Bringing Education to the Table
The up-and-coming Turkish politician Zeynep Dereli believes more female representation will change the political agenda for the better
“The form of leadership in Turkey is going to change and it is going to change a lot sooner than people think. Because we need it to change, we need the country to adapt, and adapt quickly,” says Zeynep Dereli, vice-president of the Democracy and Progress party (DEVA) and founder of Turkey’s first tech K-12 school, TINK. Who will be the main catalysers of this change? Women, she claims. Because “women are adaptable, we have this intrinsic ability.” In the digital age, the politician and education leader adds, this quality of women to adapt had made them more competitive, able to change and re-skill.
Emerging Turkish politician Zeynep Dereli believes that greater representation of women will change the political agenda for the better. Watch the documentary "A Day in the Life of Zeynep Dereli" below.
There are many reasons to trust the judgement of this aspiring politician, education leader,
businessperson with two decades of experience in several industries, and mother of two. But if need to single one out, it would be her firm belief in the great future of her country and its women. “The first word that comes to my mind when you ask me how I feel about being back in my country is hopeful. Why? Because I feel, there is an increasing demand for female representation in politics in Turkey as well as for equity in all aspects of life.”
A legacy of female empowerment waiting to come back
According to Dereli, despite the bad publicity that Turkey gets these days on gender rights topics, there are firm historic grounds to believe the country can do much better. “When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, it enacted important legal reforms to ensure equality between women and men in political and civil rights. During the 1980s, a strong women’s movement raised public awareness of violations of women’s rights, especially violence against women,” she says, reminding us that the country has already had a female Prime Minister – Tansu Ciller – in the 1990s.
The country has worked especially hard to bridge the gender gap in the current field Dereli focuses on, education, in the past decade. Yet, there is much more that could be done in terms of parity. “While significant progress has been made on increasing the overall number of girls and boys attending primary school, girls are still not starting or finishing primary school at the same rate as boys.” Additionally, she singles out violence against women and so-called “honour” killings as deeply rooted, prevalent issues in the country.
To Dereli, these problems stem from the absence of equal representation of women in her country’s politics. After Turkey’s June 2018 national elections, only 17.32 percent of deputies in the Turkish Grand National Assembly were women – well below the global average of 25 percent. Women are even more under-represented in local politics – in the 2019 local elections, women made up 2.95 percent of mayors, 11 percent of municipal council members and 2.16 percent of muhktars (village heads), she points out.
“Research indicates that whether a legislator is male or female has a distinct impact on their policy priorities, making it critical that women be present in politics to represent the concerns of women andother marginalized voters and help improve the responsiveness of policy making and governance,” Dereli says. She adds that there is strong evidence that as more women are elected to office, there is also a corollary increase in policymaking that emphasizes the quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities. Her conclusion: “Women’s political participation has profound positive and democratic impacts on communities, legislatures, political parties, and citizen’s lives, and helps democracy deliver.”
Yet, Dereli is weary of the idea that all women ought to be bundled together. “They are not a homogeneous group, even within one country, say, mine.” According to her, different groups of women may ask for different things and there is no problem with that. “That's why you need better representation not only of women, but of different groups of women, so that they get to raise their various issues. Women living in urban and rural environment have different desires; women with children have different priorities from those without. Women who want to work have one set of priorities – those who do not want to work have others. Younger women are much more similar in their needs to younger men than to older women. I think it is more about equal representation of people across the board.”
“I don't want to be enclosed in one group; I want to be able to address the different needs of society, in different locations across different age groups. I think that is the correct way in a properly functioning democracy,” the politician concludes.
Misogyny did not start at home
Even before moving back to Turkey and joining politics, Dereli has faced her fair share of sexism. It is a public secret that unequal treatment is rampant in the fields where she launched her career: finance, investment banking and trade. “I faced it, psychologically and, sometimes, emotionally. It did not start in Turkey, it started in the UK. It was something that, back in the day, was assumed natural – people believed that men would behave like this. Even the use of profane language at work can be a deterrent to women, because we do not want to listen to that sort of language. That can be psychologically abusive. Some men would claim that I was going up the career ladder because I was an attractive woman.”
What helped her grow out of her frustration with the casual misogyny she faced during the first decade of her career was a story shared by one of her most significant role models and mentors, the late Lady Barbara Judge, an American-British lawyer who championed female advancement in male-dominated industries and regulatory agencies on both sides of the pond. “She talked about how when she started her career, she believed that she had to act like a man. She wanted to dress like a man and show the rest of the men in her organization that she was more of a man than they were. That creates a major glass ceiling for yourself, you are never going to be manly as a man so you lose doing it. One day, her boss asked her why was she so ashamed of her femininity, of the feminine values that she brought – empathy, teamwork, emotional intelligence, adaptability... all of the things that men find hard to bring to the table. She said that it was from that moment on that she started to behave like a woman, started to dress like a woman, and she was not afraid of her emotions anymore,” Dereli says.
Sometimes we create our own glass ceilings
That story helped her realize she was creating her own glass ceiling by trying to compete with men. “If you see it as a zero-sum game, you lose.” In retrospect, it was this change of attitude that allowed her to embrace her emotions as an asset that complimented her analytical skills rather than as a liability, which boosted her career significantly. “It has been a beautiful journey since then. The reason I am telling you this is because a lot of women face these same issues and I've been telling a lot of girls that they should not be ashamed by their feminine qualities, they should use and embrace them. The same goes for men – they should be proud of their masculine qualities. We need to embrace who we are.”
Zeynep Dereli is positive about the future of female empowerment not only in Turkey; for her, the best is yet to come for women all over the world. “The new situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that countries with female leadership have been much better at addressing this challenge. I am afraid this is not going to be the last big challenge we face and we are going to need leadership that will be able to address challenges with not only emotional empathy, but also diligence and transparency – the same way a mother would.”
To Dereli, there is an inherent value to greater female participation in politics and she personally supports the greater inclusion of female decision-makers through quotas. “I believe we need positive discrimination. We need quotas until we reach the state where we do not need quotas. Especially for countries like Turkey, we need it,” she says, adding that she believes the more women in politics, the greater the tangible gains for democracy, including a greater responsiveness to citizens’ needs, increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines, and a more sustainable peace.
Political representation is not enough
Equity in terms of political representation alone is not going to be enough, Dereli thinks. Adequate social support for mothers and redefining the role of the man in the family are also badly needed. “What we need especially is early childhood care, so that those women who wish to can go back into the workforce,” she says. On the other hand, men ought to contribute their fair share at home. “Household chores are thought to be women’s responsibility – men may help with the household chores but they don't share the responsibilities. And we can change this perspective because we share a home and build a family together. We share our homes and we need to share the responsibility of childcare, of everything that has to do with a home”, Dereli concludes.
She says it because she has seen it work during her own upbringing. “I come from an interesting family – a very strong woman, a very-well educated lawyer, who was economically independent, raised my father. I think it was because my father was raised by a powerful woman, he was supportive of his daughters. We need stronger women to create stronger women, because they raise men, who understand the importance of stronger female figures in their lives.” What about her own legacy and motivation? She confides that she takes it as her motherly responsibility to create better opportunities for the future of everyone in Turkey because of her two young daughters. “I think the biggest political achievement I've attained so far is that I've managed to put education as a priority agenda item in the eyes of the Turkish public. There is indeed a lot of room for improvement, but at least now it is seen as a priority”, she concludes. It is safe to say that the more women like Zeynep Dereli enter politics, Turkey – and other countries alike – the more society at large would benefit.