How women who’ve left Turkey are helping those left behind

The World

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the government's plan to extend the state of emergency imposed after the 2016 coup attempt for another three months, in Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 14, 2018.

Osman Orsal/Reuters 

For a year now, a group of Turkish women living in Massachusetts have gotten up on Sunday mornings, long before their husbands and children, to work on a project they told no one about.

The handful of women — who are mainly in their 30s and 40s — meet at each other’s homes, taking turns hosting.

“We come to the meeting yawning and sometimes complaining about it — ‘Oh, this is the only day I feel free, but we are doing this.’ But right at the same time that we start having our meeting, immediately, the feeling changes. Then, you start feeling responsible and even proud of what you’re doing.”

Meryem, group member

“We come to the meeting yawning and sometimes complaining about it — ‘Oh, this is the only day I feel free, but we are doing this,’” said Meryem, a health economist and mother of two girls. “But right at the same time that we start having our meeting, immediately, the feeling changes. Then you start feeling responsible and even proud of what you’re doing.”

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What they’re doing could endanger their friends and families in Turkey, so we’re not using their real names. They’re building an online audio archive, hosted by Boston University, called Undaunted Voices of Turkey: Stories of Women Who Resist. It’s a collection of voices that are rarely heard: those of women who’ve spent time in Turkish prisons since the attempted coup on July 15, 2016.

One of the group members, a teacher named Leyla, was in Turkey when it happened.

“We just turned on the TV; they said the army tanks just blocked the ways, and all those kind of things happened, and we just turned upside down,” she remembered.

The military blocked bridges. There were explosions. TV stations were raided by soldiers. Government buildings and protesters were shot at. Social media was shut down. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan soon announced the attempted coup had failed.

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“We will take all the necessary steps by standing tall,” he said while calling in to a Turkish TV show. “We will not leave the arena to them.”

Leyla recalls everyone in Turkey began talking about academics and others being taken to jail.

“We just packed everything and said we’d spend one year here just to be safe,” she said.

Leyla and her family haven’t been able to go back. Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and, according to the UN Human Rights Office, the Turkish government detained or arrested nearly 160,000 people on suspicion of terrorism. People who’ve spent time in Turkish prisons describe enduring subzero temperatures. Prisoners have nothing to sleep on but the cement floor. A UN special rapporteur has expressed concerns about torture by Turkish guards.

Still, in 2017, President Donald Trump hailed Erdoğan during a visit as a great ally.

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“As countries, I think we’re right now as close as we have ever been,” Trump said then.

Turkish journalists in Sweden reported that thousands of those jailed were pregnant women or women who had just given birth. Many were arrested on the grounds that they were “associates” of their husbands, who were suspected of having ties to terrorism. The group of women in Massachusetts felt helpless and frustrated.

“The first time I heard about the death of someone in detention, I cried, I think, a week.” 

Mine, group member

“The first time I heard about the death of someone in detention, I cried, I think, a week,” said group member Mine, who’s lived in the US for 12 years, and is an engineer and mother of a 5-year-old girl.

Mine and the others agreed to take action, together. Sending money wasn’t enough; they wanted to do something lasting and permanent. From their friends and family, they were hearing not only about women being jailed; women were also being forced into new roles in their families because their husbands had been jailed.


A small group of Turkish women in Massachusetts come together on Sundays to work on their project collecting testimonies from women imprisoned in Turkey. 


Rupa Shenoy/The World 

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“The pressure is mostly on women I would say. I heard one of them saying, ‘Well, until now, the society didn’t care I was working or doing paperwork outside. But now, I’m the breadwinner. I had to do this,’” she said. “So, I feel there’s a change of roles in a way.”

Through their networks, they find women who want to speak and can call out of Turkey, or have fled to another country. A group member named Ayse interviews them by phone. She’s an elementary school teacher and mother of two who’s lived in the US for almost 10 years.

“I try to say nothing and just listen,” she said.

The group has recorded around 30 interviews. Each of the group members has her own role; they took workshops to learn how to conduct interviews and use digital audio technology.

In Ayse’s most recent recording, a woman recounts that, after the 2016 attempted coup, her name appeared on a government list of suspected terrorists. She and her husband were dismissed from their jobs as teachers. Her husband was detained and, one day after dropping her son at school, police were waiting to take her away. She spent nine months in a cold, crowded jail cell. She’s out now, but she’s prepared her two children in case the police show up again. 

“She said, ‘I’m a realistic [person], my kids are realistic,’” Ayse said.

After a year of doing interviews like that one, collecting stories, and building a network of people to transcribe and translate them, the group is finally ready to share their project. They thought about creating a website, but worried it would be attacked by forces in Turkey that object to their work. Boston University agreed to help launch the project, and the Massachusetts women’s names won’t be attached to it.

“It puts a lot of pressure on us because that is a time we were waiting for, and we are going public now,” Meryem said.

Their archive of oral testimonies will go live on Thursday.

So, they’re nervous. But the work has given them purpose.

“We feel responsible for carrying the word to the next generations,” Meryem said.

The group is editing the women’s stories into an English-language podcast, to increase awareness of what’s happening in Turkey. But they don’t comment on the current Turkish government. They say they’re not political.

“Will there be a change? Maybe with this, yes. I mean, do we plan for it? No,” Mine said. “We do really care about keeping these voices. We try not to think about the rest.”

Instead, they’re focused on showing people that there’s always some way to fight oppression.

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