Dirty Language Language, Sexism and Misogyny in Turkey

Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul © Erinç Salor

I remember having one of those awkward conversations about sex with my mother, I was probably around 17 or 18 years old. It was not the kind of open-minded conversation you have where a mother talks about the possibility of her daughter to actually start her sexual life with someone she loves, no, this was a warning. My mother tried to discourage me from sex before marriage by equating the act to something “dirty”: as a woman, I would be the one who gets soiled – this imagery remains present in many conservative and patriarchal societies. But the most troubling to me is that within this metaphor of dirtiness, we are forced to accept that it’s OK for men to think and act “dirty” and it is up to women to protect themselves to remain “clean”. What is most striking here, is that my mother is an independent woman who had to rebuild her life after her husband – my father, left her to follow his own path. Left alone with three kids, she had to start everything from scratch and has experienced first-hand inequalities and rejection from her own circles, simply due to her gender. Despite (or maybe because) of all that, she still lectured me on how as a girl I should refrain from getting “dirty”.

Being a woman is challenging everywhere in the world, in some places more than in others, and in today’s globalised world, we cannot afford not to see issues around women’s rights in countries that are more or less close to us for a variety of reasons –political, economic or emotional. In my case, that country is Turkey, and my reason is emotion.

When you do a Google image search with the following Turkish words: “Türkiye’de kadın olmak”, “being a woman in Turkey”, you first come across this illustration by Hüseyin Aslan, 

Illustration by Hüseyin Aslan

as you scroll down you see a lot of dreadful images of women in pain or others who have been murdered, among these a few photographs of the young Özgecan Aslan, a university student who was murdered as she resisted a rape attempt, and was found burnt. This case provoked protests and calls for reform to combat violence against women. We all know the issue of violence against women is everywhere: Google searches including the word “woman” in many different languages usually do come up with sexist or violence-loaded images. Our struggle against sexism and misogyny is global.

Turkey is the country where I was born, the country of my mother, my aunts and my grand-mothers. I express my personal attachment to that place through my work as a writer and a literary translator, and my aim here is to look closely at how sexism and misogyny is embedded in language and how it becomes intrinsic to one society’s habits: as words and expressions become deeply rooted in everyday vocabulary, they affect a whole nation’s perspective on women and how they are treated by their fellow citizens and the institutions of the country they live in. Part of this is illustrated in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s film Mustang, where you also see how women, in this case the grandmother, can be the ones implementing the misogynistic attitudes on their younger selves.

Through its many proverbs and expressions, the Turkish language has for decades allowed certain ideas about women to normalise actions of violence against them. In many societies, these types of language use become obsolete or are abolished, but in this increasingly religiously conservative Turkey, instead of disappearing, the hatred becomes institutionalised (a recent example is this report on divorce drafted by the Parliamentary commission).

Cover from October 2011 of Bayan Yani by Ramize Erer illustrating the issue around women and girls forced to marry their rapist.
Cover from October 2011 of Bayan Yani by Ramize Erer illustrating the issue around women and girls forced to marry their rapist.

In Turkish, a proverb is “atasözü” which literally means “the word of the ancestors”, but the word “ata” also means “father” (like in Atatürk: Father of the Turks) and “any grandfather or great-grandfather”. The definition of the word “ata” provided by the Turkish Language Association (TDK), offers an example where a woman is referred to as a ‘huri’ (a virgin/ name given to the female awaiting in Heaven). “Ey kız gözüme huri görünürsün / Atan sevmez seni benden ziyade”, which can be translated as “Oh girl you look like a huri to me / Even your ata doesn’t love you like I do”. These verses are from 17th century poet Karacaoğlan, but of all the ways to illustrate a definition of an ancestor, did we really need one that also embodies such a description of a woman?

That same dictionary, which is the official regulatory body of the Turkish language, provides three definitions of the word “dirty” (“kirli” in Turkish), here are two of them: “a woman who is menstruating” and “one who is against the values of the society”. Many women have raised their voices against this definition of the menstruating women as dirty on social media, among them was this powerful response from a reader of Bayan Yanı – a monthly comics magazine by women artists and writers, that they shared on their Instagram account. The woman holds a sign that says: “It isn't menstruation blood you should be ashamed of, but the blood of murdered women!  #kirlisensintdk” The hashtag means “you're the dirty one TDK”.

Every day you can read stories of murdered women on the news in Turkey. According to the Turkish website Kadın Cinayetleri (Crime against Women), 1414 women were killed in Turkey between 2010 and 2015. This research project maps crimes against women that have been reported in the media. As you browse through the map and click on the numbers, you see the names of all these women who lost their lives, most of the time, to their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, a man they knew, and also to strangers.

