Lipstick

How did the lipstick affair make it into the news? Did Turkish Airlines issue a press release in which it stated that as of now red lipstick is forbidden for stewardesses? No, they reacted only after the discussion started. Probably it was the group of stewardesses that protested the ban by putting pics of themselves with red lips online. Fact is, lipstick is on the political agenda. It is actually – can you believe it – world news that Turkey’s national carrier doesn’t want its cabin crew to use red lipstick anymore.

According to journalism standards, an airline that decides which make-up its staff should and should not use is not news. Except if it orders its stewardesses to wear black lipstick and nail polish, or if it demands its male cabin crew use lipstick too, because that is exceptional.

Make-up classes

It is perfectly normal for an airline to decide how its staff looks. You know that when you become a stewardess. You won’t even get hired if you don’t fit the average beauty standards. Before you can fly, you get make-up classes, to make sure you appear at work the way the company likes it. You get handed the uniform, and you don’t get a say in whether you like it or not. Because in the air (and the same goes for ground staff), you are not supposed to be a personality in your own right, but a  representative  of the company.

So why is the lipstick affair news? Because it can be framed as an ‘Islamization in Turkey’ story. Imagine a Turkey correspondent mailing his paper or agency abroad, writing: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick!’ Will the editor somewhere in New York, Paris or Hong Kong get excited? No, he will shrug his shoulders. But what if you mail: ‘News! Turkish Airlines forbids red lipstick, and some say it’s a sign of Turkey’s Islamization!’ Bingo.

The question is: does it have anything to do with Islamization? There is no proof whatsoever of that. Turkish Airlines (Türk Hava Yollari, THY) apparently wants its personnel to look natural, and bright colour lipstick or nail polish doesn’t suit that image. I bet there are hundreds of airlines in the world that have similar rules. Nobody ever wrote a news story about that.

Basic economic sense

Just like some time ago, when Turkish Airlines announced it would no longer serve alcohol on some domestic flights and on some international flights. You can imagine how that was immediately framed. If you made any effort to get a little bit of extra information, you would have found out that alcohol was taken off the menu on domestic flights on which alcohol was never ordered. I would say its basic economic sense to not take up in the air what you don’t need anyway. On flights to destinations where people do want to drink – from Istanbul to coastal cities like Antalya, Bordum and Izmir – alcohol is still being served. Custom made service, right?

The international flights? Turkish Airlines is expanding its number of destinations rapidly, also in the Arabic world. At some destinations, you don’t get landing rights if you serve alcohol. So what do you do if you want to earn money? You take alcohol off the menu. Which pilgrim on the way to Medina would order wine anyway? Besides, worldwide there are a whole lot of airlines that don’t serve alcohol on short flights. Ever read throbbing news articles about those?

Islamization scaremongers

But the uniform, remember the uniform! Yes, I remember the uniform. Not too long ago, a picture of ‘the new THY uniform’ leaked to the Turkish press. Long skirts to the ankles,  caftan-like overcoats. See, Islamization! Soon it turned out that it was just one of the many new uniform designs that were considered by THY, and that they hadn’t yet made up their mind about which one to pick. They still haven’t, as far as I know. But the Islamization scaremongers don’t care, they only see the story they want to see.

The Islamization scaremongers say this lipstick policy is one of the steps towards making women invisible and curtailing women’s rights. You wait and see, before you know it, red lipstick will be banned on the street too! And then high heels! And before you know it, the burka is obligatory! They forget that this is a legitimate company regulation, and that there is no law involved, and that the governing party AKP has nothing to do with this.

And, for that matter, the AKP has been in power now for ten years and has not issued one law that restricts the way people are dressed in any way. Yes, they gave the headscarf more freedom. Which leads to higher levels of education for women who wear the scarf. I think that’s good for women’s emancipation, and it complies with the freedom of religion. And it has absolutely nothing to do with lipstick at Turkish Airlines.

Variety of customers

The lipstick policy of THY has to do with the rapid growth of the company. They no longer only fly to Berlin and Amsterdam, but also to Addis Ababa, Jeddah, Beijing, Bahrein, Capetown, Sapporo, Sao Paulo, Ndjamena and Islamabad – you name any corner in the world and THY goes there. Their company profile has to fit the expectations of an ever-extending variety of customers. So you keep it as plain and natural as possible. You try to ban exceptions to the rules, and turn back freedoms that individual employees have started to permit themselves. Logical, because the bigger your company gets, the more important it is that all employees disseminate your company profile properly, so your brand can be easily recognized.

