ISTANBUL (WOMENSENEWS)– Sipping lemonade in the gardens of the French Cultural Center in Taksim, Guler Yildiz looks every inch a modern working woman.
The smooth manner of the Kurdish journalist for TV station IMC belies a rough career progression. Beaten and blacklisted for covering abuses by the state in the southern port city of Mersin, she has finally found freedom and appreciation in Istanbul.
Yildiz says Kurdish women who’ve come west to Turkey’s big cities, forced to migrate due to violence and oppression by Turkish special forces, are by necessity even more active than their counterparts in the east. “The state put their sons in jail, their husbands were tortured or killed,” she says. “So when they come here they’re more or less alone. They had to stand tall to protect the rest of their family, so step by step they began to engage in life and take part in the frontlines of politics.”
As they look ahead to the country’s Aug. 10 elections, these Kurdish women know the risks of not supporting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s historic effort to concretize his indomitable leadership status in the new post of president.
The Erdogan government and the Kurds have a budding rapprochement that could produce a ceasefire in the 30-year separatist war with Kurdish militants in the east and has already created a climate for Kurdish women to choose democratic and legal means of activism over guerilla warfare.
Nonetheless, the captivating politician for many is Selahattin Demirtas. He represents the first presidential nomination put forward by a Kurdish party and is running in the country’s first elections to be determined directly by voters and not parliament.
And for female supporters his rhetoric is remarkable. “The greatest shortcoming amongst the candidates is the lack of a woman candidate,” he has been quoted in the media as saying. “But our line will be the only one that defends the struggle of women for freedom, and the freedom and character of women will make its mark on this campaign.”
“We would, of course, like to have seen a female presidential candidate,” said Arife Cinar, with a twinkle in her eye. “There is still work to be done.”
Cinar is the new co-president of the Istanbul branch of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, a sister party to Demirtas’ Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP. Both parties offer a mainstream alternative for Kurdish political participation compared to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is listed internationally as a terrorist organization.
As a largely symbolic candidate Demirtas is unlikely to scupper relations with the government. But Demirtas will likely syphon off Kurds who, while sympathetic to Erdogan, like Demirtas’ platform, which explicitly includes all Turkish minorities, such as Alevi, Armenian and Syriac.
Erdogan and Demirtas also face Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the joint candidate of the two largest opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP.
Hoping to avoid a run-off, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has been courting the Kurdish vote, extending the current parliamentary session to discuss a bill that sets out a legal framework for peace talks with Kurdish militants.
Cinar smiles warily when asked if she thinks the prime minister’s overtures are genuine, and what a breakdown in peace talks might mean for female activists. “Of course, on principle we prefer the democratic way. But if the government goes back on their promises and if the conversation ends,” she shrugs, “we must go back to being armed.”
Women in the Kurdish-dominated east and southeast regions of Turkey are well known for their reputation as fierce fighters in the PKK, which has been waging war on the Turkish army since 1984 with the aim of Kurdish independence.
In the political sphere meanwhile, the HDP and BDP also welcome women. Both parties boast a strong record of female political representation and require all senior positions be shared between a man and a woman. Demirtas’ HDP upholds a 50- percent quota for female representatives. By contrast, the statistics for female mayoral and local assembly member candidates in the AKP, CHP and MHP are, respectively, 1.15 percent, 4.32 percent and 2.51 percent, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
Deniz Goksel sits on the board of trustees for the Rainbow Women’s Association in Istanbul, a women’s rights advocacy. As she sees it, the Kurdish women’s movement is leading the way for women’s rights as a whole in Turkey. “What ethnicity or race you carry with you is not important – the most important thing is freedom for all women,” she says.
While Kurdish parties offer a progressive model Goksel hastens to acknowledge plenty of gender inequities in Kurdish society. The co-representative partner system that applies to party ministers, for instance, should be mirrored family life, she says. “We need an end to the authoritative leadership of men. Husband and wife must be at the same level when it comes to managing family affairs.”
Domestic abuse, honor killings, suicides, forced marriages, discrimination and a lack of educational and employment opportunities still plague women in Istanbul and across the country. Statistics on Turkish women in general are notoriously unreliable; numbers on Kurdish women are even harder to come by.
Like so many Kurdish women, Cinar felt doubly marginalized growing up, discriminated against for being both female and Kurdish. Now she other Kurdish women think their presidential candidate wields a sword against both types of discrimination.
Deniz Gokalp, assistant professor of social sciences at the American University in Dubai, says Kurdish women are fighting both for themselves as women and for independence. “Turkish and Kurdish feminist movements have always nourished each other and collaborated quite often to demand gender equality in law and society, even at the times of ideological conflicts between them,” she said in an email.
Though Cinar’s BDP purports to be the peaceful wing of the Kurdish struggle, Abdullah Ocalan is ever-present, peering down from posters on the walls of the office in the Tarlabasi neighborhood where Cinar spoke with Women’s eNews.
Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the militant PKK, long insisted on gender equality in the military structure of the PKK.
That sense of responsibility trickles down to women such as Cinar, who is focusing more on political engagement. “Decisions in politics are always made from a man’s perspective,” she says of Turkey, “which results in laws that are extremely patriarchal. Change can only come from increased female representation in parliament.”
Catherine Tsalikis is spending a summer reporting from Istanbul, having previously worked in London and Toronto.