Monday, October 8, 2007

Protection: The New Turkish Constitution

The Turkish Parliament is toiling away in secrecy drafting a new Turkish constitution to replace the one created by the military following a coup in 1980. Naturally, the AKP sees this as a chance to lift the headscarf ban (in the interest of preserving secularity in Turkey, women are forbidden from wearing religious headgear in schools, universities, and other public institutions), causing a great deal of media and public outcry. It's as though poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, institutional corruption, and outdated, low-quality, overcrowded schools and hospitals (among other things) don't exist at all for all the importance this headscarf issue is receiving. Whether or not women can wear headscarves is largely symbolic, but at the same time, a highly emotional and divisive topic for Turkish people.

But I'll leave the headscarf issue for another post. Frankly, I'm quite sick of it at the moment, and, like many foreigners, I fail to see what the big deal is. A far more important issue in the proposed draft of the constitution is to eliminate Article 10, the clause guaranteeing equality for women (added in 2002 after a long struggle from women's groups), and instead include women with children, the elderly and the infirm as vulnerable people needing "protected" status (read more about this here and here). Legally, I'm not entirely sure what this means, but alarmist warnings claim that this can mean, for example, that a woman would need a man's written permission to work, drive a car, or open a bank account.

Shortly before I got married, I was chatting with a female co-worker about the impending nuptials. She said, "Won't it be nice to have a man to take care of you?" This threw me. A man to take care of me? What did she mean by this, exactly? Who was taking care of whom? At that time, I was earning three times the amount of money my husband was. Getting him to participate in even the smallest bit of housekeeping was already a battleground, as his mother had been like a magic fairy his whole life and it had never occurred to him how dirty cups made it into the kitchen to become clean cups. Despite working full time, I also kept the house clean, washed his clothes, and made his food. Now that I'm not working, these responsibilities fall even more squarely on my shoulders, though it's much better after getting a cleaning woman. If I don't put his socks or pajamas into the laundry, BE will wear them for weeks on end, apparently enjoying the smell, much like a dog who has rolled in something unpleasant. If I left my husband alone in the house, within a week he would be wandering around wondering where all of his clean underwear was, and within two weeks, he likely would be dead from starvation. That is, unless he went to his mother because without a woman around, he's pretty much helpless. After three years of marriage, he's almost learned how to make pasta by himself.

I'm going somewhere with this anecdote, bear with me. I asked the co-worker what she meant by needing a man to take care of me, and it turns out she was talking about something completely different. In Turkey, regardless of their current legal status, women are very much culturally considered vulnerable and in need of protection. Women do go out alone (in Istanbul, at least), but going out alone at night, even with a group of other women, is frowned upon and considered very dangerous. Women out alone can expect catcalling, and being followed, groped, or otherwise harassed, and generally, most people will think it is their own fault for going out without a man. When I got married, I felt like I had a sudden change in status in that men rarely bothered me when I was alone (because of the ring on my finger), and when I was out with my husband, men stopped even looking at me or talking to me directly, including waiters, shopkeepers, and even some of my husband's friends, as this would constitute an affront to my husband. At the same time, at 32 years old and after living here on my own for two years going wherever I wanted, drinking and dancing and doing whatever the hell I felt like (not to mention having come to Turkey by myself and finding housing and a job, and having lived independently since I was about 21, and having seen much more of the world on my own than my husband ever will), I suddenly had to fight my husband to go out with friends at night without him, as he didn't want to be seen as the kind of guy who let his wife go out without him. In his mind, this would make him some sort of 'wife pimp.' Also, he didn't want me to be seen out with my friends by any of the millions of members of his extended family, as it would cause them to gossip because apparently they have nothing better to do.

So culturally, women being 'protected' by men is the norm. More specifically, what I consider a great inequality of men being able to decide what their womenfolk can and can't do, seems to be thought of as 'protection' by a lot of Turkish people. Turks tend to live with their parents until they get married, meaning they're often at home well into their 30s. While young men are pretty much free to do as they like as soon as they're 16 or so, women remain subjected to their parents' rules until they leave home, only to then be subjected to their husbands' rules. I've known single women over 30 with curfews (and they don't break them), or who really aren't allowed to go out at all unless a brother or male cousin or whatever joins them. 30 year old women living at home aren't allowed to have boyfriends, while their 16 year old brothers have 3 different Sim cards, one for each girlfriend, to prevent misunderstandings.

If you ask male Turks about women in general, they seem to embrace the Muslim idea of them: namely, that women are sacred and fragile and beautiful jewels that need to be carefully watched over and protected from the envy of others. It's a double-edged sword though, being a jewel. I guess on one hand it's supposed to be a compliment they find us so valuable, but on the other hand, I think this is an underlying issue behind things like the desire to keep women safe at home (whether the woman wants it or not), considering women as property, forced marriages, and honor killings (which still happen here, and only in recent years have they started treating this as a proper crime). Women are expected to be virgins, and I've heard tales of nurse practitioners making cash on the side by sewing up broken hymens of women before their weddings. Free birth control is only available to married women. Women are expected to obey men. BE's mother will do what he tells her to do, and at home, she's expected to do things like greet her husband at the door, even when he comes home drunk at 3am wanting a cup of Turkish coffee, which she makes without complaint and then sits with him while he drinks it. Men's and women's roles are very clearly defined, and a woman's place is definitely in the home. This can be considered an advantage for me, as I had the freedom to decide to quit working and stay home with my baby, a decision that in the West might be looked down upon. However, in the West I'd be free to go back to work when it suited me, which is something that might be looked down upon here.

And just because the old constitution contains Article 10, let's not kid ourselves and pretend there is anything like equality for women here. There are the obvious inequalities of women in the workplace and in men's and women's salaries. A majority of professional, white-collar jobs are held by men, and that ceiling isn't made of glass for the women who've managed to break with the norms and have professional careers. This is the least of Turkish women's problems. Girls as young as 15 are more or less sold off into marriage, and honor killings are often treated as justifiable 'crimes of passion.' Spousal abuse is hardly considered a crime at all, and the police would rarely involve themselves in such a personal matter anyway. A few years ago, the government tried to change the law to punish rapists by forcing them to marry their victims, thus restoring their victims' honor, though fortunately that law wasn't passed.

Of course, I'm all for women's equality and rights being a part of Turkey's constitution. But realistically, within this culture, women are very much a vulnerable group in need of protection. Even though article 10 has existed since 2002, it doesn't seem like many other laws have changed to support the article, and if there are laws designed to punish those who perpetrate crimes against women, it seems like they aren't being held up by the courts, if these cases even reach the courts in the first place. It's one thing for Turkish women's groups to fight to get the laws changed to be more in line with UN Human Rights conventions, but it's altogether something else for women to take control of their lives and stop accepting the everyday conditions of inequality and vulnerability inherent in Turkish culture.


Maryweave said...

I read this with amazement! I thought Turkey was much more enlightened than this! It horrifies me, brings me back to my youth long ago where we women could do nothing but teach, nurse, or stay home.
I have three solutions, Stranger: come home, fight that amendment with all your might, and vote for Hillary Clinton.
My heart goes out to you and all Turkish women living this way. Still, I love your spunk! Keep it up!

Jessica said...

Hi, this is KunmingJess. Turkey sounds like China in some ways. Progressive on the outside, but with a long ways to go on the inside. Great blog, by the way!