Posted 12 June 2011, by Alison Kenny, Today’s Zaman, todayszaman.com
If you are interested in the evolving role of women in Turkish society, then the very readable “Porcelain Moon and Pomegranates: A Woman’s Trek Through Turkey,” published in 2007, makes a great starting point.
To the outsider at least, the status of women in Turkey is both ambiguous and controversial. Ataturk’s reforms of the 1920s gave Turkish women rights unimaginable for their Ottoman-era predecessors, with Turkish women able to vote in parliamentary elections in 1934 and stand for election in 1935. In the 1937 elections 18 of the 550 members elected were women. However, in the last elections in 2007, there were still only 50 women elected, less than 10 percent of the total. Many other reforms have taken place in the same period that have given women parity with men – equal pay, equal rights to education and equal rights to inheritance, amongst others. On the surface at least, despite the less than impressive growth in the numbers of female deputies in the Turkish Parliament, Turkish women have achieved equality with their men-folk. But, as Üstün Bilgen Reinart’s fascinating book reveals, inequalities between men and women persist. How many working women here, for example, still give up their careers to become mothers and housewives? Even when married women with children continue to work full-time, how many of their husbands men cook, clean or look after their children?
Üstün Bilgen Reinart
Born in 1947, Üstün attended school in Ankara, after which she moved to Canada where she studied literature and sociology at the University of Winnipeg. Following her graduation she began working as a researcher, broadcaster and then as a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She has published two other books: In 1995 she co-authored a book titled “Night Spirits,” about the effects of the forced move of an aboriginal community to an urban environment; in her second book “We Know the Land,” published in 2003, she describes how 10 villages around Bergama, in western Turkey, battled against the gold mining industry, which was threatening both the lifestyle and the environment of the local people. After 30 years abroad, Üstün decided to move back to Turkey with her husband, and she currently teaches English at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.
‘Porcelain Moon and Pomegranates’
This book is a cleverly crafted blend of personal memoir and travel literature through which she discusses a wide-ranging set of issues affecting contemporary Turkey, including the Kurdish conflict, the controversial GAP project and the conflict between the secular and the religious in Turkey. In particular, however, she focuses on the role of women in Turkish society. For her research she travels from the Aegean coast to Diyarbakır and Doğubeyazit in the east and from İstanbul to Antalya in the south in order to both observe and to interview people from all walks of life. Üstün is able to write from the perspective of a Turk, but as she has lived much of her life outside her native land, she is able to view Turkey more objectively than someone who has never lived in another country.
Anatolian earth mothers
To set the scene and introduce the history of women in Turkey, Üstün begins with a chapter in which she explores the myths of the mother earth goddess – Kubaba, Wurushema or Cybele, mountain mother. She interviews authors and archaeologists and visits Çatalhüyük near Konya, which was one of the largest Neolithic settlements in the world. From this site many examples of figurines of mainly plump women with “large bellies, big hips and pendulous breasts” have been found and examined. Whether society at Çatalhüyük was matriarchal or not is inconclusive, but Üstün believes that at the very least men and women existed on an equal footing there. During her visit to this world-famous site she focuses as much on the role of the local women who help the multi-national archeological team in their work as the dig itself. Twenty-four year old Mavili, for example, was so empowered by her new-found role that it “allowed her to do something bold and dangerous for an Anatolian village woman: divorce an abusive husband and set herself and her nine year old son free.”
Continuing her quest to find out more about the role women have played in Anatolia through the millennia, Üstün moves on to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. Here she traces the way women were portrayed in the Bronze Age, when the figurines of women were thinner and more angular in shape than those at Neolithic Çatalhüyük, but nevertheless still represented fecundity. Her research then takes her to Hattuşas, the capital of the Hittite Empire, where she explores the relationship between Hittites and Hattis and the links between the ancient goddess figures. She visits the temple of Pessinus, the city of Midas and the Artemision at Ephesus where she draws comparisons between the noisy, frenzied worship of Artemis with that of Cybele and sees the way the ancient Greek goddess becomes synchronized with the native Anatolian goddess. In conclusion, she finds that 7,000 years of “unbroken worship of a Mother Goddess on Anatolian soil and in the Middle East is now pushed beyond memory.” This contrasts sharply with today’s society in which “a paternal god rules supreme and deems femaleness sinful.” This theme flows through the rest of the book.
Women against gold
In the chapters dealing with the Kurdish issue in southeastern Turkey and the gold mining industry in Bergama, the author’s Turkish nationality and fluent Turkish allow her insights into the lives of local women that a foreigner would struggle to obtain. Visiting Kurdish families in Diyarbakır, Doğubeyazit and Antalya, she hears of the bravery of the surviving female members of families, who are left to bring up their children after the deaths of husbands, fathers and brothers and have been reduced to living in the squalid squatter neighborhoods of these towns. The poverty and hardship endured by these women is a testimony to their resilience and strength. Near the Aegean coast, Üstün meets women involved in the battle against the gold mines, a large-scale mining operation that threatens the traditional way of life of the locals. Worse, the use of sodium cyanide to extract the gold poisons the soil and poses a real danger to the health of the local villagers and their children. Here Üstün finds that the women have played a major part in the struggle. In the words of one, Gülizar Umaç: “Before the struggle you never saw a woman’s face in these villages. We wore draping covers all the time. We used to ask our husbands for permission even to visit our sisters. But during the resistance, a time came when a knock at the window meant the woman had to go. When that time came, no husband asked his wife where she was going. Women gained confidence and freedom. We stopped using our headscarves because they got in the way. Now women walk in the front. We lead the way in demonstrations and protest actions.” The mining continues despite the protests.
The remaining chapters deal with an investigation into her own family’s secrets, in which she uncovers the fact that her maternal grandmother was a Greek Christian who converted to Islam in order to marry. Later Üstün discusses the headscarf issue and in particular the dilemma she faces when one of her students turns up to class wearing the “controversial” headgear. A powerful advocate of a woman’s right to education, she nonetheless feels obliged to report the girl to the university authorities and consequently never sees her student again. Perhaps the most poignant chapters deal with honor killings and the lives of prostitutes. In “Sacred Women” she tries hard to reconcile the positive perceptions of women in prehistoric and ancient times with the way some contemporary women are viewed as objects and are reduced to selling sex for money. She is not permitted access to any of the state-controlled brothels in Ankara but is able to meet and talk to some prostitutes in the municipal hospital which they visit for regular check-ups. In all cases, their stories of entering their occupation are of escaping forced marriages and poverty. They view their work as a useful profession, but one in which they live in a permanent state of fear and shame.
In “Deadly Honour” she explores the forces that lie behind the so called “honor killings” of women who have brought shame on the family through their behavior. For men, their sense of honor depends to a large extent on “the sexual behavior of his women: his daughters’ and sisters’ virginity before marriage and their (and his wife’s) absolute fidelity after marriage. Even a rumored or suspected breach of sexual purity is cause for tremendous shame. To erase the shame, the woman is killed.” Üstün suggests that Anatolia’s modernization, urbanization and access to Western images on TV and in the press have led to an increase in the tensions between women and men, with the men falling back on the one area of their lives they are still able to control – their women.
Üstün bases her narrative on personal experience, conversations with men and women from all walks of life, and comprehensive background reading. While trying not to be too judgmental, she attempts to raise and answer the questions that will help expat woman living here understand a little more about the role of women in Turkish society.