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I can even move the mountains!

Politics, Gender and Women in Music


Meral Akkent

“I can even move the mountains”

Politics, Gender and Women in Music

Meral Akkent

Politics, Gender

The history of the women’s movement in Turkey goes back to the Ottoman period. As in other countries women here fought for their right to work in (formerly) male professions or their right to study, - and their fight was not without success: The first ever Muslim women were appointed to the Telephone Administration in the Ottoman Empire on December 5th, 1913. Women acquired the right to study at the university on September 12th, 1914. These achievements were very closely related to the magazine Kadinlar Dünyasi (Women´s World), which is considered the grandmother of today’s feminist journals in Turkey. Kadinlar Dünyasi was issued by Nuriye Ulviye, who used her personal resources, and a group of women’s rights activists from April 4th, 1913 to May 21st, 1921.

The publishers developed policies and fought for the rights mentioned above and other basic rights of women such as the right to education, professional activity, participation in community life, they defined an independent identity of women, developed a sense of solidarity among women and implemented tangible projects for women’s solidarity, created jobs and started businesses for women. Therefore, not only the writers of the magazine were women, but also the compositors. All texts of the magazine were to be written by women only, until women’s equality should be realised. The letters to the editor Nuriye Ulviye determined the content of the women´s policies adopted and led to the development of a participatory political culture.

By the early 20th century also some other fundamental rights had already been achieved through the demands of female activists, such as the abolition of polygamy. At the turn of the last century, the battle became more vigorous and women’s experience in the Balkan Wars and the First World War politicised the movement.

Since then, the feminist struggle for equality has gradually advanced and has led to reforms of the most discriminatory laws. After the coup in 1980 a feminist women’s movement developed on the basis of a completely revised analysis. It was the first democratic civil movement that emerged after the military coup in the country. A new generation of middleclass, left-wing, intellectual women, who were in touch with the ideas of the new wave of feminism in Western countries, proposed that the “paternalist Turkish state” was in fact a “patriarchal state”, defending the interests of men. This new movement started in Istanbul with small awareness-raising groups that had discovered the famous slogan of Western feminists: “The private is political”.

Duygu Asena was one of the most prominent figures in the Turkish feminist movement. She was the editor of the popular women’s magazine Kadinca, which broke many taboos by reporting and presenting witnesses’ statements on such topics as sexual abuse of girls or violence in the family, leading to widespread discussion and public debate. She was the author of the best-selling book: Kadinin Adi Yok [Woman Does Not Have a Name] (1987). She describes her own experiences of double standards and discrimination against women in this easy to read book. Sixty editions published nationally have brought these feminist ideas to millions of women of various backgrounds throughout the country.

Independent feminist women’s magazines such as Pazartesi and Kaktüs were founded to expose the frequency of sexual harassment and violence against women in the patriarchal society in Turkey. In 1987 feminists organized the first public protest against male violence. It was followed by campaigns fighting against sexual harassment “Purple Needle” and campaigns seeking the right of self-determination concerning the female body.

The constitutional amendments of 2004 explicitly state that "women and men have equal rights", and that "the state has the responsibility to take all necessary measures to achieve equality between men and women" (Article 10). Civil law of 2001, reform of labor law in 2003, the creation of family courts in 2003 and a fully reformed criminal law in 2004 have fundamentally changed the legal status of women. These are the most radical reforms since the abolition of polygamy in the 1920s.

One of the leading activists of these decades and one of the most powerful voices in Turkish feminism was the political scientist Şirin Tekeli (1944-2017). She resigned as associate professor in the Faculty of Economics at Istanbul University, in protest of the Board of Higher Education established in 1981. As a feminist activist she is among the founding members of Human Rights Association in Turkey, The Women’s Library and Information Center, Istanbul Purple Roof Women’s Shelter, Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, KADER (Association for the Support of Women Candidates) and Woman Lawyer Support Foundation (KAHUDEV).

Today the feminist movement is multifacetted comprising religious (Islamic) feminists[1], autonomous feminists, socialist feminists, liberal or radical feminists and all these currents lead to important debates, projects, and campaigns. Feminist discourse is institutionalised in many ways such as in the Women's Library and Information Center or in women's associations, women's foundations or in research centers. Beyond the feminist movement other groups can be seen as part of a wider women´s movement, e.g. the Kemalist women, Kurdish women’s rights activists, Armenian feminists or even conservative (religious) women’s associations, which accuse feminist groups of failing to support religious women.

