Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Mavi Marmara (Gaza Flotilla) Update

October 21, 2010

A Mavi Marmara Update

Today’s Haaretz has reported that information found on computers which were confiscated during the Mavi Marmara raid “indicates that the flotilla’s organizers received assistance from the highest levels of the Turkish government, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Edogan and other senior government officials.” This claim was denied by Turkish officials but nevertheless it is seriously claim, one that will continue to exacerbate the tensions between the once friendly states. Furthermore, the Israelis will need much more hard evidence than found on the Polish journalist’s laptop to prove such accusations. If true, it will confirm many Israelis’ belief that this was all pre-orchestrated by Prime Minister Erdogan himself, and will stand as a sign that the Turkish government extended much more than latent support, something I claimed at the beginning. We need to recognize that even if Turkey “supported” it or not, it was Israel who performed the botched seizure of the ship and did not foresee the tragic outcome, both in terms of human life and the price Israel has had to pay for this diplomatically. Following the publication of the Haaretz article it was reproduced in the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet.

Since the incident, Israel and Turkey have not come to any understanding concerning the operation and it remains a diplomatic quagmire for Israel, as both Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul constantly remind Israel that they are waiting for an official apology and for compensation to be made to the families of the victims. This caused President Gul to cancel a planned tete-à-tete meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the UN last September. Most recently, Prime Minister Erdogan has threatened that if Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu participates in a Greek climate summit which will take place tomorrow (22 October 2010) he will cancel. However, according to Hurriyet Daily News the “Israeli prime minister is not on the list of speakers, and Israel is not among the list of confirmed participants.” Therefore, this seems to be more of Erdogan’s season bashing of Israel.

While diplomatically things are cold, it seems that trade between the two countries was not affected at all, with past numbers even pointing to increased trade relations. Furthermore, while Israeli tourism to Turkey came to a screeching halt I have once again started hearing Hebrew on Istanbul’s Istiklal street, showing signs that perhaps time really does heal wounds.

To read the Haaretz and Hurriyet article on Israeli claims of Turkish government involvement see here:

Haaretz: Turkey denies offering assistance to Gaza flotilla organizers

Article which appeared in Hurriyet (Turkish)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Good News for Turkey: Towards the end of the Headscarf Ban

Oct 11, 2010

Every student of my modern Turkey class is shocked when they learn that in Turkish universities and in the government sector, the Islamic headscarf is banned and if a woman chooses to wear one she is barred from university classrooms and from working as a public servant. The irony is obvious: Turkey is a country where the [non-monolithic] Muslim population makes up about 99% of the general population.

The reasoning behind the ban is that the Turkish republic is an ideologically motivated secular state, in the spirit of French laicism, where in the public sphere no religious symbolism should be professed (an idea I myself have been sympathetic to in the past). However, with the rise of the conservative Islamic leaning AKP government during the last 8 years, the once taboo topic has been brought to question. Imagine a country where the President’s wife is not allowed in the parliament, or the Prime Minister’s daughters are not allowed to attend school in their own country. Of course, the topic is much more complicated than this and for now I will not expand; however, I will say that the overwhelming amount of the Turkish population, whether religious, secular, or between, when asked, really have no problem with the headscarf being worn in classes or in government offices. This conflict has been more about setting new precedents, and the secular establishment’s fear that they are quickly losing ground.

Following the recent Turkish referendum, with more leeway on their side, the government has once again began to raise their voices about the need to lift the ban. Showing responsibility,the opposition parties also have sent strong signals that the time has come to make the change. In fact, last week two universities alone announced that they will officially allow covered women in their classes. I stress “officially” since the truth be known that many universities and professors have been turning a blind-eye to the headscarf ban for some time now.

The soon-lifting of the headscarf ban in the universities is only the beginning. In fact, even if it is a huge step, the total lifting of the ban will not be solved by the Turkish education board (YÖK), or simply goodwill. It will take a unified approach with all the parties working together in order to ensure that the reforms are aimed at not making a political statement but are being done for the Turkish people as a whole; and equally important, to end the discrimination of a large constituency of Turkish women.

Let us not forget that the eventual integration of covered women will not change only the public-servant sector but also the private sector; in other words Turkey’s urban centers will eventually need to integrate covered women into their work force; whether this is at banks, supermarkets, and numerous other companies who see fit to hire only women without the headscarf.

