Interview with Sezis Okut
October 12, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Sezis Okut (SO)
AP: Sezis Okut – a professional, a woman, an activist, a mother. Numerous identities – individual, social, collective identities – intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity do you feel defines you the most?
SO: I think being an activist is one thing that defines me the most, and also acts as an umbrella for all my other roles. As a mother, I am also an activist and try to empower my son to be as independent as possible and to understand his responsibilities from an early age; to be aware of things going on in the world. In my professional life, I am always looking for opportunities to be entrepreneurial, and looking for ways to make working life more efficient and effective, as well as more enjoyable for everyone. Since moving back to Cyprus in 2011, I have become increasingly aware of all the wrong policies of the government and the society in general, and I have tried to become involved in many actions as possible so that the rights of disadvantaged groups, such as LGBTI and refugees, as well as the basic human rights of the society in general, are respected.
AP: Do you think that the fact that you spent quite some time abroad might have played a role in how you perceive the world, made you more open-minded and influenced your future professional choices?
SO: I think it definitely helped. I mean, I would not say that it shaped my personality and changed my view of the world completely, but it definitely expanded my horizons and helped me realize that Cyprus is indeed not the centre of the world, as we Cypriots always believe it to be. I also believe that working for the civil society instead of the private sector (which I had originally planned to work in) also influenced my perception of the world. I graduated just before 9/11, and I was in the heart of Texas at time, trying to look for a career in the financial sector as a recent graduate. However, being there during that time meant that the opportunities were very limited. So, I sort of fell into the arms of civil society and activism, and I started to work for a social enterprise run by a woman, mentoring other women regarding their professional careers. Since then, I have not looked back, and I have been involved with various civil society organizations in roles ranging from events planner to project manager in the US, London and more recently in Cyprus.
AP: For a number of years now, you have been working very closely with NGO organizations in the north and also in the south that mostly, correct me if I’m wrong, focus on projects aimed at reconciliation and peace. How do you think these projects and initiatives are contributing to the peace process and a possible solution?
SO: I was a big believer in the work of the CSOs in the peace and reconciliation process when I first moved back, but recently I have been very disheartened due to several things. After the negotiation process yet again failed, I was expecting civil society to make their voice heard even louder and become more active. However, the only initiative, Unite Cyprus Now, is not as effective as it could be. The reason could be the fact that their activities were initially restricted to the buffer zone, and the buffer zone is not an organic place for many people to go to. Also, one of the other things that is very upsetting for me is the fact that young people are brainwashed in school - Turkish Cypriots against Greek Cypriots, and Greek Cypriots against Turkish Cypriots. As a daughter of two refugees who experienced the war, I am always proud to ‘cross’ and work in peacebuilding. However, when I meet 16 year old young people who refuse to cross, it breaks my heart. I try to understand their perspective, but I know that this is not the way to initiate and bring peace to the island.
AP: Do you feel that civil society is working efficiently and is successful at attaining results?
SO: Although civil society has developed in terms of capacity over the last 10 years based on funding from international donors, many mistakes have also been made in this regard. The international donors have always used the top down approach and never really assessed the needs of the local CSOs; they just imposed their own agendas. Saying all this, it does not mean we need to stop trying, just the opposite, we need to keep working even harder. If we stop trying, we might as well stop existing. So the civil society projects are to a certain extent enabling the peace process; however the majority of the community are alienated from the civil society, so the impact (of the projects) has become limited. I think we need to involve business people in the peacebuilding activities in order to make them more effective.
AP: Would you say that maybe escaping also a bit from the binary TC’s – GC’s situation might be helpful towards that direction. Are we inclusive as a society in Cyprus in order to do that?
SO: For Cypriots to realize that there are other nationalities living on this island and respecting their rights would definitely be a positive step, not only in terms of keeping our egos in check, but also to realize the absurdity of the Cyprus problem in this day and age, where there are many horrible situations happening around the world. As it stands now, Cypriots are not inclusive, absolutely not. Even based on my own family experience, where most of my family members (even the older generation) are university educated, we are always hesitant towards the unfamiliar, whether it be skin colour, appearance, disability, etc. The demographics of the society are rapidly changing, and we need to adapt to the circumstances, even in closed societies such as Cyprus.
AP: Talking about inclusivity, do you think that women and men equally participate at all levels of decision-making?
SO: Not at all, just one look at the politicians in both the TC and GC communities will reveal that women are not represented in the governments at all. In the north, I believe there are only 2 MPs who are women, and the only positive thing is that the Head of the TC Parliament is a woman. However in the companies, this patriarchal approach could not be more apparent, as most family companies are named so and so & sons ltd, it is crazy. I believe women are more prominent in the civil society and as activists, however not in the government or the private sector. This is also one of the reasons why the countless negotiations processes have not been successful, as they lack the female perspective, and the process has become a black and white political game that only middle-aged male politicians are playing.
AP: Do you feel that you’re facing specific challenges in your everyday life just because you’re a woman?
SO: I could not 100% say that I face challenges in my everyday life, as my professional life revolves mostly around civil society. So in that sense, I feel lucky. However, I definitely face challenges sometimes in my life outside of work. When I need to deal with people who come to fix things around the house, or when I take my car for service, I am definitely belittled by these know-it-all men. I also feel challenges due to my hair colour as well - it is 2017 for God’s sake !
AP: Blond comes with a price (laughing). To conclude, I would like to ask if you are optimistic or hopeful for the future of the island?
SO: I desperately would like to stay optimistic and hopeful, but it has been a bit of a challenge to stay motivated. If I am 100% honest, I do not want my son to be on this island when he grows up. Based on the current climate, I am afraid things will get worse, at least for the north of the island.
AP: Thank you very much!
SO: Thank you!
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