On April 5, 2019, we conversed with Stella Ovadia on her history and testimonies about how she became a feminist as part of the Feminist Space Friday Gatherings. “Being a feminist is about loving women: discovering, finding out about, understanding, and getting to know women. It is about ridding off the minority psychology to undertake the rebellion and solidarity necessitated by being a member of an oppressed sex”. These words of advice have been beautiful earrings that fitted our ears for years now and we are very thankful.
Thank you for coming here to listen to stories dating from 35 or even 40 years ago from someone whom you are not so much familiar with. I hope you understand my language which is kind of old and excuse my flaws caused by lack of practice and age. I would like to start with a brief joke. I read it in a book by French feminists, and it is highly likely that they took it from the American feminists.
It takes how many feminists to change the flat tire of a car?
While one changes the tire, the other three tells the story of it.
This joke must have remained in my mind as it refers to the importance of narrative and oral history: I thank Cemre and Filiz for inviting me over to become a part of this narrative. Since I accepted this invitation, it seems like as people get older, they want to go over their past and convey their stories to others if they can find someone who is willing to listen…
Please do not expect a chain of chronologically arranged events from me. There is already such a chronology, written by me, in Birikim journal. Besides, Gülnur and Şirin also wrote and spoke about it. I want to narrate a more subjective story. I will probably recount the memories that I touched upon in an interview we did with Meltem Ahıska which was published in Defter. I am sorry for the repetition.
I will speak by taking refuge in the great and fundamental teaching of feminism: “the personal is political”. This is because, as you already know, feminists have upended not only the subject of politics but also the form of doing politics. They have gate-crashed the field of politics! They placed the private life at the heart of politics.
Tonight, I will be talking about the question that troubled me the most since I have developed a feminist consciousness: how come each and every woman do not become a feminist and join our movement in a world where half of the people are oppressed, exploited, suppressed, and where women and feminist analysis have already taken to the streets? So, I am going to talk about some of the obstacles before feminist consciousness. This is not a new theme either: I wrote about the difficulties of being a feminist at the end of the article “Loving Women”.
Tonight, I will go over the obstacles in my own life.
As the title says, I was born and raised in a Jewish and conservative family in Istanbul. The first half of the previous century was not yet over. I mean, I am talking about almost 100 years ago. I am the same age as the grandmothers of some of the young people in this room. Their mothers are my daughter’s age.
The Jewish community is conservative and timid. It is expected that girls marry Jewish boys and become housewives. Virginity is important, although not to the extent of reconstructing the hymen. Or at least not in my circles. Girls could promenade with men if their parents know about the family of the boys and if they return home at a certain hour in the evening. My father used to point at the clock if I returned at 19:15! That would mean that I was late. For the first New Year’s party, boys came to our home and asked for permission. It was 1958! These were the restrictions that I was to abide by as a girl at the time. But I was not able to really figure out the meaning of this situation as there were no boys of my age at home. I used to think that my dad liked discipline!
I lived in the Jewish ghetto until I was 20 years old. Although I was suspicious about their values and a little bit marginal, there was nothing in my situation that could be described as a rebellion. I wrote my first article about women for the yearbook of the French school run by nuns. It is a piece of writing complaining about the school for not preparing us for life and trying to make fun of those old values: “Women in modern society”. Nuns did not like the text, nonetheless they printed it, without any censorship. In the same yearbook, my classmates also wrote that I would have been an “anarchist if I was not a student” and that “I am the lawyer of lost causes”. At the time, the school run by the nuns only accepted girls. And going to an all-girls school is a thing all by itself. Luckily, the boys who were studying at the French schools run by priests came to the bus stop after school so that we learned a bit about the birds and the bees.
