Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The 'girl effect' hits home

This past winter, as I worked one more time in California to bridge the financial gap that always occurred each winter in Turkish tourism, with economies tightening and a decade that has seen wars, terrorism, earthquakes tossing in more than the occasional challenge to making a living, I decided to work with a life design coach. While I’ll always love finding and selling the vintage textiles of a former generation, I felt it was time to get back to expressing myself directly through making my own work, to clarify my focus. And I felt the need to involve and help other women, especially the strong women of our Kurdish family, who had great crafting skills but had been afforded little education. So if they worked outside the home, it was to do the back-breaking work of picking cotton or fruit. 

The galvanizing moment in my winter work to recreate myself one more time and to do something to help others came when Rose Deniz posted a story on her blog Love, Rose about a 16 year old Kurdish girl in Adiyaman named Medine Memi. Medine had been buried alive by her family. Her transgression? She talked to boys. The media was full of stories about backward Kurds, how Islam made them do it, and how Turkey could never become part of the EU.

One journalist, Mustafa Akyol of Hurriyet, explained such honor killings by pointing to the topography of the southeast “It is a very mountainous region, which is inhospitable to trade routes, railways and highways. Hence its inhabitants have lived almost isolated from the outside world for centuries and have remained largely untouched by modernity.” he said.

Though I agreed with him that Kurds have largely kept to their tribal ways that include many traditions that existed well before Islam, they are not as isolated as everyone makes them out to be. Kurds live all over the country and it's only a small percentage that still thinks in these archaic ways. 

I commented at the time, “I'm in shock when I read of another so-called "honour" killing...there is nothing honorable about it. My heart breaks for this girl. As traditional as my Kurdish family is, I cannot fathom them condoning such barbaric behavior."

And I can't. But I know that education is the key to stopping such horrors, and education starts with the women of the family, so they can teach their children, boys and girls, how to behave as decent human beings. While taking on the problem of honor killings would be a huge undertaking, I knew that if my large family of uneducated women were sometimes having a tough time making ends meet in the sleepy but lovely town of Selcuk, what must life be like for similar women from the east who had moved to sprawling Istanbul? 

Rose wrote in her post about those Turkish women journalists and authors writing about Medine and honor killings that “there are female voices here that are not passive, but strong, and that their discourse must be acknowledged for contributing to building a safe place for women worldwide.” 

A safe place for women. How could I do that? I knew that every woman in my family knits or crochets. Designing knitwear is one of my favorite things to do. I knew we could share the language of craft, even if we barely spoke each other’s language, for although I speak Turkish, I don’t speak Kurdish. I could start a cottage business, and eventually work toward the goal of creating handmade products that benefits not just Kurdish women, but any woman who needs extra cash so perhaps her daughter can go to school, or her son does not have to carry around a scale for people to weigh themselves on the street. 

So this summer my husband and I moved to Istanbul’s Old City, to test our idea to launch a workshop to support these local unsung artisans: women who still weave, knit, and crochet in the traditions of timeless Turkish handcraft. While there are educated women reviving crafts as a hobby or a career here, I’m more concerned about those other women with fewer opportunities who’d like to earn money within a safe community of women. Our workshop will also give traveling women a chance to meet Turkish women through classes we’ll offer and craft tours we’ll host about yarns, knitting, making oya, traditional kece or patterned felt work – there are so many ideas here. We hope to engage hands to learn new skills and teach traditional ones, to spin yarns, clack needles and drink tea together. 

This next decade of my life, I will be a creative force for bridging cultures. Starting next spring in Sultanahmet, we’ll share the common language of craft, tell stories about our cultures, educate against our prejudices, create beautiful new traditions. We'll make a difference in each others’ lives. 

And today, because the Universe always knows what I need, my Dialogue 2010 sisters Rose Deniz and Anastasia Ashman were there to motivate me and reinvigorate my purpose. A world of thanks to Tara Sophia Mohr for inspiring them. 

And to my Kurdish sisters – may your children never experience the difficulties you have, but may they inherit your grace, beauty, compassion and love. 


  1. I love this part, Catherine... "This next decade of my life, I will be a creative force for bridging cultures." This post is so inspiring, and powerful. Thanks for sharing your motivation for your workshop!

