The Karagöz puppets celebrate International Women’s Day and honor Pınar Selek

An image of Turkish feminist scholar and activist, Pınar Selek, who lives in exile in Germany, from her website

My dreams swirl in lilac, mauve and lavender before I start to hear the whispering.  These are, of course, the colors of the women’s movement. As usual, it is early morning and I am still asleep – or just barely so – when the Karagöz puppets begin to pepper me with thoughts, questions and actions, even before my eyes open from their purple velvet refuge.

Today, it is Esma the hippie puppet, who is whispering in my ear, tugging on the folds of the pillowcase underneath me to try to get my sleepy-as-cement-self a bit more aware.  Finally, she grows tired of the gargantuan but soft-hearted and soft-spoken effort to awaken me, instead opting for a power yell directly into my ear.

“Empower Women – End Hunger and Poverty!”  she cries as I awaken, startled, along with the dog at my feet who cocks his head at an angle – trying to see what this strange little puppet lady is yelling about – and whether it might relate to some yummy food, or a tummy scratch.

A blurry vision of Esma with her fist raised greets me before I can focus my eyes in on the crowd of the troupe of lady dancing puppets below her on the floor by the bed.  They are all still wearing their white ribbons from last week’s White Ribbon Campaign to end violence against women (you can read about all that here).  There is much merriment and jostling amongst them as they work collectively to pass me my first çay of the day. “You’ll need it today, m’lady, “one of the çenghi (shadow puppet lady dancers) explains, “not only is this another 12-hour teaching day, but it is also International Women’s Day! The theme for this year is ‘Empower Women – End Hunger and Poverty’ so perhaps you had better work that into your lecture on statistical regression analysis somehow!”

As I sip my çay, Esma makes sure I am in the know… “In case you are not aware, m’lady, International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on March 8th ever since the early 20th century when the Socialist Party of America began the tradition in the United States. You can read more about all this at the UN website but suffice it to say that in 1975, International Women’s Day was adopted by the United Nations.”  Breathless, Esma turns to the crowd of dancing ladies, and says “OK, çenghi, what do you say?” and without missing a beat they say “Empower Women – End Hunger and Poverty!”  It is only after finishing my tea, only half my wits about me, that I let Esma and the çenghi know that I have been celebrating International Women’s Day since 1984, when I first learned of it from my high school history teachers.

Happy to hear this news, the lady puppets are eager for me to turn on the iPad so that they can check on the news back home in Turkiye to see how the day is being celebrated there.  As they hop around the iPad, Esma begins yelling out statistics to me, saying things like – wow – we know education has a lot to do with women living in poverty – but did you know that the U.S. is only 19 points better than Turkey in this regard? While 70 percent of secondary-school-aged young women are in school – 89% of American young women are in school – so much for mandatory schooling laws!”  As she tires of reading off statistics – which the puppets repeat through the crowd as Esma announces them – she slowly moves on to googling “feminism in Turkey” resulting in a range of un-cited but interest piquing websites such as this one which addresses the century-old women’s movement in Turkey and this one which is a bit better on the sources front.  Through Esma’s googling, I learn that:

“At the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century educated women began organizing themselves as feminists within the elites of Istanbul. These feminists fought to increase women’s access to education and paid work, to abolish polygamy, and the peçe, an Islamic veil. Early feminists published woman magazines in different languages and established different organizations dedicated to the advancement of women. Also during this time the first women association in Turkey Ottoman Welfare Organization of Women was founded in 1908 and became partially involved in the Young Turks Movement which was a driving force in the founding of the Turkish Republic. During the turn of the century accomplished writers and politicians such as Fatma Aliye Topuz (1862-1936), Nezihe Muhiddin (1889-1958) and Halide Edip Adıvar (1884-1964) also joined the movement not only for advocating equality of Muslim women, but for women of all religions and ethnic backgrounds.”

I read on and on, learning more and more, ignoring the tight time frame I have to get ready for my commute and long day – and then I hit on the Amargi Feminist Collective’s blog…and I am enraptured right along with the puppets, male and female, who flock around me on my shoulders, in my hair and on the table around the iPad.  We all read with sadness about the prosecution of Pınar Selek, a feminist sociologist, who while studying the reasons behind the adoption of violence amongst Kurdish separatists in Turkey, was imprisoned and still faces legal harassment despite her two acquittals.  The Amargi Collective recounts the tale as follows:

Pınar Selek was born in Istanbul in 1971. She graduated from the Sociology Department at Mimar Sinan University and completed her Master’s degree in Sociology at her alma mater. She also studied economy-politics relation at Sophiantipolis UDEL University in France and is currently a doctoral candidate in political science at Strasbourg University.

