Women and Secular Opposition Parties in Islamist-Dominated Political Systems

By Sarah Fischer
Submitted to Session P4976 (Women and Leadership: Past and Present, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Gender/Women's Studies;
When Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, women from the Republican People’s Party, along with women from the Nationalist Action Party and the Freedom and Democracy Party (the former a nationalist-secular minority party and the latter a recently-established Kurdish secular party) have found themselves in the position of advocating for women as members of opposition secular parties in an increasingly Islamist, majority-party-dominated system.

This paper makes three claims regarding women in opposition parties. The first is that these women represent a broad array of political ideologies. Therefore, the one-time dominant paradigm of “feminism versus Islam” is inadequate in describing the breadth of ideologies these women hold, as demonstrated through a content analysis of campaign materials from all three secular parties (Marshall 2005, Arat 1998, Diner and Toktas 2010). I argue that while the secular parties disproportionately emphasize “women’s issues” during campaigns and in legislation, each party does so using distinctly different and sometimes conflicting approaches.

Second, this paper utilizes interview data from party volunteers to discuss how female candidates are of increasingly importance to attracting party volunteers. As White (2008) and Arat (2007) demonstrate, Islamist parties began using women’s branches to woo supporters beginning in the 1990s; the AKP and other parties continue to effectively employ such techniques today (interviews, Ankara, May 2010; Istanbul, June 2015). Secular parties have built women’s branches with the intent of utilizing them for campaigning in ways similar to that of the AKP. However, my research indicates that the parties’ more progressive ideologies conflict with utilizing women in such a subservient role. Ultimately, this results in fewer volunteers and volunteers who are less committed to the parties (when compared to AKP volunteers) (interviews, Istanbul, June 2015 and October 2015).

Finally, this research demonstrates that this diversity in ideologies and issues that opposition parties hold has led to even more difficulty in effectively addressing women’s issues—or opposing the dominant Islamist party in any way. Consequently, although the number of female politicians in opposition parties has been increasing, opposition parties lack of power and the parties’ lack of ability to work with each other has resulted a lack of policy aimed at promoting women’s equality. It has also resulted in an inability to work together to resist policies proposed by the majority party that aim to dismantle women’s rights (interviews, Istanbul June 2015).