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  • His Life
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    Women Rights

    It was Turkish women who benefited most from the adoption of the Swiss Civil Code; through this, women were placed on the same social level as men, in contrast to the position hitherto reserved for them. In this way women became, in Turkey, an active element in the evolution of the Republic and in the national life.

    In fact there exists today no difference between the formerly captive Turkish women, and women in countries which are the most socially advanced in the world. Feminine emancipation is one of Kemal's most brilliant humanitarian victories.

    Nevertheless, the rights and freedom which had been given to the Turkish women mean no more than a return to the true spirit of the Turkish race. In the centuries when the history of the Turks is known in Central Asia, and in the periods of migrations, women always appear in a powerful position beside their husbands, and there were many who reigned as Queens and led their armies into battle. In the Turkish inscriptions in the region of the Orhon, dating from the seventh century, one reads words such as these : "The Queen who knows the State." There exists many proofs of the rank and equality enjoyed by the Turkish women; in the old edicts of the "Hakans" or Kings, there usually appears the formula "The King and his Lady ordain." Embassies were received by the royal couple.

    Although the Turks had been converted to Islam, polygamy and the seclusion of women took centuries to enter the customs of the Turkish people, which was not prepared to deprive women of the freedom they had been accustomed to. The famous Arab traveller and geographer, Ibn Battuta, who toured Anatolia in the fourteenth century, has left some interesting descriptions of the life and customs of the Turkish population of the period. He drew attention to the fact that despite their religion, the women did not cover their faces, and he was surprised by the respect with which they were treated by the men. Identical accounts are given by other travellers in the East. One of these adds that contrary to Moslem custom, husbands and wives in Turkish villages were acquainted with each other before marriage.

    Under the Empire, the Koran and mediaeval Moslem philosophers were interpreted in such a way as to bring the situation of women to a state we can hardly ever conceive of. They did not receive more than the most elementary education, and that only in their childhood. Later, once they had assumed the veil, they were allowed to read sacred works, in particular the "Mevlut", which were poems in honour of the Prophet's birth; it was considered scandalous for them to read anything else. Of course they only read who knew how to, and these were few. The virtue of these creatures, who were denied the honour of belief that they could personally defend themselves from the traps of adulterous love, was protected by strong walls and firm bars, vigilant eunuchs, and by their being forbidden to go out into the street unescorted or unaccompanied. For them, the street had to be seen through the "kafes", a wooden grille placed across the windows of the harem, or through the thick "peçe".

    Selim, Mahmut and Abdülmecit, the reforming Sultans, did nothing in favour of women, who only obtained some improvements with the victory of the Young Turks, not so much by the efforts of the latter, as by the penetration of the Western mentality and customs. Girls' schools were opened, and overflowed with pupils anxious to learn. The peçe suffered evolution, and more transparent cloth was used; the "feçe" was adopted, which left eyes uncovered. A moderate improvement was also to be seen in the customs under which they lived, which became more marked and during the years of the war. Even polygamy was tending to disappear because of the new standard of living.

    During the War of Independence, the women of Anatolia once again became fellow workers with their men, as they had been in ancient times; they worked the land, served in hospitals and carried ammunition. The creaking of the kagni, sacred song of liberty, sounded only to the rhythm imposed by those fearless peasant women who, without ceasing to look after their small children, followed the interminable roads which led to the front.

    The Gazi gave a special place amongst his plans for reform to the emancipation of women, who had proved their vitality and patriotism before his eyes. However, he did not raise the question while the war was in progress, since such a plan would have favoured the reactionary campaign. In February 1923, he spoke in Smyrna of the necessity or both sexes to take part in progress, since a society was composed of two sexes both of which were indispensible, and if one of them remained backward, society and the country would be incurably weakened. "Women's original duty consists of motherhood", he said. "Et us remember that it is our mother who gives us our first education, and let us recognise the importance of that, at its true value. Our women will be taught all the sciences, and will pass through all the grades of instruction that men do. The women will go forward to the future together with the men, and will work with them. Ignorance is genera through-out our country, and does not affect only our women but our men too. Finally, I will say to our mothers that it is their duty to make us perfect beings; they have achieved their mission in the way they have been able, but from now on we shall need men endowed with other mentality, men who are perfected in a different way. It is the mothers of the future who will educate these men."

    This speech marks the beginning of the Gazi's active campaign in favour of women; now he lost no opportunity to try to eliminate negative ideas about women from people's mind. In August 1924, he said publicly : "I must categorically declare when speaking of civilisation, that family life begets social, economic and political weakness. It is necessary that the male and female elements which constitute the family enjoy their natural rights, and are in a condition to fulfil their duties in the family."

    At Inebolu, he made the people see that it was necessary to do away with all the customs imposed upon women, which could be supported by no serious reasoning. He treated the women as his comrades, and it is interesting to repeat some of his words : "Men comrades : these customs come in some degree from our egotism and from the fact that we are very attached to honour, and very vigilant. Yet our comrades, the women, posses the same faculties of understanding and thought as we do. Let them show their faces to the world and be able to observe it carefully with their eyes; there is nothing in that that can worry us."

