As we deliver materials a woman says, “give me a broom, I am cleaning the tent with my hands.” To whose ears these words would reach and how the burden of taking care of the children, the elderly, the disabled as well as the men, who have not even once thought about these issues, would be lifted off the shoulders of women… These are some of the issues awaiting to be addressed.
In Istanbul and perhaps in more than 70 cities in Turkey, life is returning to its normal rhythm. Over a month has passed after the earthquake, and the attention span of the society when it comes to following current events in Turkey has already petered out. It is not out of the ordinary to question if everyone living in the country has realized the enormity of what had happened and to suspect if we all have equal access to information. First-hand experience of only one epicenter or a couple of villages testifies to the fact that there are at least months before life “returns to normal” in the earthquake region. So, besides our duty not to let the destruction and its reasons be swept under the rug and forgotten, our responsibility to address and tackle the aftereffects has not come to an end. Responsibility is not something that evaporates when you take no notice of it.
Despite the constant obstruction of the state and the ruling powers, the history of solidarity by social initiatives and civic organizations in Turkey is very long and remarkable. Even in the last couple of years, the destruction brought about by the war in Syria, the state of emergency, the hardships experienced during the pandemic, fires, and floods made us well-versed in solidarity and struggle. We have become knowledgeable and even experts in so many issues about which we had no previous knowledge; it has not been possible to lead our daily lives in the geography of the Middle East ordinarily. After the earthquake, in acute situations and in such a turmoil, a pool of experience –including the experience of working with no previous training in the rubble to save lives in the absence of official authorities, knowledge on how to properly construct the buildings, how to acquire water, food, hygiene materials, tents and containers and where to send them, how to overcome obstructions– has been accumulated. We have seen that in the face of a large-scale destruction such experience and knowledge can contribute much. Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Relief, which was formed on the night of February 6th, is one of the organizations that acts to this end. We try to move with a constantly updated approach that is based on continuity and that considers the problems in the middle of a situation that is marked by utter failure of coordination.
It has been said time and again that following the earthquake the state was inadequate in its response, that it abandoned the people and all living beings by way of not sending the necessary support in the first hours (and days) of the earthquake, that professional search and rescue teams and vital support were not provided. After all this time, we still are in the first stage of the earthquake. In other words, basic problems, such as providing water, housing, food, hygiene are not solved. That said, we should not forget and make sure that it is remembered that people were not able to mourn for their losses and the grief of the people has not been given the value that it deserves.
As Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Relief, for over a month, we have been trying, to the best of our abilities –as we are a group of women who came together after a call and who find strength in solidarity– to contribute to the provision of certain needs, to take a part by turn in the Women’s Tent that is located in a tent city in Adıyaman, and to keep on procuring what is needed in Hatay based on the information we receive from the earthquake region. Women from the region inform us, and the need for basic and fundamental materials is never ending: things necessary for survival and building a life, such as food, hygiene materials, housing. For over a month now we have been trying to make these materials reach the region, to address the demands of the women that are pushed into the background, and to form contact and relations with women.
Seen from a feminist lens, this is a multidimensional process. In this multidimensional disaster, we are re-experiencing the difficulties that women face in their lives and in accessing the public sphere. The precautions that were never taken, the solutions that were never provided are still there even after we witnessed the horror of how those destroyed buildings were planned and built—they reappear in problems that emerge in every area of life. The earthquake is not over, the destruction is still going on, and as the social inequalities once again become crystal clear, this attitude which has been in power for years now keep causing new problems and unjust suffering.
As we live through these days, the emotional and painful dimension of rubble removal following the completion of search and rescue operations is not addressed, or simply, what had happened to dead bodies is not talked about; nor is it possible to find any state official who can be held accountable for this issue. How will it indeed be possible to hold anyone accountable for all those people who remain unaccounted for even in the official death toll and whose funerals were not served? We see once again agonizingly that the already existent disrespect for human life does not spare the dead bodies.
As the public is talking about the unprovided tents for people who have to keep on living in tents, nobody takes the responsibility of the risks of asbestos, possible diseases, the garbage piling up, and the dust that covers the cities. It might be assumed that worrying about the garbage that is left behind by the procured support materials or talking about the waste that is being produced in huge quantities in the region is a luxury since the region is seen as a rubble zone filled with debris. Would it really be acceptable to leave behind the plastic garbage and waste remains of the materials that we delivered in the region at another time?
