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Free women - as far as the front door

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkKurdistan
Free women - as far as the front door
Kurdish women have been in the spot light in international media. But how can a society on the one hand be proud of its women who join the armed battle and on the other hand force 15 year olds to marry? And how do you keep your life in your own hands as a Kurdish woman?

Photography: Mona van den Berg 
(This story was originally published on Beaconreader, 1 September 2015)

Berivan Elif Kilic (33) is sitting in a comfortable, somewhat kitschy purple armchair and is smoking one cigarette after another. Location: the city hall of Kocaköy, a town in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey. Kilic has been in charge here since the spring of 2014.

She is one of a hundred and two female mayors in the Kurdish municipalities which are run by the BDP (Democratic Regions Party, the regional sister of the nationwide Democratic People’s Party, which passed the 10% threshold in the general elections in early June and thus robbed the governing AKP of its majority in the Turkish parliament). In the last local elections, in 2014, the women’s organisation of the Kurdish political movement enforced a new policy: women and men must have equality in governing positions. Ever since, every mayor’s chair in DBP municipalities has been occupied by a woman and a man. Kilic too shares her position with a male colleague, Affüllah Kar. And the HDP is currently led jointly by a man and a woman.

Kocaköy co-mayor Berivan Elif Kilic. Photo: Mona van den Berg

There is no lack of candidates. In Turkish Kurdistan the women with a position, with a voice, an outspoken opinion, are everywhere. They are particularly visible in social life, in the media and in politics, and globally in recent months they have been seen on the pages of international media with Kalashnikovs on their shoulder and in leading positions in the battle against ISIS.

‘Women’, I once heard Osman Baydemir, the former mayor of the biggest city in Southeastern Turkey and the city where I’m based, Diyarbakir, say, ‘we were once not even allowed to sit down at the dinner table. And look how far we have come now.’

Cancelling the marriage

Mayor Kilic is that development in person. As a 15 year old girl she was engaged to a 23 year old cousin, who started to ill-treat her immediately after the engagement. Cancelling the marriage was not an option, she remembers: ‘That wouldn’t be honorable, I was already fully aware of that.’ It turned out to be a hellish marriage that lasted eleven years. Berivan: ‘He beat me when I slept or when I was awake, when I was reading or listening to music, when I was eating or cooking. He took all the decisions. He said: ‘Only when I tell you to think, you think.”’
Time and again she escaped to her family, which sent her back to her husband every time. Until the last time, now six years ago. Berivan: ‘I gave my parents a choice: let me live in their house again, or accept that I would go my own way with my two sons. They saw I was serious. They took me in again.’

Co-mayor Berivan Kilic in ‘her’ town of Kocaköy, during the campaign for the general elections, May 2015. Photo: Mona van den Berg 

After the divorce, Kilic opened a hairdressing salon and a bridal shop in the town. She says: ‘It went well, I could re-pay the money I borrowed within one year. Then the party asked if I wanted to become politically active. They needed more women and they hoped that my going into politics would convince other women to join too. I immediately accepted. It is my way to do something for the women who are still with their abusive husbands.’ However, she stays realistic and says she can’t do much more than be an example.

It is almost twenty years ago now that Berivan got married. The marriage was arranged, she agreed to it without knowing what exactly she was agreeing to, and that was it. Her own mother married at age twelve. That’s how it went for centuries in the Southeast of Turkey, a long-time patriarchal society dominated by Kurdish clans.

Only a religious marriage

And the statistics prove that this society may be changing very quickly, but that old traditions and the invisibility of women have all but disappeared. Research by Haceteppe University in Turkey’s capital of Ankara shows that a third of the women in the west and southeast, roughly the Kurdish regions, have experienced domestic violence. Thirty percent of the women in these regions get married before turning 18.
Marrying before 18 has long been forbidden in Turkey, but sometimes the date of birth is fiddled with, or a couple first has only a religious marriage and a civil one only after their 18th birthday.

How can a society on the one hand be proud of its women who join the armed battle and on the other hand force 15 year olds to marry? And how do you keep your life in your own hands as a Kurdish woman?

‘Don’t marry’, is the secret of Zümeyran Bozdemir (28). She lives in Van, close to the Iranian border. She works in a men’s clothing shop six days a week and studies economy and English part-time. She studies after working hours and on her day off, and for exams she travels to the city where her university is, on Turkey’s north coast. ‘I fell in love once’, Zümeyran says, ‘but that relationship ended because I didn’t want to get married yet. First I wanted to stand on my own two feet. He didn’t want to wait.’ She doesn’t know if she’ll ever marry, and declares: ‘When you marry, your husband will define your life.’

