Kristen Stevens

Women who make progress happen

7 Mart 2009
When the Daily News began the Women in Sight page last summer, we hoped to tell stories of women in Turkey with the plainspoken complexity and modest heroism that such a broad spectrum embodies. After spending a day or a decade in this country, it is easy to see that women, not issues, speak for themselves. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, allow me to share some of the voices and moments that have shined from this page, illuminating women who make their country better.

After 12 years of struggling for a parliamentary commission on gender equality, last month women in Turkey finally gained a commission mandated to represent them at the highest levels of government Ğ complete with a big budget and the ears of Parliament and the Prime Ministry. But the moment arrived despite setbacks, and backlash. Since women’s progress on the Turkish Penal Code in 2004, a clear backlash has emerged from all sides, leading women's advocate, Pınar İlkkaracan, told me in December. "First it’s coming from the government itself and filters through the police and the judiciary."

The rights organization İlkkaracan founded and directs, Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR), confronts the government’s mounting efforts to control women through morality. Her group trains more than 3,000 women in intensive 4.5 month programs that help them realize their rights and abilities. Across the country these trainees have been establishing their own local organizations.

"What good news there is to report on behalf of Turkish women emanates from local groups and the changes they have brought about in their communities," İlkkaracan said. Such was the case in Van in December with the formation of a municipal gender equality commission. "In Cannakale, the local group ELDER started with police training and now all the people in the city are gender sensitive," she laughed.

Forging new paths

İlkkaracan edited a book published in English last year called "Deconstructing Sexuality in the Middle East: Challenges and Discourses" with contributors from Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. In Turkey and around the world, doctors, lawyers, judges and lawmakers say looking at a woman’s hymen can determine whether or not she has had sexual intercourse with a man. "This is in fact a lie," said Emek Ergün, Turkish translator of ’Virgin: The Untouched History’.

In her translation "Bekáretin El Değmemiş Tarihi" released last year, Ergün reviews public debates around virginity since the 1980’s and problematic conceptualizations of virginity in major legal documents Ğ such as the Penal Code. She also exposes the medical profession for allowing virginity examinations and "repair" surgeries.

With only one in four women in Turkey working, dozens of women in the Aegean town of Ayvalık and in Diyarbakır are taking economic and environmental matters into their own hands. At Çöp (M)adam, women make fashionable handbags from empty ice-cream containers, potato chip bags and candy wrappers. This summer, a student grant winner in an American university, Ecem Erşeker, will distribute $10,000 in microfinance grants to enable Anatolian migrant women living in squatter settlements in Istanbul to pursue self-employment opportunities.

Following her peeled-back performance in Umit Unal’s "Ara", Selen Uçer told me in Adana hours before she won her first "Best Actress" award this summer that she was confident about her future, "whatever it brings." "I might quit acting and sing or meet a man and sell tomatoes." With good roles harder to find for everyone this year, I was lucky to find her onstage Thursday night singing sultry jazz. No tomatoes, no man, only Selen in the spotlight telling a story.
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Oppress working dads at your peril

28 Şubat 2009
Often women journalists and other professionals confess to keeping their children out of working, cocktail and boardroom conversations. Before I was an employee with a child, these women struck me as part of the problem. They seemed happy to contribute to the illusion of the unisex workplace free of messy children who might bring about worry, exhaustion and postpartum depression. Or family-friendly policies. I get it now. A woman who chooses to keep her children in the chit-chat closet is merely protecting her identity as a thinking person with plans for herself. A woman goes from being regarded as an individual with skills and merit acquired over a lifetime to becoming a sort of sacred cow. And it happens overnight. As soon as she announces her pregnancy, she is often perceived as a vessel for a child and, more quietly, a burden on the workplace. Will it spread among the workers, this urge to reproduce?

As part of my work, I follow the news and meet fascinating people. I pay income taxes that go into the public pot. Yet somehow there’s an image that I’m hanging around playing hide and seek with my kid all day. If I could afford to I might, but that’s another subject. Hardly anyone who sees I’m a mother asks me what I do anymore.

