Turkish women after the earthquake: Lost security in a new home


With the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria a year ago, many thousands of women not only lost their homes, but also spaces of protection and freedom. Housing policy in Turkey threatens to cement this loss.

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buildings behind a field tilled for farming

After the earthquakes on February 6, 2023, the State Housing Authority Toplu Konut İdaresi Başkanlığı (TOKI) announced that it would construct 6,887 buildings about 20 kilometers outside Diyarbakir city center for people whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake or are no longer habitable for safety reasons.

A classic TOKI building is several stories high, offers space for hundreds of people and - like hardly anything else in Turkey - represents the modernization and urbanization of the country. The high-rises promise modern apartments, central heating, running water. Hundreds of thousands of these houses have sprung up across the country in recent years. The construction authority claims that the new buildings will be erected outside the city taking into account the cultural, sociological and demographic characteristics of the Diyarbakir population. But experts as well as parts of the population doubt that this is true.

TOKI houses: loss of in-between spaces

The sociologist Mihriban İlbaş, affiliated with the Turkish Women's State Association, is apprehensive about the impact of TOKI buildings on the daily lives of women. She emphasizes that women affected by earthquakes bear a significant burden in the resettlement process, experiencing heightened social and economic repercussions. Forced to leave familiar neighborhoods where they were born and raised, they face a disruption in their social connections and community engagement.

There are also gender-specific effects. The majority of the population in the Dyarbakır region is Kurdish, lives in large, traditional families. A move to a TOKI building could drastically change the day-to-day life of many women in conservative regions because their social life and their relationships with their peers and friends would be restricted significantly, explains İlbaş.

In the study “The Street in the House, the House in the Street,” Funda Şenol Cantek, Çağla Ünlütürk Ulutaş and Sermin Çakmak look at how women in conservative regions create freedom on a small scale. “The doorstep, the balcony, the surroundings of the house or the window front are spaces in between; there the control of the female body imposed by the patriarchal and conservative culture can be partially relaxed,” the study explains. These intermediate spaces no longer exist in the TOKI buildings. Men, on the other hand, are not tied to their own apartment. They can move around in public spaces and visit restaurants and cafes to suit their needs. In addition, the anonymity of the TOKİ houses differs from small neighborhoods where the residents know each other. The social cohesion in these spaces enables women to be safe and participate in society, says İlbaş. In addition, security and safety mechanisms are lackingin the TOKI buildings so that the women feel unsafe.

Bad experiences

Diyarbakir's majority Kurdish citizens are distrusting of the Turkish government's construction plans. The reason: this is not the first resettlement operation that the Kurds have experienced in their lifetime. In 2015, the peace process between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is also banned in Germany, and the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed. In Diyarbakir's old town, Kurdish rebels rose up against the Turkish state and declared their neighborhoods autonomous zones. Heavy fighting ensued. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were displaced.

Hamide Ayaz lived in Diyarbakir's old town at the time and talks about the odyssey of the constant resettlements. Their Sur neighborhood was particularly badly damaged by the fighting. “When I was a child, we moved to Sur after our home village was burned down,” says Hamide Ayaz. “I got married there and gave birth to my children there.” In her free time, she went to the banks of the Tigris to “breathe,” as she says, or to the Hevsel Gardens, a fertile region on the edge of Diyarbakir that has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2013. After the fighting and the clear victory of the Turkish military, thousands of people were relocated. The old town was nationalized, demolished, and filled with new buildings and parks. Hamide Ayaz also had to go. Her family managed to buy a house on the outskirts of Diyarbakir. They went into debt, but Hamide, as he had done back in Sur, settled into the new surroundings and integrated himself into the neighboring community. But this home is no longer there either. The earthquake on February 6th damaged her house and she had to leave it. And unlike before, there are no resources for a new start. And so, similar to thousands of others, Hamide Ayaz is waiting for the completion of a TOKI house outside Diyarbakir.

Continued trauma

Many of the houses that were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake were built following the forced resettlement of Kurds from the villages in the 1990s. These were also TOKI buildings, as Selma Aslan, co-chair of the Dyarbakır Chamber of Architects, explains. All structures built by TOKİ as part of the urban transformation before and after the earthquake are located outside the city. “TOKİ affects everyone, women, children, the elderly, men - in fact all the displaced. Given the conditions in Kurdish cities, these people experienced one trauma after another. We can say that TOKİ houses are another form of trauma.”