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Women coming together can change things amid dark days of isolation

Journalist and scientist SARYA TUNC talks to the Star about her forced exile from Turkey, the threats faced by reporters and the role of women in the title she works for – Ekmek ve Gul

FOR so many people in Turkey being involved in politics means running into difficulties with the state.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his increasingly authoritarian grip on the country with many opponents of the regime, including opposition politicians and journalists, in prison.

More than 160,000 have been arrested since a failed coup attempt in July 2016 and 150,000 public-sector workers purged from their posts.

Erdogan brands those who oppose him terrorists, with many facing lengthy sentences. However not all of Erdogan’s prisoners are in jail.

I spoke to journalist and scientist Sarya Tunc who has been forced to live in exile to escape from Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial regime.

Most of her immediate family, including her father, brothers and uncle, are outside of the country, unable to return as they face arrest by the Erdogan regime.

And in a cruel and arbitrary punishment, her mother cannot leave Turkey as they have confiscated her passport to prevent her from travelling.

“We are like political hostages,” Tunc tells me. 

She came to London earlier this year to spend six months learning English so she could do a PhD in genetics, her science specialism. 

However Tunc has also been forced to seek political asylum after her home was raided by Turkish authorities while she was away, forcing her into exile from her home country.

“I come from a family of journalists and communists,” she explains, which is why she has been involved in political activism most of her life. 

A member of the Labour Party of Turkey (EMEP), Tunc explains that, as a Kurd and Alevi growing up in Istanbul, she didn’t have much choice but to get involved in politics.

“Looking back at it now I realise that I grew up in a different type of family,” she tells me.

“When I was young we would go and visit my uncle in jail — I thought it was a normal thing that everyone did.

“Now I realise why my classmates were surprised when I told them we had been visiting my uncle in prison. For them only criminals went to prison and I clearly remember fighting with them saying my uncle is not a criminal.”

Tunc explains that her father was sentenced to death by the Turkish state before she was born because of his membership of one of the country’s communist organisations.

“My brothers never got to spend time with my father because he was always in the mountains,” Tunc explains. 

His absence was partly for safety reasons, needing to maintain a low profile to evade the clutches of the Turkish security services but also a commitment to “party work.”

“I didn’t have much time with him when I was young either as he was involved in party work,” she says.

Many of Tunc’s school friends were Sunni Muslim and Turkish while she was a Kurdish Alevi: “They would ask whether I had a tail, things like that. They had been told many things and had many superstitions about us,” she tells me.

It was because of these experiences that she was drawn to politics saying she had no choice but to be politically active and involved in struggle.

“As a Kurd of course I had to write,” she says, explaining how she first started as a reporter for the Evrensel newspaper — similar to Britain’s Morning Star.

“When people don’t have a voice it draws you to journalism,” she explains.

Tunc worked as a presenter for Hayat TV, starting with a science programme due to her expertise but she soon moved into more political programmes and stayed there until the station was closed down by presidential decree in October 2016.

As part of Erdogan’s authoritarian grip on Turkey, free and independent media has come under attack with press freedom non-existent. 

More journalists have been jailed in Turkey than any other country in the world with tens of thousands of press cards scrapped, newspapers closed down and media organisations regularly raided by authorities.

Tunc remains bravely defiant. “I don’t think anything in life is hard,” she says, explaining that journalism has always been risky in Turkey.

“You are right that things are more difficult now. But it was always bad in Turkey. During the 1980s and 1990s journalists were regularly shot dead in the street,” she says.

One of Evrensel’s own journalists, Metin Goktepe, was among those killed after being tortured by police while in custody in 1996.

“But in Turkey if you write about the truth then you are under threat. And as journalists of course we report the truth.”

Tunc is a journalist for Ekmek ve Gul — Turkish for Bread and Roses — which runs a website, monthly publication and online TV show. 

The phrase was coined during a political speech by US trade unionist Rose Schneiderman at the beginning of the last century in which she told striking textile workers: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Inspired by this and women’s struggle, Ekmek ve Gul plays an important role in Turkey, raising the political consciousness of women and promoting struggles and issues.

Violence against women in Turkey is commonplace with honour killings and rape increasing to record levels in recent years.

The country has been described as “anti-woman” with Erdogan seeing a woman’s role as existing purely on a domestic level and to have babies.

“Ekmek ve Gul is more than journalism,” she says. “What we are doing is political activism.”

Tunc explains how the media organisation started around 10 years ago. It was initially a programme on Hayat TV, however it developed beyond that because there was an absence of TV shows reflecting the reality of life for women and the struggles they go through.

“When we opened women were naturally so drawn to us and the subject matter that groups came together and formed Ekmek ve Gul clubs in the universities, independent from us but inspired by the TV show.

“That meant that they were writing their own articles with an independent choice in the subjects that were covered. When the TV show was closed down they contacted us to ask what we were going to do now.

“So we developed the website and it has grown from the bottom up, drawing inspiration from the individual clubs. Inspired by them but developed naturally,” she says.

Since then Ekmek ve Gul has become a tool through which women in their neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces can change their lives. 

The organisation creates an area where they do not feel isolated, where they can learn from one another, where they can communicate, and most importantly where they can gather. 

Now, there are thousands of women across Turkey who can gather, to discuss solutions to their problems, and take action in an Ekmek ve Gul group.

Ekmek ve Gul has covered a number of disputes including the Flormar strike which has lasted more than 85 days and has been led by women at a cosmetics factory who were sacked after joining a union.

“This is an important action,” Tunc explains. “Women led the action over conditions in the factory. This is something that has led to them becoming more politically conscious. One woman said she strikes at work in the factory and then in the home against her husband.

“Of course the idea of Bread and Roses is that women deserve to play a role in cultural life too. They should not be paid less, treated worse and subjected to domestic work. They should also be able to enjoy art and culture. This is their right.”

The website and publication cover a range of subjects relating to women including politics, education, culture, art, health and law, and promote women writers which are central to the project.

Through Ekmek ve Gul women come together in solidarity and prove how walking together can change things in these dark days of isolation. It is women who are behind these achievements.

Tunc remains positive despite the dark times in Turkey and calls for the international community — including readers of the Morning Star — to continue to raise their voices

“We always have hope,” she tells me. And hope will triumph over the tyranny in Turkey.

The Ekmek ve Gul website can be found at www.ekmekvegul.net.

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