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"Being a woman"

Zeynep Oral

"Not long ago, if you had told me I was going to write a book called " to be a woman" I would not have believed you… Yes, I am a woman. And yes my job is writing. But, writing a book on women… 'Not my business,' I would have said… Me, who was trying to 'be a human' would have nothing to say about 'being a woman'.

Before starting to work as a journalist, Zeynep Oral (born in 1946) spent several years studying in Paris. After returning to Turkey, she worked from 1968 to 2001 for the daily Milliyet as columnist and theatre critic. Since then, she has been working for the Kemalist Cumhuriyet daily.

Oral is the author of 15 books. She became famous for her first novel To Be a Woman (Kadin Olmak) which was published in December 1985. Earlier that year, Zeynep Oral set out for Nairobi in Kenya, which at the time hosted the UN World Conference on Women. It was a visit that was to transform her views on society, inspire a bestselling book and mark a turning point in the debate on women's rights in Turkey.

"I was the only Turkish journalist invited to that conference in Nairobi. There, my whole approach changed. At the time of the Nairobi conference, there was the official conference for a week, and then a week or ten days for NGOs. This opened up the whole world of feminism, the whole women's world for me."

CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), the document at the heart of the conference, was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. It required its signatory states to "ensure a legal framework, including all laws, policies, and practices that provide protection against discrimination and embody the principle of equality". It was the holding of the Nairobi conference that had convinced Turkey to ratify CEDAW in June 1985.

However, interest in the event in Turkey was limited. In Nairobi, Oral noted, there were no participants from Turkish NGOs.

"There were some professors from Ankara who had never worked on women's issues. There was an official delegation from Turkey. There wasn't anybody from NGOs, except for the women from IKD who had run away to Europe, and had all come to the conference."

Nor was there much interest in the Turkish media at the time. After Oral returned she tried to convince Milliyet's editor that she had a story to tell.

"I came back to my newspaper with 3 suitcases of information, material, pictures. I was very excited… At the time the editor was Cetin Emec. He had recently arrived. He said: "Mrs. Oral, prepare a synopsis and we'll discuss it tomorrow". That evening, I prepared a synopsis. I was going to write about women in politics, in the economy, in the house, in education, in the world, in Turkey, compare statistics. …"

The next morning, there was the big newspaper meeting… I looked around the table and noticed for the first time that they were all men. They were the directors of each section of the newspaper. They discussed the subject, enjoyed it all. Then Cetin Emec said "wonderful work, very nice, but women's affairs don't interest our readers, and I myself I have no interest for what is happening in Africa." He said, "Why don't you write us one or two articles about your time in Africa, talking about safaris."

Instead Oral wrote her first book on Turkish women's issues. It is still being reprinted many decades later. Oral has also received awards both for her literary work and her NGO activities, including the Mothers for Peace award by UNESCO Greece in 2000.

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