The people framing this into internal Turkish politics make the domestic profile and the domestic market of Turkish Airlines way too important. Turkish Airlines is a global player. It’s not Islamization that you see, it’s plain capitalism. You know, the same ideology that got the company into trouble with workers unions.

And the stewardesses who complained about the red lipstick ban by putting pictures of themselves online with red lipstick? Really, if you wanted to pursue a career in which you have the right to express your individuality with your outfit, you should have chosen another profession.

With your head up high

Sarai Sierra is dead. She was on a trip to Istanbul, her first trip outside her own country, the US. A 33 year old woman, a wife, and a mother of two boys. She loved photography and that’s why she came to the city. She went missing on 21 January, and on Saturday her body was found on the historic peninsula in Istanbul, not far from many tourist highlights. Killed with a blow on the head.

It’s quite confronting, to say the least. I have been living in Istanbul for more than five years now, and I have never felt unsafe. Not late at night outside, not alone on the street, not anywhere at any time. And that’s not me being naïve. Data from, for example, the International Crime Victims Survey show that Istanbul is way safer than megacities of comparable size and development, like Rio de Janeiro or Lagos.

Sarai Sierra
Sarai Sierra

But what’s the use of saying Istanbul is a safe city when a woman was just murdered brutally? Statistics don’t mean anything when it comes to personal situations. And the scary thing is that it can lead you to the wrong conclusions. Oh yes there are people asking why she was travelling alone, what she was doing abroad without her family, and so on. Speculations that only suggest one thing: that she had it coming. I couldn’t object to that more fiercely.

It’s not that Sarai was killed despite Istanbul being a safe city. I think we shouldn’t look at this from the Istanbul perspective, or compare Istanbul statistics to those of other places in the world. We should look at the world as a whole. It’s just not a safe place for women. Our physical strength is hardly ever enough to defend ourselves against men who want to harm us. So we get beaten up, we get raped, we get assaulted, we get murdered. That is the risk every woman on this planet lives with every day. Some places may have a higher risk of getting harmed, but being a woman is enough to be at risk always and everywhere.

Pippa Bacca

Prompted by what happened to Sarai Sierra, two people have told me to ‘be careful’. I find that sweet, but strange too. I wouldn’t know how to be careful enough to make sure I won’t get beaten up, raped, assaulted, or murdered. For many women, staying at home is not even going to help – I don’t have to tell you about domestic violence do I?

Even stranger are the people who say that ‘we would not allow this to happen again after Pippa’. Pippa Bacca was an Italian artist who was raped and murdered in Turkey in 2008; read her story here. It is so naive to think that our collective shock and anger or even campaigns and whatever can make these horrors stop, and to think that Pippa could have been the last. Of course she wasn’t, and Sarai was not the last either – how many women have been murdered since Sarai’s life came to this cruel end?

So what can we do, when it’s not ‘be careful’, and when the reality is that violence against women will always be there? Accept it? Of course not. I opt for being realistic and not giving  in. Realize that being a woman automatically means being at risk, but don’t let your choices be in any way defined by it. Be a woman with all the mental strength you have. Whatever happens, go through life with your head up high.

May Sarai Sierra rest in peace.

Inside all those houses

I’m on the sixth floor of a big apartment block of some twelve floors. From the balcony I look out on the surroundings and chat with R., the lady of the house. The area is called Diclekent, a huge and still new part of the city. The block where R. lives with her husband and three children was completed in 2007. Luxurious, spacious apartment blocks, parks in between, children’s playgrounds. Diyarbakir is still growing fast, and new areas like this continue to be built. It all looks very modern.

It looks modern, but that doesn’t mean life is always very modern here. We look out over other apartment blocks and a small new park with baby trees, but, behind that, over a huge wasteland. There are two fires there, with women sitting around it. ‘I often go there too’, R. says. She is originally from a village in the province of Hakkari. She continues: ‘We make a fire and we grill vegetables, mostly peppers and eggplant. It’s very tasty’.

I know, I have tasted that often in Turkey, and it’s multi-purpose and is also used for a very nice dish, eggplant salad. R. opens the drawer of her fridge and shows me a few big frozen packages: ‘See’, she says, ‘I make a lot at one time and freeze it. I love going there. We sit together with the women, we chat and we grill. It’s very traditional; we don’t give it up even though we live in these modern houses.’

