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March 8 in Turkey: 18 women you should know

These women have had a lasting impact on politics, culture and society in Turkey. A feminist canon compiled by taz.gazete.

Duygu Asena, Semiha Berksoy, Zabel Yesayan, Pınar Selek, Bülent Ersoy, Validan Kışanak, Demet Demir, Nevin Yıldırım Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

The history of Turkey is full of women who have had a lasting impact on the country's politics, culture and society. As everywhere in patriarchal structures, however, they are often not seen or forgotten. On the occasion of the women's fight day on March 8th, taz.gazete introduces 18 women that everyone should know. A selection.

Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943)

The Istanbul writer, journalist and translator published her first article in the Armenian magazine in 1895 Dzağig (Flower). It was then that the first massacres of Ottoman Armenians took place, which is why she went to Paris in the same year and studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne University and the Collège de France. Zabel Yesayan was the first Armenian woman in the Ottoman Empire to study.

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

On April 24, 1915, the day the Armenian intellectuals were picked up and sent to their deaths, she got away while hiding in a hospital. She first went to Bulgaria, then to Baku, where she joined the relief efforts for Armenian refugees and orphans. In 1921 she went to Paris again. At the invitation of the Armenian government, she moved to Yerevan in 1933. She taught literature at the Yerevan State University. In 1937 she was arrested in the course of the Stalinist "purges" and deported to Siberia. When and where exactly she died is not known. Her novels and other books are published in Turkish by Aras-Verlag.

Behice Boran (1910-1987)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

Anyone who studies the history of the left movement before 1980 finds that almost all facets of the movement were shaped by men. Behice Boran alone stands out as an unmistakably strong female figure. The politician, sociologist and author worked for many years as a teacher in Anatolia. She oriented her whole life according to her political views. In the early 1940s she joined the then banned Communist Party of Turkey (TKP). She lost her position as an associate professor at Ankara University and was sent to prison in 1950 on charges of protesting the Korean War.

As a member of the Turkish Workers' Party (TiP), she made the voice of socialism heard in parliament for the first time between 1965 and 1969. Even later, when she represented Turkey in the European Parliament, during her repeated imprisonment and as a political refugee after the military coup in 1980 in Bulgarian, German and Belgian exile - she never abandoned a revolutionary life. Boran died in exile in Brussels. She was a woman who helped shape the early phase of the left movement in Turkey.

Bülent Ersoy (born 1952)

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

Bülent Ersoy is the first trans woman to make it into the Turkish public. Ersoy, who is one of the most popular singers in Turkey today, began her career in the seventies. Their first record was released in 1971, and Ersoy began performing live, for example in the legendary Maksim Gazinosu on Taksim Square. At an appearance in Izmir in the summer of 1980, which can be read as Ersoy's nationwide coming-out, she exposed her new silicone breasts. The public prosecutor's office was investigating her for "immoral behavior". Ersoy then berated the judge and was arrested. She was detained for 19 days.

With the military coup in the fall of 1980, transsexuality was banned in Turkey and Ersoy, who is affectionately called “Diva” by her fans, was no longer allowed to perform by law. In 1981 she went to London and underwent gender reassignment surgery. She later moved to Germany, where she lived in exile for eight years. During this time Ersoy gave concerts all over the world. She returned to Turkey in 1988 and helped pass a law allowing gender reassignment. The law is also known as the “Bülent Ersoy Law”.

With her incomparable vocal power, her glamorous costumes, her ever younger husbands, her public arguments and her controversial statements, Bülent Ersoy has been one of the most discussed celebrities in the Turkish media since the 1980s.

Gülriz Sururi (1929 - 2018)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

The theater icon Gülriz Sururi appeared on stage for the first time at the age of 13. Her passion for the theater accompanied her all her life. Born the daughter of a prima donna, she studied singing and acting at the conservatory. Sururi was ahead of her time; in her memoirs she openly writes about abortions, affairs and her unhappy childhood. "First you have to love yourself and then others," was her motto. In an interview, she said she wanted to squeeze life like a lemon. In general, she always only did what she wanted. She attributes this to the fact that she could not live her childhood: her mother died when Sururi was two years old.

In 1962 she founded the Gülriz Sururi-Engin Cezzar Theater with her husband, where she played leading roles in the plays and directed. In 1966 she was named "Woman of the Year" by the Turkish Women's Association. Sururi and her husband were in contact with many important intellectuals and artists of their time and were close friends with the American writer James Baldwin, who lived in Istanbul for ten years in the 1960s. The actress never let herself be bent: in the eighties, she signed an open letter in which intellectuals denounced the military regime, she spoke out against the war in Afrin and posted a photo in a bikini every year until shortly before her death at the age of 90 social media.

