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Turkey : Bursa women aspire to run the province

Monday 9 March 2009, by Kristen Stevens

Once the Ottoman capital, today’s green city of textiles is the essence of a common Turkish paradox: Bursa has long been a conservative city but many women there are making their way in male-dominated businesses Ğ including the run for the city’s top job

Sena Kaleli has plans to lead women to entrepreneurship, and with it, create a model for the country. Kaleli is running for mayor of Bursa, the fourth largest city in the country. “For me, this duty will also be the beginning of a popular social movement,” she told Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a phone interview Tuesday.

The opposition People’s Republican Party, or CHP, has named Kaleli as its candidate in the race for mayor of the greater municipality against an incumbent from the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. In one of the city’s largest and wealthiest districts, a young female architect, Işıl Zeliha Gençoğlu Maydaer, is representing the AKP in her run for mayor of Nilufer.

In the spring of 1869, scandal struck Bursa when two men were arrested for the crime of joining an all-female gathering in a meadow during the annual hyacinth festival. On the surface, election season this spring doesn’t reflect any such separation of men and women in politics. Courageous and objective, Turkish women stand up to our own nation’s mistakes, Kaleli said. “Every Turkish woman is like Rachel Corrie [the young American woman killed standing before Israeli tanks in Gaza]”.

Nothing works in politics unless you include people in the decision-making process, Kaleli said. “Throughout my career in non-governmental organizations, I’ve always worked with people from the outskirts of Bursa,” she said. “We would like to create a transformation where the mentality of distributing alms disappears and people earn their own bread. In order to achieve this, micro-credits have a big role to play.”

Defying disappointment

In recent months the AKP pledged to increase their contingent of female mayoral and city council candidates by 15 percent and 30 percent respectively. But their results are far from these numbers, and women representing all parties in local positions stand at less than three percent around the country. Bursa is an exception. The city also has a female deputy in Parliament, where women make up less than 10 percent of the posts.

In the lead up to Turkey’s parliamentary elections in 2007, the crew of Spain’s biggest news program was filming a large women’s rally in support of CHP in a passage connecting centuries-old bazaars with shops run by women with the Ulu Cami mosque that was built in 1399. A man approached the women shouting “You’re ruining the country.” A woman responded, “What do you want? Sharia law, a theocracy?” “Yes, that’s what we want,” the man replied, still shouting. “Don’t film him, it gives Turkey a bad image,” another woman said. “Go ahead,” said another. “This is a democracy. That’s why we’re here.”

With local elections a little more than a month away, the air was not as contentious in the same place a couple of weeks ago. Rather something else came into focus: Female merchants working in the bazaars, an unusual sight in Turkey. Dozens of women crowded into a children’s clothing store where saleswomen stood on stools shouting out rock-bottom prices. Further along a women’s handicraft bazaar appeared. In many of the shops in the city’s legendary Silk Bazaar, women, mostly wearing headscarves, were managing high-end purchases. Women also run some prominent hotels and restaurants in town.

Asked if she would be participating in elections, shopkeeper Neslihan Öztürk said she would be voting even though her mother told her not to waste her time on politics. “I will vote for the person who seems most honest and hard-working,” she said, still unsure of her choice.

Wedding dress seamstress Ayşe Leyla Atlier began working in Bursa’s copper market when she was a teenager 50 years ago. The oldest of three brothers and three sisters, she said her mother was the family’s sole breadwinner. After 20 years in the copper market, when men tricked her mother out of the business, she and her mother began work as tailors, sewing everything from wedding dresses to curtains. Atlier said she had never voted “because no candidate ever seemed to represent me.”

An uncovered woman and man stopped with a small boy to discuss whether to pray then or later in the massive Ulu mosque. The woman determined that they would pray later and they walked on.

Ahead, dozens of men gathered on benches in a small park beside the mosque. Beside the men, stood a large smiling billboard image of a young female candidate for district mayor. AKP candidate Maydaer holds a degree in architectural design and wears her hair long and loose.

There is no gender in politics, Maydaer told the Daily News in a phone interview Thursday. “Politics require one to be excited, conscious of responsibility, determined and to contend. None of these qualifications are gender-related,” she said.

“Our girls should see women who are productive in society as role-models to prevent them from living in a patriarchal society,” she added.

- Hurriyet DailyNews

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