Tuesday, December 12, 2017

One Teacher's Courage vs Melania Trump's Empty Platitudes on Female Empowerment

by Nomad

The story of this Turkish elementary school teacher illustrates the difference between true courage and hollow speeches by posers.

You've probably never heard of the "International Women of Courage Award" (IWOC). For the last 10 years, the US State Department has presented this prize to women " who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk." 

The 2017 ceremony was hosted by Melania Trump on March 29 at the State Department in Washington.  This year thirteen women were awarded from Bangladesh to Botswana, from Peru to Papua New Guinea. A young woman from Turkey was also honored this year.
Check out the photos from this year's event.

The Turkish recipient was Saadet Özkan, a Turkish schoolteacher from a village not very far from Izmir, Turkey. Here is her story, courtesy of free-lance journalist Stav Dimitropoulos.

The Tickling Game

In her four-year tenure as an elementary teacher in the village of Sancakli in western Turkey (pop. 147), thirty-nine-year-old Ozkan had noticed some strange, disturbing things going on. It had to do with the 63-year old principal Adil Şahintürk.
“He would take one or two girls inside his office and lock the door. I became curious"
She suspected him of having improper relations with the students and she was prepared to do whatever it took to put an end to it.
One day in May 2014, she seized her chance to expose him.
"I waited for the right time. He once left the door unlocked. I rushed in. He was standing upright, and my two seven-year-old pupils were under the table, between his legs.”
The principal claimed that he was punishing the students because they had been "naughty." At the same time, he explained it was some sort of "tickling game."
After the initial shock, she embarked on a quest to extract the truth from the pupils and bring Şahintürk to justice. But this would hardly be an open-and-shut case.
There are no guidelines for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse- especially in a village- and especially when the charges involve a school principal. She decided that the first step was to collect information from the two girls she seen in Şahintürk’s office. They confirmed precisely what she had feared. The tickling game was a cover for sexual abuse of the pupil.

Özkan was fully aware how precarious the situation was. After all, the principal was well-respected and had held his job for 22 years with a rock-solid reputation, an equally longstanding marriage, and grandchildren.
He was, it seemed at the time, untouchable.

Trusting Authority and Passive Participation

Her first duty was to protect her students. But how? When Özkan attempted to explain to her students that some forms of attention from adults- especially strangers with gifts- are not innocent. They must be wary, she told them, of confusing the unconditional love of parent and the affection of an unfamiliar stranger.
At that moment, the principal entered the classroom and demanded to know what was going on. He seemed satisfied when the teacher explained that the students were learning a poem.

The situation must have seemed hopeless at that point. How could a teacher possibly explain to these children that the head of the school was a predator? The students looked up to the principal as a trusted authority, a person that could not be challenged by students, teachers and even parents.

Fortunately, her message to her students was understood much better than she had first suspected.  By Özkan's account, one of the students came and told her that there was indeed a person "who loves me and other children in bad ways.”
The seven-year-old student refused to name that person but a few minutes later, the same student broke down crying. The girl was afraid that she would become pregnant.
Özkan says she tried to soothe the girl, promising her that nothing bad would happen and that her belly would not get swollen. The girl said she was afraid to tell her teacher about the principal, and, pointing to a garden outside the school building, said Özkan would be buried there if she dared say anything herself.
Ms. Özkan soon realized that Principal Şahintürk had not only been abusing girls in his office. According to the student's testimony, he had also been exposing them to pornographic material for at least two years. It was probably part of a so-called "grooming" process with an aim at convincing the children there was nothing dirty going on. Presumably, he was explaining that this was something that all adults do.  

For a child molester, Şahintürk had an ideal situation. The principal was really the only true long-time faculty member.  Most of the teachers were on short-term contracts. Even if they became aware of the shady activities, they would have been very unlikely to jeopardize their own careers based on rumors. A kind of passive participation would have only compounded the problem.

There was also a problem of culture and a key ingredient to the culture is that authority is rarely challenged. To an often excessive degree, age and experience are respected in Turkey.

And of course, there is the ever-present fear of crossing the wrong person and paying a heavy price, such as career extermination or worse.

The Gamble of Due Process

In any case, Özkan, with the girls' testimonies in hand, decided to inform the authorities of the details. A couple days later, on May 17, 2014, Şahintürk was detained and charges were filed.

However, that's when events seemed to take an ominous and threatening character.  
After Şahintürk’s arrest, Özkan says she started receiving a slew of anonymous phone calls ordering her to give up the case. One morning, in October 2014, she was in a serious traffic accident. “I could feel it. Something was wrong with the steering wheel from the start,” she remembers. She’s convinced it was sabotage, although no evidence was discovered. “No matter how hard I maneuvered it, the steering wheel was turning in the opposite direction. I totally lost control of it, and BOOM! I spent six months in hospital, and another six months bedridden, recovering from a broken back.”
On October 15, 2015, a pre-trial hearing began in the case to determine whether there was any basis to the allegations. The court found that there was indeed enough evidence to hear the case.  
But much to Özkan's horror, the judge also ruled that after nearly a year and a half already spent in prison, Şahintürk was to be released pending trial.

According to the source, the judge's ruling was not all that unusual. It has a lot to do with the failings of the legal system. This has led many international child protection advocates to question Turkey’s commitment to safeguarding children from abuse question.
In late 2016, the Constitutional Court of Turkey ruled to annul a provision that punishes people who engage in sexual acts with children under the age of 15. Critics said the action essentially legalized pedophila. The court’s position was perhaps not a surprise given that Turkey retains one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe, with 15 percent of girls getting married before the age of eighteen (though, technically, such marriages are outlawed).
Parents of the victims were equally dismayed by the ruling. How can a system be trusted when the guilty are set free? they asked Özkan.
At that point, her friends and family advised Özkan to stay out of it and to let the courts decide the case. She was playing with fire by pursuing the issue. In any case, they said, the principal would soon be retiring and thus, the problem would be resolved naturally. That was not the kind of justice that Özkan would accept.

