After the terrifying earthquakes, it’s women and girls in Turkey feeling the aftershocks

Elif Shafak

In Turkey’s southern province of Hatay, one of the most ravaged cities in the recent earthquakes, 25-year-old Alev Altun, the mother of two young children, became homeless in one night, like thousands of others. Having nowhere to go, she agreed to take refuge in the house of her ex-husband, on his invitation, assuming it would be safer to stay with the father of her children than alone in a tent or in a building at risk of collapse.
While she was sleeping, her ex-husband allegedly poured scalding water all over her, shouting she should be grateful that he had not killed her. She remains in intensive care at a local hospital, with severe burns to her head, face and body. Hers is one of the many harrowing stories of women and girls in crisis zones. Women suffer disproportionately in the aftermath of disasters. While tens of thousands of people have lost homes and jobs, women continue to work ceaselessly in makeshift tents and containers set up for displaced survivors – finding food or trying to cook, washing or cleaning where water is available, constantly providing for others. In traditional, patriarchal societies, the entire burden of looking after extended families is on their shoulders. According to organisations on the ground, a large number of women were found dead – and occasionally pulled out alive – in children’s rooms buried under piles of rubble. When the tremors began, they ran to save their children and babies. Unicef says the number of children who have died in the earthquake “is likely to be in the many thousands”.
There are 356,000 pregnant women across the earthquake-affected areas. Of these, an estimated 39,000 are expected to deliver babies in the coming weeks. For every affected woman and girl, but especially for pregnant women, the lack of toilets and cleaning facilities is a major source of distress. Growing up in Turkey, I have been told many times to be quiet about and ashamed of the female body, and especially menstruation. Still to this day, one of the widespread definitions of the word “dirty” (kirli) in Turkish dictionaries is “a woman who is menstruating”. When I was younger, often when I bought a sanitary product from a market, I would watch the cashier immediately wrap it in some old newspaper, hiding it as if it was a scandal. Once, in Istanbul, I was scolded by a male grocer when I asked out loud in front of everyone where the period products were. He used a word I have never forgotten, ayip – shame.
In this sexist culture, female survivors of earthquakes find it very difficult to ask for sanitary pads. There is an assumption that within the broader picture of devastation and destruction, such matters are a trivial concern. They are not. Action Aid has said that the situation for women and girls and marginalised communities “is becoming increasingly alarming”. In times of war and disaster, the rights and freedoms of women and minorities always become casualties to the “more important and urgent issues” of realpolitik. The humanitarian organisation Plan International has reported that, “Our experience shows that children, especially girls, women and the poorest families, are most at risk of exploitation in a disaster like an earthquake. Women and children in the disaster zone will be at risk of exploitation and abuse, should they find themselves once again displaced.” LGBTQ+ communities find the situation extremely hard. Sexual harassment and violence is a growing threat for many who remain vulnerable in homophobic and transphobic environments. There are reports from human rights organisations that it is harder to find a tent or access aid if you are a single woman. Hate speech is never far from the surface.
Wars, disasters and earthquakes also disrupt education. In Turkey and Syria, girls are much more likely to be pulled out of school. Turkey already has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe. Yet instead of helping women and minorities by implementing the Istanbul convention – the treaty designed to combat violence against women – the government under Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has done the opposite, withdrawing from the convention and targeting both feminists and LGBTQ+ activists. Erdo?an has repeatedly said that women cannot be equal to men and gender equality is “against nature”. Crisis times bring out both the best and the worst in humanity. While we have seen a profoundly moving outpouring of help and support from civil society, there is a correlation between the lack of democracy, lack of accountability and high levels of corruption and nepotism in a country and the scale of suffering in natural disasters. Turkey’s AKP under Erdo?an is not only antidemocratic and authoritarian, it is also blatantly macho and misogynist.
Sadly, anti-refugee rhetoric has also proliferated in Turkey after this crisis. In Mersin, Syrians staying at a dormitory were kicked out, saying they had to make way for Turkish citizens. Refugees have been put on buses and dumped on the streets. Even those who were trying to help with rescue efforts have been assaulted in some places. In times of distress, instead of questioning the incapacity and structural mistakes of a government, it is easier to turn to the next vulnerable group and take it out on them. Meanwhile, on the other side of Turkey’s border in Iran, girls are being poisoned. In at least 26 elementary and high schools, more than 1000 girls have reportedly been targeted in chemical gas attacks. Women and girls have been the leading voice in demanding social change, equality and freedom in the country. The bravery of Iranian women is remarkable: this is why they are being targeted by the regime.
We often hear that the world is presently suffering from multiple crises and therefore relief and aid efforts cannot be expected to continue for too long in one place. It is, however, possible to look at it from a different angle. Whether in Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran or war-torn Ukraine … as we mark International Women’s Day, women and girls and minorities across the world are suffering and struggling disproportionately. Gender-based relief efforts are essential to rebuild better and fairer societies. Studies show that when women are given financial aid and psychological support, they use this leverage primarily for their families, their children and their communities. There never has been a more urgent time for global solidarity, and especially, global sisterhood. There never has been a more urgent time to say out loud that we can both dearly love and care for our own countries or our adopted countries and at the same time be citizens of the world, citizens of humankind.
The Guardian