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The secretary who beat her boss to become mayor in Turkey's northwest

After being demoted with no explanation, Zekiye Tekin quit her role as mayor's clerk and defeated him in last month's election
"My motivation was to show women of this town that this is possible," said Tekin (MEE/Nimet Kirac)
By Nimet Kirac in Pazaryeri

She entered the building in 2004, employed as a secretary to the mayor. 

Today, Zekiye Tekin sits in the mayoral seat of Bilecik's Pazaryeri district as an independent winner, standing as proof to a woman's dedication to claim victory in the face of injustice.

"My motivation was to show the women of this town that this is possible," Tekin, who is from Pazaryeri, told MEE after her victory in last month's local elections.

Tekin, 41, resigned her position as a clerk last summer after she was demoted in a change made by her boss and former mayor Muzaffer Yalcin.

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The secretary who replaced her had no work experience and was the daughter of a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) municipal council.

"I was unjustly demoted, and my boss did not even care to let me know in person after my 15 years of work in the municipality building. I was subjected to mobbing," she said.

Tekin said she then applied to run for the AKP, but the party did not enlist her as a candidate and instead picked Yalcin, who had served as mayor for the past two terms.

"So, then I said I would make this on my own. I was very angered by how I was told to greet the visitors because someone's daughter would be replacing me, and really wanted to win that seat," Tekin said, detailing her motivations to run.

'I know everyone in Pazaryeri'

Tekin's victory is rare; she is just one of two female mayors who ran and won as independent candidates in the municipal elections, which were held on 31 March. 

The new mayor says that it was through a collective effort consisting of herself and her "sisters," the area's women, that she was able to claim her unusual victory, in the town of 11,000 people.

"I know everyone in Pazaryeri. I did their paperwork for 15 years, and had face-to-face interactions with whoever came to the building," she told MEE.

"So, I ran as Zekiye, the woman that I am, campaigning for months without a title."

I ran as Zekiye, the woman that I am, campaigning for months without a title

- Zekiye Tekin

Although she was angry when she decided to stand as a candidate, her anger was later overrun by a desire to serve, she said. 

She is even open to absorbing Yalcin's experiences if, and when, their relationship normalises.

Not tied to a political party, Tekin was able to take a path of her own and received 40.83 percent of the vote (1,596 votes out of a total of 4,082), beating her former boss by 26 percent.

On the night of the elections, she said she went to her village house and stood waiting for the results with a bottle of Passiflora, a passion flower drink, at hand.

Throughout her campaign, Tekin went to male-only coffee houses and sat with the patrons, as well as knocking on doors and having tea with the women of the household once she was invited. 

The town is small, with no sustainable work opportunities. Development in this district is hard to come by. Those who want to earn more money and get a taste of life outside go to nearby cities such as Bursa, northeast of Pazaryeri, and Eskisehir to the southeast.

The new mayor says she will push all limits, communicate in new ways and score unseen victories for her jurisdiction. 

Answering the question of how an ordinary day passes for women here, one local said: "Not much, we usually stay at home."

Tekin vows to change that.

'My mayor'

"We are extremely happy and grateful, thank God," one elderly local woman, Sakine Can, told MEE.

Sitting by Tekin's new desk, in an office turned into a botanical garden by the celebratory flowers and wreaths pouring in, Can wiped her teary eyes with a napkin as we spoke.

'We are extremely happy and grateful, thank God,' Sakine Can told Middle East Eye (MEE/Nimet Kirac)
"We are extremely happy and grateful, thank God," Sakine Can told Middle East Eye (MEE/Nimet Kirac)

She was not the only one crying. A group of nearly 20 women who create and sell pottery, which Pazaryeri is well known for, also applauded and cheered during our conversation.

According to Can, poverty and the political obstacles could not stop Tekin, who was determined enough, and was already widely embraced.

"People were hesitant at first about the possibility of calling a woman 'my mayor,' but then Zekiye's beautiful heart helped overcome those notions," Can said.

Another pottery maker, 32-year old Fatma Yanabatik, said Tekin is the kind of women who does not pass one by without saying hello. According to Yanabatik, that is the secret of her victory.

Female mayors a rarity

Although her presence inside the coffee houses was often frowned upon, Tekin says the men will have to get used to seeing her there as she is now the local political leader.

Tekin's new authority to make calls on managing the budget and spotting the needs of her area is not a situation often found in Turkey, where few female mayors were elected in cities and districts across the country.

Running for her second term, Fatma Sahin from the AKP was also successful in her bid in the southeastern Gaziantep province.

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From the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Ozlem Cercioglu claimed victory in the metropolitan municipality of the Aegean Aydin province. 

Also in Turkey's west, four women ran from the CHP and one from the AKP, all winning their races in Izmir province.

Only the left-wing Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) put up female co-mayor candidates in each district and city the party ran from, following up its promise for equality.

Turkey ranks 130 out of a 149 countries according to the World Economic Forum's 2018 Gender Gap Index.

That figure comes despite the fact that Turkey was one of the first countries to allow women to vote and stand for office, when the parliament led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk passed the legislation in 1934, 11 years after the country's foundation. 

In a country governed by the AKP for the past 17 years, and despite some improvement in the participation of women in politics, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his fellow officials have time and again been the target of women's rights organisations, voicing frustration at what they see as a sexist vision, language and attitude.

'This municipality is my home'

Back in her office, Tekin slowly takes her brand new name tag out of its box and places it on her desk, the place from where she hopes to improve life in Pazaryeri.

There is work to be done. Tekin has plans to create a health tourism industry in this virgin region, with its clean, fresh air. She says she wants to create hobby gardens for individuals, for those who want to get away from the pressures of urban life. 

For all her plans and projects however, Tekin and her team need funding and investment.

Only a few female mayors were elected in cities and districts across Turkey (MEE/Nimet Kirac)
Only a few female mayors were elected in cities and districts across Turkey (MEE/Nimet Kirac)

"This municipality is my home. There have been days when I stayed here until midnight without complaining," she said.

"I came to work on the weekends when needed. I am a hard worker who is stubborn in her quests."

She is certain she will achieve what she sets her mind to.

A smiling face, arms held open and not afraid to cross traditional barriers, Tekin's term as mayor looks likely to stand as an example to the entire country.

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