Pınar Selek (born 1971)

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

Pınar Selek's story is reminiscent of a novel by Franz Kafka. The protagonist is charged, but is not aware of any guilt. The Istanbul sociologist and writer Selek knows the novel. She once told the taz: "I feel like I have been in Kafka's 'trial'". In 1998, seven people were killed in an explosion in the Egyptian market in Istanbul. Selek, then 26 years old, was arrested two days later. She was accused of perpetrating the attack for the PKK. She spent two and a half years in prison, then was released. She reported torture.

An expert opinion later showed that the explosion had occurred because of a damaged gas pipeline, but Selek was acquitted four times and the verdict was overturned by a higher court four times. Today the case lies with the Supreme Court. Selek has lived in exile since 2009.

Selek published papers on the problems of homosexuals, the living conditions of street children and violence against trans people. In “Barışamadık” (“We Couldn't Make Peace”) she deals with patriarchal, military and social violence in Turkey. For "Sürüne Sürüne Erkek Olmak" ("Cuddled into a man. Drilled into a man. Male identities") she interviewed over 50 men about their experiences in compulsory military service. The result: an analysis of “becoming a man” in Turkey and the important role that a strong, militaristic state plays in this.

Konca Kuriş (1961-1998)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

Is the word headscarf actually in the Koran? Why should men and women pray separately? Isn't it high time to make Islam contemporary? Konca Kuriş was preoccupied with these questions for her short life, only 38 years. Because it was always men who translated and interpreted the Islamic scriptures. In order for the men to continue their supremacy, the woman was not allowed to become free.

Kuriş came from a democratic family, at 15 she married without the consent of her family and moved into conservative circles with the marriage. Their experiences in a sect led them to question the prevailing structures. Kuriş found her own truth: there is no need for mediation to come to God. In the 1990s, when religious orders were gaining strength in Turkey, she argued over Islam as a feminist wearing a headscarf. She wrote articles and appeared on television. It was the time when pious women began to shake hands with men and become visibly active in society.

The sects did not like it at all that women influenced by Kuriş started to organize themselves at home. She received numerous threats. In 1998 she was kidnapped by fanatics and brutally murdered. With her ideas and ideals, she continues to inspire conservative women to stand up for their rights in Erdoğan's increasingly Islamic Turkey.

Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek (1893-1964)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

The Circassian women's rights activist founded one of the first feminist women's magazines in the Ottoman Empire in 1913 at the age of 20. At Kadınlar Dünyası only female employees and mainly journalists worked. “I've thought a lot about how we can change our submissive and useless lives. I knew that we had to develop a modern personality in order to get ahead in society. During this time of departure (...) I decided to publish a magazine that encourages women to take the necessary steps to move forward, ”writes Civelek in 1913 in Kadınlar Dünyası.

A month after the magazine was published, she founded the Ottoman Society for the Defense of Women's Rights, the country's first women's rights organization. Their aim was to improve educational opportunities for women and their access to professions. Civelek also advocated equal wages and equal rights in marriage. She was married three times. She divorced her second husband in 1927 - a difficult decision at a time when women were under great pressure from social conventions. After her death, the city library in her last place of residence, Kırıkhan, was named after the women's rights activist.

Hasbiye Günaçtı (born 1959)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

The nurse Hasbiye Günaçtı was early active in the LGBTI organization Lambda Istanbul, from 2008 she switched to the feminist movement and became a member of the socialist-feminist collective. She campaigns for the rights of lesbians and bisexual women. Her answer to the question frequently asked by homosexual women, “Which man treated you badly to make you this way?” Is: “If that were the reason, all women would have to be lesbian!” Her trademark is purple, the color of feminism; she always wears them as an accessory or as hair color.

Günaçtı became known in Turkey when she brought a woman who had been abused on the street with her toddler into her car and removed the violent man from the scene. While she was helping the distressed woman, the man asked her: “Who are you?” Her answer stuck in the collective memory: “I am this woman's sister.” Hasbiye Günaçtı gives workshops on the subject in various feminist and LGBTI associations female sexuality.

Sevgi Soysal (1936-1976)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

The writer Sevgi Soysal studied archeology and theater studies in Ankara and Göttingen. Soysal worked in the cultural center of the German embassy, ​​Ankara Radio, the Turkish state television TRT and wrote for various newspapers. In the sixties and seventies she published several novels in which she observed and questioned political upheavals as well as social norms and milieus of the time with black humor.

“We have to open new doors, wrong doors, right doors, but we have to open them, the main thing is to open them,” she writes in her 1970 novel “Yürumik” (“To Go”). Her novel “Tante Rosa”, published in 1968, is considered a feminist classic; the book is about a Bavarian Catholic who emancipates herself from paternalistic structures. The character Aunt Rosa is inspired by Soysal's Aunt Rosel, the sister of her German mother.

Soysal experienced political and personal setbacks in the 1970s. After the 1971 military coup, she was imprisoned for several months for membership in a left-wing organization and lost her job with the TRT. Her novel “Yürümek”, which deals with gender relations and marriage, was censored because of profanity. She was detained a second time for eight months for political reasons and developed breast cancer. For her novel “Yenişehir'de Bir Öğle Vakti” (“Lunchtime in Yenişehir”) she was awarded the renowned Orhan Kemal Prize in 1974. Soysal died in 1976 at the age of 40 before she could finish her last novel "Hoşgeldin Ölüm" ("Welcome Death").

Nezihe Muhiddin (1889-1958)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

The pioneer of Ottoman feminism is considered to be one of the founders of the Turkish women's movement. Muhiddin was general secretary of the Ottoman Union for the Protection of Women. During the transition to the republic, she continued to campaign for women's rights and co-founded the party for women's rights, the most important feminist initiative at the time. On June 15, 1923, the women-only party published a 27-point founding program.

However, the party was not admitted because it was considered too radical. The newspapers made fun of Muhiddin's commitment at the time: “Eva's daughters want to go to parliament to debate the current coat fashion.” Muhiddin and her colleagues changed some paragraphs of their statutes and founded the Turkish Women's Union (TKB) in 1924.

Both the person Nezihe Muhiddin and the role she played in the introduction of active and passive women's suffrage in 1934 were increasingly forgotten in the political history of Turkey. On February 10, 1958, she died alone in a mental hospital in Istanbul.

Validan Kışanak (born 1961)

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

The politician Validan Kışanak had to go to prison as a student because of her political opinions. It was the time of the military coup in 1980. The methods of torture then widespread in Diyarbakır prison prompted some to subsequently join the Kurdish PKK guerrillas, while they opted for journalism. Then she went into politics and was elected to parliament.

As a Kurd, she was committed to democracy in Turkey; as a woman, she primarily targeted the male-dominated sentiments within the Kurdish movement. She was always aware that she was privileged because of her political position. She saw that the men who “carried them on their hands” behaved very differently towards their own wives and daughters-in-law: “Where this is not recognized as a woman, elite thinking begins in politics. The next step is then to become a politician 'like a man'. "

In 2014, Kışanak ran for mayor in Diyarbakır and was elected. "The fact that a woman who has gone to prison in Diyarbakır is elected co-mayor here 34 years later is a historic revenge," she said after the election. Unfortunately, the revenge came soon afterwards: When the peace talks ended and the pressure on the HDP increased, an administrator was appointed for Diyarbakır. And Kışanak was sentenced to 14 years in prison. In the indictment, she was charged, among other things, with a press statement on the Day against the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Kışanak has been in the Kocaeli prison since October 2016, where she wrote a book with which she gives her and other politicians a voice: “The male-dominated system wants us to pay for the struggle that we are fighting for a democratic, free future lead in which women also live with equal rights. "

Duygu Asena (1946-2006)

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

A week after the Adana earthquake on June 27, 1998, in which 145 people were killed and over 1,500 injured, Duygu Asena put his hands on the desk in the Istanbul editorial office of the monthly women's magazine KIM and paused. She had just got back from Adana.“The men sit in coffeehouses and pubs, while the women do housework and raise children. That's why women mostly died in the earthquake, "she said.

Asena was one of the women who did away with taboos in Turkey. She was a feminist activist and that shaped her identity as a journalist and writer. In her books she appealed to women: “You are first and foremost individuals, your body is yours”. She was one of those women who inspired the women's movement in Turkey. In her book “The woman has no name” she analyzed the social conditions and relationships with fathers, friends, husbands and male bosses and used it to show the difficulties women have to struggle with from childhood. In 1988 the book was banned by a court for allegedly pornographic elements. It appeared in 40 editions. That was a record.

Cumartesi Anneleri

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

Since 1995, relatives of disappeared people have met every Saturday in the central Galatasaray Square in Istanbul to protest for education and justice. In 1999 they suspended the meetings due to increasing police violence, and have continued since 2009. When the “Cumartesi Anneleri”, the “Saturday Mothers”, wanted to meet for the 700th time in August 2018, the Turkish Ministry of the Interior issued a meeting ban. The relatives came to the square anyway and were attacked by the police with tear gas and plastic bullets. 47 relatives were arrested. Since that incident, they no longer meet in Galatasaray Square, but in front of the Istanbul office of the human rights organization IHD.

The 82-year-old Emine Ocak is the mother of Hasan Ocak, who disappeared in police custody in 1995 and whose body was found after severe torture. Emine Ocak had already been arrested in 1997 and was dragged into a police car again eleven years later. In 1997 the journalist and today's HDP MP Ahmet Şık photographed her when she was arrested. The photo became the symbol of Saturday mothers.

