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Yildiz Akdogan - women can help integration along

Yildiz Akdogan was born in Turkey and joined her parents in Denmark in 1979. She has a degree in political science, and since her university days, she has worked politically with integration and women's issues. She is now an MP for the Social Democrats.

Yildiz tells her story in "The Invisible Success", a series of portraits of ethnic minority women living in Denmark.


KVINFO/16.5.2008  I was the first grandchild in the family. My arrival was therefore a happy event for the entire family and when I was an infant I was, quite literally, waited on hand and foot. My maternal grandfather was living in Denmark, where he had been working since 1970 in order to improve the family’s financial circumstances in Turkey. He sent for my mother and her sister: they should come to Esbjerg, where they could get work at the fish factory. My mother went to Denmark, leaving me with my paternal grandparents. I was just over a year old. At the same time, my father was called up to do his military service, so I didn’t see him very often. For the first five-and-a-half years of my life I lived with my grandparents. I was very fond of them and they did everything they could so that I wouldn’t miss my parents.

Family reunification
Among the Turkish community in Esbjerg there was criticism of my grandfather for sending his daughters to work in a factory. But the disapproval didn’t worry him. He was very progressive in his way of thinking and he took the view that his daughters should have the chance to earn their own money – if they wanted to, that is, and they did. Standing in a factory cutting fillets all day long was of course an enormous change for my mother and her sister. But they were young and strong and they went to work with a will. To such as extent that their Danish colleagues were not well pleased when they beat the quota.

About five years later, my father was granted family reunification to join my mother – five years had passed because first my father had to do his military service and then afterwards he had to work to help the family finances before he could go to Denmark. My maternal grandmother came to Denmark too, and she also got a job at the fish factory.

A tomboy
In the meantime I lived with my paternal grandparents. It was fantastic place to grow up. My youngest aunt was only a few years older than me, so naturally I thought she was my sister. There was no distinction between boys and girls when we played. I played football, too, and climbed trees – I was a real tomboy, the more energetic the better! My older aunt started school and so I just went along with her and sat down in the classroom. The teacher let me stay. And that’s why, aged five, I could read and write a little. I took it for granted that my life would just carry on as it was – even though my grandmother had told me that I had parents living somewhere else, that I had a younger brother and that they all missed me and wanted me to come and live with them.

And then one day I travelled to Denmark hand-in-hand with my grandfather. Everything was very strange in my new country. It was also strange to meet two young people I had to call “Dad” and “Mum”. Things improved when I started in the preschool class with my cousin, who was a year younger. Going to school was a big and exciting event. Now I’d be allowed to run around and play. I soon learned the language. Compared to the other girls in the class I was a bit boisterous, and I wasn’t used to having to sit nicely, play with dolls and paint matchboxes. Sitting-still activities could be fun, but I’d rather do the energetic things. I’ll never forget the expression on a teacher’s face when she saw me bouncing around in the top of a tall tree. I couldn’t understand why she gave me a telling-off when I eventually came down: trees were there to be climbed, weren’t they?

No wish to live to Denmark
At the end of my first year of primary school education, we finally went on a family visit to Turkey. My parents, my younger brother and I chugged down through Europe in my father’s old Volvo, which was overloaded with parcels for the family. My only thought was that I was absolutely not going to return to Denmark. The minute my father parked in front of my grandmother’s house, I leapt from the car, hid behind my grandmother’s skirt and shouted: “I’m never going back to Denmark.” My grandmother was my ally and she persuaded my parents to let me stay – on condition that I would return to Denmark a year later and go to a Danish school.

It was the happiest year of my life. Now everything was as it should be. I went back to my original classroom and kept up as well as I could – so well that I was moved up a class. I really loved going to school and doing homework. When my parents came to fetch me the following year, my grandmother and I were not ready to say goodbye to one another, and I was allowed to stay for another year. Deep down my grandmother was well aware that there were more opportunities for me in Denmark than in the village, and in the end she was the one who decided that I should live in Denmark.

Flying through school
Back in Denmark, I’d forgotten all my Danish, but fortunately I had a fantastic teacher, who I’m still in contact with today. She gave me one-to-one tuition and told the pupils from a Kurdish/Turkish background that they should only speak Danish to me. And within six months I could both talk and write Danish again. I had no problems in primary and lower secondary school and went on to the upper secondary school. Going to senior school also meant that there would be parties, and naturally my parents were apprehensive for their 16-year-old daughter. My father in particular was worried, but no more so than that I was allowed to go to parties on the condition that he always knew where I was and what I was doing. And I agreed to that. But I felt no need to rebel against my parents on a grand scale.

