18 April 2014, Friday
Today's Zaman

Setting aside differences key to success in women's rights activism

9 November 2008, Sunday /ROBERTA DAVENPORT
Women from diverse social, economic and political backgrounds are working to tackle different obstacles on the road to gender equality in Turkey. Sunday's Zaman spoke with women's activists from across the board to find out if the fierce debates over the place of Islam in secular Turkey were reflected in the form of conflicts among those working to promote a women's rights movement here.

    Their responses were revealing: While the diversity of social and political opinion among these women and women's organizations is apparent, there is an atmosphere of respect and recognition, despite the lack of extensive cooperation. Even as they work in different groups and prioritize different agenda items, they acknowledge the value of one another's contribution to women's status in Turkey. Some are going a step further and working to bring women from all walks of life together under one banner.

Generally speaking, there is no cooperation across groups of religiously inclined and secular women, Canan Güllü, president of the Federation of Turkish Women's Associations (TKDF) based in Ankara, told Sunday's Zaman. Her organization does not accept the division between "religious" and "secular" women's groups, but she asserted that some religious women were attempting to "politicize" women's issues by prioritizing the headscarf issue. "We do not accept politics into our civil society [organizations]. We are walking on the road of modernity laid out by Atatürk," she said.

Mine Kılıç, a member of the executive board of the Association for the Education and Support of Women in Politics (KA-DER), also noted a division of sorts between different groups of women. "It can be said that conservative women don't stay in secular women's groups for long. Among the most important reasons for this are differences in opinion and ideology. For this reason conservative women prefer … groups that align with their views and wherein they can express themselves. Separately, there is an issue of some women's groups that are not run democratically and block the participation of conservative women or prevent their membership," she said.

In contrast, some women's activists strictly rejected the labeling of groups of women as religiously conservative or secular. Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR)-New Ways Coordinator Liz Amado said there were some exceptions from case to case but that overall the Turkish women's movement comprised different groups of women working toward different goals. She warned against a rough categorization into two groups of women. "There are independent, Kemalist, religious [women], feminists -- and feminists who work in religiously conservative areas," she said.

Similarly, Anti-Discrimination Women's Rights Association (AKDER) Vice President Fatma Benli said her organization opposed the categorization of people into groups such as conservative or secular.

For her part, Kılıç said: "As KA-DER, the most important thing for us is the distinction between democratic and non-democratic. Secularism can be among the most important indicators of being democratic, as can the display of a welcoming attitude toward differences and attempting to understand those around us."

Work of headscarved women not given a fair shake

Ultra-secular circles often assert that activist groups composed primarily of religiously conservative women or ones that lobby to lift Turkey's headscarf ban are not interested in women's rights, but only religious rights for religious women. All of the women Sunday's Zaman spoke with for this report -- those from "secular" and "conservative" organizations alike -- decried this allegation and said it was the product of prejudice or media bias.

The TKDF's Güllü said groups of religious women tended to put the headscarf issue at the top of the list, but she conceded that their efforts were not confined to that topic.

Kılıç of KA-DER, however, said: "Even if conservative women's organizations are involved with the headscarf issue firstly, they are also involved in other women's rights issues. Because the media mostly focuses on [the headscarf] issue, the things conservative women's organizations have done with respect to these other issues are not brought to the agenda."

Benli of AKDER, an organization widely associated with the push to lift the headscarf ban, noted the tendency in governments and political parties to appoint women only to positions responsible primarily for issues related to women, children and family. She said that similarly, there is a tendency to think that only women who cover their heads are involved in, understand or are willing to work on projects involving the headscarf ban.

"Of course headscarved women are going to struggle for a lifting of the ban because this situation [directly] affects their lives -- but this does not mean that they do not care about or that they ignore the problems of others. It's just that these things they are doing are not known or seen as important."

Cooperation has happened before, and it's on the rise

Though cooperation between diverse groups of women is not the standard, the historical precedent is there, and efforts to make such activity the norm are gaining momentum.

"As they pursue their work in their respective fields, these groups act together when it comes to legal regulations that concern all women. In recent years, the best examples of this [sort of collective action] can be seen in changes to the Turkish Penal Code [TCK], the civil code and the Constitution," said Kılıç of KA-DER, which is active in working to increase women's parliamentary representation in Turkey.

AKDER's Benli said: "While before, groups worked among themselves and were more prejudiced toward those with different views, now individuals and groups are looking for paths to more joint work and at least information exchange. While [in the past] it wasn't very possible to encounter cooperation between different civil society organizations, it is now possible to see individuals of different world views coming together and able to work together toward a common goal." Examples of this, she said, are groups like Birbirimize Sahip Çıkıyoruz (BŞÇ, "We're Looking Out for Each Other).

The BŞÇ first came to media headlines as a union of women of varying backgrounds demonstrating for headscarf freedom in universities and the public sphere in Turkey. Last week, they held a demonstration in İstanbul protesting violence and sexual assault, again with the participation of a broad range of women.

Speaking with Sunday's Zaman, a representative for the BŞÇ said: "Our movement was given life by women who are religious and women who aren't, women who are feminists and not, women who are lesbian, bisexual and identify or don't identify with different ethnic groups. We set out with the idea that our differences don't divide us, and that so long as we're not all free, none of us are free. … We believe this: Long live women's cooperation!"

Forced and early marriages, violence (particularly an increase in violence against women that is expected to come along with the effects of the economic crisis), illiteracy, under representation, sexual assault and abuse, and denial of educational rights based on gender or religious preference, honor killings -- the problems facing Turkey's women and women's rights advocates are many. As the president of a federation of women's organizations, the TKDF's Güllü said that woman-woman cooperation is key: "Women must work hand-in-hand. … Let's share the bread we have with one another and work together, so that later, we'll have both bread and cheese to eat together."

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