Zümeyran Bozdemir at work in a shop in Van.  Photo: Mona van den Berg 

The contrast between Zümeyran’s life and that of her mother, Sinemperi (52), is enormous. Sinemperi married a twenty year old man when she was fourteen and gave birth to her first child a year later. In the evening, at the family’s home, Sinemperi says: ‘There were two big clans in our village and they intermarried. I didn’t know what was happening on my wedding day. But I was already a woman. That’s how it was perceived at the time: from age twelve you were adult.’

One of her own daughters wanted to get married at age seventeen, but Sinemperi didn’t give permission. ‘When you are a child’, she states, ‘you are not able to make an important decision like marriage. From twenty on, you can.’ This daughter, who is now almost thirty, eventually got married and has two children now. She is staying with her parents because she just gave birth, but she doesn’t want to be photographed. She says: ‘My husband doesn’t approve of it.’

The norm of one generation ago – marry before you’re sixteen – has become the exception now. There are unfortunately no statistics about child marriages one or two generations ago, but Hacettepe University in Ankara did the same research last year and in 2008. Now, one in three women in the East and Southeast have experienced domestic violence in her life, in 2008 this was 47%, a decline of 31%. Domestic violence experienced in the last twelve months also went down: from 14% in the east and 19% in the Southeast in 2008, to respectively 7% and 8% now, a decrease of fifty percent.
The numbers are especially interesting when you compare them to other regions that scored high on the domestic violence scale in 2008, like central Anatolia. There the percentage decreased more slowly, with 15% to 43%.

A few bags of grain

The defining difference is the political struggle which has been going on in the Kurdish regions for thirty years. It was Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), founded in 1978, who declared that Kurds can’t be free until the women are free – prompted by endless political-ideological discussions, but also by his experiences with his sister Havva, who was married off at a young age in exchange for, reportedly, ‘a few bags of grain and some money’. Besides stuggling for women’s emancipation, the PKK works against clan culture, which has lost a lot of influence ever since. What started as a small guerrilla group turned into a mass people’s movement, resulting in the ideas about women’s liberation reaching even the smallest villages.

The men sometimes complain, of course. Or, more accurately, they support the concept of ‘free women’ wholeheartedly, but preferably when it concerns women outside their own family. An acquaintance of mine, the young A., a PKK supporter, forbids his younger sister to leave the house for anything other than grocery shopping. She once opened up to me, said her brother got angry when she asked for a job as baby sitter so she could get out a little more often. He never beat her, she assured me, but he shouted sometimes. I talked about it with A., but in vain. It was for his sister’s own well being, he insisted.

Wall of disbelieve

In a suburb of Van a group of some twenty women get their reading and writing certificate. Driving force behind the classes, Zozan Özgökce (40) is there too – in less than a month, she will give birth to her first child.

Zozan has been struggling for women’s rights and against domestic violence for years, after she became a victim of domestic violence herself in her short lived marriage. Seventeen years ago she left her husband, and ran into a wall of disbelief from the women around her: ‘I shouldn’t be too dramatic about the abuse, they said, as domestic violence was so common. But when I started writing about women’s rights and violence in the local paper, more and more women knocked on my door for help.’

Zozan Özgökce, second from left, with the women who just completed their reading and writing course.  Photo: Mona van den Berg 

She opened a women’s shelter, which now doesn’t exist anymore due to the Van earthquake in 2011. But she still continues her work for abused women in the city where in the last two weeks three young women took their own lives. ‘The marriage season has started’, Zozan says, ‘and that’s always the time of the year when the suicide rate goes up. These young women don’t want to die, they don’t want to marry, but they have to. I call it murder, by the families who put such great pressure on their daughters.’  

Perceived as an exception 

Van is known as a city where the Kurdish movement is strong, but where traditions and clan culture still play a core role in society as well. Zozan broke away from that and has become a trail blazer: ‘I was one of the first in my area who divorced because of violence, after that more women followed. I studied, and now for girls from my village it’s not unusual anymore to finish your education. Still, I am often perceived as an exception, especially by men. They love it when I behave independently, but sometimes they tell me they would absolutely not accept it from their own wife or daughters.’

But Zozan is no exception, just as co-mayor Berivan Elif Kilic is no exception anymore as female mayor. Berivan’s ex husband couldn’t stomach it that she is now in the mayor’s chair, the seat that once belonged to his father. He snapped at her that it was a disgrace that she had this position now. ‘A disgrace?’ she answered. ‘I am really very comfortable here.’

(The Dutch version of this story was published in monthly feminist magazine Opzij, and can be read here.)

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