By Andrea Alarcón
I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful country of Turkey for vacations. I loved Istanbul, the beautiful Cappadocia, stuffing my mouth with baklava, the music…. As I walked around the busy streets of Beyoğlu, I wished I could move to this magical place, so European, yet retaining an Arabesque tone in architecture, music, lifestyle…
and, oh yes, Islam.
Turkey is a nation of Muslim people without being a Muslim nation; it is therefore the most gender-equality prone in the Arab world. In the most touristy, “Western” parts of Istanbul, I saw occasional headscarves at the most. But the one day we ventured over to the Western district, the former Jewish and Christian ghetto and now a conservative and relatively poor area, I could only see Burkas. Women walked in the street only if clustered in groups or if going to the market. We also saw them standing outside a mosque while the men prayed inside, listening. The contrast between the two made an impression on me.
The Koran says women are worth half of a man. In many Muslim states that is, therefore, the law. We all know what comes with that: honor killings, forced marriages, weak rape laws… But Turkey is a state of secularism, and a state wishing with all its might to become part of the European Union. Many of us know the contributing factors that keep this from happening, but Turkey’s several human rights violations are the main obstacle impeding the country from gaining membership of the European Union.
42 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husband or partner, according to a study by a leading Turkish university. While the government can be credited with passing strong laws to protect women, these laws are rarely enforced, and additional protections are needed.
Apparently the country also ranks 126 among 134 countries in the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index; women also account for 80% of Turkey’s 5.7m illiterate people.
On the other hand, in the 1930s, Turkey became one of the first countries in the world to give full political rights to women, including the right to elect and be elected locally (in 1930) and nationwide (in 1934). Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution bans any discrimination, state or private, on the grounds of gender. Turkey elected a female prime minister, Tansu Çiller in 1995.
I read Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s Snow about a year ago, a story about a journalist sent to cover a suicide epidemic among teenage girls who didn’t want to take off their headscarves in the eastern city of Kars. The real-life epidemic actually took place in Batman. The main theme revolves around the conflict arising from secularism in a country of believers whose faith tells them state and religion are one.
Turkey is a land of contradictions. They wish to be western, European and secular, but their current administration is very conservative. They elect a woman to prime minister while still having an exorbitant rate of domestic violence. Are its people as European as their government wants? Is it a veil to try to give the best impression possible while the international community is watching?