by Nazan Ustundag

Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) - NEW WAYS

March 2001, Istanbul, Turkey

As a member of the working group on the Review of School Curriculum under the National Committee for Human Rights Education, Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) NEW WAYS analyzed the General Studies textbooks for grades 1-3, and the 1st grade Primary Reader published by the Turkish Ministry of National Education according to human rights and gender equality criteria. These books will be discussed below initially from the perspective of human rights and then according to women's human rights criteria.

Analysis showed that, in terms of human rights, almost all of the above-mentioned books shared similar characteristics. There were no examples of explicitly condescending or antagonistic attitudes towards people of different races, languages, ethnicities, religions or genders. Moreover, in the sections entitled Human Rights and Societal Structure and Solidarity, all of the books explicitly supported values such as tolerance, interpersonal solidarity and assistance towards members of different groups. This analysis will focus rather on how the books implicitly violated a number of human rights criteria. Such violations generally consisted of the depiction of a certain race, social and familial structure, which was then deemed to be the norm. By not referring to groups or individuals who do not comply with this norm, the books thus implied that they did not exist. Expressions in the books which may lead to gender discrimination will be discussed in the second section of this report.

First of all, in general the above-mentioned books all revolve around urban life and urban children. References to rural life are mostly found in sections on vacations, where villages are depicted as places which are visited on holidays and where old people such as grandmothers and grandfathers live. As a result, the village appears to be a relic from the past, while the city is portrayed as being virtually synonymous with modernity. However, this clearly does not reflect the actual situation in a country where half the population makes their living through agriculture.

Following on from the previous point, all of the books refer to the equipment and environment in an ideal school with which children studying in a village schools or those in shanty-towns with several grades in the same classroom and without materials or equipment (such as computers) will be unable to identify.

In addition, all of the children portrayed in these books are from a specific, comparatively rare social and family background, which in no way reflects the social reality of Turkey. The children in the textbooks have both a mother and a father, wear modern clothes, are middle-class and live in single houses (not even in apartments). At school and at home they have all the necessary materials and equipment. For their summer vacations they go either to the seaside or to a village and have no responsibilities other than their schoolwork. However, it is well known that the majority of children in Turkey do not enjoy such a standard of living. A significant number of children do not possess personal materials and equipment, have very different family structures and have to work outside school hours. This can result in children feeling alienated from the concept of the studious, successful and good student portrayed in the books.

Some of the material in these books encourages discrimination against people who have not received formal education. The sections which discuss Primary School Education Week establish a blatant hierarchy between people who have and have not attended formal educational institutions. They claim that individuals who have received formal education will be more beneficial to their country, while uneducated individuals will harm their immediate surroundings. Such a discourse may strengthen existing prejudices against people who have not received a formal education. Some of the textbooks, which can serve as models for others, have been able to avoid this hierarchy. These books provide more concrete, practical examples which indicate that it is easier for educated people to carry out myriad tasks (especially formal tasks and those which require literacy) and contain no explicit or implicit discrimination.

Another point worth mentioning is the fact that none of the books refer to citizens of Turkey from different ethnic backgrounds, which implicitly suggests that they do not exist. This attitude can be seen in the sections in the General Studies textbooks on the War of Independence and Atatürk and most clearly manifests itself in the Primary Reader through phrases such as I am a Turk and Atatürk said Turks are hard-working. This important problem could be eradicated by the use of the legally-accurate phrase Turkish citizens and by explicitly stating that there are Turkish citizens who are of Armenian, Kurdish, Greek origin etc. living in the Turkish Republic, rather than using expressions which presume ethnic homogeneity, such as the Turkish nation. In addition, it is our opinion that Atatürk's love for humanity and for the world is not emphasized nearly enough, when compared to the passages on his views on love for one's country and nation.

Another striking point in this regard is that in some of the books all of the characters are blond with fair skin. This is discrimination in a country such as Turkey which is home to many different races and colors. We recommend that variety be introduced into these illustrations and that the books include examples of different hair and skin colors. In addition, apart from the context of the International Children's Day, the only portrayal of people of African descent is as a symbol of primitivism in HB211, p. 119.

As a final point in this regard, when discussing the War of Independence the books refer to the enemy or the Greeks who were thrown out of the country or say that the country was cleansed of them. Thrown out and cleansed are antagonistic and alienating terms. Such terms provoke hatred and arrogance toward neighboring countries. It is possible to avoid this kind of alienating discourse by stating that Greece or the enemy lost.

The final point to be emphasized concerns disabled people. Some of the books included the Day of the Disabled amongst days to be observed. Although this is a positive approach, we believe that it would be appropriate to change some of the expressions used in these sections. There are phrases such as: it is no fault of the disabled that s/he is disabled; the disabled is flawed and deficient (HB23, p. 185); and, one should show compassion to the disabled. Such expressions place the disabled on the bottom rungs of a certain hierarchy and imply that other people have to tolerate them. To put it another way, it is possible to deduce from such phraseology that the disabled are actually in a lesser position than those who are not disabled, but that the normal ones should still be well-disposed to them. We think that the expressions used here should aim to show that the disabled are different but equal individuals. To this end, examples can be given which show that, when the necessary measures are taken, the disabled are able to accomplish a great many things and lead fulfilling lives.