Women's movement does not necessarily mean a feminist movement. There are many other areas where predominantly women from rural areas engage in activities such as protecting the environment, struggling for peace in the country or protesting against political oppression. Women in the Eastern Black Sea region have been at the forefront of local struggles, as well as other parts of Turkey, with a visibility and commitment that stands out.[2] The Women’s Initiative for Peace (Barış için Kadınlar)[3] is a group of women who come from different social and political backgrounds, with different identities, beliefs and sexual orientations, struggling against war and male dominated violence for many years.[4] The Saturday Mothers group (Cumartesi Anneleri)[5] is comprised of hundreds of women, mainly from rural areas, who seek to find their loved ones, who they have lost due to forced disappearances.[6] They have been holding sit-ins in Galatasaray in Istanbul on a regular basis every week since May 27, 1995 to seek justice for relatives who have disappeared while in custody. They are determined to continue to come together to show their faith with their relatives and demand that the perpetrators of the abductions be put on trial.

All women’s movements construct different feminist or non-feminist identities for themselves. There are hundreds of women’s groups that organize themselves in numerous forms: blogs whose aim it is to contribute to gender equality (5Harfliler)[7], to document the intellectual production of women, to increase the involvement of women in cinema and media (Filmmor)[8], to build lobby groups (Women's Coalition)[9], and there are feminist circles, magazines, and Internet newspapers. The formation of the homo-, bisexual-, and transgender-movement in Turkey and the related questioning of heterosexual norms lead to an even further development of feminist perspectives[10]. Nevertheless, there is still a long road ahead to reach a change in mentality and values in the whole society.

Gender and inclusion

Are there non-Turkish and non-Muslim women in feminist history research in Turkey? In archives, in the museums? Are their stories told? If not, why not? In the 1990s for the first time in the feminist movement it was possible to discuss cultural, ethnic, religious identities of women in Turkey. In the 2000s, various cultural or ethnic groups started to research, study, publish their own Muslim, Kurdish, Armenian and Circassian women's history.

Unfortunately, these „women's histories" of the country are still separated from each other. In this context one should ask how these histories can be read together, how an inclusive concept can be created beyond the boundaries of nationalist discourse in women's history? One of the projects that emerged in response to these questions is the Women's Museum Istanbul[11] and the other one is the Project Curious Steps: Gender and Memory Walks[12]. Women's Museum Istanbul is a women's history project focused on the city of Istanbul. The museum presents women's history as an alternative to official history writing in which the multiculturality of Istanbul is shown through the centuries. Curious Steps contributes to our understanding of the city and its neighborhoods from the perspective of gender and memory in an inclusive way, and makes possible the "discovery" and sharing of many hidden stories.

Politics and Women in Music

Turkish Ladies – women singers from Turkey 1974 – 1988 compilation also contributes to an inclusive women’s history of Turkey in an eye-opening way. Female singers from different cultural, social and ethnic backgrounds from two decades, the 70ies and 80ies, are presented together. In terms of social life, political power structures and attitude to life of the people these decades were two completely different in Turkey

In the sixties and seventies there was a strong student movement in Turkey, mainly focusing on the differences and injustice between social classes. Discrimination of women in public and private life was also discussed. However, the focus of the political debate was on the gap between the classes with regard to education, employment and income opportunities and not on the different rights and chances of the sexes. This was the (male) intellectual’s ideological view of the discrimination of women. How did the women in rural areas speak about their situation far from the political ideology, but based on their century-old experience? Just practical and action-oriented:

“Don’t lose time with the lost love. Don´t fall in love, stand up to your fate, experience mourning, misery and homesickness, but stay away from love! Look at me: I can even move the mountains, what about you? You are only concerned with your own grief. You cry.
Let me tell you: Don´t fall in love, just please yourself! If you do not want to stand with empty hands at the end of your life, don’t trust a man; do not waste your life.”

In this song an experienced woman clearly tries to encourage a younger one to shape her own life and not to waste time with unreliable men who only consume the vital energy of a woman. This very old anonymous traditional song from Anatolia is sung by Neşe Karaböcek in this compilation. The title of the song ‘Demiyom mu?’ (Haven’t I always told you?).

