Turkish, Armenian Women Weave New Borders

Turkish, Armenian Women Weave New Borders
By Yigal Schliefer – WeNews correspondent


Women’s eNews
June 7, 2004

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Stepping into the gap that their
governments have so far been unable to bridge, a group of Turkish
and Armenian women are expanding a dialogue project that was begun
two years ago, in the hope that their work might eventually have an
impact on official policy.

The project, called the Turkish-Armenian Women Communication Group, got
its start on March 8, 2001. Two Armenian women–a member of Armenia’s
parliament and a representative of an Armenian non-governmental
organization–came to Istanbul, Turkey’s capital city, to be part of
a panel discussion celebrating international women’s day.

After a series of reciprocal meetings, the group–made up mostly of
businesswomen, journalists, academics, non-governmental organization
representatives and parliamentarians–has been growing both in size
and scope. In the latest encounter, held in early July in the Armenian
capital of Yerevan, a dozen Turkish and some 20 Armenian women met,
organizing several smaller subcommittees responsible for coming up
with projects for further cooperation.

In the beginning, the two groups asked each other one question: “Are
we satisfied with the politics of our governments toward each other
up until now?” says Mujgan Suver, a Turkish psychologist who works
on human rights issues at the Istanbul-based Marmara Group, a Turkish
public policy foundation that initiated the dialogue project. “We said
if we are satisfied, then fine, let’s leave it. But if we are not,
let’s do something about it and maybe we will someday be able to get
our governments together and talk about it.”

Despite sharing a 166-mile border, Turkey and Armenia currently have
no diplomatic relations. Turkey sealed its frontier with Armenia in
1993 to protest the Armenian takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region
of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

An even greater source of tension, though, dates back to the early
part of the 20th century. Starting in 1915, during the violence of
World War I, large numbers of Armenians were deported from their
homes in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland. Estimates of the number of
Armenians killed during the deportations range from 300,000 to nearly
1.5 million. For Armenians, the events of that time are considered
genocide and they would like them officially recognized as such. Turkey
has steadfastly refused to accept the term “genocide,” pointing out
that atrocities were committed by both sides during what was a time
of great upheaval.

“For both countries, the relationship is still a very thorny issue,
and there doesn’t seem to be any opening on the horizon, to be honest,”
says Ali Carkoglu, research director at the Istanbul-based Turkish
Economic and Social Studies Foundation. “It’s very difficult these
days to deal with this issue in a cooperative manner.”

The Marmara Group’s Suver says it is because of this impasse in
Turkish-Armenian relations that she wanted to start the dialogue group.
Suver was previously involved in a similar group with women from
Greece–a country that, up until recently, also had strained relations
with Turkey–and says that project proved fruitful in bringing Turkish
and Greek women together.

Hranush Kharatyan, president of the Armenian branch of a human rights
group called Transcaucasus Women’s Dialogue, which has other branches
in Georgia and Azerbaijan, says the idea of a dialogue group also
appealed to her as a way of breaking through the rancor that exists
between Turks and Armenians.

“Our common goal is to arrive at the establishment of peaceful
relations,” Kharatyan writes from Yerevan in an e-mail message. “Though
Turkish and Armenian women vary in their perspectives regarding this
issue so far, there exist also common views.”

Project Introduces Women to Politics

Suver says she also hopes the project will help bring those involved,
who come from a region where women are often shut out of political
life, closer to the political process and the conflict resolution

“Unfortunately, women never take part in peace negotiations, in peace
deals,” she says.

Working as women in an area where they aren’t the usual leading players
on political issues could actually be advantageous, says one of the
group’s participants.

“People don’t take it as a potential source of danger when women are
working on a something. They don’t take it seriously. That could be
helpful,” says Lale Aytanc Nalbant, an Istanbul chemical engineer
who has been part of the dialogue group since June of last year. “We
are not taken seriously by the politicians, but in the end we can
accomplish much more than expected.”

Both the Turkish and Armenian participants, meanwhile, say that their
meetings have already led to positive, if small, changes.

“If we compare our first and last meetings, I can say that our
relations have become more friendly and tolerant. We try to understand
each other and even some conflict issues have been solved through
dialogues,” writes Susanna Vardanyan, president of the Women’s Rights
Center, a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization, in an e-mail

Istanbul’s Aytanc Nalbant says she has seen the bitter tone that at
first dominated the meetings slowly melting away. “Once you get to
know people more and more, you feel more like family towards them and
grow more confident towards them,” she says. “There are less doubts
that they have secondary intentions when they say something.”

Focusing on the Future

In order to move forward, the group has for now decided to lay aside
discussions of the past, particularly the genocide issue, and to focus
on creating joint projects through four subcommittees that were formed
at the recent meeting in Yerevan. Among some of the ideas the group
is considering are creating a summer exchange program for Turkish and
Armenian students, publishing cookbooks that would illustrate daily
life in both countries and creating a committee that would screen
the media in each country for negative depictions of each other.

The time may be ripe for projects like these to have an impact. Both
the United States and the European Union–which Turkey hopes to
join in the near future – –have been applying pressure on the two
countries to resolve their disputes.

Noyan Soyak, the Turkish vice chairman of the Turkish-Armenian Business
Development Council, an independent group promoting better trade
relations between the two countries, says the increasing number of
Turks and Armenians meeting outside of conventional political channels
has led to a positive change in public opinion in both countries.

“Public diplomacy is the infrastructure. We are softening the ground
for the politicians to play on,” Soyak says.

For now, though, the participants of the dialogue say they are focusing
on building trust within their own circle before trying to influence
their countries’ leaders.

“When the time comes, we will work on applying political pressure,”
says Suver. “This won’t just be a group of women meeting. But we have
to let time pass before this can happen.”

Yigal Schliefer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

For more information: National Peace
Foundation – Transcaucasus Women’s Dialogue:

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