Turkey and USA: American therapist calls solidarity of Turkish women ‘remarkable’

Publication Date: 
June 15, 2010
Today's Zaman
Leyla Welkin


“The idea of namus may not, strictly speaking, be a Muslim idea. Usually translated as ‘honor,’ the word namus is actually a word with no direct translation in English.

It means virginity, purity, integrity and honor. An emphasis on a woman’s virginity and sexual purity certainly predates Islam and is an idea that is common to many cultural groups and ethnicities, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or otherwise,” says Professor Leyla Welkin, who is conducting group therapy with sexually abused women in Ankara.

In an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman, Welkin, who has been a clinical psychologist and a professor of cross-cultural psychology for nearly 30 years, underlined that namus is involved with at least two social-psychological factors. “First, a relational sense of identity that defines a person in terms of their relationships to others, particularly family or tribe. The other key element is a social structure that places superior public power and control over families and children in the hands of men and fathers,” she says.

Welkin, who specializes in working with female survivors of domestic and sexual violence, compares a Turkish understanding of “namus” with ideas about virginity in the US. “In the United States a similar emphasis on the sexual purity and the virginity of girls and women was widely valued as long as women were seen as subordinate and inferior to men in public life. As women in the United States and Europe, of every religious background, have gained the ability to function as equally valuable participants in public and private life, women have gained greater control over their own sexuality,” she comments.

Welkin believes that the most significant difference between the way that women in Turkey and women in the United States think about sexual abuse is tied up with the concept of namus. “In Turkish society namus is a quality of honor or purity that is believed to be tied up with a woman’s virginity and the protection of her sexuality from inappropriate relations. One of the tricky things about namus, however, is that it is not just a quality that affects a girl or woman, but it reflects upon her entire family, while she holds responsibility for it. In this way, a girl or a woman’s sexuality becomes a family possession that must be protected to protect her family’s honor from harm,” says Welkin.

Born to American parents but attached to Turkey

Welkin was born in Gaziantep to American parents who worked at the American Hospital there. She intermittently lived in Turkey throughout her childhood but always dreamed of coming back to try to help women who were victims of sexual abuse. She says while living a few years in Gaziantep as a young person, she became attached to the warm spirit, energetic culture and sweeping history of the people of Anatolia.

“When I finished raising my two sons and saw that they were done with their university education, it seemed as if the time was right to realize my own dream and come back to work in Turkey. My goal was to conduct research to see if the methods that we had used in the United States, working with American women affected by the trauma of abuse, could be adapted for use in Turkey,” she comments.

Welkin had the chance to realize her goal when she returned to Turkey in October of 2008 and met with two Turkish psychiatrists at Gazi University Medical School, Professor Dr. Selçuk Candansayar and Docent Dr. Aslıhan Sayın. They had conducted cross-cultural research in the past and agreed to team up with Welkin to create trauma treatment psychotherapy groups for adult women survivors of sexual abuse. Over the course of the next year and a half, the team conducted four separate three-month trauma therapy groups, concluding the final group in May 2010.

Welkin says that when she first described the research project, people in the United States and in Turkey told her that they expected it would be extremely difficult to find women willing to participate in therapy for sexual abuse.

“It is true that women in Turkey, like women in the US, feel ashamed, embarrassed and afraid of thinking and discussing with others the pain of sexual abuse. Also in both Turkey and the US, women who have been abused experience a very predictable set of symptoms and difficulties as a result of their trauma.

Heightened anxiety, nightmares, difficulties with memory and concentration, low self-esteem and an exaggerated sense of shame are the most common effects of abuse around the world. Everywhere, the similarities between the effects of sexual and domestic abuse are much greater than the differences,” she emphasizes.

She says that the first Ankara therapy group was filled entirely by women referred to them by mental health related professionals around the city, but after the first group was complete, women who had been in the treatment groups began to spread the word.

“Despite the difficulty of facing the pain of trauma, the promise of feeling better and an improvement in troubled relationships brings many women to psychotherapy, if they know it is available to them,” Welkin says.

According to her, one of the biggest difficulties in conducting the research has been finding support. “In the beginning, no university or existing NGO in Turkey was willing to sponsor the project. But after a few months we gave the project a name, The Pomegranate Connection, and formed a Turkish non-profit association, the Individual and Societal Mental Health Association, and the Finnish Embassy in Ankara, and recently, the US Embassy in Ankara, granted us some funds,” she says.

