Women’s History Month: The Turkish Reformation

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Allison Weber
  • 39th Air Base Wing deputy staff judge advocate
When I told my parents I would be on a temporary duty assignment to Incirlik, Turkey, my mom asked if I would have to wear a headscarf. I explained that Turkey is actually a very modern country and that type of headgear is not a mandatory accessory. My dad agreed, citing the social reforms spearheaded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s. How he knew about all this surprised me, but I was interested when he spoke of how after centuries of enlightenment, the Ottoman Empire's social and economic systems were corrupt and stagnate by the early 20th century. So, as my father explained to me, Ataturk's new aim was to modernize Turkish life. He told me that Ataturk resolved "to lead his country out of the crumbling past into a brave new future." I was hooked learning about my new assignment, especially when I learned that this man had some revolutionary ideas about women. 

In fact, I learned that Ataturk applied his own very progressive ideas about women in order to reach his goals. He even proclaimed that Turkey was wasting half of its national resources by not fully utilizing its women. These concepts were amazing considering the location and time period. He further cemented his pledge to get all citizens together and moving in the same direction with his statement given in 1923, "Our nation has made up its mind to be a powerful nation. One of the requirements of today is that we should ensure the advance of our women in all respects. Therefore, our women, like our men, will be enlightened and well-educated. Furthermore, having an equal share in social life, Turkish women will walk side-by-side with Turkish men, each helping and supporting the other." 

Given that our own country has declared the month of March as "National Women's History Month," it seemed like a good opportunity to look back at some of the reforms that Ataturk implemented and appreciate how huge they really were and what they ultimately meant to Turkish women. 

In 1926, the entire Turkish educational system from grade school to the university became free, secular and co-ed. In numerous speeches, Ataturk encouraged women to enter professions saying, "We shall emphasize putting our women's secondary and higher education on an equal footing with men." As a result, Turkey, over the decades, has produced tens of thousands of well-educated woman doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writer, administrators, executives and creative artists. In fact, Turkey had the world's first woman Supreme Court justice. 

In addition to the education reforms, Ataturk implemented others in the fields of politics and civil rights stating, "There can be no logical reason for disqualifying women from political life. The hesitance and the negative attitude in this respect are the doomed remnants of a social order already buried in the past." Among the initiatives he started was a new Civil Code, which was adopted in 1926, abolishing polygamy and recognizing the equal rights of women in divorce, custody and inheritance. By 1934, Turkish women had the same civil rights as men. They could now vote, be appointed to civil posts and be elected to Parliament. 

Along with the secular reforms, changes in the approach to religious beliefs were amended under Ataturk's guidance. Religious faith became a matter of individual conscience with his statement in 1923, "Our enemies accuse us of having remained under the influence of religion; it is to this that they attribute our regression and our fall. This is wrong. Never has our religion demanded that women fall behind men." With that declaration, the Turkish government and all its institutions were made secular, helping to ensure women were equal participants. 

We are living in Turkey and it's women's history month. Historically speaking, it is well worth noting that in just fifteen years as president, Ataturk formed a new political and legal system, created secular government and education programs, and granted equal rights for all. He helped advance the arts and sciences, agriculture and industry, and especially, the opportunities for women.