To summarize, the books did not contain any clear, explicitly negative references to any specific group but some important groups were ignored and treated as if they did not exist, which implicitly suggested the existence of hierarchies between various groups on the basis of normality. This indicates that these books contain, albeit in an implicit form, discrimination and violations of human rights criteria. In addition, all of the books stress love for the nation and the country. Yet when it comes to love for humanity and for the world in general, the expressions used are perfunctory and abstract and, most importantly, there are virtually no supporting examples from real life.


When it comes to the analysis of gender discrimination, unlike human rights, the contents of the above-mentioned books contain a broad range of very different characteristics. Gender discrimination is present in the portrayal of women as being generally engaged in domestic and traditional roles, which are then projected into professions (such as teaching and nursing), while men are almost always portrayed as being in positions of authority (a manager, a doctor). Such depictions can be more clearly seen in the illustrations rather than the text of the books. However, due to the fact that children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old are more susceptible to learning through pictures rather than text, these illustrations pose a significant problem.

It is possible to make two generalizations about the characteristics of the books that were analyzed. The first is that in almost all of the illustrations depicting children outside school, they are being supervised by their mothers. In other words, the prevailing view is that mothers are primarily responsible for looking after children, which effectively reinforces the prejudice that the father does not need to pay much attention to children. The second problem is that men are never depicted in occupations which are traditionally associated with women, such as being a teacher or a nurse. For instance, none of the books contained a male nurse or a male secretary and only rarely a male teacher.

In addition, women are usually portrayed as being prime movers in consumption rather than production. Indeed, in the sections on consumer rights and inclinations, those who do the shopping are always women. However, men are portrayed as spending their free time engaged in intellectual pursuits such as reading a newspaper. This elevates men to the role of being the natural possessors of knowledge while ignoring the productive and intellectual roles of women.

Other instances of discrimination that can be found in some of the books can be grouped under a number of headings. These are: boy students as the central figures; depictions of boys bodies in topics pertaining to cleanliness and growth; statements indicating that chores (such as dish-washing, laundry, and food preparation) are essentially women's responsibilities, while boys and girls are shown as being different to each other and are differentiated according to their clothing, hairstyles and the games they play.

First of all, most of the books take a boy as their central character with which the reader is invited to identify. In some other books, it is a girl. There are only a few exemplary books in which the central figure is interchangeably a girl and a boy. In books where the male is the central character, boys are again portrayed as class presidents or organizers of extracurricular activities; namely, roles that require leadership skills.

Almost all of the books include a section on health and growth. The body in the illustrations and which is used as an example in these sections is usually that of a boy. In addition, in the sections on cleanliness and health, which are addressed to all children, it is again usually the male body which appears in the illustrations. By rendering girls bodies as invisible, the school books do not only reinforce the taboos around girls sexuality, but also violate girls right to obtain information on their bodies. Finally, the sections on growth explicitly state that it is the mother who is the person primarily responsible for taking an interest in a child's upbringing. In other words, they completely ignore the role that the father should take in the development of the child and in sharing with the mother responsibility for the child's upbringing.

Most of the books depict men as figures of authority (manager, mayor, local headperson, doctor etc). Women are depicted in the roles of nurses, teachers, secretaries and assistants, all of which can be considered extensions of traditional women's roles. Furthermore, a few of the books depict women as landladies, housewives and mothers, which reinforces the impression that the home is the proper workplace for a woman. This issue reappears in the Primary Readers where chores such as knitting or cleaning the house are assigned to female children.

Finally, all of the books differentiate between girls and boys according to different clothing, hairstyles and the games they play. Girls are usually depicted as wearing skirts, having long hair and playing with a skipping rope. In the sections on traffic and strength, those who are playing sports, demonstrating their strength and playing with a ball are all boys, while the girls are portrayed as at home playing with dolls. The same discrimination can also be found in the sections containing education about earthquakes and fire, where mothers are usually depicted as helpless and sad while the men are actively trying to put out the fire. Such representations result in the reinforcement of a specific stereotype of girls (interested in housework and children) and of a specific stereotype of boys (strong, able to handle responsibility, able to lead, athletic).

None of the books addresses gender discrimination as a specific issue. On the contrary, they state that following the establishment of the Republic in 1923 women were granted equal rights with men in all spheres of life. However, there is nothing in the books which says that in reality this equality is limited to the political arena and that women do not enjoy the same rights as men either under the law or in daily life. Moreover, even where women are depicted as managers or doctors, this does not prevent them from being depicted as doing most of the housework as well. The result is the super woman model, which has been heavily criticized in many countries. According to this model, women easily both work outside the home and undertake domestic tasks all on their own without feeling the need for assistance from men. Such a portrayal not only fails to place women on an equal level with men but effectively increases the burden that they bear.

To summarize, although there are some differences among them, most of these books reinforce the traditional conceptions of women's roles and ignore women's bodies and strength. Some of the books put forward a super woman model in which women undertake both the responsibilities traditionally ascribed to men and those ascribed to women. We believe that the solution to these problems lies in: showing men performing domestic tasks; depicting male role models in professions such as nursing; emphasizing the importance of the father-child relationship; depicting women engaged in intellectual and productive activities outside the home, as leaders and in positions of authority; and portraying boys and girls as being more similar both in physical appearance and in the games they play.

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