23 Mayıs 2009
It’s often difficult to look at news of Turkey produced by the foreign press. Of course, some remarkable men and women in Turkey generate exceptional reporting for foreign news outlets. But they are few. In foreign news about Turkey the tired references to government critics as part of an old-guard or liberal elite are especially unsavory when this government is as elitist as they come. Yet they manage to fool otherwise savvy foreign news folks by dressing in populists’ clothing.
Two international academics who passed through Turkey on a six-month research stay, a married couple, argued Turkish politics and culture with such vehemence over dinner one evening that I found myself gulping wine to calm my nerves. "You’re way more nationalist than you think," the wife said, wagging her finger at my Turkish husband as he tried to outline the balancing act between the country’s secular experiment and political Islam. An Ivy League historian of Islam, she admitted to not having read newspapers or books about Turkey. But she barbequed and cocktailed with foreign journalists in their terrace apartments. When they aren’t expanding Turkey’s cultural bridges with more wordfill, foreign media tend to label those who challenge this ruling government as ’secular elites’ who are ’antidemocratic’ and ’anti-Islam’.
A key distinction also eludes them: Turkey’s laicism keeps religion from meddling in the state while American secularism protects the public’s right to religious freedom.
An American woman who has written in Turkey for top U.S. newspapers told me when I was a new arrival that Turkish journalists have a "quaint" perspective and are "rather juvenile" in their professional outlook. She, on the other hand, writes news of Turkey’s progress: the arrival of malls carrying global brands, foreign film fests and Belgian chocolate shops. She and her editor are paid to keep news light on context and heavy on contrast.
In this climate of sound bites and textable news, let’s cut to the ruse. The following is an abbreviated list of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s, or AKP’s, corrupt moves and alliances that benefit the wealthy Islamist few who go largely unnamed by the ’elite police’ in the foreign press.
w The electronic cash flow that bolstered economies around the world in the last decade is gone. If your economy depends on foreign currency instead of production, as Turkey’s does, it’s speculative and vulnerable to instability and global crisis. Thus, contrary to AKP claims and the praise-heaping consensus of the foreign press, the AK Party had little to do with any improvement in the economy, now fallen, since the 2001 financial crisis.
w These days all government bids on social housing are being awarded to the construction company under Albayrak Holding, which openly nurtures a close relationship with the AK Party. In fact, there are no more bids; decisions on large construction deals are simply made by the prime minister’s cabinet and other party officials.
w The parliament minister in charge of oversight set up to safeguard shipbuilders is an AKP member and a ship constructor. In the country’s main shipbuilding site in Tuzla, scores of people have died on the job in recent years. The minister has yet to ensure that sufficient safety regulations are put in place.
w Another devoutly pro-AKP company, Çalık Holding, won the bid to purchase pro-government media outlets ATV and Sabah newspaper on the last possible day when, by some divine handout, they got credit for $750 million from two state banks.
w The imbalance of taxation in Turkey is extreme. Direct, or income, tax makes up only 25 percent of what the state collects. Meanwhile indirect, or sales, tax comprises 70 percent. This means that the government takes far more tax from the people who aren’t earning the money.
The examples roll like rainless summer thunder. These guys get richer while the middle class and poor get poorer. They’ve turned social welfare that is guaranteed in the Constitution into thin charitable giving. This is elitism, and it’s running the country into the ground.
9 Mayıs 2009
This month I ran to my mom in the U.S. for help. My husband is away shooting a film and with much work to do, I wasn’t up to single parenting. I don’t know how my mom did it. When she’s not live via Skype or laboring across continents to visit us, I have raised my son, who turned two Thursday, in a foreign land far from my mom and closest friends with kids. At 36, it’s not easy making new friends; it can be harder than dating. But the fellow moms I’ve met are key to survival. The Turkish women in the bunch are like oxygen-giving trees in Istanbul’s crush of metal and baby-hungry hands, cement and noise.
I had lunch recently with a friend whose daughter wraps gifts for her friends and plans the menu when they come to play. Her mom respects this devotion by making it to our Saturday playgroups despite flying in from work abroad as an executive sometimes at 5:00 a.m. Defne Su tells us her tired mom has been away earning money for her.
