Istanbul, Turkey – A nondescript apartment in Istanbul’s business district is the nerve centre of a drive to propel more women into Turkish politics.
But with some 60 million voters due to cast their ballots in presidential and parliamentary elections later this month, the mood at the office of Ben Secerim, or I Choose, is one of disappointment.
The NGO was established two years ago to boost female participation in politics, specifically to hunt out suitable candidates to stand for parliament and recommend them as viable vote winners to political parties.
Earlier this month, Ben Secerim unveiled 20 women who will stand for four parties in the May 14 legislative election. However, due to the nature of the election process – votes for parties are allocated to candidates according to their placement on ranked party lists – just four stand any real hope of entering the Turkish Grand National Assembly.
“It’s very disappointing for us,” said Nilden Bayazit, president of Ben Secerim. “There’s a wall for women candidates even in more liberal parties. It shows there are still many blocks on women and they don’t want to change that.”
The wider picture is similarly discouraging for those seeking greater female representation in a country where women make up 50.7 percent of the electorate and where national women’s suffrage was introduced in 1934.
Of their 600 parliamentary candidates, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has nominated 113 women while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has selected 156 – ratios of 18.8 and 26 percent, respectively. The Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) is fielding the highest proportion of female candidates at 40.5 percent.
Looking at the number of highly-placed women on party lists offers an even bleaker prospect for women’s role in mainstream politics. The CHP has women ranked first on its list in just 11 of Turkey’s 87 electoral districts, while the AKP has four.
An international problem
The underrepresentation of women in national legislatures is not a situation unique to Turkey. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women account for half or more of the lawmakers in just five countries. Turkey comes 132nd in the world, with 17.4 percent of the deputies elected in 2018 being women.
Some have pointed to patriarchal societies as the main barrier to women becoming involved in politics, but evidence in Turkey suggests such attitudes have eased significantly.
In research carried out by Ben Secerim and the polling firm KONDA last year, 62 percent of respondents said that female politicians would help Turkey develop and become a better society. A similar number supported mandatory quotas for women in political parties. Nearly three-quarters said they would support a woman from their family entering politics.
“The issue of female politicians is not just a matter of equal representation; a female politician is needed for a democratic society, for justice, to solve the climate problem, to end corruption, to transform education policies and to regulate family policies,” Bayazit said.
Turkish women have long been at the forefront of campaigning on social issues. Every International Women’s Day on March 8 sees thousands flood the streets to call for equality and rights.
Turkey’s 2021 withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on protecting women against violence increased civil activists’ fears.
A government statement at the time said: “The decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention in no way means that the State of the Republic of Türkiye ‘compromised to protect women’. Even though Türkiye is withdrawing from the convention, it will never give up the fight against domestic violence.”
Translating activism to political participation
However, civil society activism has largely failed to translate into female participation in party politics.
“Political parties are completely male-dominated playgrounds,” said Gulseren Onanc, the founder of the SES Equality and Solidarity Association. “It is very difficult for a woman to make room for herself here … Women have dominated the field of civil opposition in the strongest way, but this hasn’t been reflected in politics for some reason.”
Lawyer Sibel Piskin is standing for the opposition Iyi Party in Kirklareli, one of 20 Turkish provinces to have never had a woman in parliament. She has been placed second on the party’s list, which is unlikely to get her a seat, despite research showing her to be a well-respected figure in the northwestern region.
“I was not elected because I was in the second place in the previous  election and I am in the second place again,” she said. “Of course, there is a loss of motivation. Society is ready for female politicians and they think that the country will go to a better place with female politicians.”
Bayazit, a former CHP politician, believes the male-dominated hierarchy of most political parties is a major obstruction to women.
“The party structure is so formal and still controlled by men who sometimes seem to want to promote other men,” she said. “For example, the CHP mayor in Kirklareli tried to block our path when we put forward a very well-known and capable woman.”
On the streets of Istanbul, women were equally forthright in their opinions of men’s political dominance and how to solve Turkey’s current economic woes.
“Men like to behave as the ones with power and think they can run things best,” said Ayse Cinar as she sold flowers in front of Kadikoy pier. “But we’re the ones who really know how the world works and how to get things done. We need a woman leader to get us out of the mess we’re in.”