Imagine you were born in a village on the Black Sea coast of Turkey. What would your love life look like then? And how would you make an arranged marriage work? Four women tell their story very openly.
Three hundred kilometres east of Istanbul lies the village of Örenköyü. It’s a rather traditional village, like so many in Turkey. But this region is rather rich, both because of hazelnut production and because of the biggest steel factory in the country. Nature is incredibly beautiful here, green, hilly, humid, and everywhere you see groups of people working on the land at the foot of the hills.
Social control is big here, the women in this story all want to make sure the story will not be published in Turkey. In these villages, as in many other Turkish villages and towns, arranged marriages are quite normal. Don’t dismiss it as being ‘married off’, because that sounds as if everything is settled without the couple having any say in it, and that’s not the case. Marriage candidates can be turned down, and sometimes are. And marriages are also ‘arranged’ between people who are attracted to each other: the man’s family agrees and after that the man and his family visit her family to ask for her hand. So: love marriages do exist!
‘I knew nothing about animals, so his family was not interested in me’
But for Sema, things turned out differently. It’s more then twenty years ago that Sema’s heart was stolen. Sixteen she was, and she wanted to share her life with him. “We got engaged, but the love marriage didn’t happen after all”, she says now. The problem was that his family had a farm, while Sema’s father worked in the steel factory in the nearby city. The potential family in law didn’t need a girl like Sema, who knew nothing about animals. Sema and her fiancé argued about it, more and more. Sema: “Things turned cold between us, we lost the feeling we shared. We decided to cancel the wedding.”
Sema Köşeoğlu (38) is sitting on the sofa in her living room, which is stuffed with furniture, a common Turkish habit. Behind her on the wall is a picture of a girl crying in a pilgrimage scene in Mekka, next to her a big TV on a shiny wooden cupboard. Net curtains block the beautiful view: green hills, the Black Sea with big ships slowly gliding by. It’s quiet at home: Sema’s man took off to his shop in the city, her sons of 11 and 15 are outside. Her sister in law is visiting with her two year old daughter. Sema openly admits that her marriage is not the result of love. “The decision to marry this man was a common sense decision. A good decision. He is kind, understanding, he takes good care of his family. I’m happy with him.”
Sema explains that after her engagement she had less chance on the marriage market. Breaking off an engagement is not good for your reputation. So when this candidate came and her family seemed to support a marriage, she accepted when he came by to ask for her hand. Sema: “It’s good to be with somebody with the same background. Love alone is not enough.” She quotes a Turkish saying that “things will sort themselves out after the marriage”. “That’s exactly what happened. I didn’t have high expectations when I married Recep, but I respected him. Love grew in time. We are a good match and there is harmony in our home.”
Well, most of the time that is. Recep, says Sema, spoils the children too much. She wants to teach them discipline, wants them to have a goal in life and give of their very best at school. Her husband thinks she needs to cool down a bit. “When he comes home from work at night, he says they can stop doing their homework ,that it’s enough. How can he say that when he only comes home at nine, nine thirty? If he wants more influence in raising the children, well, then he could consider coming home earlier.” Sometimes she adjusts herself a bit to her husband’s wishes. But not for too long. She laughs: “Because, you know, I’m right.”
In the meantime, Sema’s 11 year old joined in. But the women’s talk doesn’t interest him too much, so he’s off again. Sema’s older son is not around the house. “I guess he’s in the city with his girlfriend”, says Sema with a smile. In the village, boys and girls can’t meet for fear of gossip, so the city about ten kilometres down the road offers a solution. Few parents allow their sons to meet a girl without a watchful family eye, but Sema has no problem with it. “He even wants to bring her home some time to introduce her to us. She’s really nice, mom, he says. But I think it’s better to postpone that. First he has to finish his school and find a job, before he can be serious about a girl. But still, I don’t forbid him to see her. It’s innocent and I don’t want any fight over it. I too have been young, ,I know exactly how it feels. It will pass by again.”
‘On Valentine’s Day, I got a box full of roses. I was speechless.’
Perihan Dilaver (27) never spoke to her husband before they got engaged. She could have because he called her a few times, but she was too nervous to pick up the phone. So contact didn’t go beyond looking at each other at, for example, marriage celebrations in the village. “Nowadays young people go to the city to meet, but ten years ago something like that was really not done”, she says. Perihan got married almost ten years ago, when she was eighteen. Young? No, not according to her. She was ready. “I left school when I was eleven. For secondary school, you had to go the city and most of the children didn’t do that, especially not girls. I helped with the housekeeping and started needlework for my trousseau. After a few years, my trousseau was finished and it was time to get married.” Her soon-to-be mother in law asked them to hurry up a bit. Perihan: “She lived alone with her son and he was about to go and do his military service. If we got married before his military service, we could live with her and she would not be left behind alone.”
Perihan and her husband got to know each other during their nine months engagement. Two months after the marriage, Perihan fell pregnant, and once again eleven months later he left for the barracks. “We were so happy with our son and then he had to leave for eighteen months! It was a difficult time. He only had two short holidays in all those months.” Her face brightens up when she tells about the Valentine’s Day during his army time. He called her to say he had sent her something. “I expected a small package, but an enormous package was waiting for me at the post office in the city. A box full of roses. I was speechless, I never had anything so beautiful.”
Romantic gestures like that don’t really happen anymore. Their life and their marriage are just taking their course, and for Perihan that’s quite okay. They also have a daughter now, Yağmur. A really small daugther, only six weeks old. She was pregnant once more, but that soon ended in a miscarriage, she thinks probably because she was taking strong medication at the time. “Ever since I helped wash a body for burial, I sometimes have panic attacks. They are under control now with the help of medication. I take normal antidepressants now, not those heavy pills anymore.”