Another friend, a Turkish civil engineer who worked in Russia for seven years, brings to the group her wild-child beauty Nehir, her lack of self-consciousness and a wicked sense of humor. Talking with her while overseeing a bed-jumping session, I learned that she takes herself out on a date once a week. She always goes to the theater after some restaurant she is trying for the first time. It’s the most romantic part of her life, she says with a wry smile.
A virtuoso harpist with a new album and a concert schedule, Şirin Pancaroğlu, told me that things got better for her with the birth of her first child after forty. She said suddenly she was more in touch with what was essential to her. "For me, I found a new person inside myself, someone who could do more with less time."
So that’s possible, I thought. Or not, but nice to hear. As is explaining to Max that my work equals coins Ğ he loves coins, which conveniently for him is what I make. And, yes, I should find time for solo ventures out of my neighborhood to keep my humor. Or at least look for it in a dirty crevice down a dark alley.
Not long ago, I met a Turkish rapper and deejay in her late thirties who was pregnant for the first time and turning out one new project after another in Istanbul, from plays to late night shows. The native Berliner told me that in Turkish society "you have to live within careful borders if you have a different sexuality or want to know a different way of expressing it." But she lives out loud and pushes those borders when many expectant mothers become more conservative. "That’s who I am," she said.
Naciye, a single mother and our child’s babysitter, borrowed cake pans and an oven from her neighbors last month to make a cake for her daughter’s 13th birthday between working three jobs. My husband and I are in awe of how she gets by on her own in Istanbul.
On a solo trip through the east of Turkey a few years ago, I stayed with the family of my husband’s former coworker in Spain. In this Kurdish family in Gaziantep, the mother was too proud to tell her son thriving at his own restaurant business in Europe that she had been ill for months. They had no phone and no heat that cold November. But she fed her adult relatives and neighbors seated in a circle on the floor whenever they came. She told me to treat her as my own mother.
My mom misses us. I suppose it’s hard for her living alone without her only daughter closer, especially after the loss of her beloved dog and three surgeries in five years. But she doesn’t say so. Instead she believes that my husband and I have made a good life for our family in Turkey, and says in this economy we would be wise to stay put.
Lale, a retired teacher and painter in Izmir, has two grown children, one of whom is my husband. She started taking English classes a few months ago because she wants to have "real conversations" with my mom who visits us in Turkey a couple of times a year. I’m glad to celebrate my mom on her turf this Sunday. Happy Mother’s Day to you and yours.
25 Nisan 2009
Like a miracle sprung from history and superstitions unfamiliar to me, one festival captures the sense of this country our son will always call home. Hıdrellez, the spring festival, takes place a week from this Tuesday. The 9th annual street festival is in Istanbul’s old-city Cankurtaran neighborhood each year on May 5. Here’s hoping this finds you in time to let me persuade you and yours in the direction of this night of nights.
A few large stages of gypsy music send electricity through the air, and from one street corner to the next roadside caf the dancing doesn’t stop. A Roma brass band plays for dancing folks in the area filled with others joining in the tradition of jumping over a small flame. Then the band snakes its way down the street pulling residents out of windows causing women, covered and uncovered, to raise their arms high beside impromptu belly dancing men and women. Food stalls in the street serve up corn and meatball sandwiches along with fresh pineapple and cotton candy. Some families set up picnics and grills on the sidewalks. People on stilts paint faces of kids on their parents’ shoulders as fireworks fill the sky.
Pulling nature from slumber
Hıdrellez is a seasonal festival unique to Turkey, celebrating the arrival of spring. In folkloric tradition it is the day when Prophets Hızır and Ilyas met on earth, thus pulling nature from its slumber. Since ancient times people in villages and small towns prepare by presenting their best clothes and food. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom because many believe Hızır will not visit unkempt homes.
Some theories suggest that Hıdrellez is rooted in Mesopotamian and Anatolian cultures while others say its origins began with pre-Islamic Central Asian Turkic culture and beliefs. For millennia people from Persia to Greece believe Hızır will bring blessing and abundance to the places he visits and the things he touches. Food bowls, pantries and purses are left open. Windows too fly open to invite Hızır to visit houses. Those wanting a house or garden believe Hızır will help provide for them if they make a small model of what they want. Especially in spring he helps people through hard times, distributing bounty and health. Festival-goers in Istanbul hang wishes and drawings on the three-meter tall Nahil Tree.
Those who want a house or garden believe that Hızır will help them obtain such things if they make a small model of what they want. Some also hang designs of such wishes on the Nahil Tree.
On Tuesday, May 5 the Hıdrellez Festival in Istanbul will once again be organized by the Armada Hotel, where Ahırkapı Street and Keresteci Hakki Sokak serve as festival central in the heart of the Cankurtaran neighborhood. The whole area will be closed to traffic.
The festival begins at 7:00 p.m. Dance until the moon yawns low over the Bosphorus with the Koçani Orchestra, Kollektif, Loleburgazlı Tamer Kum, Mısırlık Ahmet Rhythm Workshop and Buzuki Orhan.
Ahırkapı Street is a five-minute walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop. The public bus, number 81 Yeşilköy-Sirkeci, stops at Çatladıkapı. You can certainly follow the crowd. It’s a rare sight in Turkey to see beer-swilling folk join the conservative, religious, wealthy, less fortunate and everybody in between. Neither religious nor patriotic, the festival lets people celebrate the best of each other.
Visit www.hidrellez.org for details, the program of musicians, parking and directions. Entrance is free.
18 Nisan 2009
Exposing the underbelly of the government’s approach to women, the prime ministry released recommendations that aim to restrict access to public health care for families with many children in the east and southeast of Turkey. The findings stem from meetings between the Prime Ministry’s General Directorate of Family and Social Research and NGOs, though many of the region’s largest and most productive organizations were not invited.
This official document fails to view honor killings as a feudal tradition that disposes of a woman for being raped, finding work or following her heart. Instead it vaguely calls on families to seek God in punishing her "indiscretions" with something less than murder. According to the report "feminist language" adopted by the media should be replaced with accurate religious information. By failing to protect women whose families disregard them as humans and dismissing reproductive rights, the prime ministry reveals the depth of its own shameful ignorance.
The most alarming of the recommendations is a proposed law that would cut health services to families with children exceeding a given number. Added to this multi-level discrimination is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent insistence that Turkish women should have at least three children. Under the proposed law, heeding his advice would make millions of Turkey’s poorest families more vulnerable to sickness and poverty.
After the prime ministry’s ideological pirouette, some might accuse the government of punishing the region for its loss of local posts last month to the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, the party most popular with the Kurdish population concentrated in the east and southeast. With plans like these, the ruling party’s losses in the region come as no surprise.
More likely though, the report is one more blow in a line of maneuvers aimed at dismantling women’s progress in Turkey. Since women in Turkey battled to turn an inadequate Penal Code into one of the world’s most progressive on protection of women and their rights a few years ago, the government has all but declared war on the rights of women.
The ruling AK Party’s proposed constitution identifies women as a group needing "protection", stripping away clauses that ensured equal opportunity and rights. Under this government women have lost ground in employment while more men are finding jobs. Last month, Minister of Environment Veysel Eroğlu, replying to women’s complaints about unemployment, asked, "Don't you have enough work at home?"
In this ailing climate, an investigation into an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government this week led police to raid the home of Professor Türkan Saylan, a one-woman force in getting girls to school in Turkey. Saylan, 76 and frail from chemotherapy treatment, runs an association that provides scholarships to 29,000 university students and 36,000 school girls. "Those who exercise their democratic rights are punished in this country," she said in an interview on NTV Tuesday. Detained in the round-up of people this week was Doğan Media executive Tijen Mergen, the woman behind another successful campaign that helped tens of thousands girls stay in school, especially in the east and southeast.
Backlash is petty. To use a metaphor that the prime minister, a once-aspiring professional footballer, can understand: Retaliation and tackling from behind gets you thrown out of the game. In the language of feminism, you’ve been warned.
4 Nisan 2009
I’ve been waiting for this since he was born. When will the talking start, I wondered, looking at his wrinkly newborn face frozen mid-screech, not unlike a baby bird. Our pediatrician didn’t help my quiet distress over this pre-verbal phase when she reminded me that in those first six months he was as different from a developed human as a butterfly.
