By Merve Umay Kader.
Does justice bring equality all the time? From the perception, understanding, and application of ‘gender justice’, a concept that replaces the notion of ‘gender equality’ in Turkey, the answer is ‘no’.
Turkey’s First Lady Emine Erdoğan, in her speech on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2016, elaborated on the concept of gender justice by asserting that ‘equality that is provided irrespective of the specific responsibilities of women may bring forth other inequalities’.
The primary danger in that idea is that socially constructed gender roles for both men and women are taken for granted under the rubric of ‘responsibility by sex’. That is why the concept of gender justice in Turkey, promoted by officials, scholars, and NGOs affiliated to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is very unlikely to bring about emancipation for women or provide any real equality between the sexes.
Conceptualization of Gender Justice in Turkey
Gender justice, as promoted in Turkey, means fair treatment of individuals according to the natural characteristics, abilities, and needs of their sex. Although, according to high-level state discourse, it provides ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ roles to women and men (‘men and women are not equal by nature’), gender is in fact reduced to biological difference between the sexes, and women (and to a large extent LGBTI) are disassociated from political and economic participation and equal rights.
The concept of gender justice purports to do nothing more than describe ‘the way things are’, but contains within it a suspect moral judgment. It asserts that the responsibilities and the division of labor between men and women should not be equal but ‘just’, and thus maintains the distinction between public and private spheres. Additionally, as argued by Özgül Kaptan from the Foundation of Women’s Solidarity (KADAV), “the concept of gender justice was put forward to slow down and change the direction of the struggle for gender equality, which has been the main axis of the global feminist movement and social sciences for nearly 40 years.”
The champions of this concept challenge the mentality of universal gender equality by claiming that it treats women and men equally and makes their differences invisible. From this point of view, gender equality does not account for the differences between men and women that emerge from their nature; as a result, it ignores their distinct duties and abilities. Moreover, it claims that gender equality masculinizes women as it compels them to perform exactly the same tasks as men.
The abovementioned points are very important to elaborate upon. The evaluation of the concept of gender justice in Turkey is primarily based on duties and roles that are seen as naturally and intrinsically inherited by men and women. Instead of classic feminist approaches that support equal rights and opportunities between the sexes, gender justice is fundamentally based on the differentiated functions of men and women.
What is Wrong with this Concept?
The risk with the ‘gender justice’ approach is that the dichotomy between masculinity vs. femininity is not merely a distinction – it becomes a hierarchy, with culture valued over nature, public sphere over private sphere, reason over emotion, and so on. The valued terms of these hierarchies are associated with masculinity and the devalued terms with femininity.
At a more directly political level, several recent events that promote gender justice, organized by civil society organizations generally known for their pro-government affinities, can serve as examples of the public expression of the notion.
One event was the 2nd Gender Justice Congress on “Women and Poverty”, held on 3 March 2016 in Istanbul. During this congress, Sare Aydın Yılmaz, founding president of KADEM, gave a speech that elaborated on gender justice in detail. She argued that there are physical, mental and psychological differences between the sexes; thus, it is important to formulate public policies in accordance with these distinctions. Additionally, she argued that there are different expectations from men and women in the work life and, therefore, there should be flexible working hours and training programs targeted to women.
It is possible to see the effects of this mindset on the policy-making and on the daily lives of women in Turkey. One of the more insidious examples of which is the new Flexible Working Model. This model is ostensibly designed to enable temporary working relationships and widen the activity areas of private employment agencies, with the aim of ultimately decreasing the youth unemployment rate, however has been framed as targeting women only.
Such a model would slow down women’s career progression and lead them into poverty at an older age. Women would be promoted less, and the number of women in managerial positions would decline. Instead, the Flexible Working Model should meet the requirements of society in many fields in accordance with its primary objective, which is reducing graduate unemployment.
Familialist Policies as a Reflection of Gender Justice
In addition, familialist policies in Turkey see women as the main provider of care in the family. According to the Labor Law of Turkey, workplaces have to open kindergarten facilities if they have 150 or more women employees. The law refers only to the number of women employees, instead of the total number of employees in the workplace, because the idea that ‘women take care of the children’ is taken for granted in every sphere of social and political life. An obvious consequence of this policy is that employers tend not to hire more than 149 women in large companies.
Moreover, if we look at the Protection of the Family and the Dynamic Structure of the Population Program Action Plan (the ‘Family Package’), women are encouraged to work as part-time employees not only after the end of legal maternity leave, but also until the child comes of school age. Flexible and part-time work for an extended period of time will not grant women a higher position in the labor market and will not provide sufficient savings or premiums for retirement.
The same familialist mentality is reflected in policies regarding violence against women. Violence is the result of a male-dominated system; it becomes legitimate in the eyes of the public if the woman is not ‘obedient’ to her husband, or if she acts inappropriately according to patriarchal social norms.
According to a survey conducted by the Directorate General for the Status of Women, more than 71 percent of women face multiple types of violence, with 82 percent facing psychological violence. Yet, the law on the Protection of Family and Violence against Women is widely believed to protect the family unit to the detriment of the abused partner.
Women’s shelters in Turkey for instance, which are required to protect women who flee domestic violence, malfunction both administratively and practically. Consultations among independent women’s organizations have revealed that there is no monitoring mechanism for the implementation of the Law regarding the shelters; municipal council members responsible for implementing the Law are overwhelmingly male; first-step shelters (offering temporary support to women) have strict curfews, and several women choose to return home to avoid restrictions to their freedom; LGBTI women cannot be legally admitted to women’s shelters; and financial and psychological support for women moving out of shelters is extremely limited.
To protect women from the consequences of the promotion of ‘gender justice’, the most immediate action should be to abandon the formulation of gender justice as a criticism against gender equality. Rather, it would be useful to approach the concept along a similar vein as the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), which defines gender justice as ‘ending the inequalities between women and men that are produced and reproduced in the family, the community, the market and the state’.
In order for gender justice to bring real equality between the sexes, biological differences should not be treated as the source and base for gender relations, and parents, not only mothers, should not be represented as care givers. Maintaining the current understanding and interpretation of gender justice, rather than a universally accepted notion of gender equality, will create not emancipatory but restrictive consequences for women as well as for LGBTI individuals in Turkey.