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Europe

Some Human Rights With Your Coffee?

A group of Istanbul women have taken to the city's men-only coffee houses to promote human rights reforms introduced by the government. At the same time, they're reviving a centuries-old tradition.

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The Turkish man's domain: the coffee house

In Istanbul's traditional coffee houses, men drink coffee, play cards and backgammon, while exchanging gossip and chatting about soccer. For centuries, Turkish men have viewed the coffee house as a refuge to escape the trials of day-to-day life, including their wives -- as the cafés are strictly reserved for men. But this evening is different.

With the help of a megaphone to overcome the din of games and conversation, Aytan Gougun, 34, talks to the men about human rights. She is among a group of women visiting coffee houses across the city on a mission to explain new rights passed by parliament to meet demands from the European Union, whose ranks Turkey seeks to join.

Gougun informs the men that they have the right to a lawyer if arrested, and that police cannot search their homes without a court order. A video projected on the coffee house wall explains their right to insurance at work, how they can exercise their new rights and wider principles of citizenship and democracy.

Such initiatives are being carried out throughout Istanbul's numerous coffee houses. These men-only domains are an ideal place to inform people of their rights, according to Sasea Kurtoglu, one of the organizers of the project. But she acknowledged that it's not always easy.

Türkische Familie am Bosporus

"A couple of places some men said, 'You are a women; why are you here?' And then our colleagues started talking about women's rights and gender equality," Kurtoglu said.

"Because they are leaders of the family they represent a wide basis of the population. In some way we have to reach them and tell them you are citizen, you count. [Regardless of] whether you have an education, whether you have any money, you count. You have a place and you have power. [Because of] the times we went through in the 80s -- when criticizing the government was penalized and many freedoms were restricted -- they still think if they complain some way they will get into trouble."

Merely a fantasy?

Turkey's human rights record was appalling after the 1980 military coup until well into the 1990s. Detentions without trial, disappearances and torture were commonplace. The very concept of human rights was a fantasy to most people. Even today, schools do little in the way of teaching students about their rights, instead emphasizing the importance of duty and obedience.

In the coffee houses, however, some men are impressed by the women's efforts to inform them of their rights.

"She gave us a good ideas and information. We have to unite and discuss these issues," one man said about Gougun's presentation. We come and go here without learning or thinking about anything. It is necessary to attend these meetings and understand what you have, what you don't, and what you are missing, as well as what is happening around us. People have to ask and fight for their rights."

" School of knowledge"

Türkei: Istanbul - Großer Basar Türkische Männer beim Teetrinken im Großen Basar in Istanbul, aufgenommen am 12. Mai 2004.

Using coffee houses as a center for ideas is nothing new, according to Ugur Komecoglu of Istanbul's Bilge University. Having studied the history of coffee houses, he said the women's project resurrects a tradition that dates back four centuries, to a time when people went to coffee houses for more than just a drink. The coffee house was referred to as the "school of knowledge," since it was an important venue for literary, scientific and political discussion.

" Karagoz plays were very common in those spaces. Karagoz is a puppet shadow play. These plays were full of political satire or political lampooning. That is why these coffee houses were sometimes closed down by the sultan," Komecoglu explained.

Sasea Kurtoglu said that the coffee-house activists, like Gougun, are committed to finding and training at least one person to meet the growing demand for their services.

"We are already receiving requests from other coffee houses," Kurtoglu said. "One coffee house owner said 'I have a coffee house for 100 people -- you just tell us when you can come and I will get them all ready.' In this way, the project will not end. The more people hear about it, the more phone calls we get requesting such teaching sessions.

Kurtoglu said she and Gougun plan to extend their project throughout the country.

"The need is there," she said.

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