As my husband and closest friends will attest, I’m a "relater". I was raised in the American south and schooled in the sarcastic northeast before settling into "let’s talk it out" San Francisco. I suffer from a hybrid need to tell stories the long way, think out loud, tease people and "exchaaange", as one friend refers to my style. Living abroad has certainly crystallized the longing for conversation and encouraged, finally, some fearlessness when connecting with others in Turkish.
As it turns out, my kid is a desperate relater like me, bless his heart. And a late talker. His father speaks Turkish with him and I speak English.They are coming, the words, little manifestations of brain synapses and a relationship to the world. He works so hard to tell us things in breathless streams or with words, repeating them with insistence, offering few clues as to what on earth they mean: Kadife, moab, ghanaybey.
My husband often crawls into bed with a sad face after checking on Max before bed, saying, "poor bug", southern for "poor guy", neither of which translates in Turkish. Exhausted, sometimes I ask "Why?" "He’s so little," Inan always replies. "He needs us for everything. He can’t explain anything yet." But I’ve seen him scare bullies off with a single glare. I’m only impatient to know him better, hear what he thinks. Plus, someone else speaking my language in our neighborhood increases conversation potential by 100 percent. Some of Max’s first phrases mimic my attempts: "Oh yeaaah" and "I know, I know," he says.
This morning his dad showed him fire, or ateş, on a ring of colorful flashcards that I thought might jumpstart vocabulary. Max rushed the image over to me pointing and shouting, "haht, haht" in mock urgency. Not much of a risk taker, he loves expressing and hearing about danger. Real words be damned; he’s talking on phones, with strangers on buses, via Skype with our parents. He starts asking to call my mom during breakfast.
I know when he’s speaking American English. Loaded with heavy ahrr sounds, I call it the cowboy mumble. Americans don’t move their mouths much. He uses it when he speaks to anneanne, my mom, but switches the sound with his Turkish grandparents. Last weekend, Max sidled up to a couple of serious-looking men on a bench fingering prayer beads in an Istanbul park. He began pointing to the sky and the trees in a tenor befitting their somber demeanor. No cowboy-talk there either.
Max goes into fits of laughter when his babaanne, my mother-in-law, says anything in English. Recently he started saying "oh-my-godt" with a Turkish accent. While I’m no saint with language, I don’t use that phrase often enough to spread the word, so to speak. Then I heard his Turkish babysitter Naciye saying it. "It cracks him up," she told me.
I wanted to know how he seems to know they’re not speaking their native language. Recent research, reported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows that babies use the pattern of sounds within words to distinguish the ends of words, and can distinguish languages by nine months. This supports the argument that parents should stick to their native tongue when addressing their kids. Little ears are tough language critics.
I don’t even care that the new two-word combos are in Turkish. He wants to relate so he does. I suppose the Turkish beginnings also represent life with a bilingual toddler in his homeland, not mine.
Poor bug, he is not. Nor is he a butterfly, or buh-buh-buh, as he says. Wednesday night watching Turkey play Spain, languages united. Gooooooal, he shouts whenever he sees action on a green pitch. His father and I spent much our youth on those fields. But he learned to shout "goal", one of his first words, from his Greek godmother in a Turkish street watching Iraqi refugee boys play the world’s game.
28 Mart 2009
A well-educated young Turkish woman on a bus yesterday told me that her ex-husband used to beat and humiliate her. Several years on, she is having trouble creating goals for herself. This month, during a span of 12 days, 12 women were brutally murdered in Turkey. More, if we count girls and teenagers. Men’s lack of awareness about their role in violence against women is made worse by the media’s own ignorance and manipulation of the issue. Turkey’s media is no exception. But the indicators are all there, on page three in the newspaper and in our apartment buildings, that men are beating the life out of women.
Last month, I watched one of the country’s top talk show hosts, Beyazit Öztürk, interview rock vocalist Aylin Aslım on Kanal D about a project to benefit the "No to domestic violence" campaign. I talked with Aylin this week for the main story on the Women in Sight page about her role in the project. The compilation album and recent concert took its name, "Güldunya", from a previously banned song of hers addressing an honor killing case.
I heard Öztürk criticize the album cover for not relating to abused women because he said its image of bright red lipstick gave the album a cosmopolitan feel. "Unfortunately, people see this issue as far away from them in the southeast," Aylin replied. "It’s the same ratio in Istanbul as in the southeast. The level of education doesn’t have any bearing on the statistics either."