She made to decision to go to the press with the story which had been largely ignored in the local news. Özkan found a sympathetic journalist who ran an article about the case. Not unexpectedly the story caused a stir and sent shockwaves throughout the country. In turn, the Izmir Bar Association and the Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey shone a spotlight on the proceeding to ensure that the courts would not allow the issue to slip under the radar.

It was exactly the kind of attention that pays off in Turkey. Righteous outrage. No matter how broken the justice system might be, it is public apathy or ignorance that allows injustice to continue.

On June 2, 2016, attorneys from all over Turkey, representatives of children’s organizations, artists, philanthropists, activists and others occupied the court’s booths. Yet this was certainly not settled in social media but in a court.
With all of the evidence presented to the judges and arguments made on both sides. the ruling came down. Şahintürk was given a sentence of 102 years in prison without the chance of parole.

For the victims and their families, it was a long-awaited moment of justice. For Özkan, however, there was yet another case to be heard before the courts.
On  May 28, 2017, a new pre-trial began. The judge levied charges against him of serial sexual exploitation of six children, between the age of six and 11, for a period that lasted up to four years, as well as possession of “obscene publications.” That trial was set for July 13.

Just before that trial, Şahintürk’s lawyer claimed that there was more to the story than what had been reported. Attorney Atilla Ertekin alleged that the public perception against the Mr. Şahintürk was manipulated by the sensationalist press and his hysterical accusers.
Ertekin also asked:
“If such sexual abuse had been going on for over 20 years, why didn’t anyone say anything?”
The lawyer also questioned the Özkan 's credibility, claiming that parents had filed complaints against her for dereliction of her duties as an instructor. Özkan denies and pointed out that her records from the school and the Ministry of National Education of the Republic of Turkey backed her up.
“It’s insulting to me and my children that a criminal, a child abuser uses this kind of thing against me.”
Şahintürk’s lawyer also charged at his client never had a fair trial from the early stages. And why? Because the judge was a woman and was, therefore, biased against the male defendant. Ultimately, the court was not impressed with Ertekin's legal maneuvers.

On July 13, Şahintürk was sentenced to an additional 82 years and six months in jail.

The court's decision was seen as a step forward for victims of sexual abuse in Turkey. It will, Özkan hopes, encourage women (and all victims) to report offenses to the police, convinced that justice will be done.  She says that she hopes that "my example, and everything I went through for justice to shine, will wake up the public.”

According to a local newspaper, Ozkan now runs a nongovernmental organization that strives to protect children.

And that brings us back to the beginning of this story.

Melania's Missing Moral Clarity

The "International Women of Courage Award"  was created to honor courageous woman like Özkan. That's a very good thing. Perhaps it will empower women all over the world. Perhaps these honored women will provide an example to women who feel helpless against injustice.
First Lady Melania Trump spoke at the ceremony and said:
Their lives remind us of the boundless capacity of the human spirit when guided by moral clarity and desire to do good... As they continue to persevere against unimaginable odds, these women are extraordinary examples of reaching within to find the courage that lies inside us all to change the world.

She continued:
It is, therefore, our duty to continue to shine the light on each miraculous achieved by women, all capable of trying, truly leading the change to fight for those that cannot fight for themselves.
"Theirs are the stories of human greatness that will continue to inspire, and therefore must be told far and wide. These honorees, who have fought on the front lines against injustice are true heroes. Their stories of individual bravery remind us that there is always hope whenever the human spirit is brought to bear in the service of others, and that healing and personal empowerment are often born from such deeds.
For wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them. However, wherever women are empowered, towns and villages, schools and economies, are empowered, and together we are all made stronger with them. We must begin now to challenge old fears, fight long-held prejudices and stand up against evil and injustice wherever it may be.
All that is quite true. Who would argue with these sentiments? And yet, given the source, the irony and hypocrisy are awfully hard to swallow. Melania talks about moral clarity and about the women trying to make the world a better place facing seemingly-overwhelming obstacles.    

It's only fair to ask: Where's Melania's own moral clarity? Where has she stood up against "evil and injustice wherever it may be?" She won't have to go very far to do that if she is so inclined.
It's only fair to ask whether she is actually merely making a mockery of the prestigious award.

Her own husband has been accused of sexual harassment and has boasted about the joys of sexually assaulting women. Has Melania Trump found the courage to speak out about the president's misdeeds? Has she condemned her husband for implying that these women are attention-seekers and liars?
No. Not publicly, at least. 

And more recently, has Melania made any statement honoring the women who have come forward to speak out against the Roy Moore? Moore, the Alabama candidate Donald would like to see in the Senate was accused of "dating" 14-year-old girls in his sordid past.
Melania has said nothing.
Not a word.

If, as we have heard so often, silence is a form of consent, then Melania, despite her pretty words, has approved of her husband's behavior and opinions. In fact, it is a little worse than that. The First Lady condescending talks down to women about being strong, knowing and doing what is right, regardless of the personal risks. And yet, she herself has done nothing. 

Clearly, it is a far easier to pose, to make speeches (written by a paid staffer, no doubt) and hand out awards like Halloween treats. Unlike the First Lady, there are women who have actually made the heroic commitment to improving the world.
Like Saadet Özkan.