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Those moments were seeds
1 Aug 2010
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If these guys keep on killing each other, the Kurdish guerillas and Turkish army, what can we do? If there is violence, there is not hope, no dialogue and millions of Kurdish women are under the threat of rape, violated, and no democratic platforms, no freedom for expression or organizing. Can you imagine?”

Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) - New Ways. Women’s NGO founded in 1993. They contribute to legal reform in Turkey and promote women’s human rights within Turkey and internationally. They promote sexual and reproductive health in Muslim countries through their coordination of the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights (CSBR) and release publications in Turkish, Arabic, and English. The organization has consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the UN. Interviewed: Zelal Bedriye Aymau, August 2010.

Those moments were seeds

Half of my life passed in the women’s movement, as an activist. I have been involved in many groups, women’s groups, associations, foundations, campaign groups, and platforms.

I always preferred to have relationship with many groups, to act like an activist who builds links between groups and women’s movements and to develop some common agendas, common solutions to common problems. That was my agenda. That was my stand.

Personally in my life, I think I was very young when I saw the problems. As a child, I was protesting against my father’s behaviors towards my mother. Those moments were seeds of my identity, feminist identity. I was very rebellious against it, and I didn’t like violence. I had a strong sense of justice, for all.

That kind of sensitivity carried me politically to name myself as a feminist activist and feminist politician because, for me, changing life and transforming the conditions of all people, it’s a very political target. If I am doing this as a feminist, it means I am doing feminist politics. I didn’t prefer to be a socialist or environmentalist or, let’s say, because I am Kurdish-born, I didn’t prefer to be involved in Kurdish parties. I always have felt the woman issue in my heart.

I always identified myself as a feminist politician who would like to change her life, my life, and also to contribute in helping other women, supporting other women to change their life, if they want. I am ready to help, and I always try to find ways to do that.

I became a writer and wrote about women. I became a campaign woman. I was a publisher, preparing feminist periodicals. I had many, many positions, and I also acted as a fundraiser and project coordinator. For example, I researched a lot of funds and I found millions of euros and euros for projects that will support women.

Personally, I affected the movement and the movement affected me, so it is a dynamic process. To be in the movement and to be under the impact of the movement and also I try to affect the movement. I would like to be active in supporting women and to be in projects that strongly affect women’s lives. I believe that I can.

Sometimes, of course, women’s activists, we are feeling very down and unhappy and hopeless. But our ongoing mood is not that. Our ongoing dominant mood is we can do it, we can change things, let’s do that.

When you look at the women’s situation in Turkey, since 80s, let’s say since 70s, life changed a lot. To a great extent, you can say this is coming from women’s power to change their lives, not from the government. Of course, the governments are also doing some reforms. But women in Turkey, we didn’t stop.

For example, women want to go outside. A lot young women are very aware of their lives and their interests. They would like to go to high school, they would like to go to university, they would like to have a profession, to earn money, to have a career and also to marry, to have a child. If I can contribute in this, I am happy.


Even though I was not concretely and materially, say, a part of the initial founding phases of the association Women for Women's Human Rights, I was always around my friends who were in this group. I was a natural member. Now, I’ve been here five, six years.

It is an association established in ’93. Those times were very high times for women’s movement in Turkey. To be more effective, to implement strong campaigns together, the women’s movement became more and more institutionalized and more and more aware of the concepts around women’s issues, like human rights, legal rights, the empowerment of women. That time was a peak period for women’s groups in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, Ankara, and little bit in Izmir. In Southeast of Anatolia, the groups emerged very rapidly.

It was a struggle initially to promote the idea that women are equal to men and so they are also human beings. When you express this concept, most of people react to it in a negative way. What do you mean? Of course women are human beings. Why are you specifically emphasizing women’s human rights? It was a struggle in itself to make this concept known. There is resistance to the concept. For example, from the government, from the society, even from some women’s groups. Why women’s human rights? Women’s rights is ok but why women’s human rights? Still, there is a kind of confusion and discussion about, even in the women’s movement.

I remember my friends calling this program a legal literary program because it’s really a matter of literacy and illiteracy. Women don’t know their rights. They don’t know their human rights. What are their rights within a marriage? What are their rights when they are divorcing? What are their rights as a mother? As a daughter?

The main parts of the program begin, then, with women’s human rights. Then, there are the constitutional rights, civil rights, our rights in penal code, and sexual rights, reproductive rights, and then our rights for organizing at grassroots level and national level and also to be independently organizing, to establish women’s groups. This is in our agenda and one challenge is the resistance to this concept from the government.

The government doesn’t accept women’s human rights. For example, the general director of the social service unit, he openly said he doesn’t like this program because we are giving nasty or dangerous ideas. He says the program encourages women to divorce, to destroy their holy marriage. He’s saying this is a dangerous program because you are talking about sexuality, you are talking about vaginas, can you imagine? The penis? This is true, yes, you have to talk about it. Women don’t know. Their parents don’t tell them and some wrong information is always around, so you have to break that.

Also, I think we have shortages in resources, human resources, money, time. For example, currently we are trying to find a program officer. We can’t find one who has the skills and understands women’s issues. There is not money from the government, and we are not reaching the women to invest our money. The poverty is very high. You can’t develop grant-receiving activities because people don’t have money to do the activities. This money issue is very energy-consuming. Every year, you have to be very careful to sustain your financial stability, to write proposals, to communicate with a lot of funders and agencies, to get money.

Programmatically, you have to be careful, and you have to spend all your resources very carefully. There are four main programs here. One is the program for women for women’s human rights, an education program. The other is the program sexual and bodily rights in Muslim societies, which is a big program being implemented currently in fourteen Muslim countries. The third one is advocacy and lobbying activities, and the fourth is the publications, which includes a lot of materials concerning the CEDAW process.