Diclekent (though not the part where R. lives). On the left behind the buildings a wasteland used for grilling and such. Click to enlarge.

In the corner of the wasteland there is a pile of stones. I recognize it from the distance: it’s a bread oven. You make a fire inside and stick the flat bread to the inside of the oven. It’s ultra tasty once it’s ready. I remember once when I was strolling around in Diyarbakir a woman insisted on giving me one. She just stuffed it in my backpack; I felt the heat of it through the fabric on my back. Not too far from this wasteland in Diclekent, there is a bakery shop. Of course, many people go there to buy bread, but the oven is also used on a daily basis.

It is nice to hold on to old traditions. That the women still come together for these traditional ways of cooking, despite not living in villages anymore but in a big city. But a few days earlier, I also heard about the other side of holding on to traditional life. It happened when I was walking in a park close by my house in the evening.

As I was sitting on a bench, two young men came towards me. Could they ask me something? Yes, of course. They recognized me from a TV appearance on CNN Turk, earlier this year. ‘We loved it’, they said. Could they sit down and talk a bit? Of course.

Three minutes later they had told me they were gay. Very suddenly, after asking where I was from and after getting my confirmation that yes, gay marriage was legal in my home country, ‘We want to go there!’ they said. ‘What a freedom!’

I use exclamation marks, but they were actually sort of shout-whispering. Because they soon added they were secret gays. Nobody knew. They met each other via an internet site and became good friends. One of them had a boyfriend, the other didn’t. Nobody could ever know. ‘You have heard about gay Kurds being killed by their families, haven’t you?’ Yes, I have.

Gay rights demo earlier this year in Diyarbakir, organized by local group ‘Hebûn’, meaning ‘To be’. Click to enlarge.

I brought up a gay rights group in Diyarbakir, that actually held its first gay rights demonstration this year in the city. Did they attend? ‘No, definitely not. Hardly anybody from Diyarbakir did. It’s too dangerous. The participants were mostly from other parts of Turkey, just here to support gays in this region. Which is great, of course.’

They dreamed of moving to other parts of Turkey. Izmir, on the west coast, was their dream destination, or Istanbul. There they could live a more free life, away from the pressure of their families. But they worried about living in those cities too. ‘It’s not easy being a Kurd in the west of the country. There is discrimination, you know. When you say you are from Diyarbakir, you are treated differently. So if we ever move there, we will have to be secret Kurds.’ They laughed. ‘It’s tragic-comic, isn’t it?’, one of them said. ‘Here in Diyarbakir we are secret gays, in Izmir we will be secret Kurds’.

They looked around. Cars were speeding on the busy road alongside the park. An older part of Diyarbakir on one side of the park, brand new apartment blocks on the other. ‘Don’t be deceived by all these modern-looking buildings’, they told me very seriously. ‘It’s only the outside. Inside all those houses, life is still very traditional. You have to fit in. And it’s very difficult if you don’t.’

Women, choices, politician and dad

Turkey’s wanna be bedroom coach, that’s how I saw Prime Minister Erdogan being described on Twitter this weekend. Fresh in the mind is Erdogan’s call on Turkish couples some years ago to have no less than three children, now he has taken a strong stand against abortion and caesarean birth deliveries. The description made me giggle. Which was quite welcome after the anger I’ve been feeling at how Erdogan addresses these important issues. They require consideration, nuance, humanity, but he doesn’t seem to have these qualities in him so he just throws the topics on the table very curtly and leaves it at that.

Illustration of ‘curt’? He actually compared abortion to the murder of 34 civilians in Uludere, end of December, by the Turkish army: ‘Every abortion is an Uludere’. When you know a little bit about the process women go through before they take the difficult decision to have an abortion (and I know a little bit more about it than average, since in my previous journalistic life I wrote a lot about women and health, including abortion), you could interpret that as: apparently he admits that the bombing in Uludere was a well considered decision made by the one and only person in charge – read: himself. But Erdogan obviously has no clue about the decision-making process of women who have unwanted pregnancies. He just calls women who have an abortion “murderers”. And added that abortions are done to prevent Turkey’s population growth. How dare he?

