How football is saving the lives of young Turkish girls in Malatya
Malatya is the world capital of apricots. Orchards full of stout apricot trees surround the Turkish city. On some downtown streets you can smell apricots on the breeze.
There are bazaars dedicated to apricots, giant statues of apricots crown major intersections, there are apricot telephone booths, ATMs as apricots.
Malatya is in the largely poor, conservative eastern interior of Anatolia and apricots define many of the poorer lives here – particularly of young women, who often drop out of school at 14 or 15, work in apricot processing and packing factories until they have enough for a dowry and get married young – often at 15, 16 or 17. They start having kids: families of nine or 10 are not uncommon and before long the lives of their daughters resemble theirs. Domestic violence is common, as is drug abuse.
But some girls in Malatya have found a way to break this cycle – football. Ikranur Sarigul, 17, grew up with her nine siblings in a two-bedroomed house in Kiltepe, a low-income, conservative neighbourhood on the edge of Malatya. Breakfast was often just a few olives and she usually had no money for food during the day, while dinner might be some roasted onions. None of Ikranur’s five sisters had graduated from high school. Her elder sisters were married by 16 or 17.
Ikranur’s parents worried about her; they were strict. At 10, she used to watch kids playing football in the street and it captivated her, but her family told her that football is for boys. But by 11 Ikranur was taking any opportunity to sneak off and play. When her family found out she’d been playing football they would yell at her and confiscate her shoes. It was frustrating. “I wanted to do what I love and I fell in love with football,” she says.
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As Ikranur approached her teens, her horizon was shortening and it would not be long before she would likely drop out of school, take a menial job and get married. But she was still playing football where possible. Dogan Deniz Celebi, her PE teacher in Kiltepe, invited her to join the school’s team. She did not tell him that her parents had forbidden her to play.
I met Celebi, 41, in the centre of Malatya one day in early summer and we drove out to Kiltepe. The streets were largely empty as many residents were in the orchards picking apricots. Fences put together with lopsided panels looked like rows of crooked teeth. Ramshackle buildings quickly gave way to fields and orchards.
Celebi started a girl’s school team around 2008, with the aim of keeping the girls in education and out of trouble and an early marriage. In the end, Ikranur had to tell Celebi that her family did not consent to her playing football. Celebi began paying regular visits to the family home, reassuring them and explaining the benefits. Their attitude softened – sometimes they let her play, sometimes they said no.
Celebi then set up Malatya Bayanlar Spor Külübu – Malatya Women’s Sports Club – in 2012 to expand the project beyond the school. “I’m president, kit man, medic, bus driver and ball boy,” Celebi says. He convinced his family and colleagues to become members and to donate money. Much of his modest teacher’s salary was being spent on the club. “They became my daughters,” he said.
The club – which plays in the third tier of women’s football – aimed to keep the girls in education but also to find them university places to become teachers or sports coaches. A Turkish Football Federation licence automatically gains credits that give a huge boost in university exams. “The main point was not only football – but to save the lives of the girls,” says Celebi. “Football was a tool.”
Ikranur joined the team from its inception and she began to see a career path: she passed exams to get into a sports high school and aims to become a teacher. As her family saw the educational benefits more clearly, their attitudes shifted completely. At the sports high school Ikranur was improving dramatically, and she broke into Malatya’s first team. She admires Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos. “The ball may pass, but not the player,” she says, laughing.
The team also offers precious opportunities to travel. “It was maybe the first time they had stayed in a hotel, or ate in a restaurant in another city, or even seen another city. They could see there is a world beyond Malatya,” says Celebi. Football and travelling have given Ikranur huge self-confidence. “If you deduct football from my life, I am nothing.”
But despite the project’s success, it is now teetering on the brink of collapse. Celebi has nearly exhausted his own resources, they have struggled to find sponsors. He blamed a lack of support for women’s football on Turkey’s gender inequality.
Women won equality under law in the early years of the Turkish Republic and they gained the vote in 1934 – before many European countries. But Turkish society remained highly patriarchal, women were often marginalised, and some say it has become increasingly misogynistic and patriarchal under the socially conservative AKP government. The World Economic Forum now ranks Turkey 130th out of 144 countries for gender equality.
Support from the Aydin Doğan Foundation saved the team from closure in 2015-16 and eight players got into university that year. It was not clear whether that support would be repeated. When Celebi told the girls that the club might have to close, some of them cried. “They said, ‘Why are you leaving us in the lurch? This is our future.’”
This is an edited extract from The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey, published by IB Tauris on 30 March 2018.