While visiting her daughter in America, Derya Keskin Demirer's mother chided her for leaving the dishes for the husband to wash. Luckily Derya's husband is a 'natural' feminist. Although he is from Turkey, he does not mind helping in the kitchen. "We both work outside the home and share work in the house too," says Derya who could not understand why her mother made a fuss. Now that Derya, 37, has returned home from America to live and to work in Turkey, she faces numerous other contradictions inherent in a society that is modern in many ways but continues to practice discriminatory traditions.
According to the European Union (EU) Commission for Employment and Social Affairs, Turkey has made huge progress in the legal area but lacks a change of mentality regarding its approach to women. Honour killings (when men murder female members of their family to save face) is the gravest of many other social ills.
Today the number of employed women in Turkey has fallen to 24 per cent of the total workforce while the EU average is 57 per cent. Recent figures show that only 18 per cent of Turkish women between 18 and 24
years are in education while the EU average is 61 per cent.
"I know that there are gender problems here but I need skills to recognise them before I can help," Derya said at a gender training workshop on feminist policies in Izmit, a two-hour drive east of Istanbul. Derya was one of 10 social activists from different parts of Turkey to participate in a 15-day workshop organised by Women's Solidarity Foundation (WSF) in partnership with Jagori and Sangat, two of South Asia's most active feminist organisations involved in rural development and the education of women. The primary goal of the workshop, the first of its kind in Turkey, was to bridge the gap between feminist theory and practice.
"It is very important for Turkish women to understand gender problems in a scientific way and to be able to weave feminist theory into every day life," explains Zelal Ayman, Programme Director of WSF's New Step Women's Training and Cultural Centre. One of the main follow-up activities to the workshop is to establish a Turkish-speaking group of trainers who are already involved in nationwide campaigns to improve women's economic situation and human rights in the country. The idea is to empower women locally who can empower other women to lead secure, independent lives that are free from violence and intimidation.
The women's movement in Turkey has deep historical roots that can be traced back to the early 1900s. The introduction of legal rights and westernisation of society benefited only a small minority of urban, middle class women who remained oblivious to the problems faced by the majority of Turkish women living in patriarchal, pastoral communities. The attitude of the privileged, urbane woman was that if she was all right then life must be fine for other Turkish women too.
Throughout the second half of the last century the women's movement in Turkey was urban and inspired by western feminists. But in 1987, a judge dismissed a case against a husband who beat his wife, saying: "Kids and smacks are what every woman needs regularly." The callous attitude towards violence within the family united women like never before. The incident brought together women from diverse backgrounds and allowed the over 1,000 protestors to interact. Few women were found who had not experienced their share of beating. It was also discovered that the majority of Turkish women continue to live under constant threat of violence, illiteracy and limited job opportunities. Once violence was exposed as a crime and forced to become part of public debate in the 1990s.
A decade later, Hulya Gulbahar, feminist lawyer and a founder of WSF, travelled to countries east of Turkey. She visited Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and India. Driving in a bus through the countryside she noticed the similarities in the lifestyle especially of rural women in all these places that continue to be policed by patriarchy and seemed fed up of feudalism. India's vibrant women's movement impressed her the most. She studied the working of the Nari Adalat or Women's Court. She watched poverty-stricken and illiterate, rural women deal with a host of issues from dowry to child custody within an alternative legal system that put women's interest first. As a lawyer, Hulya had long believed that the legal system inherited from western colonial powers did not favour the majority population, especially rural women.
She discovered that the social, political and cultural biases faced by Turkish women, including almost no access to criminal justice and debate, is similar to the situation of Indian women. "We have learnt a lot from feminists in the West especially about legal issues. But only recently did we realize that culturally and socially we have much more in common with traditional societies like India," Hulya says. She feels that raising the legal consciousness of women is not enough to achieve cultural change.
WSF chose Jagori and Sangat as its local partners. Jagori had invited 14 Turkish NGOs who travelled all over India in 2003 to look at women's co-operatives and other capacity building activities.
The recent workshop of WSF was led by Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya, founders of Jagori and Sangat who have designed courses for similar workshops providing conceptual clarity, dialogue and shared understanding on issues related to gender, peace, sustainable development and human rights. The sociologists shared their views on the importance of increasing self-awareness and self-confidence. They talked of ways to enhance analytical abilities, communication and the training capacity of participants that included Zeynep, the only female butcher of Turkey. Some topics like the universal norms and rights of women worldwide and the significance of Turkey's efforts to join the EU were added to the content of the workshop on the request of the participants.
"Such activities are new in Turkey but necessary," adds Meltem, 23, whose radio program, The Woman Inside Us, allows women to share their dreams with other women on air. Zelal concluded that the workshop was a success as it inspired women to link theory with practice. "This was also an occasion for Turkish women from different parts of the country to meet under one roof and to network," Zelal says.