Nebahat Akkoc

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–A large arch painted in bright, rainbow colors marks the entrance to
Ka-Mer, a women’s center in this southeastern Turkish city. A short walkway leads to a shaded verandah where, from a restaurant inside, tea and food are served to people escaping a blazing sun that is oppressive even in early fall.

The restaurant–whose income helps support the center’s work–has coral-painted walls and simple wood furniture, which help make the placefeel like a cheery yet tranquil refuge from the heat and dust.

For Nebahat Akkoc, Ka-Mer’s 49-year-old founder, this is exactly the kind of environment she wants for the center, which, among other things, offers courses that teach women about their economic and social rights and runs a hotline for abused women. In this economically depressed and socially conservative area–a predominantly Kurdish region where, according to the United Nations, an estimated 58 percent of women have been the victims of physical abuse and where an estimated 55 percent of them are illiterate–
Ka-Mer has truly become an oasis.

Nothing about the place, though, gives any indication of the violence Akkoc faced that led her to found the center in 1997. Four years before, Akkoc’s husband, Zubeyir, a teacher and union activist, was shot dead, the identity of his killers never discovered. He was murdered as Kurdish separatists were fighting a guerilla war with the Turkish authorities and many Diyarbakir locals believe that Akkoc’s husband–an advocate for Kurdish rights–was killed by Turkish paramilitary forces. The Turkish government has denied any connection to his death.

After her husband’s murder, Akkoc, a primary school teacher at the time, became more active in the human rights field. She was soon arrested herself and tortured by the Turkish police. It was at that point, Akkoc says, that she found the inspiration for Ka-Mer.

“After this torture and during the torture, I realized that this is a cycle of violence, that perhaps the policemen doing the torture saw violence in their own family and because of that are committing this torture,” Akkoc, who has short brown hair with blond highlights and a smoker’s rasp in her voice, says while sitting at one of the tables in the center’s restaurant.

“I realized then that I need to do something against violence,” she says.

Violence Pervasive, But Nowhere to Go

Through research she conducted before opening the center, Akkoc says she realized that violence against women in her region was pervasive but that women had no place to go to for help. The first thing she did was set up an emergency help line women could call for counseling and advice, the first such service for women in Turkey’s Southeast region. Soon after that she started offering a consciousness-raising course that has become the cornerstone of Ka-Mer’s work.

The course brings together a group of some 20 women for a 10 week period, covering topics most of the women had never been allowed to discuss. A new course begins every 10 weeks, with many of the women coming to the program through word of mouth.

“We explain to them how society defines gender roles, about sexual discrimination, about their economic rights,” Akkoc says. “Sexuality is a taboo subject in our religion and in our area,” she adds. “Ninety percent of the women who join our program tell us it’s the first time they are speaking about this subject.”

Naima Kardas, 37, came to Ka-Mer in 1998 after she heard about the center from friends. “I never saw any beatings from my husband, but I understood that I was under psychological abuse from him and I understood that I was doing the same to my child,” says Kardas, who today is project director of a new project Ka-Mer has launched to battle the pervasive practice of honor killings in the region. “If you ask me if I got any benefits from this course, it would be that I stopped this abuse against my child.”

“I can now speak to my husband as someone who knows her rights. I am working as a project director, not just staying at home,” she adds.

To date, some 2,000 women have taken Ka-Mer’s course, making the center a Diyarbakir institution in a city with a population close to one million. Still, Akkoc says, Ka-Mer was not welcomed when it first opened its doors. Local authorities, concerned about what the center might teach, initially pressured her to close down. Soon that pressure turned to something more ominous, with Akkoc and her associates receiving death threats.

“Today I’m laughing about it,” Akkoc says with a smile, “but it was scary then. We were scared for our lives.”

Akkoc and Ka-Mer have come a long way from those early, scary days. As more women passed through the center’s doors, it became clear it was there to stay and many of the threats subsided. The center has been so successful, in fact, that Akkoc has been able to open branches in three other cities in Turkey’s Southeast and plans to open three more in the near future. In the Turkish non-profit world, Ka-Mer is widely regarded as one of the country’s leading organizations.

“She’s focused on the grass roots level. She’s much more practical than a lot of other people working on women’s issues in Turkey. I think a lot of people could learn from her,” says Tara Hopkins, coordinator of the Civic Involvement Project, a civil society development program at Istanbul’s Sabanci University that has worked jointly with Ka-Mer.

“The work she’s doing is very forward thinking,” says Hopkins.

A Business Model

One of the unique aspects of Ka-Mer is that it generates part of its income through the restaurant, which serves home-style Kurdish dishes, and a kindergarten it runs in the center. Together, the two enterprises provide close to 20 percent of Ka-Mer’s income (the rest comes from foundation grants).

Economic self-sufficiency is something Akkoc stresses to the women who take the center’s courses. Women who take the courses are urged to develop an idea for a business and are offered low-interest loans that range from $2,000 to $7,000 to put their idea into action. Course graduates have opened restaurants, a gift box shop and other small businesses. One group is currently planning to open a bakery, another a greenhouse to grow vegetables.

With the new honor killings project, Akkoc is taking another step towards challenging ingrained local tradition. Akkoc launched the project last year, alarmed by the number of cases she heard about of young women killed by their families because of their perceived immoral behavior. There is now a hotline for women who feel like their lives are in danger to call, while Ka-Mer is offering direct assistance to 16 women who are in danger of being killed, offering them shelter and medical care if needed. As part of the project, Ka-Mer staff is meeting with the women’s relatives, trying to persuade them that honor killing is a tradition that needs to be left behind.

It’s an uphill battle, Akkoc admits, but it’s no different from the other struggles she has already won.

“In the beginning, people reacted to [Ka-Mer] like it was totally alien,” Akkoc, looking around the restaurant, says. “People said that we were feminists, and that feminists equaled prostitution. But right now, people understand that feminism equals defending women’s human rights. We’ve taught them.”

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

For more information:

Nebahat Akkoc:

BIA net–“Allak, who was Stoned to Death, was Buried”
(Article on Ka-Mer’s work with honor killings):