Istanbul is a city of contrasts. It has one foot in the western world, symbolized by the tall high rises on the city landscape, but with over 2,200 mosques across the city; the women, young and old, wearing headscarves and the chanting throughout the day, you cannot deny the strong religious and eastern overtones. And then there’s the pockets of poverty, where buildings that are crumbling and collapsing, are actually lived in and like any other major city, where street beggars, often children, approach you for money.
The International Women’s Leadership and Entrepreneurship Summit was very much like the city.
Organized by Kagider, the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey, like the tall buildings, these women stood out. To be a member of the association they have to achieve a certain level of success and with their power and influence, they wanted to create awareness and dialogue about the important role of women in Turkish society.
And they are to be congratulated on bringing such a diverse group of speakers together – from senior ministers within the Turkish government, to leaders in the corporate world, to academics and a handful of “experts” from around the world.
However, like the city itself, you could not ignore the religious implications of being a woman in Turkey. Without doubt, the most heated discussions (and I mean heated) centred on religion and diversity. Listening through an interpreter made it hard to follow at times and it became so explosive that you could see that these issues are deep-rooted and not going to be resolved easily. It’s complex but at least the summit opened the doors for dialogue on topics that are not normally aired in a public forum.
While outwardly Turkey appears to be a progressive country , like the pockets of poverty, there are areas where they have a long way to go in supporting women. With only 26% of women in the labour force, the infrastructure is just not in place. For example, child care for working mothers is minimal and gender equity policies not developed or implemented.
In Canada our research has shown that the first six years of a child’s life are the most important in terms of learning. In Turkey, preschool programs for children are only for the few families who can afford it and the compulsory starting age for school is six. All of which has implications for the growth and development of children, and impacts their mothers’ potential to work outside the home.
Listening for two days through a translator, has given me a fresh perspective on what it is like to come to a country and not understand the language. It is hard to concentrate for that long and in not knowing the language, you also miss the nuances of what is being said.
All this to say, that I am still digesting all that I learned at the summit – about Turkey, the plight of women living there and my own understanding and acceptance of cultural differences. But one thing I do know, I met some fascinating and wonderful women who enriched the experience and with whom I hope to keep in touch.
And hey – I can now say I am an international speaker!!