Undeterred by his lack of information, he then suggested that the campaign had gone too far by making violence an issue of men against women. "Shouldn’t we say that this is more a human problem," he said. "No," Aylin said, "It’s a widespread fact that men use violence on women. Women don’t rape their husbands."
"But women beat their children," he said. "Because they are beaten by men," Aylin replied. She told me that at that point, the mostly male university-aged audience groaned in disapproval at her response. And Öztürk told her that he thought she was being too harsh.
"It is so inappropriate to say we shouldn’t see this as a man’s problem," she told me. Disheartened by the young men’s response in the audience, Aylin said, "They made me feel more hopeless."
Whether they know it or not, those young men look to Öztürk as a model for their behavior and a reinforcer of their misguided values. Chauvinism that runs so deep is hard to root out but easy to feed.
And he didn’t stop there. "But I have a lot of ’girl’ friends who seem to get a lot of pleasure from the macho attitude when it comes to choosing a boyfriend," Öztürk said. "I don’t know what kind of women are around you but that’s not true of most women," Aylin told him.
They talked about how the streets have become more dangerous. "We used to have young boys protecting the girls and the neighborhood," Öztürk said, adding that those days were gone. "Girls shouldn’t need protection," Aylin said. Especially not from young boys.
"I think the bullying attitude that [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan represents, a man who carries a knife and isn’t afraid to show it to the public, this affects young people," she told me. "And it has an effect on the street. You can see a woman getting beaten and people don’t do anything about it."
Sadly Öztürk’s overt lack of sensitivity or information about the subject matter is not unique to his show. It seems to be a byproduct of a society equally possessed by violence and apathy. And it sure works for ratings. Not long ago, Aylin and Hülya Gülbahar, a prominent lawyer and an active feminist, were invited on a show by another popular host, Okan Bayülgen, whose program is billed as intellectual and high-class.
"You’re a popular face for women issues," he said to Gülbahar. "Is this because you were a victim yourself?" "No and I’m tired of this question being asked," she replied.
"How selfish," Aylin said, "to think that someone has to suffer to care."
21 Mart 2009
Local elections next weekend provide a time to reflect on what the government has done to improve the lives of women and what it needs to do better. A lack of viable alternatives by opposition parties combined with the ruling Justice and Development Party’s, or AKP’s, unaccountable use of state resources and contract bidding to back their own interests have cemented the party’s dominance for years to come. They will add more local power this month to a 47 percent popular vote in the 2006 national elections that lent them 63 percent control in Parliament. As in any healthy democracy, such power deserves intense scrutiny.
In 2008 the new social security law created an incentive to hire women. When an employer hires a woman, the government covers the social security payments for the first year. Aside from this bit of job stimulus and general fulfillment of the duty to raise the standard of living for unemployed women, AKP leaders have openly blocked progress for women. With people rapidly losing jobs, urging women to be submissive mothers of three or more children, as the prime minister did last year, is like covering a fire with oil.
Domestic violence seems to be the only "women’s problem" this government will consistently address. And they don’t do it well. A recent report that found four in 10 women in Turkey are beaten by their husbands also revealed that 90 percent of those women do not report the abuses to any authority. When the Prime Ministry released the report this month, not a word was uttered about the sources of the problem: a weakened economy, a patriarchal society and a structure that lacks the tools to stop the abuse. Nor was man’s hand in the matter mentioned.
Instead, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his speech marking International Women’s Day this month, "We have to cherish women because they are our mothers." He offered no other reason.
With no infrastructure, victims of domestic violence often have no place to go. With no real enforcement or rehabilitation, nor do their abusers. These are not cultural problems. It starts with nuts and bolts: Rehabilitate men who hurt women, lock up others and amend laws that let men off when the court perceives "provocation" by the victims. This is the government’s responsibility.
Backlash is violent business
Women fought and won huge success a few years ago on a penal code that had treated them as subhuman. Since then this government has pushed to place women in "protection" rather than equality in their ongoing draft constitution. In 1998 the country's Constitutional Court finally overturned a law that made adultery a crime only for women. But as recently as 2007, AKP members of Parliament pushed to revive the law. Both the prime minister and the president were outspoken in favor of it before EU accession talks made it too hot to handle. Their tone is consistent with their party’s intentional and systematic dismantling of women’s progress in this country.
