II) Women's image as a vehicle for the promotion of competing societal projects
The early Republic and women's image
At the time of the founding of the Republic (1923-37), women's emancipation was used by the state to promote its official secular, Western-oriented ideology. The adoption of the Swiss Civil Code in 1926 brought about a real improvement in women's status in society, especially in terms of marriage, divorce and inheritance rights. At the time the bill was being drafted, a rationale was added to the text, underlying the real intent of the Kemalist legislators: namely, to use the law as a tool for the transformation of society. In the words of then Minister of Justice Mahmut Esat, Shari'a was officially deemed “doubtlessly irreconcilable with contemporary civilization” (Arat, 2010:237) and therefore could not serve as legal basis for the new Western-oriented Turkish nation-state. The founding fathers therefore used the upgrading of women's status as an instrument to challenge Islam's influence on not only relations between the state and individuals, but also between individuals themselves. Through the rationale, they also went beyond the issue of women's rights to formulate a broader civilising project. They went beyond the law as an instrument of government to make it an instrument of social change; they used the objective (institutions, legal codes, etc.), to transform the subjective (identity).
Another instance in which women were instrumentalised by the state was through the symbolic modernity of the uncovered female body. The state imposed secularism on the very body of its citizens by dictating what sort of clothing they were allowed to wear or not. Islamic attire was therefore forbidden to the advantage of Western garments. Not that clothes in themselves mattered, but because they were a visible symbol of what Kemalists deem “modern” as opposed to “backward”. By publicly encouraging and posing with unveiled women, Ataturk therefore promoted a certain image of the state: one of a modern, secular, Western nation (Çınar, 2008:902). Women served the appearance of modernity by entering the public space – including the job market – delimited by the secular state. Their body was the physical illustration of a break from a past that in a self-Orientalist logic, the Kemalist establishment saw as anti-modern. In this regard, they sided with the West's vision of Islam and the Oriental woman as barbaric (ibid:900).
Women's access to the public sphere was also facilitated by a number of autonomous women's organisations; organisations that would soon by unified under the state-controlled Turkish Women Federation in 1924. Interestingly, however, the federation was disbanded as soon as it tried to take actions independent of the state (ibid:901). the newly gained public agency of women soon turned out to be a mere façade serving the interests of the regime.
The same pattern would apply in the late 1990s when women lobbied for the...