September 28, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Hazal Yolga (HY)
AP: Hazal Yolga. A woman, a professional, an activist, a friend. So many identities in just one person. Which one do you think represents or defines you the most?
HY: I would probably go with human first, and then woman. I do not believe in rigid identities anyway. I think that most of these concepts that we define as identities are fluid, and we shift back and forth between them. I could define myself with many words in many different occasions, at many different times. However, the prominent ones have probably been human and woman so far.
AP: Would you say that our reality here in Cyprus and the turbulent times we have experienced makes the whole issue of identities that much harder?
HY: Totally! I think we totally have an identity crisis every day, whichever side you are on. Obviously, we have always said that if we are going to go with one identity, let us go with Cypriot. If only everything was that easy, obviously. There is rising nationalism, we have always had an identity crisis, and I feel like it is even getting worse now with the changes that are happening globally.
AP: This global rising of nationalism – we have seen it in Europe, in the US and elsewhere for some time now, but it didn’t seem to be too alarming to some people. We tend to ignore the ripple or butterfly effect and we are not prepared. Having said that, do you think Cypriots are ready to face history in order to move forward?
HY: That is a tough question. I think there are a great number of people who are ready to face history, have already faced history, and have taken steps forward in that matter. However, I do not think that as a society, we are there yet in Cyprus. Obviously, I do not think this is something that just happens naturally. I believe that the authorities should have taken things more seriously. Through the past 40-50 years, they have not done much in terms of confronting what happened, nobody has taken responsibility. We have not seen much of this. As a natural result of that, we are not there yet.
AP: What would you propose as measures or actions, which maybe could help us move forward?
HY: Well there are practices around the world that we could debate whether they would work here or not. They have established reconciliation committees for other conflicts before and supposedly, that worked. Initiatives like the CMP (Committee on Missing Persons), I think that is a great initiative, because that provides that sense of closure to so many people, and I think that is very important. Actually, just last night we watched a documentary that presented an oral history project on Armenian-Cypriots. It was not so much the documentary itself, like it was very valuable itself, but it was also because people shared their experiences, such as where they were born, where they lived and in what circumstances they had to move, and what kinds of lives they had so far, whether they went back to their houses or not, and what that made them feel. People asked them questions and they commented afterwards – it was a very touching experience, because people were coming forward saying “Thanks for doing this” “It is me in there, I am the subject of this”, and “Finally I feel like my voice is being heard”. Furthermore, Turkish Cypriots have said, “I do not know if this means anything, because the generation before us have committed all these atrocities, but I apologize for that, on behalf of them”. I think that was a very touching experience for everybody. It is a small thing- it does not have to be on a grand scale, and one solution for all. It is about the microscale and little experiences.
AP: Due to the fact that the Cyprus problem dominates the social and political dialogue, we do tend to focus here in Cyprus on the binary Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots and we tend to ignore that there are other minorities as well on the island, such as Armenians as you said, but also Maronites, Latins etc. Do you think that as a society, we are inclusive?
HY: I believe that we like to think that we are – but we are not. If I go back to last night again, we watched a story about Cyprus – a very inclusive society, where everybody had good relationships with their neighbours, and everyone was happy. Kids were playing together regardless of whether they were Armenian, Greek, or Turkish etc. Even that is probably sugar coated and a little bit nostalgic, I think. Even today I see that, especially in the North; in contrast to Turkey (where everything is in contrast), you can take anything as it is – it just needs to be in relation to something else. People like to compare themselves to the Turkish people, and say, “We are European – we are more modern. We are not like them. We are not that conservative or inclusive. We are more open-minded”. The truth of the matter is that they are not. Just because you are not raising your hostile opinions does not mean that you an inclusive person – it does not make you a person that embraces diversity. It just means that you are not talking about it, because you think that it is not politically correct. However, what you are feeling inside is not all butterflies and rainbows. I am currently running this project on LGBT rights, and we are seeing the reflections of that. They are another minority.
AP: Of course, the spectrum of minorities is also vast and fluid. What are the major challenges that this group faces, and is this project focused specifically on the North?
HY: Everything is a challenge. Just making your existence known is a challenge. It is not talked about. Everybody knows, but people still gossip about it. This is the kind of society we grew up in, and I believe that it is probably the same in the South. We do not have any openly gay or transsexual politicians, celebrities or anyone of influence in the society, because it is a taboo. It is a very heteronormative, patriarchal society; therefore, these things are not accepted. Especially for transsexual people, finding a job is extremely hard, just getting through that transition period in this country is very hard, because we do not have the necessary infrastructure in terms of changing your identity and going through the operation. All these formal steps, we do not have any structures for that. Therefore, everything is a challenge, but we are hopefully tackling it little by little.
AP: Do you think that the fact that there is less legislation in the North, which means that things are not so organized and there are no boundaries, has led to the growth of activism in that part of the island?
HY: I never thought of it that way, to be honest. However, it does make sense. I think that the legislation has always been lousy. It is a natural consequence of the unstable structure, which they tried to establish back in the day. We needed people, and the people needed to do things themselves, because the structure there was never going to look out for them – and it never did. Maybe, when they first established it, during the so-called “hype”, they thought that the people were being heard, and their needs were being met. Nevertheless, this has clearly not been the case; at least not since, I was born. Although, are all these small movements necessarily yielding any results? I am not so optimistic about that.
AP: Having said that, would you say that societal change is going to occur on a political level or from the grassroots?
HY: I think my answer to that is always grassroots. Otherwise, if it comes from the governmental or political level, you are just imposing it. There is always that issue of ownership. You are not going to make people change, if they do not believe in it. You will impose a lot and change the legislation. Let us talk about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the North, for example. It was mostly a civil society initiative, as well as some open-minded parties, who were proposing this for years. They had activist roots, so it finally happened, but it did not come from the political level. However, although it was a political and legal move, it was supported and initiated from the wider society. Did that change much? As a feminist, as well as a LGBT rights activist, I never thought that it would make the society more accepting, inclusive or better. That was not the case. It was just another battle. These are multi-layered situations, you have to fix this and work on the society, and the change is going to come from there. Of course, people are no longer punished for having sexual relations with someone from the same sex, which is great. However, that was not the case anyway. What I mean is that it was not the main problem anyway. Just because that law changed, it did not make people inclusive. It is not as if people were saying “Oh, my son is gay, I love him for who he is”. That did not happen with the law. I think that change always needs to come from grassroots.
AP: My final question would be whether you are optimistic or hopeful about the future?
HY: Honestly, I am not. I have been thinking about this recently actually. Global politics is heading in a direction that was probably inconceivable 20 years ago. Many forms of civil rights that were achieved in many countries are now being taken away from people. We do not know what we are doing in Cyprus. I have nothing to say about the way this country is going. I do not think anybody knows. I just hope that there is a way for us to move to another planet. We only have Scandinavia left at this point, and if we all moved there, we would ruin those countries as well. So honestly, I do not know where to go from here, but it is not looking very great. On the other hand, as much as everything sucks right now (which it does), we have to remember that the future starts right now. If we want to change it or direct it to something more positive, then we have to do something now. We should always remember that.
AP: Thank you very much Hazal!
HY: Thank you!
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