A Wedding in Izmir and Reflections on the Treatment of Women in Turkey

This is a post I wrote for the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network. You can read my post and about other Georgetown students’ study abroad experiences here.

The students of the McGhee Center in Alanya spent the last week traveling along Turkey’s Aegean Coast, during which time we explored the ruins of various ancient cities, toured memorials dedicated to the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, and admired the beauty of the Aegean Sea and Dardanelles Strait. The highlight of the trip took place in Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey, where our group visited FOMGED, an association dedicated to preserving dance and music culture in Turkey. While riding the bus through Izmir, we never could have anticipated the three-hour jamboree that would follow. I volunteered for a mysterious dance activity, after which I was led by a group of young Turkish woman into the back room where I changed into shalwar, a long pink coat, and a giant flower headdress. In the time it took me to transform into a Turkish bride-to-be, the other members of the Georgetown group had also changed into costumes representative of various Anatolian regions.

We were led onto the street, where we attracted honks from cars and stares from passerby as we walked to a nearby restaurant where the marriage would take place. I had a red veil placed over my head and sat in a chair, where I had invisible henna rubbed into my hands and watched a fellow student and husband-to-be receive an ostentatious barber treatment. The men and women accompanying us performed two dances, after which I was presented with a necklace adorned with gold coins. The veil constrained my vision, and apparently I rejected the first necklace (as is tradition) in favor of a nicer second necklace with larger coins. After lifting the veil and a short, terribly awkward wedding dance, the entire group linked pinky fingers and danced halay. This involved a complicated series of footsteps, clapping, and constantly increasing tempo. Once the music was going too fast for anyone to move at the appropriate speed, we shuffled our way back to FOMGED’s headquarters to change back into civilian garb and meet in the garden for tea, cookies, and roasted hazelnuts.

Despite the fun and extravagance of our staged wedding night, the fact remains that for many Turkish women, life after marriage is not so enjoyable. In September, our group met with a representative from Mor Çatı, a women’s shelter organization located in Istanbul. The women’s rights activist spoke about the systemic mistreatment of women around Turkey, which manifests as domestic abuse, unreported rape, discriminatory workplace atmospheres, and honor killings. We heard stories about women who had managed to escape from rape and abuse at home, only to be ignored in courts and shunned by their families. In the worst cases, women who are sexually abused or abandoned by their husbands can be subject to honor killings, in which a woman is murdered by a relative in the name of family honor.

Since the AK Party came to power in 2002, violence against women has increased significantly. One article published in Today’s Zaman cited evidence from the Turkish Ministry of Justice that found that the number of women killed by family members skyrocketed from 66 in 2002 to 1,126 in 2009, which amounts to a 1,400 percent increase. Less intense instances of domestic violence have also been on the rise in Turkey in recent years. The previously mentioned Today’s Zaman article reported that 41.9% of Turkish women face physical and sexual violence, with higher instances of violence targeted toward women in lower income groups and undereducated women. Another article published in The Hurriyet Daily News described a 70% increase in incidents of domestic violence between 2008 and 2011.

Fortunately, this deep-rooted problem that has plagued Turkish women and family life is finally being uncovered in a very public manner. On paper, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Party have crafted an impressive response to the problem; civil codes were changed in 2004 to make sentences for honor killers stricter, there is a new monitoring system for men convicted for domestic violence that involves electronic handcuffs, and police are being trained to better address violence against women. Yet, where the efficacy of government policies and penal codes begin to fade, a growing grassroots movement in Turkey against domestic violence is taking its place. Elif Shafak poignantly observed in an August 2011 article in The Guardian that even this public movement against domestic violence will not change the treatment of women “unless we change the way we raise our sons and discard our belief that they are superior to our daughters, unless we mothers stop treating our sons as the sultans in the house.”

I am thankful for my fake wedding experience with FOMGED, but it is important to remember that after the ostentation of many Turkish weddings, tens of thousands of Turkish women are subjected to physical and sexual violence. It will take a great deal of effort and cooperation to implement improvements in the treatment of women, but with the effort of the grassroots movement, organizations like Mor Çatı, and persistence of government reform, it will hopefully be possible to lessen and remove this state of violence in Turkish society.

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