Crazy Turkish reality

It gets even weirder when you know that this remark actually makes Erdogan look humane in the crazy Turkish reality. A few days ago, Interior Minister Sahin made very rude and totally unacceptable remarks about the Uludere massacre. He accused the civilians who were killed of being ‘PKK extras’ on an illegal mission (smuggling) ordered by pro-Kurdish party BDP and the PKK, and who would have been prosecuted if they had been caught alive. And that therefore there was no need whatsoever to apologize for the incident. Both Erdogan and another high AKP official denounced Sahin’s statement, but of course he wasn’t fired and he didn’t step down.

I am surprised to see the comments about this. Nobody even touches on the possibility that this kind of remark is exactly why Sahin is in the government. He has said and done extreme things before. This is just his role in the AKP. Many AKP voters totally agree with the words of Sahin, and he is the minister keeping them on board. After that, Erdogan can publicly denounce Sahin’s words and use his ‘humanity’ on a totally different subject like abortion, and hop, the whole AKP electorate is happy again. When they see each other without any outsiders looking on, Sahin gets pats on the shoulder: well done! Of course Sahin is not fired; he is perfectly useful as he is.

Every unwanted pregnancy is one too many

Back to the subject – hey, Erdogan links important women’s issues with the Uludere massacre, so don’t criticize me for it. Is abortion a big problem in Turkey? Some statistical research shows that is not the case. In Turkey in 2008 some 17% of known pregnancies ended in (legal) abortion. To compare: in my own country, the Netherlands, this was almost 13% in 2010, in the United States 22% in 2008. Abortion has been legal in Turkey since the early 1980’s, in most cases up until the tenth week of pregnancy and the law prevents underaged and married women from taking the decision totally by themselves. Wider availability of modern contraception methods (among other developments) earlier brought the rate down: in 1988 4,5% per 100 women had an abortion, in 1998 this decreased to 2,4%.

So, beats me what the point is of bringing this up. Every unwanted pregnancy is one too many and is better avoided. If Erdogan is against abortion – which is a legitimate opinion – then it’s up to him to find policies to bring the numbers down further. Sex education in schools, better availability of contraception in the whole of the country, information campaigns at family health centres (and opening or staffing them everywhere), etc. But he is not really interested in that. He just wants to show himself as a pious religious and nationalist man, and is flagrantly using an important women’s issue to reach his goal.

Risks are often being downplayed

Caesarean sections? Yes. They are a problem in Turkey, definitely. The rise of caesarean section deliveries reached a whopping 37% in 2008, coming from 8% in 1993. Especially in the most developed regions in the west of Turkey, women opt for a caesarean section instead of natural birth and doctors at the numerous private hospitals don’t hesitate to help out. From the research I have done, it seems that women make the choice not well enough informed. The risks of a huge operation like a section are often being downplayed, the negative sides of natural birth exaggerated. But a caesarean section is a significantly higher risk than a natural birth: there is a risk of unexpected bleedings, infections, and the risks of epidurals or full narcosis. Recovering from a caesarean takes more time than recovering from natural birth, and also comes with greater risks.

So yes, reason enough to put the topic on the agenda. But to do that by saying you are ‘against caesarean sections’? How can you be against a medical procedure that over the centuries has saved the lives of thousands of women and babies? A slap in the face for all the women that had no choice but to deliver via caesarean. And again: if Erdogan is really interested in bringing the rate of caesareans down, then he has the power to do something. Information campaigns, encouraging doctors to adopt a medical standard in when to choose a caesarean and when not, etc. But he’s not really interested, he just wants to score. Again, abusing an important issue in the lives of many women.

Young women

Erdogan has two daughters, who are young women now. I have been thinking about them this weekend. Who knows how their lives will turn out? Who knows, they may at some point need to consider an abortion or a caesarean section. I hope their dad is a different father than he is a politician, and that he will support them in whatever choice they make.

Mother’s Day

Esra wants to take me to the local shop. I’m not sure why, but she insists and takes me by the hand. In the shop I want to buy her and her sister a notebook because they want to practice their writing all the time. But she doesn’t like it. She wants a gold coloured necklace. I refuse to buy it; I say I’m not sure if her mother would agree. We leave the shop, and then she whispers: ‘It was for Mother’s Day’. So we return to the shop and get the necklace.

I am spending some time in Gülyazi, the village in the district of Uludere where, at the end of December, 34 civilians were bombed by the Turkish army. I am staying with a family that lives in a group of four, five houses. I stay in a room in Esra’s mother’s house. The massacre made her a widow at age 28, and she is now alone with five children between five and ten years old. She explains her situation very simply: ‘Before it was bad, now it is worse’.