Regarding the women’s rights education program, it’s now implemented in more than forty cities. For sixteen years we have been implementing this program and for thirteen years we have a protocol with the government. We are using their community centers, and we are providing the training on women’s human rights to their staff, social experts, social workers. After the training, the workers are going home. They are providing training to women who are coming to their home community center. This increases the involvement of women in the program and decreases the cost because we don’t have to pay for the venues, we don’t have to pay for trainers. We are just paying for human resources from the association.

            Now we have two hundred trainers and nearly all of them are from social services. It’s a very important institution which has centers in all cities of Turkey. Over eight thousand women have been benefitted from the program.

We have criteria, also, for people we train. For example, we have to be careful about whether this applicant will be decisive in opening the groups in their home centers. This is not like, “Oh, I like this education, and I would like to have my certificate, and I will just show it in my CV.” No, we don’t accept this, so we are very careful in this selection process.

For example, in September again we will have a training for trainers, and we made direct interviews with all those women. Openly, we are asking, “What’s your plan after the training?” And, “How many groups can you open in a year?” Then we are making our decisions. Recently, we finished our selection process, our list is clear, and we are ready to organize the training.

In the end of the first week of October, we will finish the training. It’s a very long training, twelve days. We are investing money in this; we are investing our time, energy and money. We are openly saying to women that we are spending such amount of money, so they all have to be very sensitive to use this resource. Most of the time, we are making good choices. Of course there are some women… For example, in 2008, there was training, and from that group, two women never opened a group. What can we do? You can’t force and we are unhappy about it but it can occur. But the rest opened their groups and they are successful and it’s good.

With this coming training, we will increase the number of the cities where this program is implemented to nearly fifty. It’s an effective program and smartly designed because you have cooperation with the government, which is challenging and difficult, but facilitating the process as well, decreasing the cost, and also multiplying the effect of the program.

We are also supervising: We are visiting the groups and we are talking to women. We are always trying to be in contact at the grassroots level. We are not leaving the program to be implemented by social worker. We are visiting them; we are always in contact; we are sending the certificates. This is, essentially, our women’s human rights program.

For the bodily and sexual rights program, every year there is an international institute. We organize three sexual institutes for people from fourteen Muslim countries. This year in September, the sexual institute will be held in Indonesia. We receive over one hundred and fifty applications but just twenty-five people can go.

We have criteria for this, too. They should be coming from a Muslim country and coming from an organization which is focusing on sexual and reproductive rights in their country. We are communicating with all the applicants. For example, some are applying from Nigeria, which is not a Muslim country, or they are representing an organization which is not focused on sexual and reproductive rights in her country. You have to refuse them.

I think it is the first successful attempt in Muslim countries to talk about sexual and bodily rights. Before this program, there were not such similar programs in Muslim countries.

Also, lobbying and advocacy is going on, which goes with women’s human rights. We are actively lobbying within UN institutions, especially in CEDAW because it is a very important international mechanism. For ten years, we’ve conducted work on CEDAW processes.

At the international level, you have to be active also for promoting women’s human rights. Globally, the women’s situation is not good enough.

For example, I think the number of women who are being still murdered is increasing very rapidly, and this is a big issue that should be put on the agenda of women’s movement. We have to analyze this. Why this number is increasing? You hear the media, technology, internet, and television could be a reason. The other one is women are becoming more and more powerful and they want to be more mobile. Because of that they want to go outside and men are resisting this.

After such an analysis, this is a challenging issue for women’s movement and for Turkey also. You can’t imagine the numbers. Men are killing women. You hear it every day.

The other issue that I can say is the general situation of the country of Turkey. There is armed conflict between Kurdish guerillas and Turkish government army, which directly affects the women’s movement.

When you look at all these things happening in Turkey, this armed conflict, all this Islamic transformation and also this E.U process, it’s making and re-shaping Turkey. For instance, we carried out a very big and efficient campaign for legal reforms in Turkey in the process of E.U candidacy.

We should be very well aware that this country’s changing, and it is different from the other periods of change in Turkey. In the ’80s, also, there was a kind of change because of the military coup d’état, but this time it is different.

In the 1920s, Turkey was established on the ignorance of the Kurdish communities, populations, assimilation of them, killing of them, and pressuring down of them, and mass killing of Armenian population and pressuring Islam and religious people. So, there had to be a change. Kurdish people, religious people, the Armenian state, they were very active. Thus, since then, the philosophy on which this country was established has collapsed. The system collapsed. This is very important for women and the women’s movement. Women could use this moment in a very positive way.

It will lead them to be more powerful but maybe we will not use it. It depends on us and of course other factors. For example, if these guys keep on killing each other, the Kurdish guerillas and Turkish army, what can we do? If there is violence, there is not hope, no dialogue and millions of Kurdish women are under the threat of rape, violated, and there is no democratic platforms, no freedom for expression or organizing. Can you imagine? Here in two regions?

Kurdish people. There are one hundred thousand village guard[1] and they have families, they have daughters, wives, and a lot of women, and they are beating them and they are using their guns to rape women. Between 1990 until ’97, there were a lot of incidents of rape by village guards. So if there is violence here, the whole country is under threat.

Because of these factors, our work is very hard and difficult and we can’t change it very easily. I mean, we can change something in our lives and in other women’s lives but such an issue, it’s so patriarchal, so militaristic, how can we do that?

[1]Village guards: Local militia originally set up and funded by the Turkish state in the mid-1980s to protect towns against insurgents, terrorists and guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish Interior Ministry estimates over 250 murders were committed by village guards over a ten-year period and as recently as 2006, indicated over 5,000 village guards are involved in criminal activities, including torture, extortion, rape, sexual assault, robberies, and house destruction. 

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