GeriGündem Sexuality’s new frontier lashes back
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Sexuality’s new frontier lashes back

ISTANBUL - Efforts to reverse progress in women’s rights are filtering through Turkish authorities, says pioneer in Turkey’s women’s movement, Pınar İlkkaracan. She talks with the Daily News about local power and a new book she has edited on sexuality in the Middle East.

Since the progress on the Turkish Penal Code in 2004, a clear backlash has emerged from all sides, says a leading women's advocate and editor of a new book on sexuality in the Middle East, Pınar İlkkaracan. "First it’s coming from the government itself and filters through the police and the judiciary," she said, citing examples from morality language in the government’s proposed constitution this year to the arrest of an "inadequately clothed" fisherwoman in central Istanbul. But at the local level in Turkey, change is happening. Such was the case in Van last week with the formation of a municipality gender equality commission, she noted.

Pioneering reforms to ground women's full equality in the legal system, the rights organization İlkkaracan founded and directs, Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR), launched a human rights training program in Turkey 10 years ago that has trained more than 3,000 women in intensive 4.5 month programs. The grassroots aim was to prevent hierarchy and disseminate the trainings by encouraging trainees to establish their own local organizations. What little good news there is to report on behalf of Turkish women emanates from these local groups and the changes they have brought about in their communities, İlkkaracan told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

Even when they are discouraged by family and neighbors, Turkish women come to the trainings hungry for information, she said. "One woman brought her husband to demonstrate her story at a recent training near Ankara. She had felt like "a nobody" at the beginning, but her life changed with the training, İlkkaracan recalled her saying. "Then her husband got up and said he had become a happier man in a better marriage because of the trainings."

In Cannakale, ever since women mobilized the local power structure, the city "checks with its women’s group before building a road." "I can’t believe what they have done in Cannakale. The local group ELDER started with police training and now all the people in the city are gender sensitive," she laughed.

The backlash of progress
The women’s movement was key in achieving the radical reform despite Turkey’s ruling religious conservative government, succeeding in radically transforming the Turkish Penal Code in 2004. All references to traditions such as morality, chastity, honor or virginity were removed from the Code. "This was the point when the state should have started creating discourse and national action programs," she said. "What we’ve seen was exactly the opposite."

İlkkaracan said despite the need to focus on education and job creation, the prime minister declared a few months ago that Turkish women should have at least three children. "This is a very clear violation of reproductive rights that were established in 1994 at a UN conference and undersigned by Turkey." Through the efforts of women around the world, this was a progressive document accepting that women had the right to decide how many children they would have and how they should space them. "But how can we expect to improve reproductive rights when women don’t have access to information and health materials?" she asked.

İlkkaracan said the government’s repeated "references to morality imply that women’s bodies are the property of their family and the nation," she said. She then pointed to a meeting at Ministry of Justice last month as another example of the official effort to undermine women’s rights. Judges and bureaucrats proposed lowering the age of consensual sex from 15 to 14 and the jail term for marital rape from seven years to one.

’Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East’
İlkkaracan is the co-founder of The Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies, an international network of 38 NGOs and academics from 14 countries working toward promotion sexual and bodily rights in the Middle East/ North Africa and South/Southeast Asia. A veteran participant of UN meetings and conferences on women's human rights, she is the editor of Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies which has been translated from English into Arabic and Turkish. Most recently, İlkkaracan edited a book published in September called "Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East: Challenges and Discourses"

The book’s contributors from Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey illuminate how the discourses and debates cannot be reduced to a single factor such as religion or a tension between the religious right and feminists. In the book’s introduction, İlkkaracan addresses sexuality as a contested political domain in the Middle East. In the following chapter, she examines how adultery nearly derailed Turkey’s aspirations of joining the European Union. Subsequent chapters include examinations of honor crimes through civil society in Jordan, secular and religious discourses around sex education in Lebanon and sexuality in post-revolutionary Iran.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian examines predominant attitudes toward rape in contemporary Palestinian society. "It is sad that in this region in particular militarization plays a major role not only in creating a nationalist ideology in which women’s bodies become carriers of the nation but also in generating sexual violence," İlkkaracan said.

"We need to find our own voice," she said. With this book reflective of an expanding transnational discourse, the voices speak with a command of the complexities and depth of experience.

To order the book, visit:

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