Representative image | Photo credit: iStock Images
A gender education system has long been one of the main goals of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP. So far, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has worked to separate men and women who participate in co-educational institutions. However, there are now plans to open a university for women only by 2023. Such a development will adversely affect the rights of women in Turkey, who have already been attacked from many directions.
Erdogan, the president, was tied to the idea of a university for women only during his visit to Japan in 2019 to attend this year’s G20 summit. In connection with the trip, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Mukogawa Women’s University. In his acceptance speech, Erdogan said he was impressed with the idea of an institution for women only. He later asked the Tokyo embassy to study Japan’s all-women universities, and in October last year the government announced that it would set up an all-women institution under the auspices of Turkey’s latest development plan.
Aylin Nazliaka, head of the women’s division of the opposition Republican People’s Party, made a statement describing such a plan as another way of creating “obedient women.” She also noted that the decision was taken without consulting women’s organizations, political parties or students.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women’s colleges were established in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere (including Japan and South Korea) to give women access to higher education that was denied them. Today only a few US colleges – for example Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke – are exclusively female institutions. While all Oxford Women’s Colleges are now co-ed in the UK, three (soon to be two) remain in Cambridge for women only.
In the west and in many other parts of the world, the March for Gender Equality (unfortunately not a straight line progress) has resulted in women being able to attend almost any college previously reserved for men. The few who remain only women see such an environment as a means of empowering women to achieve top performance. The Ewha Womans University in Seoul, for example, is one of the most renowned universities in South Korea.
In Turkey, where women have long had access to higher education, the belated creation of a women-only facility is a massive step backwards and difficult to reconcile with the need to advance women’s rights.
According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Index, Turkey has dropped to 130 out of 153 countries surveyed. While Japan is not far from Turkey, with 121 on the list, the government and society are keen to address the underperformance of women (although some parties often resist). While women-only facilities elsewhere are based on the idea of expanding opportunities for women, the only plan in Turkey is to keep them away from men. The Turkish government seems obsessed with preventing the mixing of women and men and almost advocates some form of the society-wide modern harem.
In 2013, shared student residences were removed. The then youth minister called the decision a “humanitarian, not an Islamic one”. A few months later, an AKP MP said that common education was a “big mistake” that the AKP wanted to fix.
Five years later, a new ordinance removed the requirement that certain high schools and vocational training institutions should be co-educated. A spokesman for the president then made the inexplicable claim that this should create a more “inclusive” education system. The Academy of Science – a non-governmental organization based in Istanbul – has stated that the Turkish University Council has ceased actively promoting gender equality in higher education since 2015.
No observer can escape the conclusion that women’s rights are being curtailed and that establishing a university for women only will only encourage this trend. The idea of separate institutions for women only cannot be seen as an expression of a striving for the advancement of women, but only as an attempt to downgrade the status of women as a citizen. It’s an idea that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.
In consultation with the Syndication Bureau
Alexandra de Cramer is a guest author. The views expressed are personal.