Kurdish Women in Turkish Cities

by Fatma Karahan

Especially lately, many women from Kurdistan have had to leave their homes with their husbands or fathers because of pressure from the Turkish government, or for economic or other reasons. They come to Istanbul, where they find themselves in a foreign culture, with a different language. These Kurdish women in Turkish urban areas confront many problems.

In May 1989, a group of Kurdish women made the first survey of such women in Turkey. The survey consisted of 48 questions, which aimed at showing the women's experiences. Significantly, the problems we encountered in conducting the survey itself reveals much about the conditions Kurdish women confront. It was extremely difficult to carry out the interviews without the permission of the women's husband, or another male head of her family. Before anything else, we had to persuade the men that the survey was important, for without their consent the women would never relate the difficulties they experienced. Thus, apart from the more abstract fear of getting in trouble with the state, the women's reluctance to speak came directly from the men in their own households. When Hatice, from Batman, for example, told her husband about the interview, he was so angry that she called us in a panic to cancel her interview.

The survey includes 148 Kurdish women of different ages and occupations. Eighty one percent of the women knew no Turkish when they first arrived in the city. They experienced a total sense of estrangement and felt they could not even go outside alone.

In answer to the question "What is your mother tongue?", 81.1 percent said Kurdish, 12.8 percent said Turkish, and 6.8 percent responded both languages. The respondents who had forgotten the Kurdish language were mostly women under age 25, who had been born in Istanbul or who had a non-Kurdish mother.

About 68.5 percent of the women interviewed lived with their mothers-in-law, especially during the first years of their marriage. This percentage was greater than expected. It shows that the extended family tradition which prevails in Kurdistan is also continued in urban areas. Some 87.6 percent of the women aged 30 or older were married to a kinsman or hemseri (someone from the same place of origin). It is very rare for Kurdistani women to marry foreigners; there are many problems to confront if they do. Although families on both sides object to this kind of marriage, Turkish families in particular do not want a Kurdish daughter-in-law. They call Kurds "dirty, rude, rough".

Does People's Behavior Change When They Learn You Are Kurdish? If So, How?

Over 72 percent of the interviewees said that there was a negative change. "They start to laugh at me with contempt", "I am regarded as secondary", and "They humiliate me" were some of the responses. "We have neighbors who don't even talk to us", "They harass me, curse at me", and "I was beaten by three people at school because I am Kurdish", "I am labelled as ignorant" were other answers. Some 26.36 percent said they noticed no change in others behavior. These people were mostly under age 25 and had grown up in Istanbul.

Berdel--Bride Price

We then asked about berdel (the exchange of women for a bride price), an old Kurdish tradition which still prevails in Istanbul. Eighty nine out of the 148 women surveyed were married. A bride price had been paid for 12 of these women, who were mostly 40 years old or older. Apart from this, ten women said they had been married in berdel fashion.

How Did You Marry?

Although it changes according to age groups, 87.6 percent of the women said they had not chosen their own husband. Their families had chosen their husband for them. Only 12.4 percent of the women had met their husbands beforehand and decided to marry them. When the women's educational level, their economic dependency, and the importance of traditional values, the tragedy of involuntary marriage, from which it is extremely hard to extricate oneself, becomes even more striking.

Divorce

Only four of the 148 women had been able to obtain a divorce. Over 75 percent answered "yes" to the question "Do you think that couples who do not get along should get a divorce?". Most women in the worse conditions felt they should resign themselves to the situation and did not even consider divorce. Even those who looked upon divorce as a viable option were not successful in obtaining a divorce.

Division of Labor in the Household

The women considered this question trivial. Sharing the housework was not even considered as an issue in such an oppressive situation, when they had to ask their husbands' permission to do anything. Seventy of 148 the women surveyed were housewives. Five said that their husbands helped them on a few occasions, usually when the wives were ill. Among the 39 women working outside the home, six said their husbands shared the housework, with only one saying this was on a fifty-fifty basis.