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The women are very silent
1 Aug 2010
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"Turkey is a very huge country and we don’t have enough money... Most of the women’s organizations in Turkey, they are already doing a lot of work with very little people and very little money... There are very few people dealing with the issues, and the government does not donate to women organizations."

Yasemin Oz. Founding pioneer of rape crisis centers in Turkey. Member of Amargi, a women’s co-op founded by Pinar Selek, and a lawyer for fourteen years. Amargi is an independent Turkish women’s organization. They have a flat structure and make all decisions through consensus. They fight against all exploitation systems, including militarism, racism, heterosexism, and patriarchy. They publish magazines and books, form research groups, organize activities in neighborhoods, form protests, and stand against all violence and discrimination. They aim to help women’s solidarity without ignoring the differences. Interviewed August 2010.

The women are very silent

I started from another point than most women. I was dealing with LGBT rights, so I became a feminist. The LGBT organizations were working with the feminist movement from the beginning.

There are eight LGBT organizations in six different cities. In Istanbul, there are two. In Ankara, there are two. Now, we are trying to build more organizations. We are supporting and training them in the south and north of Turkey now. We are telling them our experiences. How we started. How we managed to raise LGBT rights.

Now, I’ve been working for Amargi for four years. I work with the court cases and legal issues. Pinar Selek,[1] she’s one of the frontiers. She was very active while starting the organization. You know, the women are very silent in society. They cannot talk about their issues a lot. We are trying to encourage women to write, to express themselves.

We do workshops, the participants read books, analyze them from a feminist perspective, they write their articles, they publish them, or they make their own movies with a feminist point of view, and we publish it. We basically encourage women rights. We are trying to let them express themselves, the women. Let the society hear the women’s voice.

We are very active in peace movement in Turkey, the anti-militarist movement; we are very active in the LGBT movement in Turkey also. Amargi is one of the best in Turkey. Some of our campaigns are supported by very huge companies. For example, one of my friends is training young women on women’s rights, and a very huge company is funding the project.

For the last three years, our basic campaign was sexual violence. I’m actually in another women’s platform, and we wrote a draft of a law for the government to open rape crisis centers. In Turkey, there are nearly 90 big cities. We want to open rape crisis centers in all of them. We met the equality commission in the parliament. They all support us. We met some parliamentarians and some ministers. They are all supporting us.

I don’t know when this law will come into effect or when they will open rape crisis centers. We have only discussed with the parliamentarians, and they said, “Yes.” They told us the women’s movement in Turkey is very strong, we have good connections with the parliamentarians, and because of the European Union laws, they have to do a lot on women’s equality. It won’t be as hard as we imagined when we started this work.

Only, we haven’t reached any development yet. We are waiting for the law to pass. If we march to parliament, I think it will speed things up, but we cannot mobilize our organizations to do such a huge campaign.

Turkey is a very huge country, and we don’t have enough money to deal with the campaign for rape crisis centers. Most of the women’s organizations in Turkey, they are already doing a lot of work with very little people and very little money so it’s not easy to find funding to make a huge campaign. There are very few people dealing with the issues, and the government does not donate to women organizations.

Until now, we received very little funding. Even to hold the meetings to discuss starting the rape crisis centers with all women organizations around Turkey was difficult. We did it voluntarily. Voluntarily, we made translations of rape crisis center models from all over the world. Voluntarily, we work on the draft of the law. These are the only things we can do without money. I work ten hours a day and during my working day, if I find some free time, I work on the law draft for rape crisis centers. I am stealing time from my company, or I am working for the platform in the evenings, on the weekends. Then, if you want to go to Ankara and make a huge march, you need money.

Actually, some of our members were traveling around Turkey to discuss with women about rape crisis centers in different areas. But some of the feminists do not support it so it’s another challenge in this campaign. They say that feminists should open their own rape crisis centers, not government-run centers. We think that we don’t have enough people and money to run enough rape crisis centers, so we should force the government to open them. It’s political. Sexual violence is very big.

It has been three years now since we started this campaign. We first talked to women who faced rape and asked them, “What can feminists do to support you?” They said, “There are some rape crisis centers in the world, and it would be great if we can open them in Turkey.” We started to search and understand what we could do.

In some ways, good change is happening. We have enough force to change the law if we struggle enough. But whenever they change the law, they don’t always say “Yes” to all our requests. If they say “Yes,” they find a way not to use it, you know?

For example, we fought to criminalize honor killings. Then, they put something in the law about custody killings, which is quite different. For example, in custody killings, there is a family agreement to kill someone about honor. In custody killings, the punishment is very high. But if there is no family decision, if for example, the husband kills the wife because of honor, this is not custody killing. This is honor killing. When woman are killed singlehandedly because of honor, in the courts, there is a reduced punishment. They find some reasons and they call it “unjust provocation.” There is “unjust provocation” in the murder.

