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In the Newsroom

September 11, 2009
Leveling the gender playing field in Turkey

Photo: Gizem Yarbil

Correspondent Gizem Yarbil, a native of Turkey, recently reported with producer Bryan Myers on the signature story Female soccer players shoot down Turkish taboos. Gizem shares how women are pioneering a place in traditionally male-dominated sports.

Turks are mad about football (soccer), but most of them are unaware of a new development in the field: A new professional women’s football league. Now, a group of brave girls is trying to challenge the gender divide in Turkey.

The new league has been met with resistance, and some boundaries have yet been broken down. Many in Turkey still believe that women should be confined to the home, and that the football field is no place for women.

The team we followed is from a conservative city called Sakarya in the northwest corner of Turkey near Istanbul. I got to know the girls on a 12-hour bus ride en route to a crucial away game.

The girls we interviewed grew up playing ball on their neighborhood streets. Parents opposed them playing football — thinking it un-ladylike. And there was a concern that girls were too physical with guys on the streets.

But despite disapproval and some jeers, these girls continue to pioneer their new league, trying to prove to all of Turkey that football is not only a men’s sport. I read a New York Times story about how men are going to their games and heckling them from the bleachers.

“We should play you” some of the men yelled sarcastically, implying they’d beat them right away.

“To them, we’re just women,” says the team captain Esra Erol.

To me, our story about women’s football in Turkey is about women being capable of doing anything. We still have a long way to go in Turkey. And, it’s not only soccer. I recently read a story about a Turkish woman who won an international weightlifting competition.

The female weightlifter talked about how she wasn’t accepted by the weightlifting community. For Turks, weightlifting is one of the most important national sports and it’s also emblazoned as men’s turf. The female weightlifter explained how professional coaches did not believe in her because she was a woman and how they thought it would be a waste of time to train her. But she proved them all wrong.

It’s a huge improvement to have a professional women’s football (soccer) league in Turkey after it’s been established in so many European countries for many years. Girls playing football or lifting heavy weights for competition are at the beginning of a long road to establish total equality for women and men in Turkey.

It’s not going to be easy, but these women — from the Sakarya women’s football team to the victorious female weightlifter — insist on proving they can be and do anything they want.

– Gizem Yarbil

For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.

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