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Religion, Politics and Gender Equality in Turkey. Implications of a Democratic Paradox

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By Yesim Arat

By Yesim Arat

September 2009


Turkey is going through a revolutionary experiment with Islam in liberal democratic politics the results of which are not yet clear. The process of democratization dictated the relaxing of a statist hold on religion which, in turn, revived the spectrum of restrictive sex roles for women. The country is thus struggling with a democratic paradox where the expansion of religious freedoms accompanies potential and/or real threats to gender equality.

This paper explores the implications of the democratic paradox. It first traces how religion and politics are intertwined in Turkey and then examines the social and political effects of this intertwining in contemporary politics from a gender perspective. The main argument is that even though the ban on the Islamic headscarf in the universities has been the most visible source of public controversy, it is not the uplifting of the headscarf ban in the universities that we should prioritize as a danger, but the propagation of patriarchal religious values (through the public bureaucracy, the educational system and civil society organizations) that sanction secondary roles for women. The paper first locates the context, and then traces the intertwining of religion and politics at the level of political as well as civil society. It focuses on the politics of the Justice and Development Party that has been in power since 2002 and briefly turns to the Gulen movement in civil society. It examines how their policies and activities sanction societal norms legitimizing gender inequality, and then assesses the implications of these sanctions. This assessment draws attention to the opportunities women gain in this process and the context of adaptive preferences in which women make life choices. Finally, the paper considers countervailing forces and strategies for gender equality and empowerment. It primarily surveys secondary material, as well as daily newspapers, public opinion surveys, and party documents.




  • Yeşim Arat

    Yeşim Arat (Yale College, BA 1978, Princeton University, Department of Politics, PhD 1983) is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul and presently the Provost of her university. She is the author of “The Patriarchal Paradox: Women Politicians in Turkey and Rethinking Islam and Liberal Democracy: Islamist Women in Turkish Politics” as well as numerous articles on women and Turkish politics. Her book “Violence against women in Turkey”, written with Ayse Gul Altinay, won the 2008 Pen Duygu Asena Award in Turkey.

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