How these women tried to change representation of women in the Turkish media
Celebrating International Women's Day: an old story to tell the future.
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I want to share with you an article I wrote for the Canadian magazine Herizons in 2017. This is the story of a group of Kurdish women that started a news agency focused on women to change the way how media talk about women.
JINHA (Jin Haber Ajansi - Woman News Agency) reported news about women's issues in Turkey. A part of them were detained by the Turkish government and harassed many times because of their work as journalists. JINHA’s website was blocked more than 30 times by the Turkish government. Unfortunately, in November 2016 Turkish authorities shut the agency down definitively.
In May 2016 I met one of them. Their goal was to present the world through the perspective of women and they wanted to change the language of media when reporting news about women.
In the same days, I interviewed a member of KJA, the Free Women's Congress, who talked about the condition of Kurdish women and how they are facing gender equality.
I wanted to report the interview with JINHA and KJA about their work for women's rights because at that time most of the media focused the attention on the Kurdish "female-fighters" that fought against ISIS.
Although my reporting is 5 years old, this story has many elements to be told, such as freedom of speech, women's rights, the language in the media about the woman, Kurdish feminism and so on. This story can teach the next challenges for gender equality in the Middle East and beyond.
Women’s News Agency in Turkey Targeted
Article published in Herizons Magazine - Summer 2017.
After the failed coup to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last summer [2016, AN] , the country’s government declared a state of emergency that gave it powers to bypass Parliament and publish decrees in order to repress political opposition.
Erdogan’s AKP party (the Justice and Development party, founded by Erdogan in 2001) rules with an iron fist against its opponents. As a result, according to Human Rights Watch, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses were shut down by the end of December 2016. Among them was Jin Haber Ajansi ( JINHA), one of the world’s first feminist news agencies.
JINHA, a Kurdish women’s news agency, was founded in 2012 by five journalists to present news through women’s perspectives, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish. Prior to the agency being shut down by Erdogan’s government in late October, Yara, a member of JINHA in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, described how media censorship had targeted the agency.
“The government blocked our website more than 30 times and detained some of our members,” Yara (not her real name) said. “Some of our friends have been detained just because they were covering protests. Just because we are women, police and Turkey’s special forces ask us, ‘Why are you here to cover the news? You should be at home.’”
According to Yara, female journalists were arrested for covering the 24-hour curfews put in place by the government in Kurdish regions of Turkey, where opposition is strong, to quell dissent. The government declared more than 58 such curfews.
Quick explainer: The conflict between Turkey and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) restarted in August 2015, breaking the solution process that began over 2 years earlier. In the southeastern region (or North Kurdistan), where the population is mostly Kurd, the Turkish government declared more than 58 officially confirmed, open-ended and round-the-clock curfews in the area with the purpose to fight back against PKK armed groups. Learn more reading this article I written at that time.
The highest price, however, has been paid by the civilian population. More than 250 civilians have been killed and 350,000 others have been displaced in the region. Detainees have been beaten and sexually abused by Turkish police, Human Rights Watch reported last October. In a 43-page report, Human Rights Watch said a climate of fear has prevailed since the failed coup and the arrest of thousands under a state of emergency. Female journalists are today unrepentant in their criticism.
“We do not bow down to the decrees of the AKP, which is misogynistic and counts women as nothing,” said JINHA reporter Rojda Oguz at a joint press conference organized in November by media agencies. “We are once again facing a period when massacres in Kurdistan are recurring.”
Most of JINHA’s journalists were volunteers. In the Diyarbakir office there were 15 reporters and the agency had photographers and journalists in every main city in Turkey.
JINHA’s website referred to their vision. “The press continues to reinforce the male-dominated system in the public conscience,” it said. “Until today, the male system has directed reactions toward the women. With a masculine language, the woman has been mentioned as a pornographic material or a villain.”
JINHA sought to change the language used by media outlets in Turkey while protecting women. JINHA reporters, for example, don’t publicize information that can be used to bully women through prejudices.
“In Turkey, when we report that a woman has been raped, we don’t specify the time and the place where the violence has been committed. We don’t even use surnames, but only [first] names,” Yara explained. “The best way to raise women’s voices is to tell their stories. We try to reach other people with the stories of women.”
The struggle of JINHA to throw off gender prejudice and objectification is shared by female Kurdish fighters in the region who are fighting IS. As writer Vian Faraj described in the Kurdistan Tribune, Kurdish female fighters involved in the battle against ISIS have “changed men’s mentalities and perceptions on women’s abilities and rights.” Nonetheless, most Western media have told this story in a sensationalist way, according to Faraj, without an analysis of the context.
The female Kurdish fighter story “has become something exotic and sexy,” according to Aishe Gökhanl, a member of the Free Women’s Congress (KJA), the largest umbrella organization for women in the Kurdistan region of Turkey.
“You can’t detach Kurdish women from other contexts where they are involved, such as economics, ecology or politics. It becomes fetish stuff,” said Gökhanl.
Gökhanl adds that Kurdish women’s rights have improved significantly in in recent years thanks to the Kurdish women’s movement in Turkey.
“Kurdish women are not the same as 20 years ago. The woman’s role changed, starting from the rural areas. Today, for the first time, Kurdish women recognize themselves as a resisting force as warriors,” Gökhanl said.
As Faraj wrote: “Moral identity and reputation is no longer related to the virginity of women; these ideas have changed very rapidly, beyond of our expectations, and gained a new meaning and a new concept.”
Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist and a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, noted in an Al-Jazeera report, “Though Kurdish women have been engaging in armed struggle for decades, this attention was unthinkable until recently.” Turkish fashion magazines, she adds, are part of the problem. They tend to “appropriate the life- or-death struggle of Kurdish women for their own purposes [and] some reporters pick the most attractive fighters for interviews,” she said.
There are significant Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurdish and international women’s rights organizations continue to report on issues facing Kurdish women, including gender equality, forced marriages, honour killings and even female genital mutilation in Iraq. The Kurdish women’s news agency in Turkey, despite its current silence, may one day again help to expand women’s roles in Kurdish resistance movements in Turkey and in Kurdish societies as a whole.
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My name is Dario Sabaghi, a freelance journalist. I am interested in human rights international news with a focus on the MENA area.
Check out my work at dariosabaghi.com.
You can follow me on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi