Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s,women have had equal status with men in Turkish society, at least in law.
But during the Ottoman Empire, Turkish society was ruled by shari’a (Islamic religious law) and a body of medieval social custom for 500 years, and significant cultural change does not come overnight.
The status of women in Turkey is different from what it is in your home country. Not “better,” not “worse,” but different. In some ways, women may seem subservient to men; but Turkey had a female supreme court justice long before the USA did, and Turkey has had a female head of government, something the USA, for all its success in women’s liberation, has not yet had.
Men’s and women’s roles were clearly defined in traditional Turkish society and each gender was more or less sovereign within its appropriate realm. The husband-father was head of the household, but the wife-mother was in charge of the house and family. Men went out of the house to deal with the world of business, government and military; women stayed close to home and tended the crops, the animals and the household.
The ranking, behavior and appropriate attitude for each family member was clearly defined: imperious mother-in-law, submissive youngest child, etc. (It was the same even in the sultan’s palace: although the sultan was the monarch, it was his mother, the Valide Sultan, who decided which harem girls he would sleep with, and when!)
Atatürk‘s reforms hoped to blast these centuries-old traditions to smithereens, and to liberate women completely so they could participate in every aspect of society equally with men.
The veil was outlawed; civil marriage and divorce were established; Turkish women obtained the right to vote (long before women in Switzerland had that right), to hold political office, and to bequeath and to inherit wealth in their own right.
Though these reforms were dramatically effective, society does not change easily or quickly, and even Atatürk‘s bold, foresightful measures could not change everyone’s thinking all at once.
Arranged marriages are still common in the countryside and among the more traditional, religious families, although in the cities modern ideas of girl-boy courtship, love and marriage are not uncommon. Female virginity upon marriage is valued (and often expected), though it is not universal anymore.
In Turkey, as in most societies—even the ones thought to be most liberal in their attitudes toward women—you’ll find a range of attitudes toward women.
In contrast to Atatürk’s efforts to include women in all roles in Turkish society, the current Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) advocates a conservative role for women with statements that a woman’s role is that of mother and homemaker.
If you, a foreign female visitor, observe Turkish cultural norms (ie, behave as a Turkish woman would behave), you will be treated with politeness and respect.
Whether you do this or not, you will probably be in far less physical danger in Turkey than you’d be in many more “liberal” countries.
—by Tom Brosnahan