The trauma of raising a girl in 2016 Turkey
The TV was showing orange and blue body bags being unloaded from an ambulance. I tried imagining those little girls’ faces, as an indescribable pain settled in my chest. The voice on the screen was saying some of the bodies were found hugging each other under the rubble of the fire that burned down a dormitory in the Aladağ district of the southern province of Adana. I rushed into my baby girl’s room to hug her but it felt even worse. Forget about getting a hug at night, those girls could not even die next to their parents!
The dormitory belonged to a religious sect, which is said to shelter poor kids in the area. First it was reported that because the doors to the fire exits were locked, the girls could not escape the fire. Then the inspectors found out that the doors were not locked, they just did not have handles! Eleven girls aged between 11 and 14 along with an instructor were killed through a lack of auditing. They were killed by a culture of complacency.
Just eight years ago, a similar tragedy took place in a dormitory in Konya where kids were taught the Quran by the same Sunni sect – the Süleymancılar. The building had collapsed due to an explosion of bottled gas, killing 18 kids.
In both cases, these privately owned dorms were operating illegally by sheltering kids of primary school age. On paper, only the state can run dorms that host kids of primary school age. The regulations of the Turkish Education Ministry are actively being broken across the country while the government takes no action. Locals tell many stories that raise suspicions about authorities’ tendency to turn a blind eye to the law when the matter concerns the activities of well-known religious groups.
The background to these devastating murders is highly political indeed. Under the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule in the last decade, education has increasingly become an area where religiously motivated groups and sects interfere. The Fetullah Gülen movement, now the declared enemy of the state, was the best example of how poor and bright kids were taken from families with promises of a decent education plus employment and effectively turned into pious generations.
When the AKP government realized the Gülenists were using education as a smokescreen to take over the state, they started to give informal support to sects like the Süleymancılar to beat the influence of the Gülen movement across Anatolia, rumors say.
The problems do not only arise from insufficient infrastructure at dorms and guesthouses or unlicensed instructors who directly or indirectly contribute to catastrophes like the fire in Aladağ. There have been a number of morally corrupt cases associated with religiously motivated institutions. The most infamous one is a 54-year-old teacher accused of sexually abusing 10 children at the Islamic Ensar Foundation with close links to the Turkish government.
Perhaps what is worse than these crimes is the conservative patriarchal mindset, which internalizes and even justifies these crimes, allowing them to go unpunished. Governments and municipalities enjoy impunity while a few building contractors and local members of foundations are thrown under the bus.
I lose my journalistic calm when it is about young lives. I cannot help but start thinking of my own 1-year-old baby. Unfortunately, I find myself questioning whether I would like to raise my daughter in a society where young girls get killed in an easily preventable fire, raped by their teachers or even family members, forced to marry their abusers or – in a moderate scenario – get assaulted on a public bus in the middle of Istanbul for wearing shorts. The question is even more valid under the current circumstances in which Brussels and Ankara are considering breaking off engagement.