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Kirsten O’Regan: In Turkey, Two Fights for Peace

July 30, 2014

Battling violence against women in a divided country.

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Diyarbakir, Turkey. Image from Flickr via Charles Roffey

By Kirsten O’Regan

One morning in 1992, a Kurdish schoolteacher, Zubeyir Akkoç, was walking to work in Diyarbakir, in south-eastern Turkey, when he was shot twice in the head. His crime? Both Zubeyir and his wife were members of their local teachers’ union—an affiliation deemed criminal by a state embroiled in a long and increasingly dirty war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Two decades later, in August 2013, his widow, Nebahat Akkoç, sat serene and self-possessed in the spare but comfortable head offices of Kadin Merkezi Vakfi (Women’s Center Foundation), known as “Kamer,” the organization she established in Diyarbakir in 1997. Nebahat’s outfit was a cacophony of color against the muted walls and furnishings, her curves enveloped in a shirt with orange, fuchsia and blue stripes. Her dark auburn hair was swept back into a no-nonsense bun, sunglasses casually propped on her head. She wore no jewellery, her dark features bearing only a hint of make-up. Nebahat offered tea once, twice, three times, in the ritualised, hospitable way of the Kurds. Outside, the peaceful city—becalmed by the ongoing peace negotiations between the PKK and the government—hummed with quiet activity.

“He Loves You, He Beats You,” was the cheery title of a 2011 Human Rights Watch report on family violence in Turkey.

This tranquillity is a relatively recent development: a groundbreaking moment in the history of the Republic. The Turkish state as we know it emerged in 1923, under the auspices of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. An ardent modern secularist, Ataturk completely transformed a territory that had previously been the nucleus of the Ottoman Empire; a new constitution was ratified in 1924, instituting a period of major reform. In near-synchronicity with women’s suffrage in the Western world, Turkish women gained the right to vote in 1930 and social integration of the sexes was encouraged. Traditional religious attire was selectively banned to encourage men to adopt Western dress, and in the 1970s these restrictions were extended to the female headscarf. The Kemalist ideology (as Ataturk’s ethos is known) was staunchly anti-pluralist and rabidly nationalistic, leaving no room for complexities of identity. In this way, it fundamentally undermined the rights of Turkey’s many ethnic minorities, including the Kurds.

There are an estimated 11-19 million Kurds in Turkey today. This population is concentrated in the south-eastern extremity of the country, which constitutes the northern tip of a transnational Kurdish territory spreading across parts of Syria, Iran and Iraq. While Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved a remarkable level of self-governance, and the Kurds in northern Syria are autonomously defending their territory against both rebels and regime forces, “Kurdistan” is still a dirty word in Turkey, and the Kurdish language is effectively outlawed by the constitution. Until recently, the Kurdish people were officially (and erroneously) referred to as “mountain Turks,” in an effort to preserve the homogeneity of the Republic’s population.

Akkoç perceived that a less obvious battle than that between the government and the PKK was being waged behind closed doors: a silent, invisible, and persistent war against women that mirrored the brutality on the streets.

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) was formed in 1978 to combat this oppression, seeking greater autonomy for the Kurdish region and democratic rights for Kurds. In 1984, the PKK’s militant wing (currently classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US) carried out their first attack——on a gendarmerie station in Siirt. One soldier died; six soldiers and three civilians were injured. A simultaneous attack on a gendarmerie station in Hakkari resulted in one dead and two wounded.

Since that time, the state and the PKK have been locked in an erratic and devastating cycle of violence, resulting in the loss of over 40,000 lives. Faced with insurrection—a challenge to the Kemalist fantasy of a uniform, unified country—the staunchly nationalistic Turkish government favored brutal repression. In 1992, Diyarbakir was the center of Kurdish resistance; the city was effectively a war zone.

“I was here. I was seeing all those things. Seeing them and hearing them,” Nebahat Akkoç recalls. As a woman alone, after losing her husband, Nebahat’s perspective shifted. “I started to think and read and do research about violence: why it’s so general, why it’s everywhere, why everyone gets used to violence. And I realized that everyday it increases, so it means we also produce it.”

The longstanding conflict in the region has created an environment in which law-enforcers are able to commit sexual crimes with impunity.

