Women of Istanbul

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By Melis Figanmese

This article was originally posted on Huffington Post.

In order to provide Founder of Women One and UNICEF Ambassador, Dayle Haddon, with a true understanding of the situation of women in Turkey, Turkish Philanthropy Funds (TPF) felt it was essential to visit various cities throughout our vast, dynamic and diverse country. Each region of Turkey presents new issues for women in entirely different ways. Our first stop on our tour began in İstanbul, where the poverty gap is monumental. Dayle has continuously referred to İstanbul as a very “sophisticated” city with its historic culture and quality of food. But as we’ve seen, this level of sophistication varies enormously even within one city.

We met with an organization called Çağdaş Yaşamı Destekleme Derneği (ÇYDD), The Association for Supporting Contemporary Life, whose main initiative is to educate girls. Girls finishing secondary school leads to smaller, healthier families and higher wages. This relationship between a woman’s education and her family’s well-being is a common theme throughout all projects focused on gender equality.

ÇYDD introduced us to two university scholarship recipients, Burcu and Sibel during our meeting, both coming from different backgrounds. Sibel who shared her experience with us was very new to İstanbul’s vibrant, booming city. She explained her previous self as a shy, introvert who lacked essential social skills for a university setting upon her arrival from a southeastern, mountainous city. The city, from which she arrived, is not familiar with headstrong women like her. With high school participation for girls at only 28 percent, she already had to overcome great obstacles to bring her to İstanbul. After her introduction to ÇYDD, she was exposed to a world of women in the same situation as herself. Bright, driven women who were overwhelmed in a bustling new atmosphere. Not only was this organization able to financially lift any burdens and added stress from her life, they were able to open her up and allow her to become the go-getter she truly is. Now the head of a youth volunteer program, when we asked her where she saw herself in the future, she removed her glasses, sat up tall, pulled her dark curly hair behind her ears and said she aspires to become a politician, shaping Turkey’s policies to enable an atmosphere that celebrates and encourages the success of women.

We were also able to see what the result of withholding education from women in the long term looks like. During a separate meeting, we visited a type of shanty town in the outskirts of İstanbul. There, Anne Çoçuk Eğitim Vakfı (AÇEV), of Mother Child Education Foundation, welcomed us to tour their existing Women and Children Center. The location of this center is key, as it is in the same town as the largest bus terminal in İstanbul. Here, busses arrive from around the country, carrying entire families with all of their belongings, migrating from villages into the largest city in the country. Families will come for economic reasons and to improve their quality of lives but women are falling through the cracks. The women arriving from remote villages so often have received little to no formal education, mostly leaving them illiterate and unable to venture into town, even for their daily errands.

The Women and Children Center provides these women free education, literacy classes, mothering courses and child services. There was a course in the process of teaching women over 40 reading and writing skills at the second grade level. Sitting to Dayle’s left was a grandmother wearing a traditional headscarf, who eagerly opened her notebook and shared her work with us. With an innocent, giddy look on her face, she pointed to the sentences which she constructed and the words which she could read.

Dayle asked the group the most important thing they have gained from the course. Nermin, who had arrived late, raised her hand and first stated that the reason she was late coming to class was because she had been at the hospital. It was the first time she left her home by herself and was able to read signs on the street, take public transportation and complete her errands because she was now literate.

We wanted to know the root of the issue and understand why these women from around the country had no education whatsoever, but all of their answers were all too simple: girls have no right to an education. In Turkish, one woman said “Ayip! Kizlar okur mu?” (“It’s a dishonor! How would you ever expect a girl to study?”). Of course, these ideals are of their fathers. We learned their mothers tried all too hard to educate their daughters, but were unsuccessful. However, years later these women are, as one woman said “finally finding themselves.”

Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) believes that a majority of the obstacles women face could be overcome if women just had the knowledge of what their basic human rights are. Commonly, because women are isolated in homes, they are not exposed to other women or able to share each other’s experiences. They begin to believe the violence they experience in the home and the suppression of their opinions are only women’s problems. WWHR is attempting to combat this issue by providing free women’s rights courses to women in İstanbul and all around Turkey. These courses have been so effective, that their studies show that 60 percent of the women that complete the course are able to end violence in the home. Dayle and I joined this center in İstanbul and we sat in a very ‘sacred’ circle with these women. As we absorbed their stories of how this center was able to help them communicate with their husbands and children more effectively, we also heard them say how the courses literally saved their lives. As we all held hands in a very powerful circle, the women said aloud things they wished for after the course. One participant wished all women around the world could learn their rights, speak their voice and enjoy the same level of equality as she could now, after the course.

These women we visited through various TPF partner organizations are facing very similar issues that the rest of the country is encountering, but in a much different atmosphere. İstanbul’s fast-paced, mix of extreme wealth and extreme poor allow many women in need to go unnoticed. Smaller, rural cities have a much greater sense of community, enabling a level of transparency among women and families so women and girls have better access to reach out when in need.

Next stop, Trabzon. Read Trabzon here. 

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