One woman’s struggle for her people’s future

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By: Diana Darke
Februniye Akyol, the Syriac Christian co-mayor of Turkey’s Mardin, says only through true equality can her people thrive, writes Diana Darke.
A Syriac Christian woman is challenging sexual and religious discrimination in conservative southeastern Turkey and building bridges with her co-religionists fleeing persecution at the hands of the Islamic State group in Syria.

In the southeastern Turkish municipality of Mardin, the 26 year-old co-mayor, Februniye Akyol, is a local girl from the Syriac Christian minority.

Despite the nearby border with Syria having existed for nearly a century, those in her Syriac community retain close ties with family members on the other side.

Even now, when the border crossings are offically closed, they are in constant touch by mobile and the barriers are sometimes discreetly opened to allow clandestine meetings.
Februniye was christened Fabronia Benno, but she was forced to use the “turkified” version of her name to enter Turkish politics, something of an irony as one of the main reforms she seeks to achieve are language and cultural rights for her community, which was once 200,000 strong here in its heartland of the Tur Abdin, but now numbers now less than 5,000.
“What we want,” she explains when I met her recently in her Mardin office, “is for all mother tongues to be permitted in Turkey, so that not just Turkish but also Kurdish and Syriac can be taught in schools and spoken, just as they are in European countries.”

What we want is for all mother tongues to be permitted in Turkey, so that not just Turkish but also Kurdish and Syriac can be taught in schools.
Februniye Akyol

Never had she envisaged a political career. As the first local Syriac Christian woman to leave her home and go to university in Istanbul, everyone assumed she would use her education as an escape route to Europe, like many Syriac graduates before her.

Instead Februniye returned and began an MA at Mardin’s Artuklu University in Syriac cultural studies, the only such course on offer in Turkey.

Then, with only two months to go until local elections scheduled for 30 March 2014, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), made the radical suggestion that a Syriac woman should run for co-mayor alongside Ahmet Turk, the respected 72 year-old Kurdish candidate.

At first there was opposition to the idea, with the predominantly Kurdish population of Mardin preferring to field their own female Kurdish candidate for the job. The standard policy of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish party, is to have gender equality in all top political jobs to promote female participation in governing bodies. But Februniye, still a student, was asked to stand.

When the pair won, Februniye became the first Christian to govern a Turkish metropolitan municipality. Working alongside her former enemies, the Kurds, was difficult at first, Februniye confesses. Syriacs have in the past suffered persecution, including rape and theft of homes.

“In the 1990s we suffered badly,” she tells me softly. “My father, a silversmith, was arrested and we didn’t know where he was. It affected me deeply. Many of us were forced to leave our homes.”

She decided she could work alongside Ahmet Turk when he became the first Kurdish leader in Turkey to apologise publicly to the Armenian, Syriac and Yazidi minorities for the massacres that his ancestors had commited in 1915.

Patriarchal prejudice

Despite Mardin’s heavily patriarchal society of Arab, Turkish and Kurdish Muslims, Februniye says she is determined to fight the region’s traditional prejudices against women.

“The only way to put an end to domestic violence, honour killings and disrespect towards women,” she says, “is for women, as half the population, to be represented on all committees, to re-educate people and to challenge the old ways.”

The way to put an end to the age-old practices of domestic violence and honour killings is for women to challenge the old ways.

Inside Syria, IS fighters are already frightened of the female Kurdish YPG fighters who helped deprive them of victory in Kobane. They also believe they will go straight to hell if they are killed by a woman.

In IS-controlled Raqqa, not far to the south, women cannot leave the house except for worship or approved work, and even then, only if accompanied by a man.

A woman’s role in the “caliphate” is to be a domestic servant to her husband and to breed the new generation of IS fighters. Minorities, such as Yazidis, are sold into sexual slavery for as little as $10 each.

Beatings of females and sexual intercourse with pre-pubescent girls are lawful, according to IS publications.

If western governments are at all serious in their fight against IS, they should be giving Februniye and her colleagues every possible support.

Otherwise the ideological line in the sand risks being overrun and the barbarity will edge ever westwards.

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