Since the late 1990’s Pınar Selek has faced life imprisonment for a charge she has been acquitted on three times. In 1998 as a sociologist, Selek was working on a potentially controversial book about the Kurdish separatist movement and why they had chosen a path of violence in their struggle for independence. She carried out a research project that involved interviewing members of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. On return she was apprehended by the Turkish security services and, when she refused to reveal the names of her informants, was tortured.

Selek was accused of belonging to the outlawed PKK, and committing a terrorist bomb attack in their name in Egyptian Bazaar of Istanbul two days before her arrest that killed seven people and injured over one hundred more. Pınar Selek spent two and a half years in custody, even though numerous experts had confirmed that the explosion on the Bazaar had not been caused by a bomb but by faulty gas pipes. Furthermore, the main witness for the prosecution admitted that his testimony, which named Selek as an accomplice, was obtained under torture.

In the twelve years since the explosion Selek has been subjected to continuous unresolved prosecution. Selek has been tried twice in the Istanbul local court (in 2006 and 2008) and each time acquitted. On both occasions the prosecution has refused to accept these verdicts and appealed to the Supreme Court which has found Pinar guilty of the charges against her. Fearing another jail sentence, Selek left Turkey and took up offers of financial support from charity organizations in Germany, including the German P.E.N. – an association for poets, essayists and novelists. On 9 February 2011 she was acquitted for the third time in an Istanbul court. Next day the prosecution appealed for the third time to the Supreme Court to over-rule the finding.  To get more information about the newest developments in Pınar Selek’s legal prosecution check out her homepage.

I am saddened to read this, but not surprised to read this.  Stories of the at-times oppressive nature of the Turkish state and court systems are ever-present in the news (and in the stories M. tells me).  Esma turns to me and makes a proclamation “So, m’lady, today, on International Women’s Day, let us remember not only the honor killings and increased prevalence of intimate partner violence in Turkey, but let us also remember one brave Turkish woman who was leading the life of a scholar, interested in understanding one particular social movement, who has been nothing if not punished for this effort at promoting peace. And, m’lady, you see, peace is the root of empowering women, ending poverty AND ending hunger.  Work for that today with your students.”

As I finished dressing for work and headed for the car, I began to plan for the ways I would work the topic in to my lecture on statistical regression analysis.  Where there’s a will for peace, there’s a way.  Certainly Pınar Selek knows that.  Let’s hope I can nurture such sentiments amongst my students as well.

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10 Responses to The Karagöz puppets celebrate International Women’s Day and honor Pınar Selek

  1. Alan says:

    freedom of speech; freedom of conscience; freedom of association; freedom of . . freedom. The Socialist Party of the US has managed to survive and is associated with the SP of GB through the World Socialist Movement. One of the present organisers in the US party is, I believe, the grand daughter of that great American hero Eugene Debbs. Struggling for rights and supporting the wronged will not change until we change the system.
    Power to Pınar Selek! Power to all those who struggle against persecution.

  2. RebeccaV says:

    Happy International Women’s Day to you! It was one of my favorite events at our campus – we had students, staff, and faculty nominate female students, faculty, and staff who had made an impact in their lives and/or in the greater community. We acknowledged and celebrated them all during the event. We met so many of our campus’s community that were engaged in some awesome research and initiatives! There’s so much still to be done, but there are some amazing women (and men!) stepping up to do it.

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  4. Hi Rebecca,

    Thank you so much for your good wishes! I hope you enjoyed this year’s International Women’s Day wherever you were – I am quite in awe of how this day has grown in the 20 or so years since I first learned from it. We’ve seen a lot in this way, have we not?

    My best,


  5. And survive it has. And I look forward to the post-struggle vision of what exists after the fact.

    BTW – just learned that 2 acquaintances of ours (one of whom ran for Governor of Massachusetts on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1970s) have moved to Istanbul where they are teaching English. I need to get their blog address – but more importantly to get you in touch with them. I think you and J. would hit it off (if you don’t already know them). Getting the info from M. to send along.

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  7. intlxpatr says:

    Tomorrow I will meet The Honorable Safak Pavey, Member of the Turkish Parliament, who has been named one of the 10 Women of Courage by the US Department of State for 2012. 🙂 If you were here, I would take you with me. 🙂

  8. Wow. I would love to meet Şafak Pavey – as a disability services scholar I have followed her story with interest. I would jump on that invitation like there is no tomorrow! Would love to meet you too, of course! I can already tell that much! 🙂

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