Her husband made a living from all sorts of day jobs: herding sheep and goats, working in construction, and sometimes he went right across the Iraqi border, some six kilometres from here, to smuggle sugar, diesel and tea. Now that he is no longer alive, she has no income. Like all the families of the victims, she refused the compensation the state offered them. The family helps out, but her sister-in-law also has no man to provide for her: he was sentenced to four years in prison for ‘aiding terrorists’ and has two more years to go.

The poverty is striking. The house has no running water – luckily the creek nearby offers crystal-clear drinking water. There are carpets and cushions, a television that I think doesn’t work, very basic food, there is nothing in the house that is not necessary. There are no beds, the kids just get a blanket when they get tired and lay down on the carpet or on a cushion. The main electricity plug is burned and out of use. Underneath the TV is a picture of Esra’s father – it’s covered with a cloth so they are not confronted with the loss all the time.

As I write this, the evening before Mother’s day, Esra is wrapping her present for her mother in a piece of white paper and writes a sweet message on it. But the present is not a necklace. Halfway on the way back home from the shop, Esra changed her mind. She ran back and returned with a set of vegetable peelers and a pair of socks. Practical thinking. I do so hope it will bring a smile to Esra’s mother’s sad face.

Come on girls, be a bride!

The plan has only been presented this week, but when you say 4x4x4 these days in Turkey, everybody knows what it’s about: a new education law drafted by the AKP government.

The idea is to increase compulsory education from eight years to twelve years. Nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with the way the AKP wants to do it. They want to create three blocks of four years: two blocks of four years for primary education (one from age 7 to 11, one from 11 to 15), and one block of four years for secondary education. Officially, there can be no break between the first and second block, but there are vague exceptions, and it will also be possible for kids to become apprentices after the first block, or to learn from home.

Drop-outs

In practice, this means that girls will have a shorter school career. Now, compulsory education lasts eight years, starting at age 7. The AKP has managed to increase the number of girls enrolling in school, but not necessarily the number of girls graduating from primary education: there are many drop-outs. Girls are needed at home, or there is not enough money to send them to school, or they need to contribute to the family income. Or it’s about time they got married, or at least prepared for it.

What will the effect be of a new school system that makes it very easy to stop sending your girl to school after she has completed the first block, at age 11? It gives parents a logical moment to reconsider their choice of sending their daughters to school or not. When their daughters are eleven years old, they will have to choose whether or not to enrol them in the second block. In the current system, there is no such opportunity before the eight years of compulsory education are finished. Result: girls will drop out earlier.

Signal

Some people call the draft law the ‘Come on girls, be a bride!’ law. It’s a variation on the government slogan used for some time now: ‘Come on girls, let’s go to school!’. The new plan totally undermines all the efforts made to enroll more girls in school. The next step should be an effort to keep girls in school, encourage them to do well, convince their families of the benefits of education, convince the families of the negative effects of early marriage and early motherhood. The AKP seems to skip all that by introducing this plan.

Not only women’s organisations, but also the biggest and most powerful businessmen’s organisation TÜSIAD has called on the government to withdraw the plan. I sincerely hope the AKP for once will listen to its critics. And I hope it gives them a signal: the effect of laws on girls and women must always be considered. I am left wondering. Does the AKP aim at girls aged eleven leaving school, do they just don’t care, or do they totally not consider the effects laws have on girls?

Rakel

The conference on the history of the Diyarbakir region, held last November in Diyarbakir, came to an end. The final word would be for Rakel Dink, widow of Hrant. The Hrant Dink Foundation was one of the organizers of the conference. She came forward, and whereas everybody expected a speech, she started to sing. A Kurdish song. She sounded and looked so vulnerable. That song sung by this Armenian woman who grew up in a Kurdish community, brought the history of the Diyarbakir region back to heartbreaking human proportions. Many people couldn’t hold back their tears.

The life story of Rakel Dink, (maiden name Yaghbasan), is a remarkable one. She was born in a village in the southeast of Turkey, the daughter of a leader of an Armenian clan, known as the Ermeni Varto clan. Several families of the clan escaped from the genocide in 1915 and settled in the Cudi mountains, in the present-day province of Sirnak. They lived there for twenty five years, isolated from the outside world.

When they finally came down from the mountains, they found the lands they had lived on had been taken over by Kurds. They partly assimilated with them: over time, for example, they came to speak Kurdish better than Armenian, and they started dressing in traditional Kurdish clothing. But at the same time the clan life persisted: there were no intercultural marriages, and, being very religious, they kept respecting Christian traditions. That’s the society Rakel was born in, in 1959. Her father sent her to Istanbul when she was nine years old, to get an Armenian education – she was the first child to leave the lands the clan came from.

In Istanbul, Rakel lived in an Armenian orphanage. That is where she became Armenian again, rather than a Kurdish-speaking Armenian. That is where she met Hrant. They grew up together and eventually got married – her father resisted the marriage for some time because Hrant was not a clan member. They had three children.

Rakel is now the only Ermeni Varto clan member who still lives in Turkey. The whole clan moved to Istanbul some decades ago, and moved to Belgium about thirty years ago to escape the hardening stance towards Armenians in Turkey. Exactly five years ago today, Rakel became a widow.

Support

Before her husband was brutally killed, Rakel was not very much in the foreground. She stood behind her husband. Now, the circumstances force her to be more visible. She spoke to the thousands and thousands of people who attended the funeral of her husband, and after that, she gave speeches more often. In public, at conferences, in court (of which you can read an example here). Before every court hearing, the group ‘Friends of Hrant Dink’ organized gatherings to demand justice, and Rakel would always be there. It always hurt me to see these pictures. Her face in such agony. Look at this picture, from when Hrant was still alive.

I would want to ask Rakel if she feels lonely. She is seperated from her clan and family due to the way Turkey, her home land, has treated Armenians, it’s own citizens. Her husband got killed for the very same reason. No justice has been done in the court case against the killers, again for the very same reason. There are many people who support Rakel, and today in the walk to commemorate her husband there will be thousands marching with her. Does that give her enough strength to not feel intensly lonely? Or would she never describe herself as lonely in the first place, because she is rooted in such strong traditions and in such strong family ties that she always feels connected? She is a very religious woman: till what extend does religion help her to cope, and did she ever, if only for a second, lose her faith in God?

Strength

Rakel Dink tops the list of people in Turkey that I would love to interview. But she doesn’t give interviews. Not until the court case against the murderers of her husband is over. The case came to an end this week. But the verdict denies what everybody knows: the state was behind it, and it got inspired by the state ideology that doesn’t accept anybody who doesn’t fit the one size fits all identity of being a (Sunni) Moslim and a Turk.

The lawyers of the Dink family are determined to push through and go as far as they can to get the truth out and the perpetrators punished. I wonder how many more years before the case can really be closed. I wonder what the outcome will be, and if and how it will help reshape Turkey. Will it eventually give Rakel the feeling that justice is done? To her husband and herself, to her community and the country she too is a daughter of? For now, the questions remain unasked, unanswered. I wish her all the strength she needs.

Paper policies won’t help womens and childrens rights

‘Similar rulings will be out of the question from now on,’ said Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin. He was talking about a verdict against 26 men who raped a 13 year old girl: the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld an earlier decision by a lower court to give only minimum punishments,  because the men claimed the girl approved of having sex. The Minister said the case was a few years old, and so old laws were applicable, and for new cases everything will be different.

Dream on. Of course, on paper things will be arranged just fine. But the problem is, the Turkish government has a tendency of leaning back after the paper policy is dealt with. It doesn’t take the next essential steps: implementing laws and policies, teaching professionals, and doing everything to change social mentality, including for example school programs, public awareness campaigns, teaching women their rights and opening and financing enough refuge houses. Investing in changing the very patriarchal structures in Turkish society.

How patriarchal Turkey is, was not only shown by this symbolic court verdict, but also by statistics: in the Global Gender Gap Index 2011, Turkey ranks 122 out of 135 countries. Turkey ranks among the ten worst performers in the economic participation and opportunity subindex. Women are just not visible as fully participating members of society. That has effects on every possible field in society.

In this court case, it struck me even more that some of the rapists were teachers – others were for example civil servants, soldiers, and a village head. A teacher raping a 13 year old is already totally appalling, but then having the nerve to defend yourself saying the girl ‘approved’, and then it gets even crazier: you can defend yourself this way in Turkey because there is actually a good chance a judge will believe you. On every level, this case shows that womens rights and childrens rights are worth hardly anything is this country.

Mind my words: the ‘reassuring’ words of the Minister of Justice will prove worthless. This will not be the last time a man gets away with raping a girl.

