About the Project

KESK women write their own history

In the late 1980s, public workers, men and women, began a union rights and organisation struggle including strikes and collective bargaining, using the two basic slogans “de facto legitimate struggle” and “rights are not given, they are taken”. This struggle resulted in the establishment of trade unions in the public sector. Women took an active part in the unions gathered under the umbrella of the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions-KESK, which was established in 1995. They waged a multidimensional struggle for rights and equality. Their rich experience in struggle as well as their relationship with independent women’s organizations, feminist scholars and international trade union organizations, transformed the participating women and this transformed the unions they were in, they transformed their workplaces, their families and the cities they lived in.

The project on and the exhibition of KESK women’s oral history about the gender struggle in trade unions is the product of a collective history study conducted by KESK women who took part in this struggle and the history they created collectively.

The project on the history of the struggle of KESK women quickly gained a collective character; it started with two people; Handan Çağlayan and Gülistan Atasoy, and spread all over the country in a short time, involving more than a hundred women from KESK.

  • Collecting memories: First Advisory Board Meeting, December 12, 2015
  • 1st large recall and discussion workshop with former women activists of KESK, January 13, 2016
  • 2nd recall and discussion workshop with high participation of former women activists of KESK, Ankara June 4, 2016
  • Oral history workshop, 15 July 2016
  • KESK women interviewing KESK women in an oral history project
  • Oral history and video recordings with feminist scholars at Eğitim Sen
  • Creating an archive

Collecting memories: First Advisory Board Meeting

Ankara, December 12, 2015, at the Education and Science Workers’ Union-Eğitim Sen headquarters

The advisory board members were: Fevziye Sayılan (Education and Science Workers’ Union; member of the Faculty of Educational Sciences and Women’s Studies and Application Center / KASAUM at Ankara University), Nurşen Yıldırım (active member in various positions since the establishment of KESK and women’s studies researcher) and Elif Akgül (for many years women’s secretary of the Education and Science Workers’ Union). At the meeting we understood that we need to gather in larger groups to realise such an intergenerational history project with its various dimensions, to reflect on its dimensions, and to clarify the topics on which we will base the study.

Fevziye Sayılan, Elif Akgül  and Nurşen Yıldırım contributed to the project with their opinions and suggestions at every stage, and they took part in it personally.

1st large recall and discussion workshop with former women activists of KESK

Ankara, January 13, 2016, at headquarters of Eğitim Sen

Participants: Gülistan Atasoy, Handan Çağlayan, Nurşen Yıldırım, Fevziye Sayılan, Leman Kiraz, Dilek Adsan, Hamide Rencüzoğulları, Döndü Taka-Çınar, Şaziye Köse, Deniz Derinyol.

The aim of this workshop with some of the women who have been in KESK’s central and extended administrative boards since its establishment, was to discuss the development of KESK up to the present, including the union struggle of public workers that had started in the mid-1980s, and to detect the important topics.

As we talked, we remembered; as we remembered, we talked. At the end of the day, we had only covered the time until the beginning of the 2000s. It was necessary to hold a separate recall and discussion workshop to talk about the rest of the 2000s.

2nd recall and discussion workshop with high participation of former women activists of KESK,

Ankara June 4, 2016, at KESK headquarters

Participants: Güler Elveren, Nurşen Yıldırım, Handan Çağlayan, Gülistan Atasoy, Emine Akyazılı, Yaşar Tarakçı, Serpil Açıl Özer, Canan Çalağan, Esra Arslan, Fatma Çetintaş, Faime Türkyılmaz.

The second workshop was held with the same agenda and new participants. In this and the previous meetings we outlined the framework of our oral history project, determined which KESK women were to be interviewed and we organized the meetings.

Oral history workshop

15 July 2016

Apart from the coordinators of the workshop, Handan Çağlayan and Gülistan Atasoy, the workshop consisted of volunteers who were members of one of the unions affiliated to KESK in different regions. They had previous experience in field research and face-to-face interviews and/or received higher education in areas such as women’s studies and sociology.

In this workshop we worked on the aim, method and face-to-face interview technique of our study, the framework of which had been created in the first two workshops, as well as the final list of KESK women to be interviewed. Our first pilot interview with a volunteer from the team was both an example of practice and allowed us to review our questions and finalize the interview guide with the interview team.

KESK women interviewing KESK women in an oral history project

Handan Çağlayan (former trade union expert of Eğitim Sen), Gülistan Atasoy (SES member, afterwards KESK Women’s Secretary), Nurşen Yıldırım (Eğitim Sen), as well as Ayşegül Yalçınkaya, Hatayi Diyar, Esra Arslan, Elif Akgül started the oral history interviews in different regions. Ebru Dinçer and Nilgün Yıldırım from Eğitim Sen, who were interviewed, also participated by holding new meetings in the Aegean and Mediterranean Regions.

In 2016 and 2017, oral history interviews were conducted with 70 union members from all regions of Turkey where KESK is organised, who actively participated in KESK’s work. Audio recordings were made.

Oral history and video recordings with feminist scholars at Eğitim Sen

Even before the establishment of KESK, the Ankara University Research Center for Women’s Issues (KASAUM) had contacted active women and women’s committees in the unions that would later form KESK and provided gender training to union members.

This activist-scholar relationship, which started in this way, became more widespread and profound, when feminist scholars, who later became members of Öğretim Elemanları Sendikası  (Faculty Members Union and Education) and Eğitim Sen (Education and Science Workers’ Union) participated in the trainings, congresses and campaigns of the unions, with their identities as both academics and union members.

Apart from oral history interviews with KESK member women, oral history interviews were held with feminist scholars who participated in union activities in this way, with a different interview directive that would enable them to analyse the struggle of KESK women and KESK’s gender policies.

Video recordings were also made with Fevziye Sayılan and Gülay Toksöz, two scholars who have been involved in the training activities of the unions for many years. The shooting of the videos was possible with the voluntary effort of Semahi Aydın, an expert of KESK.

Creating an archive

Since we had the opportunity to do field work with such a large volunteer team, we set ourselves a higher target. While conducting face-to-face interviews all over the country and asking KESK women to revive their memories of a long process, we wanted to create an archive of material relevant to the subject. Archiving was not directly related to the oral history project we conducted. But by collecting all the written, printed and visual materials related to the history of KESK, we also wanted to protect them from the memory-destroying effects of time and state pressure.

The archive could then be used for the work of other researchers, trade unionists, and those interested in social history. Thus, during our meetings, we started to collect copies of the brochures prepared in the offices, local newspaper articles, photographs, scarves and similar materials about and from KESK women. We also made video recordings about the work areas, observations and evaluations of a group of KESK women who assumed responsibility for a very long time and/or during critical periods and whose contribution was generally accepted by everybody. Even if we were not able to evaluate the archive material, we collected ourselves, we hoped that there would be people who would like to do it in the future.

Semahi Aydın, Özgür Yılmaz, İsmet Aslan and İlker Ağcasoy , experts from KESK and Eğitim Sen, participated in the project voluntarily. 

We were, We are, We will be! 

Realising the exhibition on the Trade Union Struggle of KESK Women at Istanbul Gender Museum

When Meral Akkent, curator of Istanbul Gender Museum, heard of the oral history study conducted by KESK women, she encouraged us to exhibit our work to reach a wider audience.

During an interview with Gülay Toksöz, a member of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University and a member of KASAUM, about women in trade unions and feminist scholars (published on Kadinisci.org on December 22, 2020,) Meral’s idea – to present the struggle of KESK women as an example of feminist pedagogy – received a more concrete form. Her excitement, enthusiasm and energy also spread to our oral history team. We hit the road.

KESK women working collectively for the virtual exhibition

In order for the oral history interviews to be used in the exhibition, it was necessary to receive permission of the KESK women interviewed. For this reason, the oral history team, which made the interviews, once again rolled up their sleeves and reached out to their friends from KESK. After this stage, KESK members whom we had interviewed also became active participants in the exhibition preparation process. Audio recordings to be made available to the public have been reviewed. While the audio recordings and transcripts were being reviewed, some of our friends who were interviewed wanted to make some changes to their narratives. We took the risk of some minor differences between the sound recordings and the transcripts, and we did not see any harm in their taking initiative.

The women taking part in the virtual exhibition telling the story of the union struggle, went through their old files and found and sent their photographs taken during union work, the newspaper clippings they kept, the documents of the disciplinary punishments they received and the cases they were tried in.

Moreover, they made short videos about the actions, events and moments that they found important in terms of their personal history and the KESK struggle. We found videos of some of them while browsing the union archives. Such videos include those shot at demonstrations years ago, as in the videos of Serpil Açıl Özer and İlknur Birol, and those shot for the recent media campaigns organised by KESK women for the March 8 call.

For the Feminist Pedagogy section of the exhibition, feminist scholars who took part in KESK’s educational activities, campaigns and congresses, and KESK women who participated in educator trainings and gave gender training in the union shot videos about their experiences and collaborations. There were also those who shared their own experiences, observations and evaluations without videos, through written accounts, e.g. Aksu Bora.

The reviewing and proofreading of transcripts as well as searching and finding missing documents were made possible by the collective work of women from KESK, especially Elif Akgül, Emine Akyazılı, Nurşen Yıldırım, Ayşe Yalçınkaya and Gülistan Atasoy from Eğitim Sen. The extraordinary effort, patience and self-sacrifice of KESK expert Semahi Aydın made it possible to edit the audio recordings and videos that lasted for hours

Due to this voluntary work the union struggle experience of KESK women, the history they created, can reach a much wider circle. Simten Coşar and Hêlîn Dirik undertook the organisation of the translation into English and translated themselves.

This exhibition, which was made possible by Meral Akkent’s extraordinary enthusiasm, excitement, creativity, patience and hard work, is the product of the struggle that thousands of KES women activists have waged all over the country for more than thirty years.

During this period of two generations, there were some who left us. In the oral history meetings, the names of three KESK women who are no longer with us were mentioned a lot. Nurhan Akyüz, Sevil Erol and Sevgi Göyçe. Their common feature is that they were people who gave courage and strength to their female comrades and paved the way for them with their stance and the firsts they achieved in the union struggle process.

This exhibition is dedicated to them and all those we have lost, and to all the KESK women who say “We were, We are, We will be!”, whether their names are known or not.