Atatürk’s vision was based on education, information and science: Professor

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One of the key reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was in the field of education, which increased the access of girls to schools, Professor Nermin Abadan Unat, one of Turkey’s most prominent scholars, has said. “Atatürk’s best legacy is seeing science as the sole guide,” the 97-year-old women’s rights advocate added.

Q: What does Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, represent for you?

A: My father, a businessman who used to go to Europe for work, and my mother, who was German, had married in Vienna in 1920. I was born in September 1921.

We came to Turkey by the end of 1926. I had no friends and my mother did not want me to go to school.

Tutors used to come home to educate me, but I was longing to go to school. I had no friends and my Turkish was very little.

Following the sudden death of my father in 1931, we went to Budapest. I was only able to go to school for four years. As our financial situation deteriorated, my mother told me to stop going to school, to learn how to type and become a secretary to earn a living. But I absolutely did not want to stop my studies.

When my mother used to go to coffee shops I used to go with her and read magazines. While countries in Europe had come out of the war defeated and devastated, the news about Turkey were portraying a country rising as a star. There were news about boys and girls going to school. I thought if I go to Turkey I will be able to continue my education. I wrote to my uncle several times, but did not get any reply.

I recalled that when my uncle used to come to Budapest once a year he used to visit the Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin. I went to the embassy in Budapest and told the guard at the gate that I wanted to see the highest person in charge. He took me to the ambassador who listened to me as I explained to him that I wanted to go to school and that my uncle was not replying to my letters. He told me he would send me to Turkey and asked me to come back to the mission within a few days. When I went back he gave me a train ticket to Istanbul, a voucher to eat at the train’s restaurant and a little bit of money. So I came to Turkey in 1936. I started to give lessons in German and learned Turkish. In 1937 I enrolled at an İzmir girls’ high school. We graduated in 1940 and then I went to law faculty.

It was thanks to Atatürk’s reforms that I was able to continue my education. In 1924 the law of unification of instruction was issued [abolishing religious schools], placing all educational institutions under the Education Ministry. That was one of the first reforms of Atatürk. Then came the adoption of civil law in 1926, and in 1930 women were given the right to vote in local elections, that was followed by the right to vote in the national elections in 1934.

For me, Atatürk means the vision that has opened the way to education, information and science. For me, he symbolizes the person who gave me the opportunity to prove myself.

Q: Would you say that not just for you, but in a way he opened the way for all women?

A: Remember that at that time even Ankara was very small. So those who benefited from this the most were women in big cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Women in the rural parts could not benefit that much.

Let’s not forget that Atatürk was an Ottoman soldier. He gave priority to law. He saw the unification of education as a reform of law. It was actually also a social revolution. But at that time in history, sociology was not a developed scientific field, at least there was no such notion in the military school of that period.

Q: How do you think Atatürk saw the place of women in the society? What was the notion of women in his mind?

A: We have to look at his childhood. His father died at an early age and his mother remarried. He had difficulty accepting this second marriage. He spent his childhood in Thessaloniki, the biggest cosmopolitan city in the region after Istanbul. He saw how non-Muslim women had a different lifestyle. He had the means to compare. In the letters he wrote before the war he says he imagines a very different country. He perhaps does not use the terminology of equality, but he saw women as respectable individuals. He does not want women excluded from the society, hidden underneath chadors.

Q: Would you say that in Atatürk’s mind there was a direct link between creating a modern nation state and the position of women in the society?

A: I would rather say that he saw that women were treated as second-class citizens in all aspects under the shariah law. He never took Islamic countries as models. His direction was towards the West. He thought “if I change the law, change would follow.” But that does not always work like that of course. His dreams and realities did not always overlap.

Turkey had the misfortune of having to struggle with deep-rooted traditions. The return to traditions is always very easy. Especially after 1960, Atatürk’s reforms started to be challenged.

Q: What do you see when you look at the situation of women in Turkey?

A: Not a very positive picture. We see a rise in early age marriages for instance. It is actually very sad. Feride Acar, for instance, is the chair of the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Professor Yakın Ertürk is the U.N.’s special rapporteur on violence against women. Two Turkish women are at the helm of two very important international institutions on women. This would be Atatürk’s dream realized.

But as opposed to that, today the official rhetoric refrains from using the term “equality” and rather prefers the term “equality of opportunity.”

Q: There is a concept called “republican women” in Turkey. You are one of them. How should we define republican women?

A: I do see myself as one. We were 25 women to be graduated from İzmir’s Girls’ High School. One had already fallen in love while in school and got married right after. There are four professors out of that 25.

Our generation thought “what can we do for Turkey? How can we be useful for our country? How should we use the education that was given by our nation in the service of our nation?” We had this kind of a sense of mission. We were not indoctrinated, but that was the spirit of those times.

Now you can ask young girls; the notion of serving the country is not that developed. They rather want to have a good time, to dress well and have fun. I don’t want to talk about it necessarily as a bad thing.

Q: Well then at that time there was such an enthusiasm in the country.

A: Yes, creating a new Turkey and being a part of creating the new Turkey. At that time there was a shortage of educated people. So we knew we were very few. There was need for educated people, including women. So, as women, we were encouraged to work. We did not face obstruction. One of the reasons why I started to work as a journalist is because I speak foreign languages.

Q: To end the interview, what would you like to say about today, as we mark the declaration of the Turkish Republic? Any message to young women?

A: They should carry the legacy of the republic further, just like those who assumed the legacy of Atatürk. I see myself as one of those continuing the legacy of Atatürk. This legacy can best be defined with his words: The best guidance in life is science.

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