By Heidi Basch-Harod
September 29, 2013
Getting off the ferry at the Kadiköy Station on the Asian side of Istanbul, we went in search of a building 50 meters from the Deniz Hotel, looking for a sign with the acronym KESK. Distracted from the smells of roasting meats and vegetables, perfumeries selling orange-scented fragrances, and throngs of people shopping and socializing on this early Friday evening, we managed to focus enough to find our destination point.
The Public Labor Union Confederation was our meeting point, where a group of women from the Eğetim Sen’s Women’s Commission- Kadiköy Branch, a teacher’s union with a leftward political leaning (as we came to understand), was expecting us.
Tas, Elyse, and Heidi, on the way to the Asian side of Istanbul
The most rewarding experiences of the WVN Global Tours are the impromptu meetings that take place once we actually are on the ground. Indeed a women’s organization, coming from the Unites States, is often met with a bit of skepticism by the women that we really are trying to reach. Starting in the university setting, however, gives us the entrée we need to be granted the opportunity to meet with smaller groups of women organizing, working, or cooperating at the grassroots level to improve the status of women. So, with the circulation of our joint programming with Sabancı and Marmara Universities – opportunities, thankfully, arose.
Dilşa Deniz, academic, activist, author of an anthropological study of ancient symbols of faith in her hometown, Dersim/Tunceli
This particular last-minute screening also came through a personal connection. While conducting research on my master’s thesis focusing on the changing roles of Kurdish women in Turkey since the 1980s, a woman by the name of Dilşa Deniz responded to my query for interviewees from the Kurdish Studies Google group. Dilşa is a founding editor of, and contributor to Kurdish feminist journals that enjoyed a few years of publication from the mid-late 1990s to the early 2000s. She provided me with a wealth of insight into the formulation of a specifically Kurdish women’s feminist consciousness, discourse, and perspective over the past two decades in Turkey- invaluable information for a student of Middle Eastern History located far away from the place and women about which she was writing. I never thought I would actually get to meet Dilşa in person. When the dates and details were confirmed for the global tour visit to Istanbul, though, I once again reached out to Dilşa to see if she was available to meet.
Women protesting against police-perpetrated sexual abuse during the summer Gezi Park protests
As we were sitting on a rooftop café, we heard a group of women shouting in unison, their voices growing louder and louder as the moments passed. The women were marching in protest against sexual violence committed by police officers during the summer Gezi protests. Apparently, police conducted public strip searches and other inappropriate methods of intimidation that specifically targeted women by sexually harassing them. Dilşa had intended to march side-by-side with these women but met me instead. Of course, I was grateful both for her presence and a translator who could inform me about the cause of the protest and translate the shouts of the women demonstrating.
Dilşa made a number of calls to her friends in the Teacher’s Union, gauging interest in a WVN screening. After a few calls back and forth, she confirmed that a group of 7 women would meet with us to discuss the films and ways to cooperate in the future. So there we were, walking up the spiraling staircase to the 4th floor to meet a small group of women from the Egitim Sen.
Women of Eğetim Sen-Kadiköy Branch accepting our small gifts of WVN Tote Bags
We were greeted with tea and snacks and warm smiles of welcome. We conducted an equipment check and explained our work a bit more, introduced Süleyman Şanlı, our last-minute interpreter, and by 7:30 we began our program.
Similar to our first audience at Marmara, In the Morning received some strong criticism for the lack of women’s voices in it, and for presenting something of which these women claimed Turkish society is quite aware. There was also a comment that the film made it seem as though honor killings occur only in rural, Kurdish communities, and this is an inaccurate portrayal of the widespread incidence of honor killings. In fact, honor killings are happening in Diaspora communities as well, in Europe, in the United States. These women also shared an upsetting statistic that, each day, five women are killed by a man in Turkey. But instead of focusing on the shortcomings of the film, we were able to steer the conversation in the direction of learning what exactly is being done to address the incidence of honor killings in Turkish society and whether or not there is progress in reducing this unfortunate reality that afflicts all women of Turkish society.
As we suspected, while awareness is high and there is a discourse on honor killings, the government, neither at the national nor the local levels, have invested anywhere near enough resources into attending to the matter. Also, while reform to the Turkish Penal Code has seen some reform to make honor crimes easier to prosecute and punish, this has not served as a disincentive to perpetrators, and, very often, judges will still carry out sentences that “favor” the perpetrator. Basically, this means that prevention, emergency assistance, and education against honor killings fall upon civil society, local initiatives, and NGOs. While such entities and institutions are on the rise and gaining legitimacy within society, they are too far and few to make the impact they would like to make. Furthermore, it appears that honor killings are on the rise. Whether or not that is the case or it is because honor killings are now being reported more frequently, the point is, there is a long road ahead to ending this form of violence against women in Turkey. Also, according to them, while women are making their voice heard against honor killings, there are few men involved in any of these campaigns, in a prominent way, just yet.
We then asked the teachers if they felt it an obligation to bring up the social reality of honor killings to their students. Each woman present taught anywhere between seventh through twelfth grade. One of the women said that she has approached individual parents when she became aware of a possible escalation in violence in the family, but that nothing organized has ever been planned. Another teacher mentioned that, indeed, since the incidence of honor killings is so widespread, she teaches a unit on honor killings in her health education class, and she uses the materials provided in a textbook to do so. To that effect, however, not all schools use the same textbooks and in communities that may teach from AKP-produced, conservative materials, a section on honor killings will not be found. Ultimately, then, it depends on the teacher and her willingness to broach this sensitive and loaded subject.
Brochures published by the Women’s Commission, including a new project raising awareness about sexual abuse of children
Sitting with such a small group of women also afforded us the opportunity to get into a more substantive conversation about women’s rights work in Turkey. We discovered that these particular women not only focused on women’s rights but also the rights of the teacher. Teachers in Turkey are public servants. Their salaries are prohibitively low, below the poverty line in fact. They are not allowed to be members of political parties, and one woman went so far as to say, “as a teacher one is not a free citizen.” Accordingly, the teacher’s unions arose in the late-1980s and while they advocate for pay increases and other teachers’ rights, they are still not allowed to organize public events or protests against the government.
At this particular meeting, we were also introduced to the ongoing tension that exists between politically mobilized secular and religious women. With the rise of the AKP, a conservative Islamist party that is promoting what is called a neo-Ottomanist approach to governing the people of Turkey – secularism, the foundation of the Modern Republic, has come under question. For staunch secularists, this is rather threatening. For the more conservative religious factions of society, this is an exciting time. Unfortunately, often this societal divide also fractures the women’s movement, perhaps stymieing the progress that the movement could make if there was a unified (as much as possible) women’s rights coalition.
Overall though, we were left with an exciting glimpse into the dynamic activities of women’s organizations in Istanbul; an insider’s view of the many political factions, complications, and challenges that women face vis-à-vis their government, society, and even as individuals as they navigate the complexities of the multi-layered identities that they juggle as women of Turkey.