's been achieved in the course of the last few years. It will be so unfair if it does."

Economy and Islam

Even before preliminary negotiations between Turkey and the EU were underway, feminist groups successfully campaigned for the overhaul of the civil code, eliminating the most anti-woman elements.

On 1 January 2002, Turkish women became the legal equal of men. They were granted the right to an equal say in decisions regarding home and children, while property and assets were to be divided equally in a divorce.

They were also allowed to take jobs without obtaining their husband's consent.

Once the country develops economically... fathers will stop using Islam as an excuse to take their daughters out of school
Turkan Saylan,
Campaigner

But it is all very recent, and only on paper. Legislation takes a long time to compete with custom, and the figures still reflect a deeply unequal society.

At 4.4%, the representation of women in Turkey's parliament may be higher than in many Middle Eastern nations, but it is among the lowest in the world.

The female employment rate is meanwhile the worst in Europe, exacerbated by female illiteracy and poor education. One in every eight girls is out of school, often pushed into arranged marriages at a young age.

"Some people say this is because of Islam," says secular women's campaigner Turkan Saylan. "It isn't - it is because of poverty. Once the country develops economically, I am absolutely certain that this will change - that fathers will stop using Islam as an excuse to take their daughters out of school.

"It is joining the EU that will speed up this process. But meanwhile it is us here that have to stop Islam creeping through into legislation that oppresses women - that's what we have got to fight."


SEE ALSO:
Turkey's unrequited EU love
28 Jun 04 |  Europe
Turkey edges toward EU goal
18 May 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
14 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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