Unregistered Women's Organizations in Turkey: Preliminary Insights

By Jessica Leigh Doyle | Postdoctoral Research Associate - Transitional Justice Institute - Ulster University | Sep 13, 2016
Unregistered Women's Organizations in Turkey: Preliminary Insights

This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...


Over the last few decades scholarly attention has increasingly focused on the study of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, as empirical studies have sought to the explore the societal role of these organizations, their impact, composition and the relationships they share. While these empirical studies have provided a number of valuable insights they have typically been based on research only with registered CSOs, excluding informal and unregistered ones. Within the academic literature on Turkey, for example, research has generally focused on the experiences of a small cohort of highly visible, registered CSOs from the major urban centers of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and occasionally Diyarbakir. This gap in the literature when it comes to unregistered organizations is significant given that one of the most comprehensive surveys of civil society in Turkey, undertaken by CIVICUS,[1] estimates that informal and unregistered organizations make up approximately one quarter of the overall total of CSOs in Turkey. Indeed, it is worth noting that even this study by CIVICUS does not include informal/unregistered groups in its methodology due to the difficulties faced in accessing such groups, mainly as a result of their low visibility.[2]

In essence, the omission of unregistered and informal organizations/groups means that the research and analysis of civil society to date has excluded a whole area of CSOs, and it is this gap in the literature to which this essay seeks to contribute. More specifically, the essay takes as its focus a small cohort of ten unregistered women’s organizations in Turkey and explores their backgrounds, funding structures and relations with key elements of the political system. It is based on the findings from in-depth semi-structured interviews with unregistered women’s organizations, conducted in parallel with interviews with formal, registered organizations as part of a wider research project in 2013-2014.[3] The concurrent study of both registered and unregistered of CSOs provides a comparative framework for understanding the functioning of civil society in a more holistic manner. Prior to exploring the findings of this research the essay sets out the methodological approach, and in particular the challenges faced in accessing unregistered organizations.


For the overall study, a total of 38 semi-structured interviews with women’s organizations from across the political and geographic spectrum in Turkey were carried out. This includes Islamic, Kemalist, Kurdish and liberal feminist organizations from across each of the seven geographic regions in Turkey. Registered women’s organizations were initially contacted using purposive sampling methods on the basis of (1) political ideology and (2) geographic location, drawing organizations from a database of over 300 women’s organizations throughout Turkey compiled by the researcher. A total of 28 women’s organizations from across each of the four ideological backgrounds—feminist, Islamic, Kemalist and Kurdish—and seven geographic regions were contacted using this method. In addition to providing a sample which is representative of the wider body of registered women’s organizations in Turkey in terms of their ideology and location, these organizations provided a key access point for unregistered organizations.

Referrals from registered women’s organizations, as well as from local informants and academics were sought to locate unregistered women’s organizations working in Turkey. Specifically, contacts were asked if they could suggest any organizations that the researcher might not be aware of, such as unregistered, rural and/or community-based organizations. Through these contacts and further referrals from the unregistered organizations initially contacted, I was able to acquire a sample of ten unregistered organizations. Acquiring even this small sample was challenging as most registered organizations were not aware of any unregistered organizations working locally, and none of the ten unregistered organizations interviewed were advertised in any way. They did not have any online presence, for instance, nor were they referred to in any of the existing literature. Finally, many of these unregistered organizations had intentionally sought a low profile due to their Kurdish ideology (see below), adding to their low visibility. Each of these aspects presented a challenge in terms of accessibility whereby time and building trust were essential to the conduct of the research.

This affiliation with a Kurdish political identity, and the implications of this identity for these organizations and their members was directly connected to their status as unregistered organizations ...

The sample of unregistered organizations was strongly dominated by Kurdish organizations. The main reason for this is simply that the vast majority of referrals received were to unregistered organizations which were Kurdish in ideology. A total of eight of the ten unregistered women’s organizations interviewed were Kurdish organizations. This affiliation with a Kurdish political identity, and the implications of this identity for these organizations and their members was directly connected to their status as unregistered organizations, whereby Kurdish organizations had elected not to formally register with the state due to fear of state persecution. Thus, one potential explanation for why most referrals to unregistered organizations were to specifically Kurdish unregistered organizations is that these organizations, and perhaps organizations associated with marginalized groups more generally, tend to position themselves outside of the formal political system in the realm of unregistered civil society.[4]

The other two organizations in the sample were both Islamic in ideology and provided for a local mosque and its community. These organizations were noticeably less formal in structure than either the registered women’s organizations or the unregistered Kurdish organizations interviewed. They did not have any full-time personnel or a board of directors, for instance, and more closely resembled a loose coalition of community activists. Both unregistered Islamic and Kurdish organizations were communally oriented and drew a strong grassroots following.[5] Interestingly, no referrals were received to unregistered organizations that were either liberal feminist[6] and/or Kemalist in their ideology. The general view among contacts was that these types of organizations were not present in significant numbers among unregistered women’s organizations in Turkey. While further corroboration is no doubt necessary, this argument seems reasonable given that feminist organizations in Turkey have often tended to be urban, professional organizations and Kemalist CSOs have historically been associated with the dominant elite group in society.[7]  


Perhaps the issue on which the greatest level of variation between registered and unregistered organizations can be seen is that of funding. While most unregistered organizations had a local, grassroots funding structure, sustaining their activities through membership fees and donations, funding for registered organizations was often through formalized structures and the main funder of registered women’s organizations was the European Union (E.U.). Among the sample of unregistered organizations, 60 percent (6/10) relied on membership fees as their main source of finance, compared to only 28.6 percent (8/28) of registered organizations. The E.U. funded only one unregistered organization[8] (10 percent), compared to some 46.4 percent (13/28) of registered ones.