It is not possible to foresee for how long people will keep on living in the tents. For women, tents are the new areas of domestic labor where they have to clean, provide for the clothing and food for their children, and look after men. On top of these, they are taking care of more people in the tents. As we deliver materials a woman says, “give me a broom, I am cleaning the tent with my hands.” To whose ears these words would reach and how the burden of taking care of the children, the elderly, the disabled as well as the men, who have not even once thought about these issues, would be lifted off the shoulders of women… These are some of the issues awaiting to be addressed. As gender division of labor consolidates, the public support mechanisms that are a must for alleviating the burden of unpaid domestic labor that might become a heavy burden for women at times of crises are wanting. What we see is that men have the luxury to not know how old their children are, what the needs of the women they live together with are, or even to not know that bread is made with flour. All this demonstrates clearly the current (mandatory) life-making position of women. The already existing patriarchy consolidates with the earthquake.
It probably sounds basic, but it is blatant that ensuring easy access to water, health care, hygiene is vital for women. A woman we met when we were delivering the support materials said, “It is as if in a moment we travelled back in time. We are in primitive ages”. There is no time to ask if five liters of water, five kilograms of flour, three underwear for children, and two pairs of slippers that is delivered to a tent would be enough, immediately new needs and problems arise. Making sure that there is constant supply of clean water and access to toilet and showers, ensuring that children eat healthy food instead of junk food, providing hygiene (toilet paper, hygienic pad, protection from infections and contagious diseases), and most basically securing shelters that are safer and more secure than the tents… Adequate lighting, safe movement, participation in the division of labor, being informed about whom to reach, a well-coordinated life in tents, presence of mechanisms to report cases of harassment, and being heard are fundamental.
Defining and ensuring psychosocial support is also a part of the same whole. Making sure that post-traumatic support is available for everyone and taking the burden off the shoulders of the women (for instance the burden of women being responsible for the health of their children) necessitates a plan. The children do not only need shelter and food, but they also need books, games, socializing, access to education, healing from trauma and all this requires a comprehensive, big and systematic workplan. The needs of the teenagers and their participation in life is another issue that remains unaddressed. We must move by addressing the link between the lack of access to social life and the possibility of marriages at early ages.
In this country where women employment has not exceeded 30% for years, one of the current urgencies is to ensure that young and adult women continue their education and find formal employment after the earthquake and not get stuck in the cycle of caring for the children, the elderly and most importantly, the men. In the coming months, in a situation where women will be fixed to care labor under the pretext of disaster, the effects of the earthquake will play the most important role in determining the lives of the women. It is obvious that re-attributing gender roles to women in this process will only strengthen the devastating effects of the earthquake.
One of the fields that feminist movement still fights against is the limitations imposed to women’s access to information and knowledge. For years, we have been emphasizing that access to information and knowledge is important when it comes to violence, breaking the silence, being vocal about issues and taking action. Disasters and crises are amongst the moments when the bonds between women who transform experience into knowledge. In other words, access to learning from each other’s experiences is one of the most important tools that women have. We know that a process that puts forward the earthquake as a pretext not to prioritize the formation of women’s solidarity and to render invisible the rights, demands and struggles of women will exacerbate the harmful effects of destruction on women.
Some people migrated from the earthquake region to other cities. As we know from the fact that almost a quarter of the whole population of the country is living in Istanbul, the governments’ troubling policies on migration, employment and the value of life will be on the agenda, and they will have to be addressed and tackled. Migration with no planning and policy is one of the fundamental issues of this country. Given hundreds of thousands of people migrated from Malatya and given that thousands settled in Mersin, are there a plan and a policy to address this situation?
The news about the new construction works is totally horrifying. Let alone the fact that arable lands might be opened to construction, planning to construct new buildings only in one month’s time as a solution is an instance of complete untrust. On the other hand, with its huge population, Istanbul is occupied with it own troubles. I think there is something selfish and self-serving about focusing on the probable Istanbul earthquake only a few days after the disaster that already happened. That said, what we witness today begs the question whether necessary precautions will be taken in Istanbul, the city of massive concrete buildings.
After the devastating earthquake in Tokyo that claimed the lives of 140,000 exactly 100 years ago, Bertolt Brecht criticized the media for publishing the photographs of the people in destroyed buildings and on top of rubbles; and praised a newspaper clip with the headlines “The Steel Stood”. What Brecht emphasized is that seeing the building undamaged by the earthquake and focusing on steel is a call to not cry but think, to get organized and to act in a way to demand a solution. The earthquake did not end, we still have the responsibility to increase the number of steels that will stand.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
 Jacqueline Rose. Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.