This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America

Turkish Mayor Berivan Kilic speaks with residents at a market in her town Kocakoy. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill
Turkish Mayor Berivan Kilic speaks with residents at a market in her town Kocakoy. Photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill

with beautiful photos from Tara Todras-Whitehill.

When Berivan Kilic strolls through her local market, her neighbors — women especially — flock to her. She holds an elderly woman’s creased hands as they exchange greetings. Her gentle smile exudes compassion. Some consider Kilic a local heroine: The 33-year-old former child bride was recently elected co-mayor of Kocakoy, a rural town in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakir, making her the town’s first-ever female leader.

“At first, I did not have confidence and courage,” she said of the start of her political journey. “My marriage was like a prison for 14 years, with all the abuse I went through.”

Kilic was 15 when she wed her cousin. The violent relationship ended five years ago. Now her mission is to bring attention to issues plaguing women in her region, like child marriage and domestic violence. She says she’ll start by listening to the women who surround her.

She attributes her success to the Peace and Democracy Party, known by its Turkish acronym, BDP. One of Turkey’s leading opposition parties, the BDP takes pride in its reputation for egalitarianism, having established a 40 percent quota for female representation in the party. It upped the ante in the country’s March 30 local elections by introducing the co-candidate system that got Kilic elected.

“The BDP has been very creative,” said Ilter Turan, a political science professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. While legally there are not two elected leaders in each district or municipality, where the BDP has won, the elected leader and his or her vice mayor take the reins together. “We decide everything together,” Kilic explained. “After that, we sign the documents together.”

When it comes to women in leadership, Turkey has little to brag about. In the mid-1990s, Tansu Ciller served as the country’s first and, so far, only female prime minister. Female representation in parliament is under 15 percent (77 out of 538 representatives are women). For local leaders, the numbers are even lower. The most recent election bumped female local representation from less than 1 percent to 3.7 percent, or 37 elected local leaders out of 1,000.

The March 30 local elections brought several firsts. Three of Turkey’s 30 metropolitan governors are now women, compared with just one before. They hail from different parties: Gultan Kisanak from BDP, Fatma Sahin from AKP (the country’s leading Justice and Development Party) and Ozlem Cercioglu from CHP (the major opposition Republican People’s Party). One of Turkey’s 51 provincial municipalities elected a female head for the first time. Because of reforms introduced in October, most women in civil service may now wear headscarves, and seven women who wear headscarves, including Kilic, were elected.

Women’s rights champions say the gains are modest. Kader, a leading Turkish women’s rights organization, declared the recent local elections “another win for men.” Turkish women gained the right to vote and run for all levels of local office and parliament by 1934. In the 80 years since, many expect far more equal representation of women in the political arena.

However, Turan believes any increase is a big deal for Turkey. “Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, some 30,000 or more males have been elected to mayoral posts,” he said, “while the number of females elected is around 120.” (Turan notes that these are ballpark numbers.)

The BDP’s push for equality isn’t limited to women. The party is best known for its role in Kurdish rights activism and is strongest in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. That is why it is no surprise that Rezan Zugurli, the 25-year-old mayor of Lice, also in Diyarbakir, won 90 percent of her town’s vote. “When you look at the people of Lice,” she said, “you see that everyone has a child who went to jail for the [Kurdish cause] or joined the guerrilla fighters.”

The fighters Zugurli refers to are militants from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a banned militant group. The PKK, which has Marxist-Leninist roots, led an armed fight for nationhood from 1984 through 2012, until negotiations with the government led to a ceasefire in March 2013. Deadly clashes earlier this month show that tensions haven’t disappeared.

According to Cengiz Gunes, an expert on Kurdish nationalism who teaches at the United Kingdom’s Open University, the region was under military rule for decades. The conflict destroyed the regional economy, and the state forcefully displaced more than 3 million people and killed upward of 40,000. “One of the unique achievements of the Kurdish movement in Turkey is the mobilization of women in large numbers,” Gunes wrote in an email. By integrating female fighters into the PKK, the Kurdish movement may have paved the way for the BDP’s success in getting women elected.

Zugurli possesses a soulful hoarseness in her voice, and her eyes reveal a depth rarely seen in someone so young. Before her release last June, she spent 13 months as a political prisoner for participating in illegal rallies on behalf of the PKK.

“No person can be happy [in jail],” she said. “There is no space to move.” She says she shared a 12-person cell with 24 other prisoners.

Still, she says the fight for freedom made it tolerable, and she considers herself lucky. “I was in there with people sentenced to 22 years,” she said. “I cannot complain too much.” (Zugurli was again sentenced, to four years and two months, on May 7 for participating in political rallies in 2011 and 2012. She said she’s appealing the sentence.)

Like Kilic, Zugurli is determined to prioritize women’s issues. “It is very important that women are holding mayoral positions,” she said, “because the local leadership is at the heart of the society and can address society’s problems.”

Leyla Imret, the 27-year-old BDP mayor of Cizre in the southeastern province of Sirnak, agrees.

“It gives women courage to see me [and others like me] as mayor,” she said. “More women and youth will get involved in politics.”

Turan says Imret is right. “Once you begin to establish a political space for women, that creates its own excitement and its own legitimacy,” he said.

While the BDP can be credited for significant strides for both Kurdish rights and women in politics — 23 of the 37 elected female leaders are from the BDP, plus 46 co-mayors alongside BDP male mayors — it is the country’s socially conservative AKP that lifted the headscarf ban from public buildings.

“In a sense, the AKP has represented a way of bringing conservative women into politics,” said Turan. AKP women take the lead in the general assembly, accounting for 45 of the 77 female parliamentarians. Yet the party has also encouraged women to take more traditional roles, recommending, for example, that women have three children. “In the end, it is a socially conservative party, and many [in the AKP] would be equally happy if women played their traditional roles.”