In Turkey’s Rebel Country, Women Lead the Charge — in Soccer

Hakkari is in one of the most distant and neglected corners of the country. But the Kurdish area has produced a team without parallel

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Courtesy of Piotr Zalewski

The Hakkari Gucu (or Hakkari Power) soccer team in Hakkari, Turkey, during a practice session on March 20, 2013

Tahir Temel shuffles across the artificial turf, yelling at a defender and dodging errant free kicks, and points toward a snow-covered mountain soaring over the field, some 8 km east of Hakkari. Last summer, from where he stood in the middle of the town’s soccer field, one could see militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), ensconced in the mountaintops, and Turkish soldiers, stationed on lower ground, exchanging fire. “It made for quite a show,” Temel says, humorlessly.

Wedged between Iran to the east and Iraq to the south, Hakkari, (pop. 70,000) has witnessed some of the worst fighting in an ongoing 30-year war between the PKK — listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group — and the Turkish army. Though armed clashes inside the city itself are rare, the sight of Kurdish kids pelting military vehicles with stones or Molotov cocktails is not. Army checkpoints abound. When Hakkari makes headlines — which is seldom — it is usually because blood has been shed.

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A small group of people may soon change that: the local women’s soccer team, coached by Temel. In 2008, its debut season, Hakkari Gucu, or Hakkari Power, which plays in one of Turkey’s eight regional second divisions, won six games and lost two. Since then, it has only grown stronger, making the playoffs year in, year out and steamrolling the competition. Last season, Power became the only soccer team in all of Turkey, first or second division, male or female, to concede no goals. The women scored 72, won six games and lost none. Several team members have been called up to play on Turkey’s national youth team. A similar record would be considered impressive for most sports teams. For a squad that hails from one of Turkey’s poorest, most conservative and most violent provinces, it is no less than extraordinary.

The PKK’s war against the Turkish army has reaped a grim toll on Hakkari’s economy. Unemployment, the legacy of a counterinsurgency campaign that flooded the town with tens of thousands of fleeing villagers in the ’90s, is above 40%. The little investment there is, say locals, comes from the state. Incomes are roughly four times lower than in the west of the country. No wonder Hakkari Power cannot find any commercial sponsors, says Cemile Timur, the team’s scrappy captain, founder and, at 24, its most senior player. The national federation covers expenses like travel and accommodation for the away games, but doesn’t pay for uniforms and equipment. Small local businesses sometimes, but only sometimes, pick up the tab. “We don’t have the opportunities the other teams have,” says Timur. “There’ve been seasons when we’ve had to do with only one jersey per player for the whole year.”

Politics does not help either. Hakkari, as well as most of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, is a stronghold of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), said to be the PKK’s political wing. In the last parliamentary elections, the town produced three deputies from the BDP, but none from the ruling party. “And so,” says Hakkari Power club president Huseyn Adyaman, “there’s no government money for Hakkari.”

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In the absence of money, the players’ main incentive, other than a passion for soccer, seems to be education. “We don’t earn a salary but what’s most important for us is to send some of the girls to university,” says Timur. For many Hakkari players, she says, success on the field has translated into scholarships and, as such, a chance to attend college. “That’s what the girls’ families expect and hope for the most.”

In this part of the country, the Kurdish conflict, having by now claimed more than 40,000 victims, has left its mark on nearly all areas of life. Hakkari Power is no exception. Many if not most of the players know someone who has “gone to the mountains,” code for joining the PKK. One of coach Temel’s brothers was killed in combat with Turkish soldiers. Another is still with the rebels. Timur herself is a child of villagers displaced by the fighting. In 1994, she says, her village, Ak Kus, was cleared by government forces. Timur was 5 years old at the time. “I don’t remember the village so much,” she says, “but I remember the soldiers searching the houses, turning things over.” She has not been back since.

Temel and Timur might generally steer clear of politics, but politics has refused to steer clear of the squad. In last year’s playoffs, Hakkari Power traveled to Gaziantep, a city of 1.4 million, to take on the local team. When Gaziantep scored to go up 1-0, a group of home fans began goading the visitors from Hakkari with military salutes. When Timur’s squad drew to make it 1-1, a final score that was enough for Hakkari to advance to the next round, the same fans began chanting, “The PKK scored on us.” At the end of the match, Timur accidentally bumped heads with a Gaziantep player. She was carried off on a stretcher, bleeding, she says. Meanwhile, a fight broke out in the stands between the Gaziantep supporters and local Kurds who had come out to root for Hakkari. “The atmosphere was awful,” says Timur. “The last minutes of the match, our girls were playing through tears.”

Timur tries not to get distracted by similar incidents. “We’re focused on sports, not politics,” she says. “We don’t deny that we are Kurds. But when we play, we never say, ‘We are Kurds and they are Turks.’”

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Turks might be mad about “the beautiful game,” both at the national and club level, but they have only recently warmed to the idea of women’s soccer. The Muslim-majority country launched its first women’s league in 1993. Disbanded after a decade, it resumed in 2006 under new management. In the predominantly rural and fiercely conservative southeast, notorious for reports of honor killings and forced marriages, women and sports did not mix for a long time. “Until the mid-2000s it was almost unheard of, almost shameful, for women to play,” says Omer Temel, a Hakkari municipal official and coach Temel’s brother.

Timur herself recalls getting some pushback when she began assembling the team by scouring the local college dorms for potential players. “Some uncles and fathers, usually older and uneducated, protested, saying sports isn’t a woman’s business,” she says. “Some families had a bad economic situation, so they complained the girls should find work rather than play soccer.” All that has since changed, Timur says. “Now that we’re successful, and that our players go on to university, no one makes a sound.”

At about 3 p.m. on March 21, Hakkari Power is taking the field for a practice session. Just two hours earlier, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, capped months of secret negotiations with Turkish officials by declaring a cease-fire. In a statement read out by two BDP deputies to hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Diyarbakir, 480 km west of Hakkari, Ocalan called on the rebels to lay down their weapons and withdraw from Turkey to northern Iraq. The PKK, which had once fought for a Kurdish homeland, now insists on partial autonomy for the southeast and new cultural rights for the Kurds. Whether the government will meet these demands, completely or in part, will determine the course of the peace process.

Coach Temel has just finished watching the broadcast and is back on the pitch. “Apo said everything I wanted to hear,” he says, referring to Ocalan by his nickname. “Now everything is up to the government. The PKK will refuse to lay down its arms without some political agreement.” Temel dodges a low-flying ball. The rebels don’t trust the government, he says, and neither
does he. “They’ve made so many promises before and delivered nothing.”

Yet Temel and the women have other, more immediate concerns. This season, Hakkari Power has won all but one of its matches, piling on 50 goals, giving up only two, and securing yet another berth in the playoffs. As of the beginning of April, it is just two wins away from advancing to the first division. That would mean the world to the women, says Temel: a chance to play against teams from all over the country, to travel to Istanbul, to get more help from the federation and to find sponsors.

Temel excuses himself. His team has scheduled a scrimmage against a junior boys’ team from Hakkari, and he is the referee. About a quarter-hour into the game, amid some confusion in the penalty area, Leyla, a player from Hakkari Power’s youth squad, scores with a header. The girls are up 1-0.

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