The short unhappy life of the “Committee on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men” in Turkey

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.

Özlem Altıok
18 December 2013

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 a tangled 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?

Naming the problem

Women's rights activists see the new name, which removes  “women” and any mention of “equality” from its title, as yet another illustration of the continued framing of women's social and economic rights in terms of their roles as mothers and wives.

The State Statistics Institute data show that out of 100 women in Turkey, 29 participate in the labour force and 26 are gainfully employed. In comparison, out of 100 men, 72 participate in the labour force and 65 are gainfully employed. These inequalities further women's dependency on men. They hinder their ability to make important life decisions, including leaving unhappy and violent marriages.

To its credit, as part of the country's bid to join the European Union, Turkey's ruling party is constructing a legal framework to increase women's participation in the labour force. In a 2010 Directive, the Prime Minister's Office makes a commitment to “Increase Women's Employment and Ensure the Equality of Opportunity.” However, both the government and employers' associations frame the problem in terms of “social and economic development,” “human capital investments,” and “waste of labour force.”

Recently, the government announced that it was working on legislation to provide incentives for employers to increase part-time and “flexible” employment and set up child care facilities, with a heavy emphasis on the former. The government's main objectives with this law have been summarized by the Minister of the Family and Social Policies herself: “to increase the population and to support family and work life. To support the activities of women in all these activities.” Tellingly, “ensuring gender equality” is not among the main objectives.

While “equal pay for equal work” is among the stated objectives of the Prime Minister's 2010 Directive, in designating child care as a woman's primary job, and primarily a woman's job, the government fails to address the fundamental causes of gendered income inequalities.

Why do women earn less than men in Turkey?

In every country women earn less than men on average, partly because many women “opt out” of paid work to take care of children and perform other unpaid household labor. Turkish Statistical Institute data shows that 62% of women give “being busy with housework” as the main reason for not participating in the labour force. Considering that 71% of women do not participate in the labour force at all, this finding shows the extent to which the gendered division of labour in the household accounts for women's economic disadvantage.

Women also suffer from a gender pay gap: the average salary for working women is less than that of men in all countries. How wide this gap is varies by country, industry, and sector.  In Turkey, women employed in the private sector earn 70% of what men do according to one study by İlkkaracan and Selim (2007). The gap is wider in agriculture, where women's earnings are 43% of men's.  A Women's Labor and Employment Initiative report shows, out of the 100 women who are employed in Turkey, 42 work in agriculture (43 work in services, and a mere 15 in industry). 

While men are evenly distributed across industries and jobs, women are concentrated in non-union firms and sectors, in low-wage, part-time and temporary jobs -  a phenomenon observed in many other countries. Similarly, ninety percent of the gender pay gap in Turkey can be explained by workplace variables (the type of firm, sector, and collective bargaining status of the jobs where women are concentrated), and human capital endowments (women's education, average years of work experience, and job tenure). İlkkaracan and Selim (2007) find that women's lower levels of work experience and short tenure on the job are the leading reasons for the persistent pay gap between men and women in Turkey.

Clearly the gendered division of labour in the household accounts for women's interrupted and intermittent work lives (which also impact their pension in old age). These gendered ideas and practices  structure women's “choices” to work fewer hours, take low-wage jobs, and take time off from work to care for children and other family members.

If the gendered division of labour in the household is a significant cause for women's substantively lower earnings, how can policies that naturalize the gendered division of labour in the household – in the name of “protecting the family” –  bring about gender equality? 

Pro-family does not mean pro-woman

Feminists start from the simple premise that women are individual human beings in their own right –  that women's rights are human rights. Certainly, many women identify as mothers, wives and daughters. Moreover, political motherhood can expand women's and human rights as evidenced by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Activist Mothers of Xalapa and Cumartesi Anneleri (Saturday Mothers) and many others.

While never free from power relations, “the family” is experienced as a place of refuge, support, love, and labour, for many women and men.  The problem lies not in this fact, but rather in the tendency of policies promulgated by conservative parties, under the rubric of “protecting the family,” to obscure and perpetuate prevailing gender inequalities.  Symptomatically, JDP's focus on the family fails to address either the problem of women's low rates of labour force participation or the pay gap between men and women. This is why feminists reacted to the initial news of the committee's name change.

The AA news had implied that the draft needed only PM Erdoğan's review and approval on its way to a rubber-stamp vote in Parliament.  As activists scrambled for confirmation and details, the picture only grew murkier, with the KEFEK chairwoman denying knowledge of any such pending change.  Dozens of women's organizations issued a broad call, published in full-page ads in two national dailies, to halt the name change.  Only after the ads had appeared, Mustafa Elitaş, a ranking JDP politician announced that he had already “tweeted” that the government had no such plans.

Elitaş accused women's organizations of “not acting in good faith,” but feminists see it the other way around. For Hülya Gülbahar, former president of KA-DER, and co-founder of ESITIZ, it is the government -  led by a prime minister who publicly states that he does “not believe in the equality of women and men” -   that does not act in good faith. By opposing a name change for KEFEK, feminists reiterate their opposition to policies that subsume women's problems under presumably more pressing issues of “family,” “population” and “development” -  evidenced by the rolling out of laws that reflect the Prime Minister's stated goal to increase Turkey's population growth rate, in part by banning abortions and restricting Caesareans.

At the time of writing, feminist vigilance and activism seems to have paid off.  On December 5, Minister Şahin said that there were no plans to close or change the name of the committee. However, this is not enough to assuage feminists' concern that the short and unhappy life of this committee may come to an end, or that its effectiveness will not be undermined by “pro-family” policies focusing on “the family.”

This episode also suggests that any 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.




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