Last month, AKP ministers blocked the new Gender Equality Committee in Parliament in the final hour, changing its name, and thus its aim under the law, to Equality of Opportunity. The change means women cannot legally demand of the prime minister or of Parliament quotas or special precautions in employment.
Good news for the people, bad news for a social state guaranteed by the Constitution: Hope for Turkey’s women remains in the hands of citizens and women’s groups who despite the odds bring about change on the local and national level. A new Women’s Platform against Sexual Violence met at Garajistanbul Wednesday and turned their attention to muhtars, the top official in each neighborhood. With better resources and information, they would have tools to provide real help. Muhtars know their responsibilities by name.
Can women continue to overcome the wave of government backlash? They can because they are productive by nature, wanting better for themselves and their children. In Turkey their progress is rounding every corner.
14 Mart 2009
While some women celebrated each other by rocking out in concert halls or chanting and drumming in multi-block marches, others gathering soberly in squares to remember women killed in the name of honor or anger. A playback of what was said and done on International Women’s Day is worth a look in a country with so much daunting news to report about women and so few women given substantial voice in the media.
Some 6,000 women marched through Kadiköy, a district on the Asian side of Istanbul, gathering in Kadıköy square last Sunday. A representative of the 8 March Women’s Platform declared: "In the house, on the street, in the workplace violence is covered up. Women are harassed, raped and checked for virginityÉ "Ayşe" who wants to run away from her husband gets 14 bullets. When Hüseyin Üzmez is protected, the women who protested against him are taken into custody. Pippa Bacca is killed. This much rape and violenceÉis it all a coincidence?"
The group carried banners and shouted slogans, saying "We will resist the patriarchal capitalist system. We insist; we are determined." Last year Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged women to "have three children," to which the women protesters replied, "Listen, PM, don’t make me mad. You go hatch 1, 2, 3 little Turks."
This year’s demonstrations also drew vehement reactions to Turkey’s biggest pop star and now TV presenter İbrahim Tatlıses insulting invited guest, singer Yıldız Tilbe, on his live show. A man known for violence against women close to him, he announced that he had rescued her from pimps years ago.
Another slogan jabbed at Erdoğan’s statement in Davos, when he told Israel’s President Shimon Peres, "You are good at killing." Women protesters shouted, "You in power, you men, you are good at killing, harassing, raping, murdering, being provoked and getting reduced sentences." The reference to provocation and reduced sentences criticizes the judicial system for allowing reductions in sentences for violence against women for certain "provocations."
Women’s groups also protested the new social security law saying it "sentences us to marriage and a husband. Retirement has become a dream for us." They also demanded that domestic labor and caretaking be covered under the social security system.
Firing women in crisis
Emine Özcan reported on bianet that protesters spoke about the inequalities in labor, "be it at workplaces where women earn less than men, or at home, where women are left to cope with housework. The economic crisis, as well as women, were being used an excuse to fire women or keep their wages low."
Lawyer Filiz Karakuş said bosses are using the crisis to justify firing women workers first. But either as a worker or a housewife the woman is the victim of the crisis because their husbands or fathers are fired and women are the ones who are mashed as a result.
"We continue to remain oppressed physically and emotionally by our fathers and husbands, forced to be responsible for food, washing dishes and clothes, rearing children and caring for the old." She also warned that the policies of denial, destruction and war toward Kurds turned into poverty, harassment and rape for women.
Reporting for bianet, Aysel Kiliç asked women in Konya about what March 8 meant to them. Cleaner Fatma Selin asked, "Women’s Day? No, never heard of it. What use is such a day for us when we are worried about getting by, love?
High school student Sebahat Köse: "As long as Konya’s local men don’t leave us alone, as long as we cannot walk the streets by ourselves, 8 March seems silly to me."
Homemaker Deniz Yörük: I am 45 and I have spent so many years at home. I even feel lucky to have gone outside to do the shopping today. As long as the man earns the money, he is valued. We women are not considered worthy in the eyes of men. 8 March? I think I saw it on TV once. They cut a cake. Is that what you are talking about?