  2. Very moving and inspiring, Catherine. Aferin! Jessica

  3. Dear Catherine,
    So glad you've published this comprehensive post with pictures that draw us in, with the links to Rose Deniz's blog and The Girl Effect video. I am so impressed with the way you give direction to your life. Your dedication to bridging cultures is phenomenal. What a fantastic way to make use of New Media, using edsy.com to help women in your new home country make a living, become more independent, give opportunity to their children... Having grown up with handcrafts myself I like the knitting and crocheting needles a whole lot better than the fishing rod, but the effect is the same. Empower people by giving them the power to create a living rather than being dependent on charity.
    Brava! You and your husband make my heart sing!

  4. Thank YOU, Rose, Jessica and Judith, for you each inspire me in your own unique ways.

    Judith, it was so important for me to realize that simple skills where I excel can be the key to helping others. Doesn't have to be a fancy, impressive bridge - just one that lets us interact with each other.

  5. Very powerful. While living in Germany, we were inundated with stories of honor killings in the Turkish minority population. Your dedication to the cause of educating Kurdish women through building a "creative bridge" is fantastic and as Judith says, is very empowering. And people who are empowered rarely choose ignorance for very long. Wonderful, wonderful post.

  6. What an amazing woman you are and I wish you great success in this incredible endeavour to hope these women.

  7. It is beautiful to see everything coming together Catherine. To me it looks like your greatest piece of work - the way you're knitting and weaving together all these life experiences.

  8. A moving post, Catherine! I even got a bit weepy there for a moment.

    We are so quick to pounce on violence in other cultures, especially ones which lack elite advocates. Yet, our own society (USA) thrives on it. We are number 4 of countries with the highest execution rates of their citizens, prisons are a huge industry here, war has been commercialized and what is it? One out of three women is raped here?

    We are the country of mixed messages, of the double edged sword. With one arm we destroy, kill, maim and with the other we build, educate, heal. The US is also the top aid country in the world (or, if not THE top, it's way up there...) and we partner with people like you who advocate change all over the world. This partnership is essential to success of your project, my work and all of the good efforts that are happening.

    We have to believe that we are one world and that one is hurt, we are all hurt. When one is healed, we are all healed.

  9. Thanks for your post and for your work. My wife and I would like to find ways to help spread the word on our blogs. Let us know how we can link to yours.

  10. Dearest! You are such a source of inspiration!
    May we woman stop using the term "honor" killing.
    Honor has a positive meaning while murduring certainly does not.
    I consider seiously coming to join you in one of your work shops!
    Be blessed!

  11. Thanks to all for your good wishes!

    I am pleased to see Paula Goldman on Huffington Post today about the girl effect:


    @Diana - Yes, "Western" media has an odd focus on the Turks. Visiting Europeans are frequently shocked at how modern Turkey is because they've only been presented with a negative view.

    @Hagar - In Turkish, the phrase commonly used for this crime is 'namus cinayetine'. The first word translates not exactly to 'honor' but also virtue, decency, purity, virginity...though there are more common words for these as well. But I agree, it's a horror that should never have to be translated into any language. I await your visit to Sultanahmet! ;-D

    And @Rayela/Rachel - So well said! What was that about "taking out the plank in your own eye before pointing to the speck in your brother's"? We ARE one world. Time we all realized it, and did something useful.

  12. This is so sad...I got tears in my eyes, too.
    Please keep up what your doing.
    And PEACE,LOVE & JOY, to all good ppl on this earth

  13. Hi Catharine!

    You've made your own economy here and extended that to the Turkish women in and outside your family. That's what we all need to do. Find our geniuses and use them to make the world a better place. Brilliant!

    I so agree that we need to make the world safe for women by sharing the gift of education -- and by that I mean the gift of "there's another way to do things." A lot of the horrible things that happen to women around the world are carried out by other women.

    Free one woman and it's a domino effect. In fact, your post has inspired me to begin doing this!

    Much thanks, G.

  14. A beautiful inspiring post, Catherine - thank you for giving me insight & helping me to better understand...

  15. Thanks for your comments and support. As Giulietta says, it IS a domino effect - you never know where something may lead when you start. Just start!!

  16. Wow, you are totally inspirational! What a wonderful post!

  17. Catherine I put a write up about your blog and a link to this post on my blog. Am encouraging others to contribute! Have a great weekend!

  18. Thank you Cait, and Aaron - you've definitely made my Thanksgiving weekend great. Appreciate your support!

  19. Definitely admire what you are doing! There is so much talent in this country and so many wonderful women who need work and as you wrote a safe place; jobs they can do as mothers and for their babies.