The question that animates the book Bir Avazda: Hamilelik Söyleşileri [All in one cry: Pregnancy conversations]: What does it mean to carry a human being inside? During her pregnancy coinciding with COVID-19, Rita Ender, while thinking about this question and about what it feels like to be pregnant, she decided to start from the stories of women and interviewed 26 women and listened to their pregnancy stories. These stories include how they spent their pregnancies, as well as their relationship with various rituals, beliefs, and social expectations. The book is composed of the testimonies of Esin Alpan, Elmas Arus, Anna Maria Beylunioğlu Atlı, Güler Baban, Funda Şenol Cantek, Elena Cedolini, Seta Estukyan, Nüket Franco, Gönül (Birgül) Gülay, Tina İlyadu, Filiz Kerestecioğlu, Irmak Saraç, Gülsün Karamustafa, Nezihe Kayaoğlu, Nardane Kuşçu, Sevin Okyay, Leyla Onar, Manuela Ergin, Yeşim Pündük, Rosana Şapka, Duygu Tokay, Gamze Gül Özşahin, Nilüfer Taşkın, Dilan Epik Topuz, Merve Ünlü and Jinda Zekioğlu, and of an article written by Arus Yumul on these testimonies. We talked with Rita Ender about the book and what the testimonies the book includes make someone think.
In your introductory article, you say that the question “What does it mean to carry a human being inside?”, which you thought about during your own pregnancy, was instrumental in the book. We are used to hearing about the experiences of women with children, usually through motherhood. In this book, although the experience of motherhood is conveyed in some interviews, we read stories that we have not heard much about, such as deciding to become a mother and the period of pregnancy. To what do you attribute these narratives not to be prevalent, and what do you think is missing, considering that it is a difficult main topic to talk about openly?
Before I became pregnant, I had never read about pregnancy, I had never been interested in this subject. However, it is a very interesting process. It affected me a lot. It’s such a strange feeling to know that there is a human being inside you, that you are not alone in your body and in your entire being. On the one hand, I thought this strangeness was a “miracle”, on the other hand I was repeating that it was wrong to define it as such, that women should not be glorified by motherhood. Pregnancy is an experience full of such dilemmas, ebbs and flows, and is full of political, cultural and ideological facts besides its biological aspect. It’s about women, and that’s probably why it’s not talked about as much as military memoirs! With this book, I wanted individual experiences to begin to talk, but for example, I could not convey the story of a woman who became pregnant through a sperm bank. I could not include the story of an unintended pregnancy and the story of a gestational carrier. These are the shortcomings I am aware of, who knows what else I am not aware of…
You write that listening to women’s stories is important to understand and make sense of your own experiences. What do you think hearing these different stories about pregnancy tell other women? Keeping in mind that pregnancy is not always the birth of the baby, but a process that is sometimes completed in other ways (death, miscarriage, abortion, etc.), what would you say about the way these experiences are lived?
These experiences say that you’re not alone! Yes, many things are shaped by your own conditions, but there are ones who feel the same. Half of my pregnancy coincided with the pandemic, the times that it was not well understood what COVID-19 was, the period of lockdowns. There was unrest, uncertainty, deaths related to this issue. At that time, for example, listening to the story of Nüket (Nüket Franco) was good for me. The Chernobyl Explosion took place during Nüket’s pregnancy. Someone was drinking tea on the TV; someone was dying and it was very uncertain what would happen! I thought there was nothing new in the world actually. In general, many anxieties experienced during pregnancy are also common. The risk of miscarriage, the fear of giving birth, the concern for the baby’s health, the responsibility of taking care of the baby… You’re not the first to think, feel this way, and you won’t be the last. I also liked Seta Estukyan’s narration. She is a woman who has been a baby nurse for years. She didn’t have any worries about birth or the pregnancy where she was in danger of miscarriage, but when she came home with the baby after the birth, it took time for her to get used to it. On her 20th day at home, she called her mother and said “I have to go to work” and then, in her own words, she “escaped” and went to the movies.
How is age a factor in women’s experiences and narratives? Have you observed that the abundance of information about birth technologies and pregnancy today is affecting the way pregnancy is experienced?
Age and geography are big factors. In the 70s, pregnancy tests were done with frogs! Gülsün Karamustafa told in the book, she learned that she was pregnant with this frog test. Then, for example, 45 years ago there was no ultrasound in Turkey, today pregnant women make photo albums before the baby is even born! Sex is learned, parties are organized. And of course, a great economy is created along with what technology offers. From lactation consultants to coaches of putting the baby to sleep! Of course, this also creates a tremendous social pressure on women. Today, the benefit of breast milk is known, and the necessity of breastfeeding is talked out of turn everywhere. However, many women cannot breastfeed because of having no milk, necessity to work etc. She can’t and feels tremendous guilt for not being able to. A French friend of mine told that they asked her “Are you going to breastfeed?” after giving birth, can we have such a question here?! Mother’s milk is halal!
As Arus Yumul stated in her article, women’s bodies become public as soon as they become pregnant. It turns into a body that is easily talked about and intervened in. How about women’s strategies for getting these and coping with these?
Jinda Zekioğlu said in the interview I had with her: “There were interventions by people who realized that I was pregnant on the bus and on the subway, and it seemed strange. Because the pregnant body is open to the general public… There are women touching your belly on the subway. How dare you do that? Very interesting. It happened to me, she touches my belly, she caresses my belly.” Arus Yumul also said that the pregnant woman’s body is open to the touch, recommendation and advice of others, based on this example; she said that society often intervenes to protect the fetus from the mother, opening pregnant bodies to criticism, interpretation and inspection. Funda Şenol Cantek associated these advices with the concept of maternal fascism and said that “We should not allow anyone to have an oppressive and fascist attitude. We say ‘my body, my choice’, so no one should have the right to disposition of that body during pregnancy!”
Here it is something that is considered unacceptable and a matter of struggle for some women, while for some women it is something that is extremely ordinary and experienced without questioning. For some women, the situation is even worse because the pregnant body is associated with “shame”. In the book, Gönül Gülay described this situation as follows: “If you are pregnant in our society, you cannot walk holding your head up and showing your belly, saying ‘Oh, I am pregnant’. It is shameful. You tie an apron -we say kokneç in Armenian- in front of you. You attach it to your clothes so that your belly is not visible, you try to hide it. You keep your pregnancy a secret as much as possible.”
Women face many restrictions during and after their pregnancy and are expected to change their lives. How do women experience these restrictions? What are they forced to do; how do they resist?
Three examples immediately come to my mind. From the stories of Sevin Okyay, Irmak Saraç and Güler Baban.
Sevin Okyay thought “Fine kettle of fish!” when her daughter was born. She was very young, 22 years old. She was an active athlete; she was playing basketball and volleyball, but was “advised” by her husband to quit the sport. She quitted.
Irmak is a gynecologist and she was advised “not to swim a lot or walk a lot” during her pregnancy. She told her identity of being gynecologist and knowing that these were not harmful helped a lot against these discourses. She determined that “People project their own concerns onto you.”
Güler, on the other hand, felt the first signs of her pregnancy while in custody. With the effect of this, there were two things expected from her afterwards: to end her activist life and not be sad. Her mother was very worried and told her; “How are you going to give birth to a child in that situation you’re in? Now you will drag along the child to those demonstrations with you. Look, these things do not happen with the child.” However, at that time, Güler was already withdrawing from politics a little bit. She says; “I said, ‘I have a baby in my belly now,’ and started acting very carefully. The instinct to protect it has developed a lot. I wasn’t going everywhere, to every meeting.” But she couldn’t convince her mother, especially. “Besides,” she says; “the other thing that was imposed too much was ‘don’t upset yourself’. They told me not to listen to the news. Berfin is a child of the nineties. These were very restless years in Turkey. How far can you stay away from what is happening, even if you have withdrawn yourself? When the news of my friends came, I was very sad and crying at home. When I heard that someone died or was imprisoned, when I saw an attack on a demonstration on TV, it was tearing my heart out. On the one hand, you were there the day before, on the other hand, it was sad not to be there now. ‘Don’t cry,’ they used to say, ‘your child will be a baby who cries a lot.’ ‘The baby feels.’ In fact, it should feel anyway! If I am a conscientious person and I am upset about something, it will be upset too. Let it take these feelings.”
Symbols and rituals from different religions take place in women’s narratives during pregnancy and postpartum period. It is not only symbols and rituals that are diverse, but also the relationship women establish with them. What do you think their continuity and the relationship women establish with them today tell?
I guess because information about pregnancy and childbirth is more accessible today, some rituals are not done with faith as before, but with other motivations. For example, there were some who made the ring swing around the belly to find out the gender because it was fun. This was the general understanding about forty-removal. Dilan Epik Topuz explained as follows: “I’ve heard that there is such a thing as forty-removal… I did some research on the internet. I learned that this is a shamanic tradition and a lot of symbolic objects are used to wish good things. A key to open the doors she/he will encounter throughout her/his life, rice to have fruitful tables, sugar to be smoothy, coffee to have good friends lasting forty years… These seemed sweet, positive, and timeless to me. We did our own thing.”
It is not generally believed that it is necessary to stay at home for 40 days after giving birth, but on the 40th day, one can go to the hammam or to the church.
In the relationship established with symbols, a state of transfer is very evident. Evil eye beads, holy book, Ali’s sword, Virgin Mary’s icon, etc. are usually presented to the pregnant woman by the elders of the family. Of course, the pregnant woman establishes different relationships with it, depending on the situation she is in, and the mentality and feelings of her own.
“You will give life to someone, people just lose their lives,” says Nüket Franco, who was pregnant at the time of the attack on Neve Shalom. Other disasters such as Chernobyl, March 12, attacks and tortures against Kurds also take a place in women’s pregnancy narratives. What meanings does kill and attempt against life find in these narratives in the book?
Nüket’s statement is striking for me in terms of the meaning of Neve Shalom Synagogue in my life. You really think so. After you realize through your body what a great effort it is, first of all, to give life to someone, violence seems even more cruel to your eyes. There are also those who are exposed to violence and those disasters with their pregnant bodies. Duygu Tokay explained what she experienced after the violence she suffered from her husband in her first pregnancy as follows: “When I opened my eyes, I was in the hospital, I remember I shouted, ‘Did something happen to my child?’ Then I was examined, and my child was good. Thank God.”
Of course, the approaches and therefore the narratives differ from event to event, from woman to woman, but there are also examples of the reflection of a generation’s ideology in the presence of social events. Gülsün Karamustafa’s was one of them. Gülsün said that she and her husband Sadık Karamustafa were prisoned and released in the early 70s and described her later perception as follows: “We were in prison as a generation at that time, and all of a sudden, we were released by the Ecevit amnesty, all of our friends were released. As a result, we encountered a strange trauma. We came back to life after a great troubled period. Marriages and friendships started within a certain struggle, and there was such a thing as starving terribly for continuing the life that had begun again. And indeed, a generation was born with us. Not only my daughter, but also the children of our friends who had common problems were born at that time. We all stand against life; we acted with the feeling of reproducing, existing again, and getting involved in life again.”
At this point, it would probably be useful to remember and remind that it is the woman who recreates.
Translator: Gülcan Ergün
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan