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Turkey: A prize for women’s rights

Sirin Tekeli, 63, is one of the founders of the feminist movement in Turkey and is one of the five nominees for this year’s Non EU citizen of the year awards

di Asli Kayabal

Sirin Tekeli, 63, one of the founders of the feminist movement in Turkey, is one of the five nominees for this year?s Non EU citizen of the year awards. The awards, run by European Voice, recognise the work of outstanding individuals who have worked to defend European values, such as human rights, democracy and peace. A pro woman?s rights activist, Sirin Tekeli founded Kader in 1997, a non profit organisation that encourages the participation of women in Turkish politics and is co founder of Istanbul?s Library for Women. She is also the only female nominee for the award this year.

What impact have Turkey?s socio-political changes had on women?s lives?
Traditional socio-cultural dimensions have, indeed been shaken in recent years. We have seen established codes being suddenly disregarded, which has caused widespread outbursts of violence, especially violence within household walls, the so called ?crimes of honour?. Incidents where women are raped and sexually harassed have increased in number. In traditional society violence wasn?t so widespread, although it was silenced.

What does the state do to help women who are victims of violence?
Unfortunately even today most women who suffer violence live in denial. The laws that have been passed in favour of women are not able to protect them and government action is still insufficient. It should be educating policemen and the magistrates. It should create shelters and centres for women. Unfortunately the tools to fight today?s challenges are missing.

What are the greatest challenges facing Turkey?s civil society today?
Unemployment, poverty and the acknowledgment of women?s rights.

How might the new constitution proposed by Erdogan affect women?s rights?
My perception is that the beneath the apparently liberal amendments of the 1982 military constitution there is really an attempt to turn the clock back, at least as far a s women?s rights are concerned. Feminist associations have also sensed the same message and are promptly reacting to it. The amendments that were introduced in 2000, in particular article 100, the Turkish state finally acknowledged the equality of man and woman. Any change to article 100 would be unacceptable.

How different are the lives of women in the city compared to the countryside?
There have been stark regional differences in Turkey for more than 80 years and unfortunately these differences tend to become more accentuated, rather than disappear. The scenario for women is a complex one, as women who migrate to the city from the country side are not usually economically active, most are housewives. This is a curious phenomenon, as migration towards the big cities of Ankara or Istanbul does not favour emancipation, but rather the cities take on the characteristics of the country side. Women in the suburbs and in the countryside also tend not to be emancipated and full socio-cultural affirmation is only really manifested in women who are part of the middle and high classes, the bourgeoisie and have professional backgrounds. But these are still a minority, about 10%.

To what extent does politics have a role to play in the emancipation of women?
Ergodan?s AKP party is a conservative democratic party, so it tries to keep women behind the walls of their traditional structures or families. I think this is similar to Europe?s old Christian democrat parties. Our movement on the other hand defends democracy and wants a lay state. We want women to be able to realise their full political potential and freedom. This makes us an alternative to the politics of the Islamic party that is now in power. Having said this, or perhaps because of this, it is very important that AKP maintains a European perspective. As far as I am concerned I don?t think that it is important that the wives of the president or the president of the republic wear the veil or not. This is a secondary problem.

Has Kader, the non profit organisation that you founded in 1997, managed to achieve its objectives?
When we founded Kader we were very optimistic. We were sure to increase female representation in parliament to 10% . The battles of the past decade have made us understand that the objective we had set ourselves was indeed very optimistic. The percentage of women elected in parliament has, however more than doubled since 2000, when it was 4.6%, as now it is 9.8%.

What do you think about the governmental politics of the Kurd problem?
None of the Turkish republics have been able to solve the so called Kurd problem in a manner that respects human rights. It is an absolute priority that the Turkish government recognise the Kurd language and culture. Obviously, such a solution is totally incompatible with the present government?s policy, as they even thought of the possibility of invading the north of Iraq.

When do you think that Turkey will have a moustache-less president?
I honestly don?t think I will live to see that day. At the beginning of the 80?s there were about 10 feminists in the whole of Turkey. In twenty years we have managed to create a strong movement and a network that extends across the whole of Turkey, with 350 associations. We have mobilized more than 100 thousand women. At first the wall we were trying to surmount really did seem too high and at a certain point it even looked as if it would crumble. So perhaps I should be more optimistic, look at Latin America, for example. There are many more women taking on political roles. If I were able to live a bit longer, perhaps I could, after all live to see a female president in Turkey!

More info:
www.ka-der.org.tr/


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