The Post-War Zone Where Girls Outachieve Boys
In Turkey, there is a spotlight of hope for girls of a minority group
Tunceli, Turkey – Bengisu Kilinc is a 12-year-old girl with a mission — and a soccer ball.
She is the youngest of five girls in her family, with good marks in sixth-grade, a toothy smile, and beaming confidence. Bengisu’s favorite subject is English, but more than anything, Bengisu loves sports, especially soccer, even though most of Turkey says it’s a boy’s game.
Where girls share the soccer field with boys
“Some high school boys tell me it’s not a girl’s game but I tell them there’s no discrimination. It’s for boys and girls. It’s fun,” she says as she walks to her neighborhood soccer field with her classmates.
Bengisu’s mission is to go to college and become a gym teacher. But first, she’ll have to overcome her family’s low-income and the discrimination against both her Alevi religion and her gender.
Alevi girls, a marginalized minority in Turkey, have been confronting these challenges with hard work and the results show a dynamic shift that the Turkish government has noticed.
Bengisu lives in Ovacik, Tunceli, an Alevi province in eastern Turkey where girls are outperforming neighboring provinces with the same socioeconomic status. Girls and women in Tunceli have higher test scores on school exams, a lower rate of child marriages, and lower birth rates among all women.
In 2010 Tunceli ranked 64th in university entrance exam rates, but in 2015 it became the 10th-highest-scoring city in the country, according to government statistics.
One-third of marriages in Turkey involve child brides, say women’s activists. But the average age of marriage in Tunceli is 26.
What makes Tunceli different?
Achieving in a conflict zone
On the way to Tunceli, a lush region engulfed by snowcapped mountains, armed Turkish military officers stop passengers in a public minibus at three checkpoints. For three decades, members of the leftist Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, labeled a terrorist group by NATO, have been fighting the Turkish government in the mountains.
But down in the valley, an uneasy peace allows families to carry on with daily life.
In the Ovacik district of Tunceli girls are thriving, says Fatih Mehmet Macoglu, the only elected communist mayor in Turkey.
That is because the Alevis have made women’s empowerment part of their identity.
“In Turkish geography, Alevi Kızılbaş culture accepts equality between men and women. Men and women aren’t segregated. They sit together in gatherings; they’re an equal part of the community,” says Macoglu, whose office has an image of Karl Marx on the wall, Che Guevara on the desk.
The other reason is that their Tunceli community of 82,000 has had to work hard to succeed as a minority in Turkey, he says.
“I guess education is our one way out. Since the past, the system has been harshly against us. The culture and socialist politics present here have raised consciousness about the importance of education,” Macoglu says.
The Alevis allow women to worship with men
Alevis are a religious minority who make up about a fifth of Turkey’s 80 million people. They are spread throughout the country but Tunceli is their historic home. They include ethnic Kurds and Turks, and some consider themselves Muslims while others say Alevism is a separate belief system outside of Islam. They worship God, Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali, and revere nature. Their houses of worship mix genders. Drinking alcohol is allowed. Women are generally free to wear what they want and don’t have to wear headscarves. Many women work alongside the men in the fields.
The majority of Turkey is Sunni Muslim and men and women pray in separate quarters of a mosque.
In 1938, Alevis in Tunceli, then known as Dersim, led one of the first uprisings against the Turkish Republic and its nationalist project. But the government crushed the rebellion, killing 13,000 to 17,000 people. Images of the aftermath of that massacre are etched on the walls of the road that leads to Tunceli’s town center.
In the 1990s at the height of the conflict with the PKK, the government burned down villages and displaced thousands of people. Bengisu’s parents Nazim and Figen Kilinc say they lost their family homes in the mountains and were forced to move to the valley.
But in 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first Turkish leader to issue an apology to the Alevis.
Relations warmed for a short period, but after 2016’s attempted coup against Erdogan, hundreds of teachers and activists have been either jailed or fired.
Amidst the unrest, the girls continue to excel.
A family with five daughters
Bengisu’s parents host a dinner in their cramped home. The couple makes their living as cow herders. Their oldest daughter Ebru, 27, having finished university, works as a teacher. Eda and Gamze, next in age, are living in a neighboring province, one in college, the other working. The two youngest daughters are still in school: Yelda, 13, is a shy honor student in eighth grade, and Bengisu has sports medals on display on the living room wall.
Bengisu shows me the medals.
“I won these for running. This one’s for the 2.5k race. It was very hard,” she says, smiling.
This is a female-dominated household and the father Nazim, quiet and reserved, seems fine with that.
“Girls, l love them. It doesn’t make a difference if there is a boy. I like girls better,” he says.
The family gathers over local organic honey and homemade cheese to start the dinner. They laugh, telling stories about their daughters and the pursuit of a better life.
The gregarious mother Figen, 48, says she and her husband Nazim, 50, were runaways who rushed into marriage. Figen married at 17 and didn’t have a chance to finish her education. But she wants to make sure her daughters finish university and find jobs to support themselves.
“When a woman gets married and sits at home, there’s a lot of pressure on her. She cannot be independent. I want my daughters to study, to go abroad, to have stable jobs. I don’t want them to be like me,” she says.
The rise of leftism and education
But it’s only in the last few generations that education for girls has become a part of the Alevi identity. Many of the older women like Figen say they had a primary school education because that’s all that was available to them. So they married young and had several children.
Since the leftist movements of the 1960s, a gradual change in ideology fostered new thinking: fewer kids, more education, more acceptance and jobs in mainstream Turkey.
Raife Yılmaz, a teacher at a Tunceli school, says a class size of 15 has also helped girls and boys in Tunceli score higher academically. The average class size in Turkey’s secondary schools is 28. Tunceli girls stay in high school, while in other parts of Anatolian Turkey girls often drop out after the eighth grade.
“The population of Tunceli is low. Families are also conscious of the birth rate and they have one, two, or three children. There are very few families who have four or five children. Because the population is low, the number of children in the classes are low as well,” Yilmaz says.
But Tunceli is no matriarchal haven. Men dominate public space, cafes, and restaurants, and outnumber women any time of the day or night. Women who work outside the home also do the housework. Nazim Kilinc sat as his wife Figen and daughters served us dinner.
Burcu Dogan, an Alevi doctorate student at Istanbul’s Sabanci University who did her thesis on gender equality in Tunceli, says Alevis have a long way to go before they declare equality among the sexes. She thinks the narrative that they’re equal works against women because it leads them to think there’s nothing to fight for.
A phony feminism?
“This is just a discourse that was made up by the patriarchal mindset. They relatively position themselves as more advantaged than Sunni women,” Dogan says.
For example, few women acknowledge that domestic violence is a problem in Tunceli. “They cannot show the inner problems. They cannot show we are beaten by our husbands because Alevi people are equal,” says Dogan.
And after girls graduate high school, few stay in Tunceli because there are not many jobs. Like the Kilinc women, the majority migrate to other cities and may face discrimination as Alevis.
They hit a glass ceiling despite all that effort invested in education.
“If we talk about being a high school teacher, it may not be that difficult or impossible for them. But if we think about higher positions in government or a municipality, I still think there’s a discrimination that is backstage,” Dogan says.
But for the energetic Bengisu, who is playing another game of soccer with older boys this time, she’ll grab onto whatever opportunity she gets.
“Goaaaal,” she screams as she runs to congratulate her girl teammates.
All photos by Ozge Sebzeci. You can hear Fariba’s radio interview about this piece here.