Creating history, building a rights culture
As a young Turkish artist, she took a trip of self-discovery while attending film and art school in Zurich, Switzerland. Counting herself fortunate to be able to study abroad, the young woman felt the urge to grab every opportunity she could, including exploring the countryside. Hurtling along the zigzagging train tracks during that trip, in a sudden and harrowing train accident, she lost an arm and a leg. This became one of the defining moments of her life. Şafak Pavey chose to see the accident as an opportunity to adjust to her new circumstances, with courage and determination. Just one year after the accident, she moved to London and completed her postgraduate studies, hoping to work in international development and politics to serve others who had lived through challenges even greater than hers.
Today she is the first female parliamentarian with disabilities in Turkey. With heartfelt gratitude to her parents for their fierce and unending support, she says one of her first goals was to work with those who suffered more discrimination than she did: the Armenian-Turkish population. Becoming the first Turkish columnist for the Armenian-Turkish bilingual publication, she wrote extensively about civil rights and ending unfair treatment of Armenians in the public and private sphere. She co-wrote her bestselling book, “Platform Number 13,” with her mother, a well-known journalist. Pavey served in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for a number of years in conflict zones, including her role as spokesperson of UNHCR for Central Europe. Proudly, she was also the head of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and still serves on the Committee today.
Feeding her passion for writing, she delivered two more books, acting as managing editor on Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s book "Refugee Rights in Iran,” and has been honoured by the U.S. Department of State with the International Women of Courage Award for her international work. When another Member of Parliament publicly stated that she was, "smiling too much", an act sometimes thought of as inappropriate for women in Turkey, Pavey stressed the importance of holding on to comedy and laughter as the key to survival.
After 15 years abroad, Pavey decided to go back to her country as a voice for secularism and the rights of nature, a term coined to emphasize the importance of environmental protection. Running for Turkish parliament, she was elected in 2011 and has been pushing for equality for all people, regardless of race, religion, creed or gender since then. Here, she talks about the life changing moments of her journey.
What do you think have been the most important factors that have helped in getting you where you are today?
I have experienced double discrimination being disabled and being a woman, but this has given me an opportunity to change this. I already had the compass of universal rights and freedoms, but [after my accident], I realized the discrimination faced by disabled women was much more. I want to express my gratitude to those before us who struggled for these opportunities. I also think that growing up surrounded by nature’s miracles, waking up early and collecting the eggs and berries for breakfast helped me to understand the merging of human rights and nature’s rights, and how important it is to stand up for both.
What are some of the challenges that women face today?
Women are monitored through sexuality in some traditionalist societies. If you do not change the dominating culture of the perception of “chastity” imposed upon the majority of women in society, then you cannot create “strong female role models” with just a handful of successful women on the top. And this chasm between the two groups gets so wide that the majority gets wrapped up with values that are unknown to the minority. This becomes a threat to modern life, leaving aside developing or progressing in any sense. However, when we look at the century we are in as a whole, we see that closed societies do not actually fight against the immoral crimes that are hurtful to human dignity such as incest, rape…. They don’t even include them in the statistics of the country. And this is what we are working to change now.
What were some of the biggest obstacles to reaching your professional goals?
The physical toll of the accident wasn’t one of the first obstacles, but working internationally was! I faced prejudice and belief that a disabled woman couldn’t work in a conflict area. Years after my accident, in 2003, I discovered that I had not been assigned for a humanitarian operation in Baghdad. I hurried to my boss’s office and volunteered for the Iraq assignment. ‘‘You already have the weight of your prosthetics,’’ he replied. ‘‘How will you add another 30 kilos of protective waistcoat and a helmet on top of that?’’ I said, ‘‘I could not explain it to my mother if I did not work in the Iraqi humanitarian operation.”
He gave me a surprised and merciful look. ‘‘For the first time in my life, I heard of a mother who wants her kid to work in a war area,’’ he said.
This story is funny, but I know that when you stand against these prejudices as a frontrunner of change, they do evaporate. The new brave world is defined by courageous values and more than obstacles, it creates opportunities for women who run towards their targets.
What is your message for other women or girls who may be inspired by your journey and achievements?
Engage yourself in common human struggles. Try to be a remedy for the difficulties of others. Your own problems become less important when you do this, and this is a great way to engage yourself in the world.