Unlike the pictures of Queen Elizabeth hanging on the walls of the halls and schools where I grew up in suburban Australia, showing a poised, distant figure, portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, show an intense, charismatic man, seemingly ready to burst out of the frame in order to bring Turkey into the modern world. Born on the 19th of May 1881, the man most often referred to only by his surname, Ataturk, meaning Father of the Turks, remains an important figure in the country’s history to this day.
His military achievements are well documented, as is his presidential role in separating Islamic law from secular law, but I’m more interested in the changes he wrought on the newly formed nation that improved the lives of ordinary people. Under his leadership, thousands of new schools were built, primary education was made compulsory and free for all, and women were given equal civil and political rights.
Until 1927, written Ottoman Turkish used the Arabic script, and almost 90% of the population were illiterate. Determined to solve this problem Ataturk met with linguists and professors from all over Turkey. He outlined a plan to implement a new alphabet for written Turkish based on a modified Latin alphabet. It was introduced on the 1st of November 1928, and within two years literacy rates jumped to nearly 70%.
In order to achieve this Ataturk left nothing to chance. The great man himself travelled the countryside in order to teach citizens the new alphabet and the first Turkish newspaper using the new alphabet was published on the 15th of December, 1928. Starting from 1932, Halk Evleri (People’s Houses) were opened the length of the country to ensure all people between the ages of four and forty could learn the new alphabet as required by law.
Turkish education became a state-supervised system rather than religious instruction provided in the medrese (theological schools) linked to the mosques. Ataturk promoted modern teaching methods at primary education level, and looked at adult education as a way of improving the skills base of the country. He saw the connection between an educated populace and the social and economic progress of the country. To help reach this goal he contributed to the development of two textbooks, one on Turkish and the other on geometry. Women were not overlooked, and were taught skills needed to work in the economy outside the household as well as those in child care, dress-making and household management. The education of women was one way Ataturk intended to establish gender equality.
Ottoman practice discouraged social interaction between men and women in keeping with Islamic practice of sex segregation. Very early on Ataturk and his staff discussed issues like abolishing the veiling of women and the integration of women into the outside world. He did not consider gender a factor in social organization and believed that society marched towards its goals with men and women united. In order to give women the means to participate equally he needed a new civil code. On the 4th October, 1926, the new Turkish civil code was passed, modelled after the Swiss Civil Code. Under this new code, women gained equality with men in such matters as inheritance and divorce under the law.
Many people today revere the father of the Turks while others say he made a lot of mistakes*. Love him or hate him Mustafa Kemal Ataturk remains an important figure in the Turkish political and social landscape. At 9.05am on the 10th day of the 11th month of the year, when cities across the country stop, and car, bus and ferry horns sound, spare a thought for this powerhouse of a man who died in 1938, having dragged Turkey kicking and screaming out of the past into a bright future, however rocky the journey proves to be.
*for more on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the making of the Turkish Republic I highly recommend the following books;
as well as those by Patrick Kinross and Andrew Mango.