Nonbeliever daughters struggle with conservative families
Last month Turkey witnessed another tragic story in a long line of tragic stories: Şeyma Yıldız, a 16-year-old high school girl, became the latest young woman who met a violent end at the hands of her own family for – in their eyes – breaking their moral code.
That cold February morning I saw her picture published by news agencies and read the dreadful news in the headlines: Her father had killed Şeyma for having a boyfriend. Her mother cried that the father was no murderer, and her brother blamed the killing on a panic attack by the father, who he said had loved his daughter very much. Şeyma’s friends say she had not even had a boyfriend.
Şeyma’s story may be an extreme case, but there are thousands of young women and girls from similar conservative families who suffer psychological abuse or physical violence for having a boyfriend, for not being religious, for wearing trousers or not sufficiently covering themselves. Some young women face the threat that their parents will take them out of school if they do not behave as they are told.
One 19-year-old woman from Izmir, who asked to be known by the name Lilith instead of her real name, said she had always had to keep her own wishes secret from her conservative family. Lilith had felt estranged from the religion of Islam since high school, and identifies as agnostic. But she has been unable to reveal this, or the lifestyle she wishes to lead, to her family, so instead, she leads a double life.
“I’ve received a religious education since I was a young child, but I can’t live as a religious person even though it is my family’s greatest wish,” said Lilith. “I’ve not been a Muslim since high school. When the month of Ramadan came around I would only pretend to fast.”
“They’ve always interfered in what I wear, and I’ve always been under pressure to pray and cover my hair,” she said. “If I graduate from university and become successful, it won’t make them as happy as my praying does. And that makes me feel like a bad person.”
Lilith hoped that she would feel freer once she went to university, but even when she started studying in Ankara, the pressure continued. When her family learned that she had a boyfriend in the capital, they came to take her out of the university on the same day. She was only able to continue her studies with great difficulties and with the help of a guidance counsellor.
So, Lilith does not feel able to open up to her family, and must put up with the guilt she feels at leading a double life. “When I take the money that my proper, practising Muslim family sent and buy beer and enjoy myself, it makes me feel bitter and feel like a really bad person at the same time,” she said.
G.S., a 19-year-old woman from Sivas in central Turkey, has a similar restrictive family background and sees university as the only way she can save herself. She is now studying for the entrance exams, and wishes to study law, a subject she hopes will lead her to cases securing justice and defending women.
“I’ve just got to bear it for another year. Then university, then freedom, and then I’ll be able to ditch the headscarf that for me is like fetters, and after that, I’ll have a life without violence," she said.
G.S. was raised by a conservative and traditional family who forced her to take part in religious worship from a young age. She suffered frequently from psychological and sometimes physical abuse from her father because she at first resisted wearing the headscarf, until she could no longer bear the pressure and covered her hair.
But since she was 16 years old, G.S. has not felt like a Muslim, and she sees the scarf as a barrier to her freedom.
“I feel lost when it comes to religion. I’m going through a phase of questioning things and I don’t know what I should believe,” she said. “My parents wanted to raise me as a religious person, but they ended up taking apart anything religious about me.”
G.S. said her parents had done this by pressurising her on almost every topic, forcing her to fight for a modicum of freedom and to defend her own opinion. She has managed to have some effect on her mother, who now, finally, defends her daughter from her husband’s violence. Her struggle has also softened her parents to a degree, making her younger sister’s upbringing more bearable.
Another young woman who was forced to cover her head is 17-year-old M.S. from Istanbul, whose parents made her put on the headscarf in sixth grade. M.S.’s parents enrolled her in an Imam Hatip religious high school even though she could have been accepted to a more prestigious one thanks to her high grades. Now studying for her university exams, she says she lives under the constant threat from her family of violence or of being removed from school.
M.S. sees herself as living a double life, with her head uncovered among her close friends but has to cover her head the rest of the time, and has faced violence numerous times from her parents for not covering herself up enough.
“A life that I don’t want is being imposed on me. I feel stuck between the life that’s being forced on me and the one I want to live,” she said.
“They don’t let me read the kind of books they don’t like, and my father has burned many of my books. They didn’t even want me to go to school, they only accepted because I resisted a lot and did well,” she said.
“After I’ve got my place at university I want to live life in my own way.”
That is an opportunity that many women, like 23-year-old Gülseren, never have. Gülseren, who comes originally from the southern province of Van near the border with Iran but moved with her family to Kocaeli in western Turkey when she was nine, was forced to leave education after completing middle school. Her parents made her wear the headscarf against her will when she was 15 years old, and since then she has been in a near-constant struggle with her family over the issue.
After giving up for some time, she tried again to persuade her father to let her go uncovered in February, finally gaining his acceptance.
“I was so happy that night I couldn’t sleep. Just think, I was going to be able to go to work the next day without covering my head. It was like a dream” she said.
“But when I went to work the next day and saw my mother – she works in the same place – she began to shout at me that I’d gone off the rails,” she said.
“They locked me in my room for three days. My father told me either he or I would be leaving there dead. I had the happiest moment of my life and the worst, both in the same day.”
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.