Again, we are fighting to force the courts to use the law correctly, to use it in the right way. The change is not very quick. You have to fight more and more. Forced marriages are also a big problem. It’s actually criminalized in Turkish penal code but still women can’t complain about their families if they are forced to marry.

There is the law but it’s not easy to use it all the time. This is the challenge.

Historically, the women’s movement has been challenged. The women's movement was very strong during the Ottoman time, but the founders of the Republic stopped this strong women’s movement. There was even a political party of women when the Republic started. It was closed and some of the members went to prison and some of them went to mental hospitals.

Since that time, people say that Ataturk gave rights to women. No. There was a strong women’s movement. He had to stop it because he felt that it was dangerous. Of course if you compare with the world’s history, the women in Turkey, we gained rights before many countries, yes. But today, women cannot use the rights that we got a hundred years ago.

Because of the very strong patriarchal structure, women are not allowed education by their families, not allowed to work because of the family pressure and the social pressure on them. The pressures are breaking every day, yes. The country is changing a lot, yes. But still, there are women who are uneducated, unemployed, economically dependent on their families, their fathers, their husbands.

There is even a debate about state schools. We are not sure that state schools are the best for girls. Ok, girls should be educated but we have to focus also on changing the education system, which is also very patriarchal.

For me, the main challenge is the structure. The patriarchy is very strong in Turkey. The politicians cannot easily say that we are crazy, but they still say it. There are even female ministers in the government who are as patriarchal as the guys. For example, the minister responsible for women, she recently said that homosexuality is sickness. Then, even though there are feminist parliamentarians, they don’t have enough power in the parliament.

Yes, but feminism is rising in Turkey. For example, we have friends in media, journalists, authors, so they talk. They let us talk. We are visible. We are publishing a magazine, the Amargi feminist magazine, so people are reading. There are discussions. In many universities, Women’s Studies departments opened.

Even though some of the women’s organizations are leftist and some are rightist, we can come together on some conditions to ask for the same thing. For example, every year the women’s shelters and counseling centers get together and we see each other and we discuss on the issue of violence.

Organizations all over Turkey, we are all connected. If you go to another city, you can find other women. We are dealing with sexual violence; other women’s organizations are dealing with domestic violence. One in Ankara has a counseling center for domestic violence. They give legal advice, psychological support to women who faced domestic violence. They also have a trafficking shelter. Trafficking is a huge problem in Turkey because we are very close to Soviet Union countries, Balkan and Soviet countries.

If the police find out there are trafficked women, they find them and they call the organization in Ankara. They stay in the shelter. They are allowed to stay for six months until they are returned to their own countries. They are given psychological support, medical support, and if they want to learn something during their stay, for example, like computer skills, they are trying to give them such courses.

Overall, the women's organizations are very organized and connected. We have a lot of lawyers in the movement. The volunteer work is perfect in the movement. Incredible I think.

I don’t say that it’s perfect. For example, on the nationalism thing, we always discuss and we always separate from each other. There are very nationalist women organizations in Turkey and most of the women’s organizations are anti-nationalist and anti-militarist so we have really huge discussions on these topics. But I think it’s working in a way. In some issues, we get together.

We also have good international connections, but I think the basic difference is that in European countries, the government is funding the organizations. In Turkey, there is no budget for women. Of course, we have a lot of European feminist friends. We are very similar to each other, but we have a stronger patriarchal structure here. We are forcing the government and discussing, but it doesn’t happen in a day.

Still, the women’s movement has changed a lot of things in Turkey, especially in the law. They changed a lot of things in the criminal court, which was very vital for women. There is less control of the states of women’s bodies and sexual life. This is quite big success. And we opened a lot of counseling centers and shelters for women. This is a success.

We build on our own. For example in the past, they could force virginity testing on women. It’s illegal now. Changes happen so quickly in this society. I can observe it in my own life. In the last fifteen years, there is a quite difference in rights.

I have a lot of hope, actually. I believe that one day, more women will be educated, more women will be employed, and things will change quicker than we imagine. In the LGBT movement, I personally experienced it.

I don’t think we will end patriarchal things, like rape and domestic violence. I don’t think this will end, but women are gaining their rights more and more. They hear from the media, they learn more where to apply when they face a problem. As long as there are more women’s organizations, more places for them to go, things will change. I believe in that.


[1] Pınar Selek: Activist in the antimilitarist-peace movement in Turkey and one of the founders of Amargi. She is a sociologist, researcher, and the editor of Amargi Feminist Journal. Her work has been published in books, newspapers and magazines around the world. She helped established “Street Artists Atelier” with street children and transvestites to integrate these marginalized populations into society through their works of art. She is a central figure in the peace movement as she faced life imprisonment for her beliefs, particularly her research on the Kurdish separatist movement. As she defends women, the disadvantaged, and Kurdish people, she has been tortured, imprisoned, and at times forced to flee Turkey. She continues to face accusations.

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