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Lessons from Turkey

Monday 15 May 2017, by siawi3


Elif Shafak: ‘It’s a crucial moment for global feminism’

The most popular female novelist in Turkey says the rise of populism in the west offers an opportunity for solidarity and sisterhood with the Middle East

Elif Shafak, author, columnist, speaker and academic at the Guardian women seminar: How women can change the world. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Anna Leach

Thursday 11 May 2017 11.17 BST
Last modified on Thursday 11 May 2017 11.37 BST

Women across ages and nationalities are realising that “we can’t take the rights we have for granted” said writer Elif Shafak last week. “It’s a crucial moment for global feminism.”

The election of Trump and the rise of populism in the west has changed the international dynamic, she noted. “More and more I hear writers from America and Europe carrying the same anxieties and concerns that we have been carrying for so long,” Shafak - Turkey’s most popular female novellist - told audience members at a Guardian seminar: How women can change the world.

“Countries like Turkey hold important lessons for all of us because what happened there can happen anywhere. The future is not necessarily more developed than the present, and sometimes countries can go backward.” When countries become more authoritarian, populist and isolationist, women have more to lose than men, she pointed out.

“As you travel across the Middle East, including Turkey, you will see the cities belong to men. The streets belong to men … women are being pushed back into the private space.” She said that in Turkey politics at local, regional and national level is overwhelmingly male. “It is very masculinist, it is very divisive and it’s very aggressive,” she said. “And the few women that exist in that space de-feminise and desexualise themselves.”

[( Societies that are extremely patriarchal also have a deeply rooted negative attitude towards sexual minorities
Elif Shafak)]

She called for sisterhood, a word that she says is more accessible for women in the Middle East than feminism.

“We women sometimes play a role in the continuity of patriarchy, because patriarchy is not a black and white system in which men oppress women. It’s much more complicated. I think we need to go back to the basics. Remember the solidarity. The sisterhood. And expand it.”

There is a sense of complacency around gender equality in the UK, suggested Margaret Hodge, a British Labour MP since 1994. “The best country in the world on women’s representation is Rwanda – with over 60% of the elected representatives as women. So stop being complacent, stop being arrogant, start really understanding the issues we face and tackle them.”

Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Positive action is the way to get to gender equal political representation. “I wish we didn’t need to but we do, and where it doesn’t happen, nothing changes.” In local government, for example, Hodge is shocked at how little things have changed since the start of her career 40 years ago. “If you look at leaders in local government, less than one in five leaders are women. And yet in local government four out of five people who work in it are women.”

Hodge said that women’s careers are “a marathon ... not a short sprint” and she has been most successful in her late 60s and early 70s. She highlighted maternity rights and the right to flexible working as her political victories but battles that need to be continuously fought for.

[( The fact of the matter is that gay rights and feminism is very threatening to a lot of people
Lindsey Hilsum)]

But should women be trying to seeking the middle ground or pushing forcibly for human rights? “The fact of the matter is that gay rights and feminism is very threatening to a lot of people,” said Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor at Channel 4 News. “And maybe we have pushed too fast, pushed too hard, been too politically correct.”

Human rights lawyer Dexter Dias disagreed: “When we are arguing for a human rights I am unapologetic about it. I do not think you can push too hard about that.” He does not believe that there is a global backlash against human rights. “These are deep structural issues that are creating global insecurity,” he said. “It’s a complex field. For me it’s a cop out to say we shouldn’t be as strident about defending people’s rights. This is a time when we should be more strident.”

It is the systems themelves we need to look at, argued social activist and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein, who campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM). For example the 52% of white women who voted for Trump.

“Look at our education system, in the UK our biology books don’t feature the clitoris,” she said. “Girls education is important but when we don’t educate girls about their rights, their body and their right to their sexual freedom – I don’t care what university she’s been to because she’s still stuck in that same system.”

Panel discussion with (l-r) Karen Mattison, Amanda Gardiner, chair Zoe Williams, Leyla Hussein, Lindsey Hilsum and Dexter Dias QC. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Hussein said she was proud on the Women’s March to be among so many other women. “But one of the areas I was so disappointed about was the lack of black and Asian women there,” she said. “We need to be very honest about why black and Asian women are missing from these spaces.”

“It’s not an easy time to be cheerful,” said Hilsum. “But what happens to women in war is much more understood and taken much more seriously than when I started as a journalist. The issue of rape as a crime of war is much more understood. What makes me despair is that it doesn’t seem to have made it lessen. It seems to happen much more.”

Dias said that there has been an increase in sexual violence criminal cases in the UK since the publicity around the Jimmy Saville sexual abuse scandal. “There is a greater awareness among victims and complainants that institutions – like the police and the crown prosecution service – are taking it more seriously. So, on that level there is progress. But there is a note of caution. Sitting [in court] you see again and again how the system re-traumatises victims and complainants. The appreciation of these issues in the profession is not great. And so we are launching a programme to try and address that. That’s a vital thing that we need to do.”

Progress has been made on getting girls into school around the world, said Amanda Gardiner, vice president of sustainability and social innovation at Pearson. “If you look at the developing world, two-thirds of countries have now achieved gender parity in terms of enrolment in school. But if you look at parts of Africa and South Asia boys are still one and a half times more likely to finish school. So we’re getting girls there but we’re not getting them out. There’s a lot of battles to be fought and won.”

The seminar ended with Kathryn Jacob CEO, Pearl & Dean, and Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer, MediaCom, sharing their glass wall theory.

“The glass ceiling implies that all people want to do is go and run companies, some people don’t,” said Jacob. “The glass wall is where we can see what we want but we can’t get there.”

Unerman explained: “Our view is pragmatic feminism. Our view is you need strategies for success that get you in a position where you can make change happen … Things have got to change. It’s actually a win win cycle. If businesses are more gender diverse at senior levels they will be better places to work.”