Akkoç perceived that a less obvious battle than that between the government and the PKK was being waged behind closed doors: a silent, invisible, and persistent war against women that mirrored the brutality on the streets. Despite Ataturk’s reforms, women remained vulnerable in Turkey, their unequal status evident in their underrepresentation in politics and the workplace. Domestic violence is under-reported in all countries, but reliable statistics are scarce in Turkey. In a 2009 survey, around 39% of women reported having suffered physical violence at some point in their lives. Of women who have been abused, according to an early Kamer study, 90% say they accepted the violence as a given because of their gender. “He Loves You, He Beats You,” was the cheery title of a 2011 Human Rights Watch report on family violence in Turkey.

In the Kurdish southeast, crippling underdevelopment, enduring feudal mores, and widespread illiteracy among women exacerbate their plight. “Honor killings,” and “honor suicides,” are disturbingly widespread. To make matters worse, the longstanding conflict in the region has created an environment in which law-enforcers are able to commit sexual crimes with impunity; it is common for Kurdish women to be assaulted while in custody on dubious charges of PKK activity.

“Turkey is going to change with support from inside the society, from the streets. Because women are changing.”

In 1994 Nebahat herself became one of these victims. Arrested by government forces as a suspected member of the PKK, she was detained for ten days alongside two-dozen men. She alone among the suspects was tortured and sexually abused. Eventually, she was released, only to be arrested twice more in the following months.

Nebahat’s persecution at the hands of the state set her on the frontlines of both battles: the dual struggle for Kurdish enfranchisement and women’s rights. And while her treatment may have been shamefully ordinary, her reaction was not. Following her husband’s murder and her own arrest, Nebahat took the Turkish government to trial at the European Court of Human Rights, charging them with failing to protect the life of her husband and for subjecting her to torture. She won the case, and $135,000 in damages, and, set out to fight for women’s rights in a region where this concept was barely heard of.

Nebahat began the feminist organization Kamer in 1997, with a staff of twelve volunteers. Now, the organization operates in all twenty-three provinces across the eastern and south-eastern regions of Turkey; a vast area fragmented along ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. Nebahat is especially well positioned to negotiate these shifting identities. Her mother was Alevi (a long-persecuted Shia sect), her father Armenian. Although originally from Diyarbakir, she has deep family ties to other cities in the east: Van, Erzurum, Bingol. “When people ask me where I am from, I get a bit confused,” she says, laughing. Her mixed origins have been useful in helping Kamer representatives adapt fluently to each area of eastern Turkey, altering their dress and language as needed. “Even if we don’t feel it, the past always gives direction to us,” she concedes.

Kamer’s operatives deal with cases of physical violence, economic subjugation, rape and “honor” killing. The victims are encouraged to tell their stories. They are provided with psychological and legal assistance, and occasionally, physical protection. Equally integral to Kamer’s mission is its advocacy work—collaborating with communities to encourage recognition of women as capable wage earners, citizens with equal rights and social, political, and economic potential—and its industrious entrepreneurship program. As part of the latter, Kamer runs various businesses to promote economic independence among its participants and to ensure the sustainability of the organization itself: there is a café in Diyarbakir, a restaurant in Mardin, and a guesthouse in Tunceli. In Hakkari, one of the more recent epicenters of PKK violence, the women make pottery. As she showed me around the Kamer offices, Nebahat waved toward a narrow sideboard, a collection of brightly colored ceramics clustered at its center. “This all is made by them.”

At its inception, Kamer faced many challenges. The state didn’t trust it. Suspicious of Nebahat’s motives, the government smelled subversion, and very few women wanted to come forward, convinced they had brought violence on themselves. Much has changed in the intervening decades. “Now women talk more about their rights, and they know more about their rights. They don’t hide these issues anymore,” Nebahat says with quiet satisfaction. “Turkey is going to change with support from inside the society, from the streets. Because women are changing.”

Kamer’s awareness-raising activities have reached over 40,000 women, and Nebahat is convinced norms are slowly shifting. In 2009, surveys revealed that the majority of women believe there is no excuse for domestic violence. In 2012, representatives of Kamer helped to push through legislation that enhanced protection for victims of domestic violence and increased penalties for the perpetrators. In the first seven months of 2009, Turkey had witnessed an unprecedented spike in murders of women: 953 during that year. Many of these were assumed to be “honor” killings. In contrast, during the same time span in 2013 the number of reported “honor” killings stood at 100. When this statistic is mentioned, Nebahat emits a short, barking laugh. “Of course, this is not really good news. But at least, if we can save one, it’s very important for us. I know it’s strange.”

