To mark Republic Day in Turkey – which is on October 29 – the Turkish-South African Youth Association (TURKSAY) highlights a few milestones in the foundation of the Republic, its democratisation and the women’s rights process in the country.
“Everything we see in this world is the creative work of women” was the view held by the founder of democratic Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
The democratisation process, which included far-reaching rights for the women of Turkey, were initiated when the Turkish Provisional Government was formed with the establishment of the Grand National Assembly in Anakara on April 23, 1920 and its transition to a Republican political system.
At the time, most of the Ottoman Empire’s territories were invaded by some of the Allied Powers: Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy. Due to the invasion of the Ottoman Empire, a need to start a resistance movement emerged and gained momentum throughout the country.
The Allied Forces’ occupation of Istanbul and the dissolution of the Ottoman Parliament compelled Atatürk to work towards the formation of a new legislature with the resistance movement in order to free Turkey.
As a result of the success of Atatürk and his comrades in arms in the Turkish War of Independence, and with the support of the Turkish people, Anatolia was freed from foreign invasion. This led to the international recognition of modern Turkey’s borders by the Treaty of Lausanne, and eventually the Republic of Turkey’s establishment on October 29, 1923.
Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the Turkish people gained sovereignty with a multi-party political system within the Republic.
However, democratisation movements in Turkey date back to the Ottoman Empire. An example is the Tanzimat Fermanı (Reformation or Re-organisation Edicts), declared in 1839. This was one of the most significant steps in the democratisation process in Turkey.
The Decree of Tanzimat stated the following:
- No one should be punished without trial;
- The courts should be transparent;
- All citizens should be equal before the law;
- The state must ensure the safety of life and property of people free of any discrimination;
- Guarantee the property and inheritance rights of citizens; and
- To punish anyone who acts against the law, whether the person is from the vizier class or a religious leader (member of the Ulama).
The latter was one of the most important provisions of the ‘ferman’.
The Edict of Reform (Islahat Fermanı) announced in 1856 expanded on the above reformations:
- It granted non-Muslim citizens the right to become civil servants and to work in Ottoman military service just like Muslim citizens;
- It provided freedom of religion and worship to members of all faiths living in the country;
- It increased the right of non-Muslim citizens to participate in the administration and gave them the right to a fair trial.
These reforms promoted diversity and multiculturalism.
The Basic Law of the Ottoman Empire (Kanun-i Esasi), which was declared by Abdülhamit II in 1876 and restructured the state organs similar to Western states, is considered the first Turkish Constitution. Thereafter, the General Assembly was established based on this Constitution.
The Constitution limited the power of the Sultan, and people became more included in the administration.
Thus the laws of the Ottoman Empire were an important democratisation step in founding the values of Turkey.
Another significant step in the Turkish democratisation process is the rights of women.
With the proclamation of the Republic in 1923, Turkey witnessed several revolutions and reforms including that of women. The social status of women underwent significant change and development.
Atatürk initiated many reforms to change the social status of Turkish women and succeeded in all of them. He struggled for women to take their place on equal terms with men in the socio-economic and political life of the country.
Equality between men and women were realised to a large extent with laws promulgated at the time of the declaration of the Republic.
Steps were taken to ensure that women have equal rights in education, law, work, political participation, and social and family life. Women gained the right to vote, to be elected, to choose a profession, and to perform public duties.
To ensure a non-sexist society, any distinction between men and women was abolished with the Civil Code of 1926. Women were given the right to vote and be elected in Turkey in 1934. The participation of girls in formal education was encouraged with the General Regulations issued in 1869. With this law, primary education was accepted as compulsory for all children, the establishment of special secondary schools for girls became a mandatory provision, and the development of teaching schools for women. With the law enacted in 1924, it was ensured that women and men equally benefit from learning opportunities. All this while women in many countries still struggle for the right to education.
When the concept of democracy is mentioned in the 21st century, basic values such as freedom, equality, dignity and human rights are the first values that come to mind. As it will soon be time to vote in South Africa, it is essential to highlight another indispensable feature of contemporary democracies is that they give people the right to choose their presidents. Arguably, there is a direct correlation between the rate of participation in the elections and the legitimacy rate of the political system, as the election results determine not only the government but also the opposition.
Although the origins of Turkey’s democratisation process can be traced back to 200 years earlier, with the proclamation of the Republic on October 29, 1923, the concepts of republic and democracy are two vital values for Turkey. Particularly in Turkey, democratic elections started with the 1946 and 1950 general elections. The rate of participation in the elections has always been high. To demonstrate, a research study conducted by Kiriş indicates that the rate of participation in the elections from 1950 to 2015 was 81.56% in Turkey (Kiriş, 2015; 39). The participation rate rocketed to 86.24% in the 2018 general elections (https://www.verikaynagi.com/konu-basligi/secimler/).
The importance that is given to the terms ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’ for the people in Turkey presented itself not only in election participation but also in the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Having faith in the legitimacy of the elected government and the belief in democratic principles enabled thousands of people to take to the streets and prevent a military coup. In this respect, the value given to democracy in Turkey can be seen not only in the rate of participation in the elections but also in the steps taken to ensure the continuity of the democratic government.
With Atatürk’s motto of “authority, without any condition and reservation, belongs to the nation,” TURKSAY would like to extend the greetings of the Turkish people to their South African people. We hope that the relationships and cooperation between our two countries will develop with the support of South Africans.
- This is an opinion piece submitted by the Turkish-South African Youth Association (TURKSAY).