    "He had to face some reaction from the people to the suggestion that women should abandon their customs, the institution of the harem, and the veil; the Gazi therefore spoke very frankly: "Comrades, I repeat : do not fear this change. I will add that we are ready, in order to achieve so important a result, to allow the sacrifice of some lives; that is not important. I draw your attention to the fact that the obstinacy and fanaticism with which we hold on to the present state of affairs cannot save us from the dangers which threaten us, or from all of us becoming mere sheep destined for the "sacrifice".

    Turkish women showed themselves less reluctant then man to accept modern life; they did not wait for legislation before throwing off their ancient yoke. They happily entered the new way of life; thousands of women took employment in various enterprises and factories; they entered the schools and penetrated every level, since no one would have dared to obstruct the will of Turkish women to emancipate themselves, that will being interpreted and maintained by the reforming President with all his strength. When the civil code was adopted in 1926, women felt the protection of the law within their homes and outside them. This event marked the free and final collaboration with that precious factor that women truly represent in the life of civilised peoples.

    This was the end of Turkey in novels, in which foreign writers of great imagination, dealers in exoticism, found subjects for their works. For example, the legend of Aziyade, "Les Désenchantées" and other romantic books about Turkey, had misrepresented the features and spirit of that country as they were published throughout the world.

    In the four years following the adoption of the Civil Code, women gave many proofs of their ability; they did useful work in the institutions of medical and social help, in the banks and commercial enterprises. A large number of women entered the university faculties. Kemal was extremely satisfied with the female sex, for which he had made himself responsible before the nation, and considered that women were ready to take part in political life. In 1930, the Assembly gave women the right to vote, and eligibility for municipal elections; this was a step towards complete equality between the two sexes.

    Kemal's philosophy admitted all the natural and political rights of women, and he did not believe that their physical construction made them unfit to do military service, since they were the equals of men in rough tasks in the fields, and had shown their extraordinary capacity for endurance during the War of Independence. In addition, their behaviour at the front had made him believe that they could give great services on the battlefield itself. Now that the women had almost every right, and would soon be given all the rest, it was right that they should not be excluded from any of their obligations.

    Those of backward mentality, who were horrified and alarmed by the inconceivable changes in the customs effecting women, were afraid for public morals, since they thought that with the disappearance of the material barriers which had guarded women's honour, they would allow themselves to be drawn into the worst excesses. The paltriness of these thoughts was shown by the excellent behaviour of women in all areas of national life, and in their method of amusing themselves.

    The Turkish woman was transformed into a "sports woman" by several institutions for the physical education of women, "girl scout" organisations and the teaching of gymnastics and sport in the schools. From time to time there were held excellent mass displays of gymnastics, in which thousands of men and women took part, while the deportment of girl scout companies was applauded on military parades.

    After five more years of observation, the Gazi and the country were confident that women could be admitted to the Grand Assembly. They were therefore given the right to be elected to it and vote in it, and in 1936, 20 female members took their seats in Parliament, not as representatives of their sex, but of the various electoral districts which had voted for them.

    In this framework of complete equality, Turkish women did not cease to show their great qualities, and the error of their having been confined in the ignorance of the harem. Finally, in May 1937 a star of diamonds was awarded to the female aviator Sabiha Gökçen who had followed the course of the "Türk Kusu" (The Turkish Bird), with complete success, and also the courses of the School of Military Aviation. When she received her award, Sabiha declared that she would go as a military pilot whenever her country called.

    Source : "Atatürk" by Jorge Blanco Villalta, translated from Spanish by William Campbell,
    Türk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, Ankara, 1991

    The Calendar Reform

    On the 23rd December 1925, the international calendar and time were adopted. This reform ended the complication and difficulties which the use of three different calendars caused Turkey in her international relations and her internal life.

    The Ottoman Empire followed the Arab lunar calendar. The lunar month begins when the moon first appeared in the sky as a thin crescent, which is still referred to as "new moon". New moon occurs when the moon lies directly between the earth and the sun and, in consequence, can not be seen. The cycle of the moon's phases takes a little over 29 1/2 days and therefore in Arab calendar a lunar year contains 354 days and some hours, which show differences from place to place. According to the calendar used in the West, the year is that period of time in which the earth performs one revolution in its orbid around the sun. The year contains approximately 365 days and 6 hours. The lunar year is 11 days and 6 hours shorter than the solar year. The months of the lunar calendar do not keep the same season in relation to the sun. Therefore in countries where the lunar calendar is used, social gatherings such as the New Year, religious festivities or similar occasions may fall either on winter or summer. Besides the lunar calendar, it was necessary to use the solar calendar, which enabled observation of the growth of plants.

    It was also complicated to make the months and days agree. The Imperial Government found it necessary to adopt a solar calendar. From then on, two calendars had been in use; the Turkish solar calendar for official purposes, and the lunar calendar, together with the international Georgian calendar, which had to be resorted to in order to find out what day the rest of the world was living in.

    Another reform which was approved on the same day abolished the traditional division of the hours in favour of international time. From then on the time of sunset is considered 12 O'clock and afterwards the time runs as 1,2,3...Thus it had been that in earlier times the Turks had followed the time called "alaturca" , while the foreigners had followed the "alafranga" time, which as easy to imagine, gave rise to frequent misunderstandings.

    Source : "Atatürk" by Jorge Blanco Villalta, translated from Spanish by William Campbell,
    Türk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, Ankara, 1991

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