Aysel Gürel (1929-2008)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

Pink hair, pink glasses, red lipstick - Aysel Gürel made no compromises when it came to her identity and her view of life. She was a literature teacher, theater actress, poet and songwriter. Her lyrics have been interpreted by famous singers. Some texts were also critical. Her song Ünzile is about the forced marriage of a child. Gürel's estate contained over 20,000 song lyrics.

“The colorful personality was her life costume,” said her daughter, the well-known actress Müjde Ar, about Gürel: “My mother was known everywhere for her pink hair. I asked her afterwards: 'What is this costume, this wig, this walking around in the négligé?' She replied: 'This is the costume with which I make society listen to me. If I had said what I have to say in the usual women's costume with a bun and intellectual glasses, the crowd would have worn me out. But that's how I made my words heard in society. "

Nevin Yıldırım (born 1986)

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

Nevin Yıldırım, then 26, hit the headlines in 2012 when she shot and killed Nurettin Gider, 35, who repeatedly raped her and threatened her with a gun. Although everyone in Yıldırım's village of Koruyaka in Isparta Province knew about the rape, no one intervened. Yıldırım was sentenced to life imprisonment. The fact that neither self-defense nor good conduct were taken into account in the proceedings against them - which is often a reason for low prison sentences in the case of male sex offenders - generated indignant reactions from the Turkish public.

As a result of the rape, Nevin Yıldırım became pregnant. She asked to be allowed to have an abortion. But the legal deadline had expired and she was denied an abortion. In 2015, feminist artists painted their portraits on white sheets and hung them in the streets of Istanbul. Yıldırım's portrait with the slogan “Nevin look at you, it stays on after washing” became a symbol of women who oppose male violence during feminist protests.

Semiha Berksoy (1910-2004)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

“There is something that pulls my soul along and becomes a flame in me, that is the love of art. I want you to know that, and when I die, the cypress trees on my grave will sing of it. ”That was the reply of 18-year-old Semiha Berksoy to the letter in which her father tried to persuade her to drop out of her conservatory education. Berksoy was an opera singer, stage actress, painter, writer. In 1934 she played as a soprano in the first Turkish opera "Özsoy".

With a state scholarship, she came to the opera department of the State Music Academy in Berlin and graduated as the best. Berksoy was the first Turkish prima donna to appear on a European stage. She enjoyed enormous fame in Berlin, but never thought of staying in Europe permanently. Her daughter Zeliha Berksoy explained it this way: “You were committed to the Turkish Republic. She wanted to be of use to her country. She was a woman who had submitted to the command of the people. "

From 1961 Berksoy devoted himself increasingly to painting, her paintings were exhibited in Turkey and around the world. At that time she was also awarded the title of "State Artist". According to her daughter, she died in 2014 with the words: "Farewell, beautiful world, hello universe."

Demet Demir (born 1961)

Illustration: Zeynep Özatalay

Demet Demir is a trans activist who has been advocating the rights of trans people since the 1980s and a pioneer of the LGBTI movement in Turkey. In 1982 she was arrested on political grounds and served eight months in prison. Amnesty International Turkey has named Demir the first person in Turkish history to be imprisoned for their gender identity and attitudes. In 1985 and 1986 trans women and homosexual men were tortured and raped by police officers and soldiers, put on trains and exiled to Eskişehir. Demet Demir was one of them.

She was also actively involved in promoting Lubunca, a trans slang that arose out of the need to disguise conversations around sex work. Together with friends, Demet wrote a Lubunca dictionary that contains more than 400 words.

In 1997 she was the first trans woman in the USA to be awarded the Felipa de Souza Human Rights Prize. In 1998 she officially assumed the female identity. She was the first trans candidate in the 1999 local elections and ran as a member of the parliamentary elections in 2007. Demir has lived with her street cats for around 35 years in the Ülker Sokak in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district, where she began to fight for the rights of trans women in the 1980s.

Ümmiye Koçak (born 1957)

Illustration: Pınar Ergün

Ümmiye Koçak was born the sixth of ten children in a family in a village in Adana Province. She filled the role that life in a poor village ascribed to her, but at the same time read every book she could get her hands on. When she was 13, she started writing stories. She later raised her children and did the housework, but never forgot to read and write.

At 44, she founded a women's theater group in the village. Everything she had learned from literature and the theater, she mobilized for the liberation of women. Her 15 plays about the life of rural women have been performed 20,000 times, she has participated in festivals and has appeared as an educator on television programs. In 2013 she received the award for the best female artist at the Eurasian Film Festival in New York. Her life, according to Koçak's own words, is the story of a woman “who makes her own toys, lets her thoughts flow freely and is free”.