Thursday, May 9, 2013

Istanbul Again - Part Two

Nahil - a gift shop that supports women and children
As an American woman living abroad, I need a touch of home now and then, a support system of people who understand my situation.  I have found support again and again from the American International Women's Club of Cologne.  There is always someone there to offer kind, concrete help to me when I've been in need.  But the Club doesn't stop here.  One of the amazing things about this women's club is that the Club exists, not only to be a place where Americans and others interested in the United States can gather, socialize and make contacts.  It's all about serving.  I have a writing friend there who's a singer/songwriter.  Each year she does a benefit concert, donating all the profits to causes she carefuly chooses in Cologne and abroad.  The Club uses countless events, whether it be a sponsored cancer walk, a gala ball or a class in Japanese cookery, to collect money and sometimes clothes or blood, for someone in need.  The Club has sponsored everything from water projects in the third world to aid for victims of the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster.

This attitude, as a raison d'etre, inspires me and sensitizes me to other projects dedicated to the cause of women.  The last time I was in New York City, I was browsing through shops in Williamsburg and came upon a cute vintage clothing shop, Lavai Maria.  I couldn't wear these clothes unless I were about thirty years younger 
Lavai Maria - a vintage clothing shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
and at least thirty pounds lighter, but I found a nice shopping bag there, and asked about it.  "Oh, the owner buys these bags from a women's cooperative in India to support their work.  Every penny you spend on this bag will go to this group in India," said the sales clerk.  I bought the bag, even though I had to pay $25 for a thin printed cotton bag.  I could get a sturdier one in Germany for $2, but it wouldn't have supported women's work.

Now, six months later in Istanbul, after finishing a delicious, filling breakfast at the hotel where we have to walk up a steep hill for our meal, we stroll along one of the side streets between the hotel and the Istiklal.  I spot a shop window with cute items like lacy doilies, and everything looks handmade.  "I've got to go in," I tell my family.  "I'll just be a few minutes."  But I am entranced by practically everything I see in this shop - attractive lace-packaged soaps, hand-made dolls, clothes, Turkish food items, bags, lace Christmas ornaments.  I pick two lace angel Christmas tree ornaments to bring back as gifts to Germany, and a glasses case in the shape of a cat for Peter.  He will like that, I think.

I am in the shop so long, the rest of the family comes into the shop and joins me.  They are also enamored.  By now, I have paid for my purchases and learned about the shop.  As I suspected, it is run and operated by women, and supports Turkish women in poor parts of Turkey.  It is these women who make all the products.  We gaze at the photos on the wall showing women in rural areas making the items being sold. 

I tell the shopkeeper that I'm interested in women's work, and she hands me a brochure in English.  This shop, Nahil, at Bekar Sok. 17 (near Taksim Square), was started by the Foundation for the Support Women's Work (FSWW) in 1986.  As the brochure says, it is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, whose aim is to support low-income women's groups to improve the quality of their lives, their communities and to strengthen their leadership.  The FSWW helps to establish and run women's and children's centers all over rural Turkey.
Women making gifts to sell

I hope many people will support these women.  I have heard that women in these rural areas, where traditional, conservative values tend to dominate, have it especially hard.  Some conservative ideas are, of course, helpful, but others are deeply oppressive and damaging for men as well as women.  It is a good thing when these women are able to gather together to work and talk, all the while helping to support their families.  As they meet and talk, they grow in self-confidence as well as add to their income.

I am reminded of something I read about women in Elik Shafak's novel, The Forty Rules of Love.   Elik Shafak is a Turkish novelist I have discovered on this trip to Istanbul.  This novel is partly about Rumi and his mentor Shams, and partly about a modern American woman.  Shams has finally found his spiritual companion, Rumi, in Konya, a conservative rural part of Turkey.  One of Rumi's disciples, a young woman, is having a discussion with Shams about the role of women in the Koran.  She is greatly disturbed by this passage, which she well knows, and therefore asks Shams to explain.  He quotes:  Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great." 

As I read this passage, I am both shocked and also not surprised in the least.  This passage verifies the worst of what I have heard about Islam.  I am intrigued, and can also imagine the disappointment this disciple must feel, having the most troubling passage of all in the Koran being quoted back to her.  How often I have been dismayed when Christians have quoted the verses in the Bible by St. Paul in Ephesians 5:22, "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,."  And the passage in 1 Corinthians 14:33 forbidding women from having speaking functions, including pastoring a church,  "Women should remain silent in the churches."   These ring very harsh, and it has taken a lot of searching before I have been able to find people enlightened enough to explain the real meaning of these passages.  In the first, I have been told that it means that women should honor their husbands.  It is, in fact, about developing a culture of honoring one another.  This passage, in fact, begins by telling both husbands and wives to submit to one another.  How very different from the first reading.

The same applies to the second passage about women remaining silent in church.  There are still many churches that refuse to let women even serve communion, let alone preach or run a church.  What Paul really meant was that women, who sat in another part of the synagogue from men, shouldn't yell across the synagogue during the service to discuss things.  They should wait until they were at home.  I learned that later church "fathers" changed names of people in the Bible such as Junia, who was a female bishop, to Junius, a name which didn't exist, to neutralize the gender so that no one in future generations would read about a female bishop.

These memories shoot through my head like a bullet, as I read this passage from the Koran that Shams quotes.  But then, he goes on, surprising both the disciple and me, the reader, by quoting a different translation of the same passage:

"Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them).  So women who are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it.  As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing).   If they open out to you, do not seek an excuse for blaming them.  Surely God is sublime and great."

What a difference between the two versions!  My heart goes out to women in Turkey, in the US, in Germany, to women everywhere who have suffered and who continue to suffer under ignorant, misguided male domination, unable to fulfill their God-given destinies.  May they come out of that heavy, oppressive place.  Both they and men will be better off for this.  I hope the women in rural Turkey, creating these beautiful gifts, are discovering their own value as they share their beautiful wares with others.  


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