In her essay The head scarf, modern Turkey, and me in the New Yorker, Elif Batuman shares a conversation she had with a taxi driver in Istanbul about the head scarf. As Batuman humbly tells the driver that she thinks all women should be respected regardless of the degree of visibility of their hair, the driver replies she was right, “that of course women should be respected, and that the head scarf was the best way for women to remind men of this necessity for respect. Men, after all, were worse than women: they could sometimes forget themselves, and then unfortunate things could happen, “even”—he said in a hushed voice, adding that he didn’t like to mention such things in front of me— “even rape.” And here we are again, faced with yet another example of our scary immersion in rape culture.

"Once we add the body bag, your dowry will be complete" - the January 2013 cover of Bayan Yani illustrated by Ramize Erer

I strongly believe that the banality of sexism and misogyny that exists in language feeds into all the hatred and violence against women that I have listed above. Let’s look closely at a few examples:

“kızını dövmeyen dizini döver” that can be translated literally as “if you don’t beat your daughter, you will beat your thigh”, meaning that if you don’t discipline your daughter you will regret it later. The online dictionary TDK does add “or your child” in parenthesis, but the reality is that everyone knows the “daughter” version and that’s the one that keeps being perpetrated from generation to generation throughout Turkish families, regardless of their degree of conservatism.

“kızı gönlüne bırakırsan ya davulcuya kaçar ya zurnacıya” can be translated as “if you leave it to the girl’s heart, she will either go to the drummer or the zurna player”. This one may sound less violent, but it still takes away all the agency of the individual, saying clearly that a woman has no right to choose the man (I am not even going to discuss her right to fall in love with a girl –one fight at a time) she will marry.

But how can we expect women to have any agency in the eye of society where the expression “kız başına”, literally meaning “alone as a girl”, bears many negative connotations. Usually one would say, “Where are you going at this hour of night ‘kız başına’?” insinuating in the most patronising way that you need protection from the “dirty” outside world (aka men can rape you and you would probably have deserved it being out alone at night), and therefore bringing a whole society to the conclusion that acting “kız başına” immediately entails acting against that society’s so called moral values. This definition is linked to the expression “kız gibi” meaning “like a girl” (but also like a virgin, since the word “kız” is also used to define a virgin), which TDK defines a. o. as “shy” and “very beautiful and new”.

The metaphor of woman as dirty, with limited abilities and untrustworthy can also be seen in the following two proverbs: “Keseye kadın eli girerse bereket gider” that literally translates as, “if a woman’s hand gets in the purse, abundance/luck will leave”, meaning that women are not capable of managing financial matters or that they are generally bad luck. Whereas “Kadının saçı uzun, aklı kısadır”, simply says that “A woman’s hair is long, her mind short”, stating that women have no capacity for logical thought.

This all leads to the idea that women can only be good for motherhood and taking care of their home, as this definition of the word “woman” (“kadın” in Turkish) provided by TDK illustrates sadly well: “one who has the skills and virtues for motherhood or housekeeping”. This is not surprising in a country where the Prime Minister’s – now President, slogan for women was that they should have at least three children.

Sexuality, as we have already seen with the previous examples, is one of the main targets when it comes to limiting women’s liberties (and Mona Eltahawy talks at length about this issue in her excellent book Hymens and Headscarves). One proverb illustrates this discrepancy between men and women’s sexuality very well: “kadının yüzünün karası erkeğin elinin kınası”; which literally translates as “the shame on a woman’s face is the henna inside a man’s palm”. This proverb means that while a man can go have sexual intercourse outside of marriage as much as he wants, he will always be celebrated (hence the henna on the palm), while for a woman to do the same can only but bring her shame.

Another pretty common proverb I have heard way too many times, also in the mouths of women, is “Ağustostan sonra ekilen darıdan, kocasından sonra kalkan karıdan hayır gelmez”, which means that “No good can come from the millet sawed after August or the woman who wakes up after her husband.”

How about we agree once and for all that no good can ever come from a society that keeps looking at women as inferior, unworthy of trust, and only good for bearing children and keeping a home? That’s a proverb I would be proud being an “ata” for. And I know that across Turkey, many women fight day after day for their basic civil rights and just to exist, fully and unconditionally as the women they choose to be. I believe in these women and I aspire to building new proverbs shoulder to shoulder with them all, but first we have to clean up our language, because it sure is dirty. 

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