Erdogan’s brashly macho public persona aggravates her, and she finds his retrograde attitude towards gender issues distinctly worrying.

Much of her current optimism is bound up with the peace negotiations underway between the state and the PKK. Although the collaboration is contingent, faltering, and fraught with difficulty, it has already radically improved life in Diyarbakir. “Even now, while there’s no concrete peace, it gives us hope,” she says. “People are becoming more relaxed.” In September 2013, roughly a month after my interview with Nebahat, PKK militants halted their withdrawal from Turkey, citing the failure of the Turkish government to fulfill the terms of their agreement, which centered on language rights and political representation. Recent reports suggest that PKK fighters are returning to Turkey and are again conducting kidnappings. Nevertheless, a ceasefire remains ostensibly in place.

In any case, Nebahat is far from complacent. There are still battles to be fought, injustices to be redressed. “Yes, laws are changing, but to make these laws active in daily life you need political power,” she says. “We don’t have this power, and we can’t use these laws.” In 2009, seven years after an amendment to the Civil Code that accorded spouses an equal share in property and assets within a marriage, 60% of women in eastern Turkey remained unaware of their equal economic rights within the family.

Current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, in power since 2003, meets with a litany of criticisms from Nebahat. His brashly macho public persona aggravates her, and she finds his retrograde attitude towards gender issues distinctly worrying. Erdogan’s religious sympathies stand in stark contrast to Ataturk’s secularism, and his record on women’s rights is an exercise in contradiction: despite passing legislation to ramp up protection for women (some would argue as a political expediency in the quest for European Union), he has on the other hand lifted the ban on headscarves (quite a shock in a country founded on ideals of militant secularism), promoted motherhood as the feminine ideal, referred to abortion as murder, and brazenly confessed, “I don’t believe in equality between men and women,” to a roomful of feminists.

Erdogan’s religious beliefs, profound social conservatism, and repressive politics have long rankled Turkey’s sophisticated urban secularists. And yet, until recently, political ferment and civic engagement have been distressingly absent. Now it appears these were merely dormant. Citizens were perhaps wary of the state’s swift incarceration of troublemakers (including a record-breaking number of journalists). In June of last year, demonstrations erupted in Gezi Park, the cosmopolitan heart of Istanbul. Ostensibly protesting a distasteful building development—a gaudy reproduction of an Ottoman barracks intended to house a shopping complex, which would have diminished the square’s green space—the resistance became a cri de coeur against the increasing curtailment of rights and the divisive rhetoric of Erdogan’s regime. The crowd at Gezi was a disarmingly diverse cross-section of Turkish society: religious, atheist, Kurdish, Turkish, LGBTQ, anarchist, socialist, student, worker. And there were women, lots of women—both bareheaded and head-scarfed—and burning with rage.

More recently, a massive corruption probe and social media crackdown have kept anti-Erdogan feeling red-hot. At the mention of Gezi, Nebahat’s eyes lit up. “I went there even though I was very busy, just to say that I saw that atmosphere,” she says, gleefully. “I really like this, when I look to the new generation. They really want to bring more justice.”

My interpreter, Angel, nodded along happily. Angel is something of an anomaly in Diyarbakir. A 28-year old single mother, she refuses to allow her son to play with the toy guns that saturate the city’s streets, clutched by scrappy young boys who merrily use them to “hold up” policemen. Shunning a headscarf, Angel dons worn cargo pants and a tight black singlet; her eyes are rimmed thickly with kohl and a diamond trinket flashes in her nose. She walks fast, and speaks in a surprisingly low-pitched voice, which she uses to sing unbearably sad Kurdish songs to herself, in a distinctive husky growl. She is both delicate and flinty—a firm believer that to be woman does not mean to be weak.

Angel’s self-realization has been, in a way, made possible by Nebahat, and Nebahat is renewed through Angel. They conspiratorially share their experiences of Gezi, swapping stories of police brutality with grim satisfaction. Despite such continued oppression, they clearly derive hope from each other: the horizon opening up with possibilities.

Nebahat smiles grimly when she thinks of the future. “When you realize, when you see—you can’t turn back to where you were before,” she says. “It’s like: a freed slave can never accept to be a slave anymore.”

Kirsten O’Regan is a freelance writer and student. She was born in England, raised in South Africa and New Zealand, and is currently completing a master’s degree at New York University.

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