The oath and the constitution

Saturday the Turkish parliament was opened for the new legislative year. Usually just a ceremonial procedure, this time a historic day: the pro-Kurdish BDP party ended its boycott of parliament, and thus Kurdish activist and politician Leyla Zana also returned to what now is again a bit more like the heart of Turkish democracy. Leyla Zana changed the oath a little bit as she took it. I attended the ceremony, and afterwards I thought: could the oath as Leyla Zana took it be the oath of the Turkey of the future?

The opening of parliament started with a speech by President Abdullah Gül. He talked, among other things, about one of the first and most urgent matters the new parliament needs to work on: writing a new constitution. The current constitution dates back to 1982 and was written by the military government of those days, after the 1980 coup. Gül pointed out that that constitution ‘attempts to restrict Turkey’s democratic maturity and diversity, and ignores the richness that Turkey represents’. The new constitution, he said, ‘should benefit from the dynamics of society and be designed based on freedoms.’ (Read the whole speech in English here.)

Deeply rooted

Then the BDP MP’s, who had been boycotting the parliament since the June 12 elections because some of their MP’s are still in jail, took their oaths. One of them, Leyla Zana, changed a part of a sentence. She didn’t say ‘the great Turkish people’, but ‘the great people of Turkey’. She didn’t think about it in advance, she stated afterwards, it just came out that way. I believe her – this difference and the meaning of it must be so deeply rooted in her system, that this is just how she says it. Her changed words reflect the fact that not all citizens of this country are Turks, but they are all people of Turkey. A fundamental difference.

Now let’s go back to twenty years ago, when Leyla Zana (then the first Kurdish woman ever to enter Turkish parliament) also took the oath. At the time, she added a sentence to it, and she spoke in Kurdish, saying: ‘I take this oath for the fraternity between the Turkish and Kurdish people.’ This, and other things she said on several occasions, cost her years of judicial problems and ten years in jail. And in recent years she has been convicted of remarks that are supposed to be protected by the freedom of speech.

Negligence

Since then, some restrictions against Kurdish culture and language have been lifted. Total cultural freedom hasn’t been achieved (yet?), but for sure progress has been made. President Gül used the words ‘Kurdish question’ in his speech in parliament Saturday, which was totally unthinkable ten years ago. He even said the Kurdish question is ‘the product of long years of negligence of democratic deficiencies in our country’. (Let’s for a second focus not on what remains to be done, but was has been achieved in ten years, after the very Kurdish identity was totally denied for at least seventy years.)

In his speech, President Gül mentioned the Kurdish question in the ‘chapter’ about terrorism, but maybe he should have mentioned it in the ‘chapter’ about the new constitution. Because that is where lies part of the solution to the Kurdish problem in so far as Parliament can influence it. Like he said himself, the constitution should reflect the richness that Turkey represents. We’re not just talking Turks and Kurds here, but many different ethnic groups that live in Turkey and who were for decades all considered to be Turks. So what could be more logical than changing the text of the oath, as written down in article 81 of the Turkish constitution, in the spirit of how Leyla Zana said it?

Wounds

1.
Rosarin and I are having lunch. We are in Mardin, southeast Turkey. Mardin is a beautiful village on a mountain; it’s very old, well preserved and known for being the most ethnically mixed city in Turkey. Turks, Kurds and Arabs live here, and Christians too. In peace, and they always have. While we are having lunch, our good moods are being distorted by history. We are just chatting, when suddenly Rosarin’s past comes up. She has been living in the Netherlands since the mid-eighties. She fled from Turkey a few years after the 1980 coup – exactly 31 years ago today – and after her very young son was tortured in their house by army personnel.

How did she reach the Netherlands in those days? I ask. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But she started telling the whole story. I’m not going to repeat it fully here, but the most heart-breaking part was the fact that she had to leave her young daughter behind in Turkey. Passport issues. She missed her so much that four years later she returned to Turkey with a false passport to get her and take her to Holland too. She hugged her daughter, but the girl, about 8 years old, was uncomfortable being hugged by a ‘stranger’.

She starts crying. Not a little bit, but really crying. ‘I never talk about it’, she says through her tears. ‘Now you see why. It’s just too much. Those years were so difficult. I took my daughter, but I was still waiting for refugee status in the Netherlands, and when we got into trouble in Romania, the Dutch government didn’t help us at all. It’s dangerous for a woman and daughter to travel alone without anything to guarantee your safety, without any legitimate papers. A human trafficker locked us up in a room for eleven days with only water. Can you imagine, seeing your girl in such circumstances?’

