Fatmagül Berktay tells us how her work as a feminist researcher has helped to build the women’s movement in Turkey.
How did you first develop an interest in feminist ideas?
I was first introduced to feminist theory as a student in the 1970s in Turkey. I was part of the Turkish Left, a movement seeking social equality, freedom and independence.
An influential piece of feminist work that stands out from that time is ‘Women’s Consciousness, Men’s World' by the British writer Sheila Rowbotham. I was stuck by her words:
‘We had a sense of not belonging. It was evident we were intruders. Those of us who ventured into their territory were most subtly taught our place. We were allowed to play with their words, their ideas, their culture as long as we pretended we were men…Either you played their game or you didn’t play at all.’
Discovering the work of Turkish writer Suat Derviş was also a real eye-opener. She was a woman with an independent and critical mind, and who was courageous enough to live on her own terms. That spoke to me.
Inspired by the scholarly contributions of these writers, as well as others including Şirin Tekeli, Simone de Beauvoir, Elaine Showalter, Audre Lorde and bell hooks, I started writing feminist literary criticism.
How did you use your interest in feminist theory to build a career as an academic researcher in Turkey?
I was fortunate to gain a Chevening Scholarship to study in the Women’s Studies Department at York University, UK. It was a very fruitful and inspiring time. I was able to deepen my theoretical knowledge and share views and experiences with women from diverse backgrounds.
I was the first person in Turkey to gain a master’s degree in this subject. On return home, I entered academia to teach political philosophy. I later took part in the launch of the first Women’s Studies Centre and Department at İstanbul University, teaching ‘Feminist Theories’ there until my retirement.
Has your role as an academic given you a platform for women’s activism?
Yes, on an institutional level, the creation of the Women’s Studies Centre took feminist ideas into the mainstream. This paved the way for many more women’s research centres to be established in universities throughout Turkey in the 1990s and 2000s.
There are now over 70 centres, offering 15 master’s programmes and six doctoral programmes across the country.
On a personal level, my role as a feminist researcher helped me to advance women’s activism through increased visibility and profile. It also put me in a stronger position to network.
To give an example, in 1985 I was one of the five women who submitted a 17,000-signature petition to the parliament. We demanded the ratification of the Convention Against the Discrimination of Violence against Woman (CEDAW) – an international bill of rights for women. This was one of many grassroots campaigns at that time to fight for equality, all while Turkey was under a military dictatorship.
Activism took place in the form of Women’s Day demonstrations, conferences and panel discussions. There were also protests against harassment and violence against women through the Purple Pin and Reclaim the Night campaigns. These kinds of activities were very new for Turkey but made a lasting impact, as seen by the scope of activism today against gender violence.
Partly due to these campaigns and public pressure, the Turkish government established a Ministry in Charge of Women’s Issues, for which I acted as a ministerial adviser in 1994-95. I was also part of the official mission to the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, taking activism from the streets to official dialogue at the international stage.
How important and relevant is feminism in Turkey today?
It is more important than ever.
In my opinion, the ruling party’s approach is adding to women’s discrimination. For example, by upholding of traditional family values, calling women back to the home and not taking serious measures to stop violence, the situation for women is getting worse. Women trail behind men in participation in the labour force and in literacy rates. There is a huge gap between men and women in terms of political participation and decision-making.
The evidence for this inequality is clear: in the 2020 Global Gender Gap report, Turkey’s gender gap rank is 130th out of 144 countries. The gender gap is getting wider each year, which I believe is due to the lack of government support and its conservative take on women’s issues.
How can feminist research continue to support activism in Turkey?
Academic research can lay bare the facts about women’s situation in Turkey, and activists can use this empirical evidence to show the root causes of the problem in support of their campaigns.
Although I’m retired, I’m still active in this space and continue to write and give conferences on feminist issues. I continue to use my voice to fight for women's equality.
The new generation of gender scholars is working with activists to further the cause, especially around gender violence.
To give one example, EŞİK (the Platform for Women’s Equality) brings together almost 400 women’s associations and initiatives, including LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) initiatives. Lots of discussion and activity happens digitally, through social media and video calls.
For Women’s Day, EŞİK will be broadcasting live a range of activities with the slogan: ‘It is our word, our voice, our life, our stage.’
Activities like this place pressure on the government to use their political authority to take effective measures to protect women’s rights in law.
Fatmagül Berktay is an author and academic, formerly professor at Istanbul University Faculty of Political Science.
Fatmagül is part of the British Council Turkey’s Crossing Paths: 80 Years of Changing Lives online exhibition.
She is also one of ten women portrayed in an online exhibition as part of the Women of the World (WOW) Festival Istanbul taking place 5-7 March 2021.