In 1970s female performers discovered self-confident statements of rural women in traditional songs and interpreted these songs in their albums. To what extent these wise recommendations of the older woman in this song are in place is demonstrated by songs by Handan Kara and Huri Sapan in this compilation (Aşkım ve gururum ‘My love and my pride’ and Bir Şans Daha Ver ‘Give me another chance’), both recorded in 1974:

In the first song we hear “It makes me crazy, it confuses my relationships, it hurts me. I got ruined. All that happens because I lost my love.” The second song - in short - reports about nearly the same situation as the text above: “Please give me another chance, I need your smile, I cry, if you don´t return I´ll die.”

In the 80s many things changed in everyday life as well as intellectual and political discussions after the military coup in 1980, the third event of this kind in the history of the country, after the ones in 1960 and 1971. The reason for the coup in 1980 was the escalating conflicts between leftists and nationalists. Violence in the streets had led to some 5,000 casualties. Under the pressure of the military street abruptly stopped and the military government, which was to rule the country for three years before democracy was reinstalled, was welcomed by many people for the restoration of order. However, while the coup was bloodless, under the temporary military rule 50 people were executed, 500,000 were arrested, many were tortured and hundreds died in prison, teachers, lecturers and judges were dismissed, 23,677 associations were forbidden, 937 films were banned because they were found objectionable, thousands of people went abroad as political refugees and were deprived of their citizenship.

The Music Supervision Board of the state television (TRT) applied censorship in the music world and decided to broadcast no songs on radio and television, which were erotic, insulted state officials, encouraged people to suicide or to revolt or songs whose composers were Armenian. TRT also abandoned arabesque[13] music, which is a musical genre beside classical Turkish music, Turkish folk or pop music.

At the same time, however, pure love songs full of longing were sung, a sure way nothing to risk in a dictatorship. So Gönül Yazar sings in 1985 “Without knowing of you, in any lover I had I was only looking for you.” (Sen Bir yana ‘Only you’)

The 1980 military coup crushed all political parties but at the end of the 80ies a vivid feminist women’s movement developed. [14] Feminist women discovered that the female body was a target of male aggression and assault. They made a point in politicizing private life in order to bring attention to the sexual harassment and violence ever present in society. An example of the zeitgeist is Gül Sorgun’s traditional folk song ‘Ara Leyli’ , which is about a young man who was expelled from his village so that he cannot bother women in the village any more.

The 1980s and 1990s were also the time that security forces in Turkey forcibly displaced Kurdish rural communities in their attempts to combat the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which drew its member and logistical support from the local peasant population.[15] The official policy of the Turkish state until 1991 was to deny existence of an ethnic group called Kurds. The government officials tried to ban Kurdish language, folklore, and names in areas inhabited by Kurds. Since 1984, when the PKK announced a Kurdish uprising the armed conflict cost more than 40,000 lives, most of them civilians. Dilber Doğan’s elegic song ‘Yıkıla da Bizim Köyler’ tells us about the destruction of Kurdish villages, of houses and families left behind.

However, love is an ever recurring theme of the songs. In her song ‘Yar Oy’ (My love) Ferda Gül is firmly willing to fall in love as soon as she finds the right man. But she has got very concrete ideas about what she wants. The best condition for a good relationsship (or for continuing her way alone). She will make her way anyway.


[2] Yaka, Özge, A feminist-phenomenology of women’s activism against hydropower plants in Turkey’s Eastern Black Sea region, in: Gender, Place & Culture, Journal of Feminist Geography, Volume 24, 2017 - Issue 6.

[3] (12.09.2017)

[4] (12.09.2017)


[6] In international human rights law, a forced disappearance or enforced disappearance occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization or by a third party with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a state or political organization.





[11] Women's Museum Istanbul,

[12] Curious Steps: Gender and Memory Walks is a project of the Gender and Women's Studies Research and Application Center at Sabancı University.

[13] The content of Arabesque style music is often tragic, about loving and not being loved. After the ban in public broadcasting stations it did not reappear until the opening of private television channels in the late 80s.

[14] The 1980s was not the first time that feminism came onto the agenda in Turkey. On the contrary, the movement was a century old, with its roots in late nineteenth-century Ottoman society. For the Ottoman women's movement see:

[15] Human Rights Watch

Meral Akkent - sociologist, expertise in women's history, gender studies, women's museums and international organizing. Curator of Women's Museum Istanbul.

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