With these reforms, there is no doubt that Turkey as we once knew it will change dramatically. The mirage of the sole “modern republican (uncovered) woman” will dissipate with the emergence of the “modern covered woman” side by side, competing on issues of merit and not one’s worldview or dress. In my opinion, the lifting of the ban could also be used as a jumping board for women to have their voice heard in a country where women are almost obsolete form the political system. Further it could be an opportunity for Turkish lawmakers to rethink anti-discrimination laws in general, offering a solution to the problem of companies which profile their employees based on dress, ethnicity, or gender.

In the end, the test will be whether the current Turkish government (and future ones) will be able to balance between the two camps and not create a situation where secular people feel that they no longer can express themselves freely as they wish. Turkey’s large secular population also has legitimate claims that need to be taken seriously. With alcohol being taxed at such rates that only middle and upper classes can drink, with the mosque call to prayer reaching volumes that were once unheard of, and with polygamy existing among circles close to the government (to name a few examples), the current government needs to draw clear lines and ensure that all will benefit from Turkey’s new face; importantly, the fact that the AKP has taken this long to begin to lift the headscarf ban shows that at least on this front they have demonstrated a great amount of sensitivity and have worked hard not to divide the country in two. Let us hope they continue to work in this spirit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Death of a Transgender Sex-Worker

October 3, 2010

Last week, a beautiful soul was taken when Irem’s life was cut short after a man fatally stabbed her 12 times. Unfortunately, in Turkey, violence against transgender women has become somewhat the norm. This year alone, almost 20 such prostitutes have been murdered in cold blood, sometimes by their customers and other times they are targeted on the streets. Furthermore, according to KAOS (Ankara’s LGBT’s organization) they also have been subjected to excessive harassment and violence by the Turkish police.

The saga of Irem was splashed over the online Turkish edition of Hurriyet last week, beginning with the headline: “A Transvestite Killed by 12 Stab wounds in Bursa.” According to the report, Irem Okan, formerly known by her male name Mesut Şaban Okan, was 28 years old. Within a short period following the discovery of her body the police arrested a suspect, a 22 year old young man named Emrah, after he received treatment for wounds to his hand at a local hospital, and who upon his arrest admitted to killing Irem. According to the suspect, the two had been seeing each for some time and that night “I drank a beer and had sex with her, then she also wanted to have sex with me (as the active partner). I did not agree. A fight broke out between us. While cursing [her], I totally lost it…I remember stabbing two places. After that I don’t know what happened. I had cut my hand. While running away, I took a laptop, cell phones, and some other pieces of jewelry…”

Perhaps, what caught me most however about this story was Irem’s mother’s reaction. Like any mother, she was absolutely devastated. At the funeral, she called for the perpetrator to receive a harsh sentence and said “how could they kill my baby (yavrum)…how will I be able to endure such pain.” Following the funeral, at a vigil held in front of her house, she also passed on a message of frustration, anger, and sadness: “My boy was always excluded from society because of his sexual preference. He wanted to study but they would not accept him. There was no place for him in this great big world…” At the end of this blog entry I have attached links to see photos of Irem’s mother, a modestly covered woman, at the vigil being comforted by Irem’s friends from the LGBT community. Also, there is a link to see Irem’s photos.

Öykü Evren Gökkuşağı, the head of the LGBT organization in Bursa, believes that these murders should be recognized as a “hate crime” and that the Turkish parliament should take the initiative to halt the violence. Evren had been friends with Irem for 15 years, a said that Irem dreamed to become a chef, something that could not be realized however since she was a ‘transvestite.’

The tragedy in this is clear and there is not much to say other than Turkey needs to take measures to protect these transgender women. However, with the current Minister of Family and Women Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf declaring homosexuality is a sickness it seems that we should not expect too much from the Turkish government to work to end the senseless killings. Also, let us hope the courts prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent. It needs to be pointed out that the fact that the suspect stressed that he was propositioned by Irem to have intercourse with him as the passive partner could be sign of a early defense; meaning he will claim that in essence Irem provoked him, a known tactic used by rapists and others to get lighter sentences.

Links in English

Links in Turkish including a photo galleries: