Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"The women did not accept the flowers"

My second reaction after reading a reportage in the March 5th edition of Turkish daily Sabah on a women protest in Istanbul was that the title of the article ("Çiçekleri almadılar", "The women did not accept the flowers") should figure in my next blog post. My first reaction was, of course, that I should seize the opportunity to discuss yet another facet of Turkey, one that surely affects politics but primarily speaks volumes of the society itself.

What brought 500 women in Çağlayan and another 3,000 in Kadıköy was not only the upcoming Women's Day; it was an urge to denounce discrimination and abuse of women. "Honor killings" and sexual abuse are, sadly, present in portions of Anatolia and further to the east, particularly in the countryside. Often embedded in cultural norms and traditions, such practices are in violation of both the major international human rights texts, to which Turkey is a party, and the legal foundations of the Turkish Republic as established by M. Kemal Atatürk in 1923. But Turkey epitomizes contradiction; suffice here to say that Turkey has been an early proponent of women's emancipation introducing bold social and political reforms including women's suffrage as early as 1930, much earlier than France (1945) or Belgium (1948).

Earlier, I spoke of women in the streets of Istanbul as constituting one facet of Turkey: this is because I align myself with the view that Turkey's unique combination of different and at times contradicting streams requires a cautious approach, one that acknowledges particularistic elements and thoughtfully places them in the historical and cultural context. Otherwise one risks being overly superficial. It is only wrong (and dangerous) to see just the face value of such incidents as the protest and much worse to pass judgments on Turkey's respect of human rights or lack thereof based just on fragmentary evidence.

In Turkey there is a strong kemalist secular legacy and at the same time a religious pro-Islam faction that was muted in the early years of the Republic but has successfully re-emerged in the last decades. At the same time, the cultural norms are holding strong and they vary substantially based on the region and the composition of the population. The European endeavor that Turkey has been pursuing since the signing of the Ankara Agreement for accession in 1963 has increased the scope of the European (or Western) influence: partly represented by the secular pro-modernity faction, this stream is also an entity of its own in the form of media, governmental and non-governmental institutions and monitor groups with offices in the Bosporus or the capital.

Turkey of 2007 is a state that is at the eve of presidential elections (with parliamentary elections to follow in the fall), with a moderate Islamic party, Erdoğan's "Justice and Development Party" in power, that in the view of many has failed to rise to its true potential, and yet might also win elections, and with the military still present and "watching". This is the context within which women demonstrated but one should also be mindful of legacies of the past that are echoed today: the headscarf controversy, the rise of right-wing parties, the 1997 return of Kemalists. Women demand a responsible approach to some arguably crucial issues and most importantly make their commitment clear. The symbolic gesture of not accepting the flowers that were being handed by the police emphasizes the very core of the notion that reforms must be deep, not just a "face lift". In addition, such a protest is also important because it denotes a certain sense of national unity, a concept that itself has been challenged lately: women in Istanbul called for the rights of all women even if it is clear that women of urban areas suffer less.

Having said that, it is clear that the issues that bring women in the roads this time are much less controversial than, say, the headscarf debate. The difficulty here lies not so much in mustering support -for no one really opposes such demands- but in bringing about change. And change is a difficult and lengthy process. Raising women issues -from very basic to second-tier- requires a greater "opening" that political elites and civil society must be willing to undertake and allow. Most importantly it requires going above and beyond the traditional course of action by introducing bold reforms primarily socially and legally, and later by implementing them. And this is much easier said than done, for to undertake the strenuous path of reform requires challenging at the same time established norms and respecting culture, it requires assuming political cost without jeopardizing one's power base, it requires "confronting" the people and yet engaging them in the struggle.

If Turkey in the 1930s achieved great strides with its innovative reforms, the same does not apply today when reforms are not even an option. Can women and their protest instigate and sustain the much-needed change or is Turkey, yet again, in deep need of a charismatic leader?


The original article: "Çiçekleri almadılar"
A translation in English: "The women did not accept the flowers"

Saturday, March 03, 2007

'Vodka Lemon'

An Iraqi born Kurd who lives in Paris, director Hiner Saleem hits the snow-covered mountainous villages of Armenia to make a film about endurance and perseverance in times of adversity and uncertainty. Set in the post-Soviet era, the film explores the daily struggles of a population that is trying to adapt simultaneously to freedom and the new economic reality: focusing on the lives of Hamo and Nina, two widowers that ultimately develop a relationship of their own, the film never loses sight of its primary goal which is to extol the inner power of humans to rise above calamities.

At great risk of being insipid to the audience and even aesthetically unappealing, the film blatantly refuses ornaments and embellishments of any sort. Instead, it takes on harshness of everyday life - for Hamo (and Nina) it means taking endless trips to the cemetery to talk with the deceased spouse, selling their meager possessions for a few dollars, living in dilapidated houses, letting their children go... And yet a touch of humor or a proof that life has a hopeful side are also present in the film - just like vodka lemon, to lift the spirits. The finest example of this positive attitude towards life comes from the end of the film where Hamo and Nina ultimately hold on to the piano they intended to sell, despite being in a dreadful financial position. This is a truly powerful scene, one which through visual effects beautifully communicates l'état d'âme of the protagonists and their optimism to the audience.

Testament to the high caliber of the film is without a doubt its treatment of the question of resilience after the collapse of the Soviet regime: how does freedom stand next to the economic precariousness that came along? While freedom is clearly endorsed, criticism about the economic plight that ensued is not absent: references to the old times, "when there was no need to pay for gas, electricity or water" do exist. The heartbreaking scene of Hamo walking in the snow carrying an extremely heavy closet -just to sell it for a few dollars in the street- also goes along this direction. But even here one sees how characters soar beyond basics: when the bus driver forbade Nina to board because she had no money for the fare, she did not even think of asking a second time, but instead silently stepped down and walked back. And it is indeed interesting to see that this all comes from a director who is himself an individual longing for freedom, being a Kurd who fled Iraq and Saddam's regime. In an interview that accompanies the film Saleem comments on the question of freedom and Soviet nostalgia: "I do not make a judgment. I know that when people are hungry, they are in need of bread. But I also know that when people have bread but no freedom, it is as if though they have nothing at all."

Freedom being a notion almost interwoven with human existence, it has been at times a positive force but equally often, if not simultaneously, a source of clashes, even bloodshed. The cultural and geographic proximity of the film to an area of the world that has yet to agree on a common understanding of freedom -not to say adds a whole new dimension to the term- may be an additional impetus for watching this film. However, to label Vodka Lemon as political only or describe it with a single adjective would be a major injustice to the film, just like it would be to constrict freedom within a Wilsonian or a purely political framework.

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