This might seem like a good place to dive into rationale for giving fathers the same amount of family leave to ensure that women aren’t discriminated against in hiring and pay. Or, by extension out there among the people. But this is obvious.

There is a larger point: Workplaces and governments need to reinvent "human resources" altogether to respond to the most underestimated phenomenon of modern times: Fathers and mothers who raise children as partners. Dads have pioneered their way to deserving recognition and respect. Demanding it seems to be a tougher matter. Maybe they should pick up on the collegial kiddie conversation where their wives have left off.

A draft law on paternity leave has been sitting before Turkish lawmakers for many years and should sit no more. It would be progressive, sure, but extreme measures are needed to combat the dark forces of a patriarchal society pushing hard to be on the world stage.

Turkey has the lowest rates for child care services for children under five among OECD countries. The law states that companies with more than 100 female employees should provide child care, but this is far from enforced. Women's rights advocates are pressing for the law to include companies with more than 150 employees, both males and females.

Left out between meatballs

At dinner with friends, questions about our child most often begin by someone addressing me. And there’s my husband, the one who most likely prepared our toddler’s dinner and is feeding him between dropped meatballs and random demands. Soon it’s obvious that we both answer with the same level of detail about our child.

Among broad circles of acquaintances, my husband admits to feeling overlooked when people treat me as the primary caregiver with the most insight and time invested in our son. My husband provides half the care and when necessary takes on the whole load without hesitation. He will care for Max Ali on his own while I’m out of town this month. He will do this even though he is working, making a feature film and completing his doctorate. He should have the same rights as any female worker to parental leave and child care.

Starting with infants, active father figures play a key role in reducing behavior problems and enhancing intelligence, reasoning and language development, according to a recent review of 22,300 sets of data in the U.S., the UK, Sweden and Israel. Women who had good relationships with their fathers at 16 had long-term benefits including better relationships with partners and a greater sense of mental and physical well-being at the age of 33.

This phenomenon of hands-on dads has become the norm in much of the world. It will change humans in profound ways. Technology has caused man to evolve from his need to fight or, for many, even work outside the home. Raising kids to be strong and happy suits man’s inclination to see that his family line continues. We know too much now about the benefits, and the needs, to look backward.

Big bosses and leaders, ignore the evolution at your peril.
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Leaving blood on their flags

21 Şubat 2009
Every primary school in Turkey has been commanded since January to show students a propaganda film vilifying Armenians as murderers of Turks in the early 20th century. The army produced it and sent it to the Ministry of Education, which distributed the six-part "documentary" to schools last June. Last month, the ministry sent the schools letters requiring them to show the film to students "when convenient" and report on student reactions by March 2. The images are downright gruesome and frightening, showing the bones and sculls of people the film claims were Turks killed by Armenians. For children ages seven to 13 Ğ around 10.5 million of them Ğ this degree of manipulation is particularly cruel. It puts hate and fear in their hearts before they form the next front lines.

Only in the face of recent protests by NGOs and teachers unions, Education Minister Hüseyin Çelik told news crews Wednesday that no such order by the ministry had been issued and that showing the film, "Sarı Gelin: The Inside Story of the Armenian Problem" to students was not their intention. "It was for the teachers, not the kids," he said. This type of lie is common here but it underlines the NGOs’ successful and persistent fight to expose the dark motives of leadership in this country.

The timing of this hate drive, which carries its own momentum despite the "revision", seems connected to recent events. In January, Turkish signatures on an apology to Armenians grew to thousands as the country marked the second anniversary of the nationalist murder of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. President Barack Obama was greeted by open letters from the Armenian Diaspora demanding publicly that he pass a bill criminalizing denial of the events of 1915 as "genocide".

The film was meant to make a whole generation of Turkish children believe that the only victims of those events were Turkish. No matter where people stand on the matter, the number of Armenians who died Ğ by low or high estimates Ğ suggests this is simply false.

War kills Turks and kids

When the ministry sent its demand Ğ and schools began showing the film Ğ these kids were watching horrifying images on nightly news of Israel’s massacre of more than 1,000 Gazans, a third of them children. It would be reasonable not only for these children to hate Armenians after seeing Six Parts of this film but also for them to believe that ethnic and nationalistic divides end in wars that kill Turks, Muslims and children just like them. And, of course, thousands of Turkish-Armenian children could be traumatized by this "state" campaign or feel compelled to hide their identity.

Parents can only do so much to change first impressions formed in young minds. My son will be in Turkish primary school in less than five years, and this is the very kind of thing that makes me want to cut and run. I realize that the fight with propaganda belongs more to people born of this land, but the planting of such seeds in innocent hearts troubles me on a visceral, universal level. It makes me cry.

In her book "Deep Mountain" Ece Temelkuran discusses the weight of propaganda on Turks and Armenians. A year ago she wrote in the daily Milliyet about the brainwashing of children who made a Turkish flag from their blood to support the Turkish troops fighting Kurds. "If only this noise, which makes flags out of children and dead children out of flags, would end."
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Born to blindfolds and yellow ribbons

14 Şubat 2009
Blindfolds and yellow ribbons on mailboxes and lampposts dominate my first memory of the world as something more than digging to China. This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran and the 444 days American hostages were held by Islamic revolutionaries with the support of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. In my first joke on memory, I told a group of adults in our home that in America the Ayatollah’s name meant "I a toilet". It was a bad joke; I was six years old. I had been born into Watergate and the last years of Vietnam. Times weren’t very funny.

For the vast majority of American children, though, the horror of our country’s actions abroad amounted to sanitary news items, frightful images at worst. We had made Iranians angry and it struck me then that a whole country couldn’t be that mad over nothing. After propping up Iran’s Shah in his elite opulence, American meddling had become intolerable for a proud people.

Then came layers of war in Beirut and the naive U.S. intervention and tacit support for Israel’s excessive aggression there. My aunt Janet Lee Stevens made her home in Beirut as a journalist-activist working with newspapers from Japan to France. In 1983 she was killed with 62 others in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy. The act constituted the first of many terrorist acts against the U.S. of its kind, introduced Iranian-backed Hizbollah to the West and killed off the CIA’s entire Middle East contingent in the embassy that day. After Hizbollah bombed the Marine barracks six months later, the U.S. pulled out of Lebanon. A precedent was set; Islamist resistance could succeed.

Born into risk

With the direct and illicit hand our government played in the region’s deadliest conflicts, Americans at home have never faced fear or consequences on any tangible level Ğ 9/11 aside. But people in the region Ğ like my husband in Turkey Ğ quicken at the pulse recalling how close those events came to their own homes and lives. This remains the case for young people here today.

Like all Turkish citizens, my husband Inan remembers being told that every Turkish man was a soldier. To him this meant if war reached Turkey, all men would go to war, including his father Ğ and eventually himself. As Beirut imploded and the Iran-Iraq war raged next door, Inan remembers at the age of seven listening to 10-year-olds play out World War III scenarios resulting from some American move or another. With compulsory military service in place, then as now, those boys had a direct stake in such a result.

Our son is both Turkish and American. Turks have already begun telling him at 20 months that he too will be a soldier. Whether he will or not, Max Ali will grow up with the notion that he might have to fight or be killed in conflicts not of his making. We will do what we can as parents to protect him from this fear and/or reality, but in the end the geography of his birth and the polarizing recklessness of the U.S. in the region have already put him and his generation of small Turkish citizens at grave risk. Nations, like religions, mask acts based on immorality and greed in the name of populations that become indifferent or hateful toward the "other". The children of Gaza have no mask, no country, no protection. Yet foreign-made weapons are their currency. These children are the truest face of war. They entered a world full of nations that treat them as subhuman. Dehumaization is war’s currency.
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Historical step on path to progress

7 Şubat 2009
After 12 years of struggling for a parliamentary commission on gender equality, on Thursday women in Turkey finally gained a commission mandated to represent them at the highest levels of government. This representation also comes with unprecedented power to serve the interests of women: a substantial budget, the authority to bring about real change and the ears of Parliament and the Prime Ministry. In the last couple of years, Turkish women have united to transform a dysfunctional Penal Code into one of the world’s most progressive on protection of women and their rights. Taking a united stand on the proposed Draft Constitution last year, 86 women’s groups signed a declaration that argued effectively that language identifying women as a group needing "protection" was unacceptable. These days, Turkey is using new gender-sensitivity training in the curricula of the army and state organizations.

Female representation in Parliament reached nine percent after the last general election, in 2007. Hastening efforts to form a gender equity commission, the 49 female parliament members from four parties began bringing proposals together in a united front. Their joint proposal Ğ owing much to decades of equal rights campaigning by Turkish women and NGOs Ğ finally landed in Parliament for approval on Thursday.

An NGO representative on the new committee, Dr. Selma Acuner, who co-founded the Association for the Education and Support of Women Candidates (KADER) told Bianet that the committee means an institutionalized spread of gender equality over all decision-making points. "It represents a turning point for the women’s struggle for equality."

The committee will have 25 members, with preference given to MPs with expertise in the area of women’s rights. CHP Adana Deputy, Nevingaye Erbatur, along with several other women in Parliament back enacting a quota system to ensure more political participation by women. On the other hand, more than half (29) of the female deputies are from the ruling AK Party, which has soundly rejected the possibility of quotas. This should make for a lively group. The committee’s impact could carry the indelible mark of politicking or reflect the type of cross-party compromise rarely seen in the assembly hall. Promises to ensure women’s representation do not translate into changes in women’s lives because too often the implementation of laws and measures protecting women’s rights are simply not in place. But this powerful committee can move beyond political promises in its ability to make laws easier to enforce or pass a gender equality law more quickly. Ireland’s broad equality legislation, for example, has been a model for other countries on issues such as allowing women to challenge hiring practices that appear to discriminate against them, a provision that is absent from Turkey’s labor laws.

Taking the local lead
With March 29 local elections on the horizon, last week Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the AK Party aimed to fill a third of the country’s city council seats with women. But his word has pretty low value: He and his party have already failed to follow through on their decision to name women to 15 percent of the AKP’s mayoral candidates.

KADER’s Ankara branch director İlknur Üstün demanded on Tuesday that local municipalities establish commissions on gender equality as well. "This would help local services organize with a focus on gender," Üstün said.

Much of the progress by Turkish women on equality emanates from local women’s groups and the changes they have brought about in their communities, a leading women’s rights advocate Pınar İlkkaracan told me a few months ago. In Canakkale, where women have mobilized the local power structure, the city "checks with its women’s group before building a road," she said. İlkkaracan recalled a husband who burst into a meeting of a local Anatolian women’s group to thank them for helping his wife become a better wife and mother. "We have a much better sex life nowÉ and I’ve told all my friends to send their wives to these workshops too," she recalled him saying.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar effect taking hold of men all over Turkey as women begin to lend greater voice to their communities.
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Promises, promises

31 Ocak 2009
There is a saying where I come from: When mom’s not happy, nobody’s happy. According to a recent UNDP survey, 86 percent of all Turkish voters were unhappy about the low representation of women in local administrations. In recent weeks, the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, abandoned its decision to name women to 15 percent of the mayoral candidate posts in the March 29 local elections. With nominations at the municipal and district levels drawing to a close, only a handful of women have been selected to run for the 3,225 mayoral positions, and none in the 16 largest cities.

However on Wednesday Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the AK Party aimed to fill a third of the country’s city council seats with women. This is wonderful news, if he's serious. Women Branches Chairwoman Fatma Şahin made the "15 percent" public declaration several weeks ago. Imagine how demoralized she feels. Imagine how women like Sibel Eraslan feel, without whose door-to-door campaigning analysts say the AK Party couldn’t have pulled off its 2002 victory. Still today, women's AK Party branches have no official power or budget.