Talking and meeting with those boys or walking on the streets without the hat which was a part of the school’s uniform were forbidden and there were teachers who superintended these things. But during the same period, Simone de Beauvoir published Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter! In 1958! At a conference in French Institute, my point of contact with the outside world, this book was introduced. Simone de Beauvoir was dating Sartre, whom I admire very much, but she refused Sartre’s marriage proposal which would have secured her the appointment to the city where Sartre lives. They became teachers in different cities. Besides, their love was very special; they were indispensable for each other but also both of them were free. Theirs was a life-long partnership, but other, less important relations were not forbidden! Of course, I was utterly perplexed.
In the movie theaters, the adventures of young hitchhikers were replacing the boring stories of American romance. And I took these very seriously, left my Jewish fiancée and got out of the ghetto. The next time I tackled the institution of marriage was when I tried to understand the ways in which it enslaves women and to expose them. What has happened so far are the oldest memories from my life, the Jewish period of my life. But this is also the period when I became politicized without realizing it.
If I start from the end, my boyfriend who was going to the American College was talking to me about surplus value and Marx. I also took this knowledge very seriously and questioned myself: how come anyone who knows all about this can lead such a bourgeois life? And I left that world behind. I was moving into the world of Turks. It was a different world, not the world of those who went to the seaside for three months in the summer: it was the world of those who saw the sea for the first time when they came to Istanbul for university education.
I also learned very important things in this sheltered Jewish world. There I have acquired the behaviors and values which are referred to in my writings as “minority psychology”. My parents were doing charity work in their congregation. Arriving home late in the evening because of the meetings, attending the meetings of the association with a police officer (his name was Haver Osman!) present, the Jewish orphanage, elderly people’s dormitory, undertaking milk distribution to school children, making handicrafts and selling them at the fairs organized for the poor; these constituted the atmosphere of the environment I lived back then! This means that the Jews were organizing separately from the wider society and were forming solidarity bonds within their own community.
Two concepts that I often emphasized when I became a feminist: single woman organizing and trying to form solidarity bonds with every woman! But being a Jew also means to see the outside world as uncanny or even dangerous, to shrink, and “not to meddle with government’s business” as expressed in one of the important Jewish idioms: “En el eços del hükümet no me karışeyo!” This is the Jewish version!
In fact, here, there is an implicit rule which has been internalized: minorities cannot work in government jobs! This is not because they love trade, but because they know that even if they study at the Mülkiye, they cannot become a civil servant. This is the glass ceiling above the minorities! Because I think that although such a rule exists, it is now written down. That is why −after I became a feminist− I often asked myself how I managed to get out of such an environment and got involved in general politics. And then I understood that my early years in the Jewish community have had an important share in my politicization. Solidarity with the community, which I narrated above, actually at first took the form of solidarity with family for me.
Maybe you have heard of something called the Thrace Events. The year was 1934. Thrace was entirely cleansed of the Jewish population in 15 days. In Europe this is called a “pogrom”. For instance, the September 6-7 events are called a pogrom.
There are books published in Turkish on Thrace Events. Hitler won the elections, Turkey had been part of the WWI on the side of Germany, and both in the press and in the government, there were people who were supporting Hitler. Like Nadir Nadi from the Cumhuriyet newspaper. Anti-Semitism was widespread and legitimate. Under these conditions, my mother’s entire family migrated to Palestine of the time. It was under British rule. The family was poor, and the children were sent leather shoes from here. To circumvent the British custom controls, you had to wear off the shoes. I was very small, and it was my job to rub the shoes on a wooden bath stool and wear them off. After I became a feminist, I thought about this as my first political action. Solidarity, distribution of things, and trying to complete things which are missing are the things that I learned in the Jewish family environment. In other words, growing up in a Jewish family both created obstacles before my emancipation and provided me with the necessary reflexes to overcome the obstacles.
Let me talk about the relation of my politicization with me being a woman. In order to become a feminist, it is necessary to realize that you are a woman, to comprehend that this is a social situation and to understand what it means politically.
The first thing that I learned about being a woman in my close circles was that women only get a paid-job outside the home when they become widows and orphans, and that these jobs were often typewriter/secretary-level jobs.
