September 28, 2013
By Women’s Voices Now

WVN kicks off its first day of Exploring Honor, Justice, and Women’s Rights in Turkey Conference at Marmara University, Göztepe Campus, Istanbul, Turkey. The panel discussion, moderated by Professor Ayşe N. Durakbaşar, included Assistant Professor Dr. Aylin Akpınar and Dr. Zeynep Beşpınar. All were from the Sociology Department at Marmara University.

Prof. Ayşe N. Durakbaşa (Panel moderator)

Head of the Sociology Department of Marmara University, Ayşe identifies herself as having been socialized within the feminist movement that arose following the 1980 coup. She identifies as a feminist and, in the present context of Turkey, she is concerned about the status of women and women’s rights. Statistically speaking, in recent years violence against women has increased, both at the domestic level and at the hands of the police. The Gezi protests offered the most recent evidence of this claim, during which women were strip-searched as a form of humiliation and intimidation to keep them from protesting.

She was very proud to represent a department that has a majority of women on its faculty. Ayşe also expressed her enthusiasm for the opportunity to have a dialogue with Women’s Voices Now regarding the issues of the conference and to engage the audience a well.

Dr. Zeynep Beşpınar (Speaker)

Zeynep is a member of the Sociology Department’s Faculty. Interestingly, she is an ethnic Albanian. Her family came to Turkey in the 1920s and 1940s in search of better education for their children and more job opportunities. While Zeynep was born and raised in Turkey and feels that Turkey is her home, she does not identify as Turkish herself. She’s very proud of her Albanian heritage and shared that in Albania, which is also a Muslim-majority society, the value of educating daughters was and is very prevalent. Zeynep attributes her choice to pursue a career in academia as stemming from the importance placed on education for her since she was a young girl.

Zeynep undertook a three-year study in the Southeast and Southern regions of Turkey. Importantly, Zeynep mentioned that honor is not only prevalent among the Kurds, but all the populations living throughout the country. On a personal note, she mentioned that her grandfather would often say to her, “Always watch your honor,” which demonstrates how ingrained this concept is throughout the country and among all its peoples. Nevertheless, the degree to which the honor code affects the lives of women does vary from community to community for internal reasons. Additionally, however, the experience of the Turkish state based on geography also contributes to the extent of severity of the honor code. In order to understand how the honor code controls the movement and overall lives of women, it is necessary to have knowledge of the socio-economic factors at play.

For example, since Turkey’s establishment as a republic in 1923, in order to control this population (identified as hostile to the state) policies of resettlement of the Kurds, a lack of infrastructure (schools, for example), and overall dearth of investment in the south and southeast regions of the country have kept most Kurds in a severely disadvantaged position. Additionally, in “Kurdish areas the government has invested weapons and riches in the hands of aghas (tribal leaders) that are bribed to keep the Kurds under control.” This tactic of divide and rule has kept some Kurdish clans well endowed with wealth and education, and it usually stays within the families, as marriages will also take place within the clan to consolidate or retain power and influence.

In this fraught relationship between the Kurds and the state, Kurdish women suffer doubly. As repositories of culture and language, warding off the threat of assimilation falls upon Kurdish women, which means they are encouraged or forced to stay at home. Or, if Kurdish women are encouraged to be educated, the lack of infrastructure means there aren’t enough schools in proximity to girls in need of education. Generally speaking, in these areas, women are unable to make their own choices. For instance, women do not choose whom they marry or have a say in how many children they are going to have. In the areas where Turkish authorities invade in search of PKK members of other Kurdish dissenters, the constant threat of attack and the stress this atmosphere generates often translates into high incidence of domestic violence. Disappeared sons, daughter, husbands, brothers, and sisters also exacerbate the fragility of the people’s nerves. Not knowing the fate of a loved one means the wound can never heal, phone numbers cannot change, and moving to a place with more opportunities or development is out of the question in the hope that the missing and disappeared will come home. In the Kurdish parts of the country, unemployment is the highest. If government aid funds come through, it is not certain that money is invested in services for the people and quite possibly pocketed by the clan in power. Moreover, policies that do put welfare into the hands of people aren’t particularly sophisticated. Women will suffer the most from these shortcomings as they always receive second or not at all.

Another good intention gone awry in the southeast was a program that sought to put women through a beautician certification program. From 2010-12, nearly every Kurdish woman, of a particular age range in certain areas of the southeast, was learning to be a hairdresser. This was seen as an acceptable occupation for these women because women hairdressers only have other women as clients – no threat to honor there. While there is something to be said for offering these women a course to complete and a skill to acquire, they still needed capital to open a salon, and business skills for bookkeeping, marketing, and so on. In the end, many of these women became rivals and the competition became very high in such a small market.

Another initiative offered to benefit women was the establishment of women’s centers. In these women-only spaces, women could find camaraderie outside the home and teach each other skills, for instance. However, the condition for allowing them out of the home was that there would be no cell phones in the women’s possession. Men were allegedly suspicious that this free space would enable women to call lovers, or simply other men. So, thus far, state initiatives claiming to try to improve the status of women fall far short of this goal, as they do not help to foster independence and equality, but rather perpetuate the notion of women as possessions of society who must be monitored, lest they act out in some antithetical way to society’s expectations of them. Consequently, in the areas where Kurdish women are most isolated from state infrastructure, where fear of assimilation and conservatism are highest (Diyarbakir, Van, Urfa, and Batman) only the women of the prominent clans will be able to advance. The hanging threat of honor and its violation, in the case of Kurdish women, continues to stymie their development.

Ass. Prof. Dr. Aylin Akpınar (Speaker)

Aylin is a lecturer in the sociology department. She spent fifteen years doing research in Sweden on immigrant communities from several countries, including Turkey. Like Ayşe, she also identifies as a feminist who was influenced by the developments following the 1980 coup. She spoke on marriage and divorce in Turkey and the way in which the ruling-AKP Party uses the guise of family preservation to control women and the agenda of the women’s movement.

Her presentation focused on the issue of divorce (and thus marriage) in Turkey. Recently, the government established “family planning centers” with the principal aim of convincing women not to sue for divorce. So instead of a planning center, it is really more of a family “saving” center, according to Aylin. These centers encourage domestic problem solving within the family. There is this assumption or imposition by the government that nothing bad can happen in the family, and that the integrity of the family trumps all else, including the safety of women who may be in danger within the confines of her family. Domestic violence is quite rampant throughout the country, and family intervention does not usually result in a backing down of the abuser.

In Turkey, the divorce rate is on the rise but rather insignificantly in terms of numbers. This can be attributed to economic difficulties as much as anything else. Moreover, in financially difficult times it is proven that violence against women increases. While a woman in an abusive situation may wish to divorce, she may be threatened in order to get her to stay, and without proper protection or redress from the city or the state, it is difficult to say if that woman will successfully leave a marriage, be stuck in it, or worse. There is this notion, enforced from the top down, that divorce is a whimsical notion carried out by indecisive women. This ignores the physical and psychological abuse that is, statistically, the greatest reason for divorce in Turkey. And while women in Turkey have made some advances in terms of status and rights since the mid-1980s, according to Aylin this is only true for about 10% of Turkish women. The majority 90% has yet to find their voice.