Turkblog Part 5: Finally, women in Turkey

This morning we were treated to a late meet-up time, hooking up in the lobby at around ten before a quick march down Iztiklal Caddesi (in the opposite direction of last night) toward the Galata Tower. At its base, we headed up to the restaurant at the top floor of the Anemon Galata Hotel, fitting into its small elevator four at a time. The view that awaited us was stunning. The restaurant has huge glass windows on three sides, treating us to stunning views of the Bosphorous and the sparkling blue sky. At one end, a door lead out to a small patio area where a slightly-precarious-looking glass partition stood between us and the square below. The tower itself seemed close enough that we could reach out and touch it, although it still towered above us by many feet. Inside, the restaurant was decorated with gilt mirrors and edging, maroon velvet banquet covers and Lakme easing from the speakers.

Our first session of the day was with Mustafa Akyol, a Muslim writer challenged with talking to us about religion and identity in modern Turkey. Unfortunately for him, among the information in the exceptional package CNN Turk prepared for us, was the fact that he is a “pioneer advocate of the Intelligent Design theory in Turkey.” A theory which, as you may know, doesn’t necessarily fly with a lot of journalists. Or, you know, thinkers.

And so we listened to Akyol talk to us about varying intricacies of the Muslim religion as the sun warmed up the room. I felt like a school kid, distracted by the blue sky and sweet breeze, itching to go outside and explore the cobblestone streets that led us down to the base of the Galata Tower.

I wanted to hang out the window and watch carks eke past pedestrians and each other, horns honking. I wanted to watch the men with anachronistic hand-carts moving bags of produce up the winding road. I wanted to step in and out of the different shops and walk down to the riverfront and watch the ferries transport people back and forth between the Europe and Asia sides. Jamie, however, wanted to talk about intelligent design. Figures. What is he, a journalist? So up the subject came and I’ll admit it was challenging to check one’s personal biases and ask questions as objectively as possible. But let’s just say that I still haven’t heard anything surmounting to evidence in the argument for intelligent design.

After a twenty minute break, which we spent basking in the glorious sun on the patio, we were served lunch at the same long tables at which we’d spent the morning. Then began that afternoon’s session. Two speakers – Professor Nukhet Sirman and Ayse Bohurler – braved the increasing heat of the room as the day wore on to talk to us more about gender issues in Turkey.

Professor Sirman has the wild-haired air of the most spirited feminist professors I had at college and the first thing she confirmed for us was that the role of women in Turkey is, indeed, complicated. She urged us to consider the roles of women in regards to the way in which each society is governed, focusing on Islam’s transition from kinship-based patriarchy to a community-based society that supposedly endowed women with more equality.

As she spoke, I remembered something key that Elif Safak said yesterday – that women were afforded more rights now, but there was a pervasive attitude that they should be grateful to have those rights. I don’t think that’s entirely different from the way we behave in the US with affording equality to any number of minority groups. Once we make changes and “give” people certain rights, there’s a remaining attitude not that a wrong has been rectified but, rather, that a gift has been bestowed – so what’s any further belly-aching about?

It was fascinating to learn of how the rights and position of women in Turkey have changed throughout the years – from the time of the Ottoman Empire harems to the present. The 1926 Civil Code decreed that women would have a say in who they marry (previously unheard of) and that they would also have the right to divorce, previously held only by men. In addition, polygamy was banned. Professor Sirman maintained that the new laws created a society in which mean and women were equal – until marriage. At that point, the women became helpers and consultants to the men.

A new civil code in 2002 did away with the terms “husband” and “wife” – in the hopes of moving away from the traditional associations with those words – and referred to marriage partners as “spouse.” It declared that there was no head of household and that married women could work without the permission of their husbands.

It also decreed that, upon the death of the husband, 50% of the goods acquired during the period of marriage would go to the wife. Previously, the estate went entirely to the children, leaving mothers financially dependent on their children.

Another notion raised time and again since we’ve arrived here is the idea of “honor.” It’s not something we focus on in American society, this notion of maintaining and protecting our honor. But Sirman Eralp maintains that it’s a notion that still affects and defines women in Turkey today and has been the way in which women’s bodies have been controlled, historically, in Muslim society.

Ayse Bohurler – writer, activist, documentary filmmaker – followed Sirman Eralp and built on the notion of honor, discussing (of course) the head scarf issue. Interestingly enough, she’s a modern Turkish woman who was raised without the head scarf and made a decision as an adult Muslim to adopt it.

The women painted for us a fascinating picture of working women in Turkey today: The majority of women, apparently, are unpaid family workers – meaning that they work in agriculture or small family workshops or businesses for no wages. Twenty-five percent of urban women in Turkey work outside the home. Twenty percent of Turkish women don’t know how to read or write – versus 5% of men. Only 10% of the entire Turkish population are college graduates and only one in three of those graduates is a woman. Oddly enough, more than 40% of academics in Turkey are women.

Got that?

We were more than ready for a break when we learned that, due to some unfinished business with a film we were supposed to screen, we’d have a few hours of unexpected free time before heading to dinner with the CNN Turk crew that evening. So we lollygagged around and spent some down time at the hotel which was a really nice change of pace and a good chance to let the ol’ brain cells recuperate.

Sometimes I feel like information is being hurled at our brains here at a ridiculous pace – and in an equally ridiculous volume – and my poor, addled cranium is simply unequal to the task of keeping up.

But after some rest, we were off down the Iztiklal Caddesi (is everything in Istanbul just off this street?) and Melike led us inside a completely non-descript stone building with no lighting in the lobby, which appeared completely abandoned. We did shifts in the elevator – three or four at a time, I think – and emerged in what seemed like a floor of an apartment building. Cold, grey stone was illuminated by candles placed sparingly along the balcony, leading to a set of stairs leading up to a closed door.

It seemed a strange and unlikely place to find…well, anything. So imagine our surprise to emerge on the other side of the doorway in yet another fabulous roof-top location. Hip as hip can be, the restaurant we dined in earned its name, 360, from the view it provides of the Istanbul skyline.

Pre-dinner mingling was a bit awkward as we simply had a selection of tables at one end of a very busy restaurant and Ferhat won our cheers by refusing to allow us to introduce ourselves again. (Although it’s something we could all easily do in our sleep by now.) At dinner, Sally, Drew, Chris, Tony and I shared a table with the CNN Turk program director, Semiha’s camera man and the lovely Yesim Burul, who didn’t have to compete with nagile this time. It was a riot watching her go head to head with Tony on pop cultural discussions.

The food was fantastic and although I’d managed remarkable restraint in avoiding sugar and desserts in Istanbul, I confess that I was no match for a chocolate molten lava cake. Who is, I ask? Despite the general noise of the place making it a little tough to converse with those around us, I got some good tips on things not to be missed in Istanbul before we said our goodnights and hit the cobblestone streets back to the hotel.