Not an easy topic to talk about

“Sexual abuse is a topic no one is comfortable talking about. Unfortunately, the information we can gather indicates that sexual abuse is far too common, both in the United States and in Turkey,” Welkin says.

She recalls statistics showing that one in three women in the US will be sexually assaulted and 89 percent of those assaults will be by someone the woman knows. In Turkey, a recent study sponsored by the Directorate on the Status of Women found that “41 percent of women in Turkey have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a husband, former husband or a partner. Around 15 percent have experienced sexual violence only, rather than physical abuse.”

Welkin underlines that the large majority of women who experience sexual abuse are harmed by people they know and whom they should be able to trust. “In the Ankara groups very few women were raped by strangers. Nearly all of the women were sexually molested or raped by older brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends or neighbors. Most of the women also experienced abuse for the first time when they were children or teenagers. Young people are more vulnerable to the type of abuse of power that is the most important factor in motivating and shaping sexual abuse,” she says.

“The women in our Ankara groups have also been remarkably ready to join together and support one another. The groups in Turkey have been especially active; participants have been particularly committed to the process and have offered one another excellent solidarity compared to many of the groups I have done in the United States. I think Turkish women may be especially well suited to group therapy,” she comments.

Welkin points out a common misconception about sexual abuse is that sexual abuse is primarily motivated by the perpetrators’ desire for sex. But according to her, this is clearly not the case. “This has been demonstrated by the lack of success of punishments like chemical castration for people who commit the crime of forcing sexual behaviors on women, children or people less powerful than themselves. The main motivator is a desire to demonstrate power and control over another person,” she says and points out that this harms the ability of the victims to trust others, to make choices for themselves in relation to their own needs and desires and to manage the emotions associated with such complicated and painful experiences.

Out of respect for survivors of abuse in the Ankara groups, Welkin does not want to go into the details of their struggles but says that their lives show a wide variety of effects from their experiences.

Reactions to abuse

“Reactions to abuse seen in these groups include a sense of shame that makes some women feel they are unclean and unworthy of relations with decent men; fear of marriage or difficulty in a marriage relationship; promiscuity in sexual relationships or even becoming a sex worker can result. We have seen fear of sex or sexual problems of many kinds, poor performance in school or at work, difficulty raising children leading to overprotection or neglect, badly disrupted relationships with family members, divorce, depression, anxiety and social phobia, suicide attempts, alcohol abuse and even psychosis. Nearly all of the women in the groups have experienced improvement as a result of their participation. One woman who had never had a boyfriend is now getting married; one woman who had been having sex to make money got a regular job. Over and over participants have said that the group experience has changed their lives for the better.”

Welkin underlines that one of the most important points of treatment for survivors of trauma and abuse, whether in the United States or in Turkey, is to help women to see that they have legitimate needs of their own and are capable of making choices for themselves about how to take care of their needs.

“Services for women trying to recover from the effects of violence and abuse, whether physical violence in families or sexual violation by anyone, need to focus first on protection from further violence,” she says and adds that over the last 30 years of working with the problem of violence against women and children in the US, she has learned a few important lessons. “Offering services that stop at simply offering victims of domestic violence or sexual crimes shelter or protection has not worked. Experience in the US has demonstrated that inappropriate use of power and control is at the heart of the problem, both for people who perpetrate violence and for its victims. Abuse must be understood as a crime, and perpetrators must be held responsible for their actions. Prevention of abuse is the most effective approach,” she says.

According to Welkin, treatment and therapy has been most effective when it helps both traumatized victims and perpetrators learn to manage conflict effectively, teaches them skills so that they can identify healthy, emotional needs in themselves and others and build strong relationships and families. “Group treatment for victims and for abusers along with others who have had similar experiences has been especially effective,” she comments.

Welkin underlines that Turkey has the opportunity to learn from some of the experiences and mistakes made in the United States and Europe.  “If Turkey takes advantage of cross-cultural research and international collaboration, it can move more quickly toward the development of the best possible services and treatments for victims of domestic violence and sexual crimes. Groups for victims suffering from trauma, and accountability and treatment for perpetrators of violence, developed at the same time, promise the possibility of healthier families and individuals.”