This was the case in my family: A woman working in a paid job was either not married or her father has passed away and at best she had graduated from high school and did these kinds of things easily since she knew a foreign language. I was studying psychology at the faculty of literature instead of going to the med school. The obstacle which is called glass ceiling has been internalized and functioning.
Anyways, even if occasionally, the few Jewish women studying at university left their jobs when they got married or had children because they did not have any concerns about economic independence. Marriage was a livelihood for them. And it was the same both in my family circle and in the all-girls high school that I graduated from. It was only when I left the Jewish world, the idea that economic independence is necessary for the liberation of women became important!
As it was only men who earned a living in a traditional Jewish family, I did not realize that women were constantly working at home. The ways in which women are condemned to men’s money in the case of traditional division of labor slipped my notice. Yet, in the interview I conducted with Christine Delphy for Somut journal, Christine spoke about a completely different family setting: This interview was published in Birikim, but let me remind it. Christine’s mother and father were pharmacists, and they owned a pharmacy where they worked together. They used to go to work together in the mornings and returned home for lunch, and Christine realized that it is her mother who warmed the food and put it in front of her father. In the meantime, her father read the newspaper. Nilgün Öneş published a cartoon in Somut that depicts this situation very well. A woman wearing an apron works in the kitchen while a man is reading a book titled “Women’s Problems”. Neither in my family nor in the families of my classmates, the setting was like this. There is division of labor and nobody realizes how this division of labor enslaves women.
But I already had Simone de Beauvoir running in my veins, I wanted to have a profession and I went to France to study.
A memory from those days: professional tour guide courses were opened at Istanbul University. I signed up as I know other languages and I wanted to travel in Turkey. You had to pass an exam to start the courses. I successfully passed the exam! However, I faced more difficult obstacles: The family of the fiancé wanted to have me with them on the weekends, and being tied to their apron strings, I gave up my idea of being a tour guide.
But in time as ––in Gülnur’s words– the CHASTE young Jewish girl role that was expected for me no longer fit me, I left the cute fiancé and the Jewish world and entered first the wider world of Turkish youth and then left for Paris.
It was during the years that I was in Paris that the winds of women’s liberation from America had reached France. But did I participate in that movement? No!
I was interested in what had been done to the Turkish leftists after the Site Student Dormitory had been raided. I was working in the student association and faced an utterly male society! The obstacles at that point were ideological. I entered a Marxist, and almost a Leninist environment. Few of the students were women but nobody hardly ever talked about the situation of women!
So much so that even though my French flatmate who was also the person who sublet the room to me told me about the meetings organized by women and what she learned there, I was not able to take it too seriously. I had my blinders on, and I was concerned only with social formations, center-periphery relations, fractions of the Turkish left, the contradictions pertaining to compromising or not compromising, and my quest for finding my way in this maze!
Meanwhile, women in Paris were gathering and discussing at the Academy of Fine Arts. The famous “I had an abortion” declaration with 343 signatures had been written and published there. Interestingly, my flatmate who never had an abortion and most importantly who is from a devout Jewish community signed the declaration to form solidarity with the women. I did not understand the significance and importance of this signature at the time!
These leftist years brought about their own contradictions. On the one hand, I got involved in politics, on the other, I stayed away from politics that concerns myself. This was also the same for some women who participated in the left in Turkey: their lives got more liberated, but simultaneously, the path to do politics for themselves was intellectually blocked! This was because until the 1980s the theory of liberation is leftism and Marxism the teachings of which are gender blind. In short, the ideological and organizational barrier brings about its own contradiction, but it takes time to think about these things!!
In the meantime, although I did not realize that I am a woman, the men around me were quick to remind me of this fact. Leftism imposed a life that contradicted the promise of liberation it created: seeing oneself as having the right to harass girls or to have sexual relations with comrade women while looking for a virgin wife. If I turned down men, then I was immediately accused of being a bourgeois. Why didn’t I let them reap the fruits of 68’s sexual freedom wave? It is simply because I am conservative and bourgeois! Over time things got worse and they started to explain my presence and refusal to abide by their advances with me being an undercover cop.