Unregistered organizations stated either that they did not have the capacity to apply for E.U. funding ...  and/or that formalized funding (particularly from the E.U.) resulted in a loss of autonomy and thus they chose not pursue it.

When asked about pursuing funding, unregistered organizations stated either that they did not have the capacity to apply for E.U. funding, which they viewed as only within the capabilities of well-established, professional organizations, and/or that formalized funding (particularly from the E.U.) resulted in a loss of autonomy and thus they chose not pursue it. Both of these arguments are borne out to some extent in the information gathered through interviews with registered organizations and in the wider literature on CSOs. For instance, Ergun,[9] Ketola,[10] and Doyle[11] point to the inclination of the E.U. to fund ‘firm-like’ CSOs that are large, urban and well-established organizations, and have the capacity to deal with complex E.U. bureaucracy. Corresponding to these observations are reports from unregistered organizations that they found the paperwork for E.U. funding applications ‘overwhelming,’[12] and from registered organizations that the E.U. determines the projects on which they work, often without taking into account their views and even when these organizations assert that they do not reflect the ‘most important needs of society.’[13]

The reliance of Turkish CSOs on E.U. funding is well documented, and for many organizations this reliance has created a power imbalance, whereby registered organizations report that they have altered their objectives and/or written projects to ‘fit’ with E.U. priorities and that the latter has little incentive to listen to their views. Thus, the findings substantiate the views held by certain unregistered organizations that the E.U. has a deleterious effect on their autonomy and suggest that these organizations, by relying on grassroots support rather than a major donor with its own objectives and political interests, they may have greater freedom. These findings also suggest a somewhat instrumental approach by the E.U. towards Turkish CSOs, whereby it is actively determining the agenda of the organizations it funds; an argument which has been convincingly pursued elsewhere.[14]

Yet, there are advantages as well as disadvantages to receiving European Union funding. The registered organizations that had received funding reported that funding meant they were able to expand the reach and scope of their activities, and that this in turn often increased their social and political influence. Conversely, most unregistered organizations struggled to fund activities and reported that this had a limiting effect on them. This was particularly the case in the east of Turkey where most Kurdish organizations were located, as the high level of local poverty meant that income from members’ fees and donations were often quite low. In this context, access to E.U. funding can potentially dramatically increase the capacity of these organizations. This point is captured extremely in the following extract from an interview with one organization located in eastern Turkey which had recently received European Union funding:

Before we had funding we had to try and meet all the expenses by ourselves. We had established the association but if you don’t have any materials, any money, you cannot do anything, you cannot be active. This is particularly the case here in the east because women don’t have much money, so some of our members couldn’t pay any members fees. When we got funding though, suddenly we could be so much more active. I remember the first project with the E.U., we got 40,000 euros and we couldn’t believe [it]! That money made us much stronger; we carried out lots of activities [with it]. You’d never see this kind of support from anywhere else.[15]

Thus, the different funding structures of unregistered organizations confer both advantages and disadvantages. While these disadvantages deter some unregistered organizations from seeking formalized funding, for others E.U. funding, though desirable, is inaccessible. The literature supports this and has documented how European Union funding has generally been the remit only of professional, registered organizations. This raises obvious and important questions about the impact of E.U. funding policies on the landscape of civil society in Turkey and elsewhere.

Engagement with the Political System

Turning our attention finally to the wider engagement of unregistered organizations with the political system, the results show that unregistered organizations engage comparatively far less with the European Union and the state than their registered counterparts, but far more with opposition political parties. Only 20 percent (2/10) of unregistered organizations in the sample had engaged with the state, compared to 78.6 percent (22/28) of registered organizations. A core reason for this relates to the Kurdish identity of most unregistered organizations, as historically the state has treated CSOs identifying with the Kurdish movement with suspicion and hostility. This is underscored by findings on state repression of Kurdish organizations,[16] and the following interview extract offers a particularly pertinent example of both the level of state hostility towards Kurdish CSOs and the general view among Kurdish CSOs on interaction with the state: “Do we engage with the state? Unless you mean when its policemen are beating us up at demonstrations, then no!”[17]

... Another reason why unregistered CSOs generally (i.e., Islamic organizations, too) did not engage with the state was that they simply did not have to. 

Another reason why unregistered CSOs generally (i.e., Islamic organizations, too) did not engage with the state was that they simply did not have to. These organizations were generally local organizations focused only on their local community, and did not require the cooperation of the state on large projects like the established feminist organizations for instance. For Kurdish organizations in particular, their local community was not administered by the state, as the municipalities in which they are located are run by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Interestingly, where other organizations were based in municipalities run by opposition parties (chiefly the Republican Peoples’ Party, CHP) they did not frequently tend to engage with them. In fact, aside from the relationship between Kurdish organizations and the HDP, most CSOs did not, in the main, engage with opposition parties at all. For instance, only 10.7 percent (3/28) of registered organizations had engaged with the CHP and 7.1 percent (2/28) with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); the other two opposition parties in the Grand National Assembly. This was true even where these organizations shared the ideological background of the party, as in the case of most Kemalist organizations and the CHP. Thus, unregistered Kurdish organizations stand out for their comparatively far higher level of interaction with a political party; and all unregistered organizations stand out for their comparatively far lower level of interaction with other key actors in the political system, namely state and the European Union.


This essay examined a small cohort of unregistered women’s organizations working in Turkey. While the conclusions that can be drawn from the study are undeniably limited by the size of the sample and its focus on unregistered Kurdish organizations, the study raises two issues in particular that are worthy of future exploration. The first concerns the composition of unregistered civil society and the inclination of marginalized and anti-establishment—in Gramsican terms, counter-hegemonic—groups to populate this terrain. Second, and related, is the level of support available to these groups and important questions of whether, by structuring funding requirements in a way that excludes these groups, funding organizations are limiting their potential and ignoring the very cohort of CSOs with perhaps the greatest grassroots following and potential to progressively transform the status quo. Overall, the results from this study show the importance and value of including unregistered and informal organizations in research on CSOs and moving beyond a focus only on registered, formal organizations. Such research would provide a useful point of comparison for the current study as well as an opportunity to test prevailing theories and knowledge on civil society more rigorously.

[1] CIVICUS, “Civil Society in Turkey: at a Turning Point. CIVICUS Civil Society Index (CSI) Project. Analytical Country Report for Turkey,” TUSEV Publications 59 (2009), accessed July 8, 2015, http://civicus.org/downloads/CSI/Turkey.pdf.

[2] This is acknowledged in the report as a limitation to the inclusiveness of the project.

[3] See Jessica Leigh Doyle, “Civil Society Organizations, the State and Democracy: The Case of Turkey” (PhD diss., University College Dublin, 2015).

[4] Kaliber and Tocci make a similar observation on the basis of their research with Kurdish CSOs, reporting that Kurdish groups tend to operate ‘beyond the confines of the law.’ See Alper Kaliber and Nathalie Tocci, “Civil society and the transformation of Turkey’s Kurdish question,” Security Dialogue 41, 2 (2010): 191-215.

 [5] All unregistered organizations were focused on the needs of the community and the provision of services lacking therein. Yom, in his research has similarly observed that informal CSOs are often more communally oriented and draw a strong following among the poor, see Sean Yom, “Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab World,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 9, 4 (2005): 14-33.

 [6] Where groups identified as both Islamic, Kemalist or Kurdish and feminist, precedence was given to the ethic/religious identity, as research shows that these identities have the greatest bearing on these organizations. See Cagla Diner and Şule Toktaş, “Waves of feminism in Turkey: Kemalist, Islamist and Kurdish women's movements in an era of globalization,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 12, 1 (2010): 41-57; and Simel Esim and Dilek Cindoglu, “Women's organizations in 1990s Turkey: Predicaments and prospects,” Middle Eastern Studies 35, 1 (1999): 178-188.

 [7] With regard to the latter in particular it is worth raising the question here of whether, as state repression of opposition groups escalates in Turkey these organizations begin to move outside of the formal political realm.

[8] This funding was for a small amount and distributed through a registered organization.

[9] Ayça Ergun, “Civil society in Turkey and local dimensions of Europeanization,” European Integration 32, 5 (2010): 507-522.

[10] Markus Ketola, “EU democracy promotion in Turkey: funding NGOs, funding conflict?” The International Journal of Human Rights 15, 6 (2011): 787-800.

[11] Jessica Leigh Doyle, “Civil Society Organizations, the State and Democracy.”

[12] Interview with women’s organization, January 2013.

[13] Interview with women’s organization, September 2013.

[14] See Hanna Mühlenhoff, “Funding Democracy, Funding Social Services? The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights in the Context of Competing Narratives in Turkey,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 16, 1 (2014): 102-118; Jessica Leigh Doyle. "Civil Society as Ideology in the Middle East: A Critical Perspective,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2015): 1-20; and Markus Ketola, “EU democracy promotion in Turkey.” The EU is also in no way unique in this regard; other donors have taken a similar approach to CSOs. See Julie Hearn, “The ‘uses and abuses’ of civil society in Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 28, 87 (2001): 43-53, and Claire Mercer, “Performing partnership: civil society and the illusions of good governance in Tanzania,” Political Geography 22, 7 (2003): 741-763.

[15] Interview with women’s organization, January 2014.

[16] Jessica Leigh Doyle, “Civil Society Organizations, the State and Democracy.”

[17] Interview with women’s organization, September 2013.