Nine notable firsts for women in Turkish history

These Turkish women broke stereotypes in their time and proved that they could achieve anything — from becoming prime minister to flying high as a combat pilot.

Photo by: TRT
Photo by: TRT

17 women deputies entered the Turkish Parliament in February 1935, becoming the first female MPs in Turkish history.

1. Tansu Ciller (1946 - ), Turkey's first female head of state

Tansu Ciller, who served as the 22nd Prime Minister, was also an economist and academic.

Tansu Ciller became Turkey's first and only female prime minister in 1993. But this wasn't her only first; in 1996 she became Turkey's first female foreign minister, and the first female deputy prime minister.

2. Semiha Es (1912-2012), war photographer

Semiha Es' husband was the prominent journalist Hikmet Feridun Es, and they worked together while travelling around the world.

Turkey’s first female travel and war photographer who died at the age of 100 said she had "never been without my camera in my hand for half a century." She took pictures in Hollywood and of African tribes, and from the Korean and Vietnam wars to events in Rwanda.

"We would spend nearly five days a week at the front in Korea. On weekends we would fly to Tokyo with military aircraft. During the week, at headquarters I would sleep in barracks for women. I tried to sleep on wooden bunks, curling up even without undressing. We would sit on wooden boxes when travelling on trucks full of bombs among various zones at the front.

3. Gul Esin (1901-1990), Turkey's first female mukhtar

Five hundred people in Gul Esin's village voted for her in the local elections.

In 1933, Gul Esin was elected mukhtar, or village chief, by defeating four other men at the age of 33. She was a widow who had lost her husband to the Independence war. She promoted legal marriage as an alternative to the prevalent practise of the kidnap of girls and also sought to further local education. She also banned gambling in local cafes called kahvehane that elderly men frequent as a pastime.

4. Sabiha Gokcen (1913 - 2001), the world's first female fighter pilot

Gocken was one of eight adopted children of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

Sabiha Gokcen was the world's first female ever to fly a plane as a fighter pilot. Gokcen, who lost both her parents at an early age, was adopted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when she was 12. She became a combat pilot at the age of 23. Her last flight was when she was 83 years old, 5 years before her death in 2001. One of Istanbul’s airports is named after her; but she was also controversially involved in an aerial campaign against the area of Dersim.

5. Seventeen of the first Turkish female MPs

Mebrure Gonenc (Afyon), Hati Cirpan (Ankara), Turkan Ors Bastug (Antalya), Sabiha Gokcul Erbay (Balikesir), Sekibe Insel (Bursa), Hatice Ozgener (Çankiri), Huriye Oniz Baha (Diyarbakir), Fatma Memik (Edirne), Nakiye Elgun (Erzurum), Fakihe Oymen (Ankara), Benal Nevzat Istar Ariman (Izmir), Ferruh Gupgup (Kayseri), Bahire Bedis Morova Aydilek (Konya), Mihri Pektas (Malatya), Meliha Ulas (Samsun), Fatma Esma Nayman (Seyhan), Sabiha Gorkey (Sivas), Seniha Hizal (Trabzon)  

In the February 1935 general elections, 17 women deputies entered the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), the Turkish Parliament. Turkish women gained full suffrage in 1934, earlier than most other countries. In the current cabinet, there are 82 women MPs.

6. Samiye Cahid Morkaya (1897 - 1972), racer, musician

Morkaya was also a professor at a music school.

Turkey’s first female race-car driver Morkaya won her first victory as the only woman participant in 1933, 10 years after she obtained her driving licence. Upon her victory, a participant Vehbi Bey who came second in the race, put forth a legal case against the outcome, arguing that it didn't count since Morkaya is a woman. However, the court ruled that it was women’s right to participate in car races, and her victory was recognised.

7. Vasfiye Ozkocak (1923- 2014), journalist

"The right wingers regarded me as a leftist; the leftists saw me as a right winger. I was a journalist, I did my job. Even if I found that the one in the wrong had been my father, I still would have reported it objectively," Ozkocak once said.

Vasfiye Ozkocak was Turkey's first female legal correspondent. When she first became a journalist, her male colleagues tried to obstruct her work, saying "she should be at home" and "she will quit in a few days." She would go on to become the president of the Social Aid Foundation for Journalists, and have active roles in several other journalism foundations.

"There was no difference between a male job and female job. Every day everyone's assignment was written in a notebook. Each of us looked at the notebook, signed our names, took the assignment and went on our way."

8. Halet Cambel (1916- 2014), Olympian and archaeologist

When she went to Berlin to participate Olympics at the age of 20, Cambel was asked to meet Hitler, but she firmly rejected the request, as she did not approve of of the Nazi regime.

Halet Cambel is the first archaeologist to have developed the 'conservation on site' model by establishing Turkey's first outdoor museum. She is also Turkey's first fencer, and she became the first Turkish as well as Muslim female to compete in the Olympics, in 1936. She also helped decipher Hittite hieroglyphics as part of her work.

9. Sabiha Bengutas (1904 - 1992), sculptor.

In 1938, Bengutas won the national Ataturk Sculpture Competition, as well as the Inonu Sculpture Competition.

Sabiha Bengutas was the first female student in the Sculpture Department of the Academy of Fine Arts. "It was 1921 and at that time in this department there were only three male students," the artist, whose work has been exhibited at the Istanbul Modern, has said.