Her fears cause some friction between Perihan and her husband. Sometimes she is just not well and she has to lie down for a while. He doesn’t understand that. Perihan: “He says I just think too much. We lead our lives together, he says, so how come I stand up and you lie down? Sometimes it makes me sad that he doesn’t understand how I feel.”
Then her phone rings. The interview is done in the neighbour’s house and Perihan’s husband calls because the baby is crying. Dirty nappy probably. Changing nappies, he doesn’t do that? Perihan laughs: “No, he doesn’t. He only rocks the cradle.”
‘Now we can walk hand in hand, but I don’t want to anymore. It’s too late, the feeling is gone.’
This city nearby, this city where (for the time being) secret loves from the village can blossom a little bit, is Ereğli. Almost a hundred thousand inhabitants and one of the biggest steel factories in the country make It a rather prosperous place. In one of the small, car-free streets in the small city centre, Jale Kalender (40) has her sowing studio. Jale thinks her husband is not strong enough, character wise. He never just deals with something that needs to be done or decided, it’s always her that needs to take the initiative. “For example, I would like to have this workplace painted, the walls refreshed. But he doesn’t think it’s necessary. I work here six days a week, why doesn’t he just arrange a painter?” She continues, thinking: “I call myself a modern Turkish woman, a feminist even, but in the end I also want a man at home who protects me and takes charge.”
Jale comes from a small town in the same region, but is glad to be gone from there. “There I would have had an arranged marriage and I really didn’t want that.” She left for the city when she finished her secondary school, which specialized in sewing and fashion. She found a job as a sewing and needlework teacher for a government school. That’s when she met her husband. A good guy, who at a party first insulted her by asking her to dance over and over again even though she didn’t want to dance. But after that, they met again and he turned out to be nice and modern. During the interview, at the end of the afternoon, he drops in and Jale asks him to go home and start preparing dinner. “I always work about an hour longer than him. When I come home, the table is set and at least the salad is ready.”
Life with her husband and two sons has become monotonous, says Jale. There’s no romance anymore in her marriage. “The first years of our marriage, we lived in a village. I wanted to hold hands on the street, but the town was too conservative for that. Here in the city it’s possible and my husband sometimes tries to hold my hand, but I don’t let him. It’s too late now, the feeling is gone.” That’s not her husband’s fault, she says. Sometimes in the morning he lovingly kisses her goodmorning, sometimes he brings her favourite cookies home or opens a bottle of wine. “He wants to get closer, even physical, but I turned…”- she hesitates – “cold. I want us to talk more. He is a sales representative for kitchen equipment, but recently he got a work call about sports equipment. Turns out he has been a sales representative for that too for some time! How can it be I don’t know that?” She means to say: it takes something to get something. She shocks herself a little bit. “Now that I talk about it, I start thinking: what am I doing to get our relationship back on track? I never give him anything, I never do something special, something sweet.”
Divorce has crossed her mind. But no, she could have done much worse as husbands go, and she doesn’t want to lose him. She has two children, one of whom is mentally disabled. “There is no other man that could love my children as much as their own father.”
‘I could have refused him, but he seemed to be a good man’
Gülsüm Doğru (42) sleeps with her daughter Ipek (9) regularly. When they lie next to each other wide awake, Ipek sometimes starts to talk about her father, who passed away when she was just a little baby. Classmates sometimes say bad things about him. That he was a drunk and beat his wife. “She asks me whether that’s true or not”, says Gülsüm, “and I don’t lie about it. But I also tell her that he was a good basket maker and that I also loved him somehow.”
Gülsüm lives in a village of a few hundred inhabitants. She grew up in a nearby village and never saw her husband before the marriage was arranged. “I could have refused to marry him, but he seemed to be a fine man. And he was, for the first three months of our marriage.” After that, the drinking started. And the violence. That was so bad that she lost two pregnancies because of it. The third one, she carried full term. A few months after Ipek’s birth, he died of acute alcohol poisoning. Can she explain why she somehow loved this man? “No, not really. My place was with him, he was my husband. There was nothing I could change about that.”
Ipek, who stays away from the interview because her mother doesn’t want her to hear the details of her marriage, walks in with a small basket, made by her father. It was made specially to hold strawberries. They grow a lot in this region, and only in this kind of basket can you transport them without bruising them. Also two pictures in the living room keep the memory of Gülsüm’s husband alive. One black and white picture, and one in which they are sitting together on a wooden bench with a fake background of colourful trees and flowers. “My husband burnt all our pictures. The black and white one I got from the neighbours, the other one is new. His parents were in that picture too. I took it to a photographer and he erased his parents with the computer. Every day, I take a quick look at these pictures.”
Gülsüm doesn’t have much money. There is no such thing as a widow’s pension, so she tries to make a living selling hazelnuts, the fruit that this region is famous for. A few big bags are piled up against the wall, waiting for better market conditions. Gülsüm has a vegetable garden that produces a rich crop because of the fertile soil. And she has friends and neighbours who help her out with money, food and other things she needs. There are always many people around, even during the interview, which takes place in a big room next to the kitchen, nicely warmed by the wood stove. A handful of women are sitting in the living room with Ipek. When Gülsüm joins them on the sofa later that night, her daughter snuggles up against her and Gülsüm buries her wrinkled and shrunken face for a moment in the big, comforting body of her neighbour, who wraps her arms around her. She never knew the love of a man, but the love of her daughter and community keeps her going.