I hug her. We don’t change the subject. We are just silent till it’s time to pay the bill and go.

2.
Rosarin and I hire a car. From Mardin we head further south, to Kiziltepe, right by the Syrian border. We visit Fatma there. Fatma welcomes us in Dutch: ‘Hallo, welkom, hoe was jullie reis?’ (Hello, welcome, how was your trip?) The three of us laugh: here, in this dusty, hot southern corner of Turkey, we understand each other in Dutch. Fatma, now around sixty years old, lived in the Netherlands for thirteen years but returned to her homeland twenty five years ago. Her Dutch is rather basic, but very understandable, and she keeps it up by talking to her children, her sons- and daughters–in-law (some of them Dutch) and her grandchildren, who all live in Holland. But we don’t talk too much Dutch, she can’t really express herself in it. We mostly talk Turkish, and sometimes she and Rosarin talk Kurdish and translate to Turkish and Dutch for me.

The three of us are very different, our lives are very different, but from the first moment, we match. We talk about everything without holding back, we laugh, eat, sleep and drink tea. Fatma lives alone. She shows us pictures. In one picture there is an old woman, and I ask her if that’s her mother. ‘No, that’s me’, she says. I look from the sad, old figure on the picture to the lively woman sitting next to me and ask: ‘How come you were so sad?’ Rosarin immediately interferes: ‘No, we are not going to open those wounds now.’ Fatma gets up and is off to the kitchen.

Rosarin tells me Fatma’s story in short. She married a Kurdish man in Holland, left Turkey to live with him and they had four children. But something went wrong (I won’t get into details here). Fatma filed for divorce, but her husband warned her not to leave. The children were taken by the state child protection institute and put in foster homes. To escape her ex and to obey her family’s demand to quickly marry again and return to Turkey, she fled back to Turkey and married. She became the second wife of a Kurd, and after her he married another woman. The marriage lasted twenty four years and was not happy. Only one year ago did she feel strong enough to leave the man.

In all those years, she didn’t see her children or have any contact with them until after her marriage ended. Fatma returns to the rug we are sitting on in the living room, wiping her tears away. We look at more pictures. A whole lot of pictures of her and her children and grandchildren. There is a CD too. Unbelievable that all these were made in only one year. They have a lot of catching up to do.

3.
The next morning, we go on a trip with four women. A niece of Fatma, Gülbahar, is joining us. She too lives in Kiziltepe, so we pick her up from her home and hit the road. First to Daba, a historical town from the early Byzantine period that is being excavated. Totally impressive, we walk around, make lots of pictures, have tea, buy earrings and shawls in the souvenir shop. Then we go to Nusaybin, another border town. It’s hot, we open the windows, play Kurdish music on the radio. I drive, and they clap their hands and sing along when they know the song. We drive along the Syrian border. There are signs along the fences: ‘Caution, land mine area’. Nusaybin, that’s where the camps with refugees from Syria are, but I won’t get to see any of that. The ladies want to go to some creek, after doing some shopping. I buy a skirt in the old town of Nusaybin, Rosarin buys clothes for her grandchildren, Gülbahar for her teenage daughter.

Gülbahar wears a wedding ring. I’m a bit surprised that she is actually going with us. That could be very prejudiced of me, but in general traditional men don’t really stay home with the children and do the cooking to let their wives go on a fun trip the whole day, so to speak. But I don’t ask anything; maybe I’ll find out her story, maybe not.

The creek the ladies wanted to visit turns out to be ‘Beyazsu’. It’s close to Nusaybin, on the road to Midyat – do visit, if you are ever in the region. There are restaurants right by the creek, corners with cushions to sit in. We occupy a corner, spread the cig köfte we bought in Nusaybin on the table and order a pot of tea. We put our feet in the water. We are warm, sweaty and dusty, the water is ice-cold.

At night, when we return to Kiziltepe, we have (again!) tea, in Gülbahars house. Her two daughters are home, and her son, all around twenty years old. There is a picture of a man on the wall. He looks like Gülbahars son. I look at it, and Gülbahar says: ‘That’s my husband. He was killed fifteen years ago in the prison of Mardin. Tortured to death.’

For privacy reasons, the names of the women are fictional, and a few details were changed.