Monday, July 4, 2011

Sati and Ayse

Who lives in Turkey?  There are all kinds of statistics available to help answer this question.  The total population comes to about 72 million.  Muslims represent 97% of those folks.  Approximately 40 million people are of working age, but about 26 million are actively seeking employment.  The unemployment rate currently stand at about 10%.
Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Either mean everything in the world or nothing at all when you meet someone face to face.

Yesterday we visited a Women's Center located in one of the outer regions of Ankara.  We met Sati and Ayse, just two of the women who are part of that particular community.

Earlier in the week a professor from METU (Middle East Technical University, in Ankara) lectured us about the educational system in Turkey.  Like in Greece, state is responsible for  all planning, programming, execution, monitoring and controlling the entire realm of education, including curriculum and textbooks.  Preschool is not mandatory and is attended by about 30% of that age population.  First through fifth grades comprise elementary school.  Sixth through eight grade is considered early secondary school.  School is compulsory through eighth grade, although as recently as 1997 only 5 years of schooling was mandatory.  At the end of eighth grade all students take an exam which will determine which kind of high school you will attend: 1) general high school; 2) an Anatolia school [college-prep level, includes foreign languages]; 3) science school; 4) fine arts school; 5) military school; 6) social sciences school.  The Anatolian and science schools groom Turkey's best and brightest young intellectual minds.  Entrance into Bilkent University (top university in Turkey) is highly coveted, but available to only the very brightest students in the country.  Those that can't get into Bilkent go across the Atlantic, enrolling in the ivy league with ease.

But not all students continue on to high school.  For those students, other "informal" educational opportunities available, funded by the state.  These schools include 1) practical arts for girls; 2) technical school for adults; 3) community education; 4) vocational training; 5) work training.  As you can imagine, my fellow American Fulbrighters (13 women and 3 men) nearly brought the discussion of education to a halt when we saw something labeled "practical arts for girls" on the presenter's slide.  "What, exactly, does that mean?" we demanded.  We could hardly wrap our brains around a culture and educational system that boldly proclaims and endorses the notion that many of its girls don't really need education beyond the eighth grade level because their lot in life is "simply" to get married and have children.  Cooking, sewing, household management are practical arts.  The temperature in the conference room rose precipitously as we pummeled the presenter with questions about this aspect of the Turkish education system.

This featureless descripton of the Turkish education system transformed into the beautiful faces, rich voices, and warm touch of Sati and Ayse at the Women's Center.

The Women's Center that we visited is, essentially, one of many locations that serves approximately 2,000 women in Ankara.  It was founded in 1994, and at that time was financially supported by the state.  But with recent changes in political power, funding has come primarily through private donors (the wife of a prior MInister of Culture).  The Women's Center offers a variety of classes and services.  The most basic classes offered are on human rights and literacy.  Beyond that women will find classes in jewelery design, skin care, theater, Turkish folk music, chorus.  Classes are designed to bolster women's sense of self worth and to improve their marketable skills, thereby "integrating" them into modern Turkey.    Perhaps the closest thing I can compare the Women's Center to is Chicago's Hull House of the early 1900s.

Sati first came to the Women's Center in 1994 and might now be considered its location's executive director.  She is certainly the center's charismatic spokeswoman; and although she could only communicate to us through our Fulbright guide (Secil) Sati's enthusiasm was utterly infectious.  Sati had no formal schooling beyond eighth grade and was a housewife and mother when she first started coming to the Center.  There, her sense of identity and self was nurtured and blossomed.  She became particularly interested in acting and began performing with the troupe from the center at locations around the city.  She started to actively recruit other housewives to participate in events and classes at the women's center and worked closely with professors from METU who believe in the center and its mission.

At first blush, the Center, its classes and its mission don't seem terribly radical.  At least to a group of Americans.  But getting deeper into Sati's and Ayse's personal stories illuminate realities of life as an uneducated woman in Turkey.  Despite the fact that Turkish women won suffrage in 1930, subjugation of women and domestic violence against women in the household is reality.  As Sati became more and more engaged with the work of the Center (performing, traveling, recruiting) pressure was building up in her husband-dominated homelife.  At one point Sati mustered the courage to say to her husband, "I am going with the Center.  You will either come with me, or I will go alone."  I'm not sure if this referred to specific tour that she went on with the center, or was more philosophical in nature,  but her meaning was clear.  Her husband "went with her."  And although he will not attend Sati's theater performances (photos of which are plastered all over the walls of the Center), he demonstrates his support in more subtle ways.   Just yesterday Sati, who is at least 40 years old, took the road test for her driver's license.  Upon leaving home to take the test her husband said to her, "I know you will pass it!"  And thanks to Sati's bravery and courage to grab hold of the opportunities made available to her though the center, she has passed this spirit onto her own daughters, all of whom have attended university--one is currently a doctor.

Ayse's story is a bit different.  The Women's Center was a refuge when her husband kicked her out of his house about 12 years ago.  With an 8 year old son and no place to go, Ayse came to the Women's Center where they helped her get on her feet: houseing, meals, educational support and eventually to learning self-supporting handicraft skills.  Her face brightened as she proudly displayed her work to us.
About 6 women from the Center hosted us to a full lunch.  Two men were also in attendance; they are affiliated with METU and teach classes at the center.  One of the men strummed on the "baglama" while one of his adult-women-students sang for us.  We were audence to a variety of folk songs.  Some of the tunes had an upbeat tempo that got Ayse, Sati, and some of the Fulbrighters up and dancing.  Other songs were obviously laments; mournful emotion filled my soul.  Even though I could not understand the lyrics of the song, the stories of the women from the center was my own text.

As I boarded the Fulbright bus upon our departure, I thought back to the moment I had walked into the center, just a couple of hours earlier.  "Tour and lunch at the Women's Center" had been the nameless, faceless event on the Fulbright calendar.  But Sati and Ayse performed their magic upon my heart, and I left with tears in my eyes.


Beautiful music

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