In fact, it all boiled down to the fact that I am thinking of myself as a human being! If I am a human being, then I have the right to refuse, I have a right to be a leftist, I have a right to try to learn. But they are men and when they look at me, they see a woman! Fortunately, there were Greeks and Vietnamese who stayed at the dorm and they undertook my theoretical political education!
Male students from Turkey were interested in using girls like me who could not tell chalk from cheese as a tool or if the girls gave permission as sexual objects. I noticed that the decisions taken after hours of discussions which lasted until the early hours of the morning were easily put into the form they wanted as soon as I went to sleep. I gradually realized that my efforts were in vain.
Meanwhile Ecevit won the elections, and it was time for me to return to Turkey! I took a bunch of feminist journals and magazines with me and I came back. The most important catalyzing event on my path to becoming a feminist took place at that time. My boyfriend, whom I thought to be a leftist, when I got pregnant, told me that it is the duty of women to get protected and pressured me into having an abortion.
I was utterly perplexed! In terms of being a man, there was no difference between my intellectual leftist boyfriend and the most ordinary man! And I risk having a child out of wedlock in order not to hate myself and to be able to look at my face in the mirror. These are all in my first article published in Somut journal.
When Somut journal was published in 1983, I was again in Paris. As Gülnur narrated, I wanted to prevent the name of page 4 from being Feminist because I wanted a widespread feminist movement, one that can involve housewives! And I was thinking that it is not a good idea to come knocking at housewives’ doors with such a word.
I have had many such cowardice. I tried to hit the brakes when we were taking the decision to march against battering saying, “What if we do not get enough participation, what if we experience as a dissuasive disappointment?” But the young women who were active in leftist politics in Turkey at the time outweighed and the march became successful and made a tremendous impact.
Yazko changed hands and its inventive founder had been put out of business. Şirin Tekeli was talking about establishing our own publishing house and we started working. The establishment of the Women’s Circle was announced on March 8, 1984. Cumhuriyet newspaper reports the news saying, “Women’s rights defenders have established a company”. While some of us only cared about publishing and translating the feminist classics into Turkish, for me the Women’s Circle was our first legal personality. I valued this very much. I also cared about having a space and providing an address to women. Nurser Öztunalı’s 15 squares meter office in Beşiktaş became the first venue for our meetings. It has a library and a register where we record what happened. We also found a Book Club. The economists have a clubhouse which they did not use in Şişli. We were using it once every week. We discussed whether or not men should be allowed in our meetings. I also had a strange attitude with respect to that issue: Some women had reservations about appearing in public with men and I said that we should make this an opportunity for them. Our place opened its doors to men once a month! We even had dreams about a Women’s Coffee Shop.
We hit the headlines in the Book Fair which we participated in without getting the books ready: We went there with our mirrors and everyone saw themselves in those tall dressing mirrors. Mirrors with the inscription Women’s Circle around them. Following us political groups began to take part in the Book Fair! You can find information and pictures about this event in Kadınca. This is the first event that I enjoyed very much because it had high symbolic value: We turned around the expression “tweezers in one hand and a mirror in the other”! Women and only women were to write on those mirrors whatever they wanted about being a woman. We spared a notebook for men. As far as I recall, in what they wrote misogyny had skyrocketed.
Kadınca, published by Duygu Asena, asked us to write an article. But we reject the offer since some of our friends think very lowly of that magazine. However, when I left the Women’s Circle, I accepted to write for Kadınca. I thought that it would have helped us expand our word to masses of women and a dialogue with the readers would be initiated. However, that did not happen! I wrote every month for a year. And towards the summer when I gave the title “Let’s not lose weight” to my article, the page ends!
In 1985, with Şirin’s suggestion, were wrote, sign and distribute a petition for the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of which Turkey is also a signatory: Women’s Petitition. Following that, we founded the Association Against Discrimination and started gathering there. I do not remember if the thematic meetings were held there or not.