I was doing well at school. And I had a social life with some very nice girlfriends, a few of whom I still see. My daily life was different to that of my classmates. After school I worked in my parents’ new greengrocer’s shop, selling vegetables and delicatessen goods. For the first three years the shop ran at a loss, but then that gradually changed. The produce was too unfamiliar, even though it was 1990 – for example, many people found the sight of an aubergine rather unusual. Besides running the shop, my parents helped their finances by working at a factory: my father worked the night shift and my mother the day shift. My mother kept working until she had my youngest brother – another family project I was involved in: I so wanted to have a close relationship with this tiny little person – and I did.

In 1993 I was the first in my family to take the upper secondary school examinations, majoring in modern languages. Sadly, both my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather died before I was awarded the traditional student’s cap for passing my exams. It was very distressing – I knew how much it meant to my grandfather that I got my high school education. We had made an agreement to celebrate my exams with a holiday in Turkey, and I had always dreamt that he would be there when the cap was put on my head. But that wasn’t to be.

Feeling at home at university
I had originally planned to be an au pair in the US after I’d passed my exams, but I got cold feet at the thought of being so far away from my family. Instead, I got a summer job in a baker’s shop on the holiday island of Sylt, off the coast of northern Germany. My family drove me down and they were all sad when it came to saying goodbye. “Why don’t you come home again with us?” suggested my father. But I knew I had to learn to stand on my own two feet. Despite long hours, bad pay and high rent, I had fun. Along with five other girls from places including Austria, Serbia and the Netherlands, I did really "girl’s things" after hours. Not wild nights on the town, but chatting, giggling and having dinner together.

I was fascinated with grammar, and I was good at German. While I was on Sylt, I decided to apply to study Germanic philology at the University of Aarhus. My mother was much moved the day she rang to tell me a letter had arrived saying that I’d been accepted. Once again my father drove me to my new home, this time a small furnished flat in Aarhus. When he had left, I stood there all alone and thought: what now, Yildiz?

University was just the thing for me – a secure and intellectual environment. Here I really felt that I was just one among many students and not an ethnic case-study. No one asked me about forced marriages or headscarves. I was respected for the person I am. But Germanic philology did not quite live up to my expectations – having spent a whole semester on the High German consonant shift, I lost interest and decided to change course.

While at university I began to take part in the ongoing debate about integration. A group of students who had what is known as a "new-Danish" background established an association which we called Centre for Ghettology. The idea was to promote reciprocal integration. We held, among other things, public discussion evenings, and during the Aarhus Festival we organised an event where people could come and meet a "real" immigrant. These events acted as a catalyst for me: now I knew the direction I wanted to take.

In 1996, after an intensive course in mathematics, I was offered a place to read political science. One of the areas I was most interested in was foreign policy and the EU. In 2001, a student job at the Dansk Institut for Internationale Studier [DIIS, the Danish Institute for International Studies, at the time known as DUPI, Dansk Udenrigspolitisk Institut, Danish Institute of International Affairs, closed down December 31 2001. Eds.] drew me to Copenhagen. My job involved editing the institute’s publications and helping scholars find information they required. It was a big challenge to work with academics and to have the opportunity to put my know-how into practice. 

Changes in the political climate
One day I got a phone call from an editor at Haber, a Danish/Turkish weekly newspaper. He wanted to know if I would be interested in working on the project, which had been launched by the national newspaper Politiken. Suddenly I was employed as a journalist and website editor, with a fixed income and a 70-hour working week. I was given a very warm reception at the paper, and experienced journalists taught me a lot about writing articles, doing interviews etc. It was an ambitious and stimulating place to work, and I learnt how to present my material.

But I still had to write my final dissertation, so when Haber went into private ownership I decided to spend my time working on my thesis about Turkey and the EU. However, I carried on writing a regular column for Haber, and my last article was about why young "new-Danish" men are especially susceptible to the influence of extreme religious groups. One of the explanations is that many young new-Danish men drop out of the education system at an early age and then they cannot achieve recognition in the public arena. This negative response makes them extra susceptible to extreme groups with ultra-conservative ideas about, for example, male and female roles.

But then the 2005 general election was called. Following the 2001 general election there had been a noticeable change in the ongoing discussion about integration – ethnic minorities with a Muslim background were now allotted a negative role. My mother, who in the 1970s had been a "guest worker", in the 1980s and '90s an "immigrant worker", and later a "perker" [Danish term of racial abuse. Eds.], was now suddenly summed up as a "Muslim" – a development she was not too pleased about.

Entering mainstream politics
When one of my friends rang to ask if I would like to help make the public debate on integration somewhat more sophisticated, I immediately said yes. Along with 15 others, "new Danes" with Kurdish-Turkish background and ethnic Danes, we set up an association known as [ Eds.]. Work in Mangfoldigt was a political eye-opener for me. Before, I had always worked at grass-root level, whereas now I had the resolve to enter mainstream politics, because it’s important to look at things in a wider perspective.

The result of this was that I stood as the Social Democrats’ candidate in the Husum constituency. That I didn’t get elected will not deter me from standing at the next election. Following a ballot of members, I have recently been chosen as parliamentary candidate for the new Brønshøj-Vanløse constituency. I feel both committed and honoured by their confidence in me. The political procedures enthral me: it is possible to make a difference via the political system. That the margins for change are so narrow is both alarming and fascinating [Yildiz Akdogan was elected an MP for the Social Democrats in the 2005 election. Eds.

Women contribute to integration
Women are important in the process of integration. It troubles me that half of all women with a Muslim background are not active in the labour market. Many resources will be wasted if we don’t get them involved. I would like to help develop new political approaches that could reach out to these women. And I would like to find out what it is that prevents them from entering the labour market today when we have such low unemployment that there are jobs waiting to be filled. Is it because they simply can’t find work or because they are tired of being cleaning assistants? I think it is necessary to set up some transitional schemes which can give the women a helping hand and provide information about different ways of tackling the issue.

Above all, the women have to be made aware that they are not only mothers and wives, but also independent individuals. Their consciousness of themselves as individuals has to be fostered. One approach could be to help the women to feel better about themselves and their bodies. This might give them courage to enter the labour market. Women are very important in the integration process. It’s the woman who is with the children. She is the one who can persuade the father to give the children permission to go to summer camp. The more aware she is, the more she can pass on to her children and her husband and, of course, her self.

The need for another voice
I have recently become the spokesperson for the network Democratic Muslims. Democratic Muslims was set up by a group of people who could not identify with the picture of Muslims portrayed by the media. Just before the group’s inaugural meeting, the burning of flags began because of the cartoons of Muhammad, and this opened the eyes of many moderate Muslims. There was a need for a voice other than that of the imams. Five hundred people turned up for the meeting in Landstingssalen [former Upper Chamber in the Danish Parliament building. Eds.] in February 2006.

Standing up as the spokesperson for the Democratic Muslims is hard. There will always be someone who doesn’t like you, and I have to be very alert as to how I present our case. Among other things, I’m careful not to use the terms"‘immigrants" and "second-generation immigrants", but instead talk of new-Danes/Danes and we/us. It is a matter of connecting, not separating. When I’m asked where I come from, I answer: Jutland. Put rather bluntly, I think one should relate to the everyday life of which one is a part. And, for my part, that’s called Copenhagen and not Turkey. This doesn’t prevent me from being proud of my cultural heritage. But I would like a neutral place where we can meet as equal citizens without having to put labels on one another. I want to be looked at from the standpoint that I am an active fellow citizen in Danish society and not from the standpoint that I am a Muslim. I don’t question my "Danishness" – so why should anyone else?

Pigeonholed as "immigrant"
I recently finally finished my dissertation on “Europæiseringen af Tyrkiets menneskerettigheder med henblik på det kurdiske spørgsmål” [The Europeanisation of human rights in Turkey, with reference to the Kurdish issue". Eds.]. My next project is to find a job, preferably as a journalist. During my last job interview, at one of the country’s main newspapers, I had my first experience of being pigeonholed under the designation "immigrant" My highest qualification was quite clearly my ethnic origins. I was not evaluated in relation to my intellectual wherewithal or the scope of the topics I had worked on

At no point was I quizzed on my educational choices or former employment. The questions were exclusively concerned with headscarves and Islam. Could I get the story angle on typical ethnic issues? That I wanted to put the focus on the good stories about integration rather than writing about oppression of women and forced marriages was not the perspective they were looking for. It should be added, however, that one of the journalists subsequently apologised for the way in which I had been categorised as "immigrant".

I’m sure I’ll find a good job where I have the opportunity to affect and inspire others. In the meantime, I’m not sitting staring out of the window – my diary is full of appointments for meetings, lectures and much more. And I’ve started teaching about Turkey and the EU at Krogerup Højskole [‘folk high school’ – adult education courses. Eds.]. It is really wonderful to teach inquisitive and thought-provoking students. And they are not the only ones who learn something. Sometimes I might wish I had more time to visit my family and spend with my friends. But fortunately they don’t grumble, because when I finally get together with them then I’m there 100%. I live my own life. A life that does not entail standing on the sidelines. And that suits me fine!

Translation: Gaye Kynock

Born in Turkey in 1973 and joined her parents in Denmark in 1979
Studied political science at Aarhus University and wrote her thesis on Turkey and the EU
Worked as a journalist for Haber, a Danish/Turkish weekly newspaper
Politically active on issues of integration in various networks and associations, such as and Democratic Muslims
In 2001 she stood as the Social Democrats’ candidate for the first time. She was elected MP in the 2005 general election

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