Almost all the female respondents in a survey conducted by the Gönülbirliği Cultural Solidarity Association in Ankara said the number of female politicians was too low and that measures should be taken to increase female participation in state, political party and nongovernmental organizations.

Turkey has only one female mayor - Tunceli Mayor Songül Erol Abdil from the Democratic Society Party (DTP). Only 25 out of the AKP's 340 deputies are women. It would be polite to say that the prime minister’s lone female cabinet member State Minister for Women and Families Nimet Çubukçu has failed the people she serves, neglecting institutional abuse of orphans and women’s rights.

Vile permissiveness
More than 1,000 women and girls have been killed - and those are documented cases - over honor and virginity by their own families since 2001. Last month, a government-appointed District Education Board official visited an Istanbul university and forced 30 female students to answer questions about who in their dorms was drinking and sexually active. In November an 18-year-old was subjected to virginity tests after her Istanbul dorm manager alleged to the girl’s father that she was sexually active. The accusation and subsequent dismissal attempt was based on bruising to the girl’s face and neck.

If more female representatives were in government, it's hard to believe this "official" behavior would be so easy to get away with. President of Turkey’s largest teachers union, Eğitim-Sen, Zübeyde Kılıç told Bianet that the government’s position on women encourages such allegations which victimize young women. "It cannot be a coincidence that the virginity discussion is taking place at the time of the Justice and Development Party."

Remarkable, smart women - observant and non-observant - are willing to change conditions. They want to be part of a government that works for people, not one bent on pursuing a backlash against the progress that Turkish women have fought so hard for. The AK Party’s dim light bulb often illuminates what appears to be a black comedy about backroom thugs. But local elections are no comedy and these guys don't own the back room. If the AKP and its female candidates can pull off even half the increase Erdoğan seeks in women's city council seats, more men will see women for what they are: Valuable decision makers, not desexualized stay-at-home collateral.
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Obama’s new boss: Generation Now

24 Ocak 2009
With my 19-month-old son Max Ali on my lap, I was trying to keep my tears from falling on his head. Obama had been president for a couple of minutes when I was overcome with a sudden optimism for the world my son will know. He will not remember life before President Barack Obama. The Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millenials. Who are these new kids? The media will not be able to reduce them to a single country, name or a description. They are connected across borders in ways no previous generation has been. Maybe learning to heal the earth will be their link. At this turning point in history, can Barack Obama be their glue?

For the first time in history, a global generation will come of age with a common memory of an uncommon leader: People often use the word humanity when they talk about the new president maybe because they sense we’ve lost some of our own. The international exuberance about him could be a desperate need to feel that the future holds something positive. Whatever the reasons, around a billion people will recall seeing or hearing this man come to power, marking the first collective memory of this magnitude.

I met my husband a few months after 9/11, a date that established the "pre- and post-" dynamic is myriad ways. Caught up in the rapid upswing of common sense and goodwill in Washington this week, forgive me for kicking cynicism to the curb for a moment. This is sunrise in the post-Obama victory world.

Inheriting the earth
The 83 million Millennials, people born after 1980 who came of age around the year 2000, make up the first generation in 60 years that is unsure if they will inherit the superpower legacy of financial and military global dominance. I hope this new broader generation will see that it is this expectation, this sense of exceptionalism, that puts the U.S. - and the world - in peril.

Generational change was the rallying cry of the Obama campaign. It was a mix of political wizardry and the right tone for the time. Voters under 30 chose Obama by a margin of 2 to 1, including 70 percent of 13 million first-time voters. He spoke Tuesday of his hope that people will summon the spirit of service, a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. "And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."

The timing of this transition of power could shift the tone of U.S. leadership from regard for the few to concern for the most for decades to come. The failure of the Republican brand of free market is so apparent that our toddler and his contemporaries could feasibly reach voting age after 16 years of Democratic administrations. Reagan was no hero then, and even less of one now.

One upside to global warming and economic crisis is that they help kids comprehend that what they do matters to the rest of the world. Kids are already doing things in their everyday lives to help people a world away, to make "farms flourish and let clean waters flowÉ", as Obama said when he pledged to work alongside poor nations.

Obama is a response to the call for wisdom and action by Millenials, Generation Xers, their kids and their kids’ global cohorts. It is not what he can do for them but what he can help them do for themselves. These bloody years since 9/11 have led to more than million deaths and a virus-like hatred of the "other", a scarring combination for a generation coming of age anywhere. But kids aren’t easily daunted, and optimism and unity are two of humanity’s most potent agents for change.
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Don’t most of us back terrorists?

17 Ocak 2009
Standing on a beach in Gaza a few years ago, I found myself between a group of young armed Israeli settlers and three unarmed Palestinian youths, two of whom were small. The Israeli guys were showing off for one another, for two young American Jewish women visiting and perhaps for me, an Associated Press journalist covering the last Passover in Gaza before Israel "withdrew" from the small coastal slip months later. The Israeli guys with army guns and training took turns acting out an attack on the threesome down the shore. For more than half an hour, the targets of this charade stood facing them without moving. The Israelis’ anger toward their Palestinian neighbors darkened when a couple of teenage Jewish settler girls waded into the cold choppy waves between them. Alone on this assignment, I was staying across the street from the gun-toting youths. I watched and waited at a distance, horrified and saying nothing.

For two weeks the following September, I was based in Gaza again as settlers were pulled kicking and screaming from their neat streets of spacious homes and improbable vegetation. Thousands refused to pack up, prepare their children or plan ahead. One couple was doing their press act from their kitchen when their toddler made her way to the street, amid a crush of riot police and television crews. Gripping a ring of keys, she was trying to get into the family car.

Images of young people often reveal the truth. The lifeless bodies of so many Palestinian children in Gaza this month tell of a people with nowhere to run. And of a ruthless occupier that has never really left Ğ or grown up.

’Why don’t you care?’

While attending the ’Call for Peace in Gaza’ meeting of first wives from Middle Eastern countries last week in Istanbul, a colleague from Yeni Safak newspaper asked me: "Why don’t Americans care about this? The press, the public, politiciansÉ?" It’s true that Americans see little carnage and even less of the dead children in mainstream media. It’s true that there is a powerful pro-Israel lobby. But this massacre, as in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982 and others perpetrated by Israel and the U.S., come down to citizens who let them do it. On the U.S. side, most Americans don’t care about Palestinians. My parents’ generation came of age believing that Israelis were entitled and just and that Palestinians were terrorists.

Today, my generation faces a tougher challenge: ignorance and apathy. A lack of perspective is harder to confront than any conspiracy. But it can be done.

On behalf of a selfish few

Is America’s role complicated? Not really. Israel has always demanded more than it needs. U.S. foreign policy has always been reckless and selfish on behalf of a select wealthy group. It supports Israel near unconditionally to ensure footholds in oil, the Christian electorate and regional hegemony.

As a taxpaying American with a vote, I’m complicit in this slaughter in Gaza. The U.S. Congress sends Israel more than $2.3 billion each year. In 2005 I interviewed Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, at the Israeli Prime Ministry. He confirmed that figure.

As I write, Israel is killing families and children with American rockets and bombs falling from $200 million worth of spare F-16 fighter jets and missiles supplied by U.S. taxpayers from 200l to 2006. As of Friday, half of the more than 1,150 people dead were women and children. Israel Defense Forces spokesman Capt. Benjamin Rutland told Fox TV last week that Israel reserved the right to target anyone they believed to be supportive of terror or Hamas. By this logic, Gazans are well within their rights to target regular Israelis and American families like mine.

Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, condemned Israel for its "severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law" and impugned the U.S. for being "complicit ... and knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks."

If this isn’t terrorism, I don’t know what is. There on the beach I watched and waited at a distance, horrified and saying nothing. I don’t have that privilege now. None of us do.

To contact U.S. president Barack Obama: (202) 456-1414 and other elected officials: To donate money to the people of Gaza:
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