Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Diversity Series

Happy To Have Lived A Traditional Village Life
By Gunes Atalay

Bahiya Soran, 45, from a little village called Kuyulu outside of Mardin in the southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey near the Syrian border, doesn't know her birth date because no one recorded it. She only knows she was born in summer and that she is one of 16 children of a father who has three wives.

“If someone asked my father how many children he had, he would say nine because there were nine boys and seven girls. He wouldn't even bother telling them about the girls because girls don't really matter in my village. Boys, are to be proud of,” Soran says.

Bahiya Soran

Soran, who is Arabic, lives in an area with a diverse population of mostly Kurds, Arabs, Syrian's and Turks. She never went to school even though it is illegal in Turkey for children not go to attend school at least through high school. However, the government never knew because she was not registered when she was born. Legally, she doesn’t exist.

A young woman today from a modern Turkish family in an urban city like Istanbul who could attend school wherever she wanted would be shocked by Soran’s life story. Soran doesn't really remember her childhood. She says she never played any games. “I would either take care of my little sisters, or go to the field to work. Once, me and my sisters made little dolls out of whatever we found at home. But when my mom found them, she beat us up and told us that we were being useless by wasting our time with dolls.”

At age 12, coming back from the water fountain with a bucket full of water, Soran saw the village matchmaker in her house. All of her older sisters were matched with someone and got married around age 12 and 13. Soran knew this one was for her. She was a little confused, because she didn't feel grown up, let alone ready for marriage.

In many traditional eastern Turkish villages, marriage has strict rules. Girls can only be seen in front of the village’s water fountain, filling their buckets. After a matchmaker, or in some cases men, see them in front of the water fountain they let the parents know. After the man’s family is informed, his mother would create ways to observe the girl, such as visiting the girl’s house as a guest and asking for a certain type of food that is hard to prepare to find out if the girl is diligent. If the girl seems like she can cook well and is kind to the guest, the man’s mother would go to the village Turkish bath to see the girl’s body.

If the girl passes all these tests, the man’s family asks around to find out information about the girl’s family and to find out how much money they want for the girl. The amount usually decreases as girls get older. If the family is respectable and fits the ways of the man’s family, they send the matchmaker to inform the girl’s family that he is interested. The girl’s family then researches the man’s family to see how much money they have, what religion they belong, and other information. The actual process of moving forward with the marriage plans only begins after all of the research is completed. The girls usually have nothing to say about the marriage.

Before Soran turned 13, all of the traditional marriage processes were completed. She said she saw her future husband only a few days before they were married. “I wasn’t very happy to see an old man in front of me, but I wasn’t surprised or unhappy either because they had told me it was a good family and they had a lot of money. My money was already paid so there was nothing I could do other than try to be happy with it. At least I would be able to get away from my crowded family,” Soran says.

When asked if she had even gotten her period by this age, Soran was silent on phone until the question was repeated. “What is that?” she said. When the monthly bleeding was described, Soran giggled with embarrassment, and finally said, “Yes, I had it a little while before marriage.”

Soran was the second wife of this 40 year-old man. Like all traditional families in the east, he lived with his parents. That meant one thing. This 12 year-old girl would have to respect her mother-in-law, her father-in-law, the first wife, who was older, her husband and her husband’s siblings.

“I was actually very lucky. My mother-in-law treated me a lot better than she treated most others. They gave me time to adjust. I got beat up here and there by her or my husband but only when I deserved it by being lazy or disrespecting them. I was never hungry or cold. They took very good care of me.”

By the time Soran turned 25, she had four children and her in-laws were dead. When she turned 40, her husband died and she was left alone with her children. She began looking for a job, even though her children had incomes from their father’s fields. “I didn’t know what to do at home all day. Nobody would marry me because I am second-hand and old now. My kids were grown up working all day in the field. I just couldn’t stand being home alone,” Soran said.

For a while, Soran couldn’t find a job because no one in Mardin would hire her because she never worked in her life, she didn’t know how to read or write, and she was a “woman.” Then she met my aunt, Suheyla Yalcin. Being a successful woman born and raised in Istanbul, Yalcin was sent to Mardin by the government. Owning the notary in Mardin with many offices, Yalcin was still shocked frequently by the life she saw around her. When she met Soran, she said she liked her instantly and hired her to clean.

“I didn’t like making her work too much. I actually just hired her to be able to help her. However, she is such an honest and hard working girl, she never complains and says she doesn’t deserve the money and the good treatment when I don’t give her a lot of work.”

Soran is very happy now. She has something to keep her busy and she is making money, on her own, for the first time in her life. When asked she says: “I was happy before too. I don’t see anything wrong with my life. I just lived the way my mom and the other girls in my village lived. This is just the way it is. Thank God, nothing went wrong, except for being left alone for a while. But, it is OK. I lived everything because of my fate. God wanted me to live this way, and I have no complaints.”

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