We organized a festival after the March Against Battering. This has a special place amongst the moments that I love the most. Şirin Tekeli arranged the Kariye Square and we had our festival there. The idea belonged to Defne Sandalcı. She said let’s do a festival. During that festival, a party member –whose name I do not recall now– from the women’s branches of Republican People’s Party (CHP) was there to do propaganda work. As I am hesitant about using a microphone, what I said was not very clear but interestingly enough after that the quota for women became an item in the agenda of political parties.
Another important moment is the discussions in the Book Club. Gülnur was talking about different feminisms and I found myself among the radical feminists. She was saying “This is kind of unfair to you, but…” This is because I embrace Delphy’s theory and I do not understand what socialist feminist theory contributes. For me, this theory reflects the desire of socialist women to dominate the movement and not to give priority to gender politics. So, it sounds to me as if they are trying to refrain from applying the Marxist analysis they use to women’s situation. As if it is not possible to apply class politics to women. Also, I feel like it is a discussion that is imported from abroad. At the time, I was thinking that I have yet to sufficiently discuss or understand our situation and the situation of women in Turkey, and therefore, this distinction did not seem relevant to me.
Mirrors at the Book Fair, the festival, the Divorce Protest of the women who gathered at the Women’s Culture House, and the Purple Pin are the feminist demonstrations and actions that I love the most. The petition and the march did not excite me that much. They seem to me like leftist forms with limited symbolic or creative sides.
Meanwhile, a gathering was organized with the call of feminists in Ankara. They call it the Feminist Congress. At the end of the discussions and debates, the Liberation of Women Declaration was written. This is another immensely valuable and meaningful declaration. At that time, Feminist and Kaktüs journals were being published, and the Declaration was published with the signatures of Women’s Association Against Discrimination and Ankara Thursday Group. And a decision to organize a campaign to fight violence against women was taken. This is the period which Gülnur narrates as the time of the campaigns.
Again, during this period, the Human Rights Association (IHD) called for a Women’s Congress. We got together to think about the program. I was working on a draft. Women from Progressive Women’s Association (IKD) oppose it because they had not yet become feminists. I proposed headings such as “Women in Law, Women in History…” and “The Women’s Perspective”. Apparently “Women’s Perspective” sounded too feminist, too jargonistic. It was stated that not everyone there were feminists. The headings that I proposed were changed and took a completely apolitical form: Law and Women, History and Women. Again, all that labor was wasted: All the subjects were accepted as long as the jargon is not feminist. I call this meeting the Socialist Women’s Congress. Women from the left who will form a socialist feminist group left the meeting and later created a feminist organization. Some of the women who still do feminist work are women who came together back then.
I feel close to the Feminist journal; Ayşe Düzkan, Handan, Filiz Keresteci, İdil, Minu were there and they engaged in the politics of “the personal is political”. Kaktüs journal lasted longer but it does not warm my insides as does the Feminist journal.
During September 12, 1980, I returned to France and learned whatever I know there. There were books which were published and meetings that were organized for the 10th year anniversary of the Women’s Liberation Movement. I follow Françoise Collin, whom Gülnur had translated, to Belgium. Margaretha Von Trotta also came. Her magazine devoted a lot of pages to culture, it was not rigid, dry theoretical, and I love it.
Women came together in Istanbul via the opportunity created by Yazko; they were doing consciousness raising meetings in small groups; and I was only able to join big meetings once every three months. Then I began to send articles to Somut and returned to Turkey for the second time!
I skipped our discussions at Bilsak and Bilar as well as the significance of Yazko for the formation of our movement. I also skipped the Temporary Women’s Museum, which I love very much. The idea for this museum came from Nakiye and it was a very fun museum. We also engaged in theoretical discussions there: is it a women’s movement or a women’s liberation movement?
As I have stated earlier, tonight I wanted to talk about the obstacles and the contradictions that these obstacles entailed.
Thank you for listening.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan