‘I find a lover when I want one’
Ever since Taksim Square and Gezi Park hit the headlines in May, Hulya Gulbahar, leading lawyer and women’s rights activist in Istanbul, has been on my mind.
When I was last in Istanbul, I recall sitting with Hulya in one crowded pavement eating house after another till the wee hours of every morn. What we did was to drink, eat, laugh a lot and talk politics around a table full of women.
These working women had mostly ordered raki, the spirit made from fermented anis, by the litre, and sipped it with deep-fried fish straight out of the midnight blue waters of the Bosphorus. The feast was invariably paid for with credit cards stamped with gold-plated symbols. Some of the women lived in apartments owned by them in slick neighbourhoods on the European side of Istanbul. Hulya said that she felt no need to marry.
“I find a lover when I want one. When it gets too much having him hover around me, I ask him to leave,” she said, sighing with relief at all the different choices life affords her because of a generous income. This is unlike her mother, who spent her entire life producing an army of children.
What she resents most about her father is the disrespect he often displayed for her mother. Because so many of them were born to her parents, some of her siblings are blond and blue-eyed while others, like her, are dusky complexioned with dark hair and eyes.
One evening, while sitting under a star-studded sky in a restaurant on a bridge across the Bosphorus Strait with the wondrous breeze tossing our blow-dried hair out of place but constantly wiping away all the sweat that threatened to drown us in the humidity of the hour, I was all ears to what Hulya said about a certain image etched in her mind forever. It is of her mother once dragging all her tiny tots to a clinic for a paternity check. This is after the birth of yet another child when the father accused his wife of cheating on him as the new-born infant looked too European to him to be his child!
Although Hulya was just a child then, she remembers sharing the humiliation experienced by her mother, who came from a humble family of immigrants from Bulgaria. The family had settled in Izmir, Turkey’s third most populous city in the western extremity of the more rural landscape of Anatolia.
Tired of illiteracy, poverty and acts of domestic violence that loomed large over her life, Hulya left Izmir in a bus at the age of 15. Once in Istanbul, she worked to educate herself, and some of her siblings. One of her younger sisters, who is European-complexioned and light-eyed, is a well-known fashion photographer today while Hulya with her dark Asian looks has not done too badly for herself either.
Hulya came of age as part of the volatile, Left-leaning students’ movement of the 1980s. It is the likes of Hulya who are now the new think-tank in Turkey and who cannot be slotted as Leftists, Rightists, religionists or atheists.
In the past, everything was black and white. Black was bad and white was wonderful. Today, the different shades of grey of vibrant, restless and ambitious Turks drive the government crazy. Turks like Hulya are modern but also advocate the right of all women to practise religion or not. To cover their head or not. To marry or not. To have children or not. Hulya will not bow to unreasonable demands of either religious or political leaders. She does not hesitate to argue publicly with religionists who want to impose patriarchal values on Turkish women in the name of
Islam. She is against military dictatorship and for democracy, but also has little use for European values that are alien to her.
In the past, it was not unusual for the European-looking, urbane and modern Turk or beyaz türkler to kind of look down on the rural and more conservative black Turks or kara türkler. In Turkey, you cannot do that any more.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 25th prime minister of Turkey, is perhaps unable to cope with this new sea of colour in his country, where the Turk of today says to his or her government to manage democracy deftly, or just go!