The Feminist Who's Changing Turkey, One Gym at a Time
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Turkish women have been marginalized from work and play.
By J.Y. Lee
“I don’t like gyms; I didn’t like gyms; I tried gyms many times, but I would find them so boring,” says Bedriye Hulya. Yet despite her complaints, the 52-year-old still rises before the roosters to work out at 6 a.m. It’s a necessary habit, given that her business is gyms: She’s the founder of B-Fit gyms, an all-women’s gym chain that extends across Turkey, playing host to half a million women and fast growing — last year there were just 350,000 members. For many of these women, Hulya says, B-Fit was their gym debut.
For all of Istanbul’s veneer of cosmopolitanism — Turkey is, after all, an officially secular state, and banned hijabs from 1997 to 2013 — the bridge nation remains conservative and contains whiffs of patriarchy. Turkey ranked 130 out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap report, and less than 30 percent of women ages 15-64 participated in the labor force in 2014, according to Eurostat. “Turkey looks very modern on the surface, but when you dig deeper and look at women in leadership roles, it’s very disappointing,” says Sema Basol, co-founder of the nonprofit Turkish Women’s Initiative.
While the mountainous central and eastern regions of Turkey are steeped in tradition, Hulya grew up on the west coast port city of Izmir, the nation’s third-largest metropolis, renowned for its liberal attitudes on religion and commercial bustle. Dubbed the “Lost Castle” by the conservative Justice and Development Party of the troubled President Erdogan, Izmir has been a bastion of secular Kemalism, the founding ideology of modern Turkey that advocates full equality for women. Hulya attended an American international school in Izmir, where she played ball sports and learned Turkish dance. A car accident her senior year put her on crutches, but she was soon back jogging and biking.
When not exercising or camping with her family, Hulya hit the books. “She has always been a person who reads a lot, researches a lot and asks a lot,” says her sister Asli Olgun. Hulya’s bookishness also led to her mid-career studies at 34 in psychology at Columbia University and the City University of New York, where she picked up second bachelor’s and master’s degrees. (Now she’s picking up a Ph.D. on the side.) Beyond psychology, Hulya cites French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and American poet Maya Angelou as some of her greatest influences.
To create co-ed gyms, the culture has to change, and women are part of it. But who will transform men?
It was this sojourn in New York that sparked the idea for B-Fit gyms. Hulya worked out at Curves, a female-only gym chain popular in the mid-2000s. Although Curves has declined in popularity since then, B-Fit remains financially vibrant, with an annual revenue of $3 million, according to startup seed platform Gust. Curves did not respond to requests for comment.
When Hulya co-founded B-Fit with six other women, including her sister Asli, in 2005, she ensured that her gym staffs greet, guide and offer tea to entering customers. A female trainer at the center of the circuit supervises half-hour workouts, which encompass cardio, stretching and strength exercises. “They are not just gyms,” says Basol. “They are social places for women to get together for education and social change.” B-Fit gyms — all franchised to women — are also equipped with cafes and seminar rooms that offer classes on women’s issues ranging from menopause, kids and travels. “It was an empowering place for women,” says New York-based Selen Ucak, who visited B-Fit during her travels in Turkey.
Gyms are only the latest in the zigzagging career of this serial entrepreneur. Her first business, founded at the age of 23, was a souvenir stall in Bodrum, in the so-called Turkish Riviera. She and a friend resold souvenirs bought at wholesale prices. By the following year, her souvenir stall had become a chain. She then ventured into the textile manufacturing and hospitality industries, running a fusion-food restaurant and a hotel. Even during her studies in the U.S., she continued to manage the hotel in Bodrum by devoting her vacation to work for six years. “Our hotel was on the beach, but I couldn’t go to the beach once because I was so busy,” she says.
When she turned 42, she decided to add an explicitly social dimension to her work, and her résumé shows it: She’s an Ashoka Fellow and a Schwab Social Entrepreneur for her work on gender equality. When asked if that egalitarianism between the sexes would cause her gyms to eventually accept men, she responds with skepticism that Turkish men would ever let their daughters and wives exercise with them. “To create co-ed gyms, the culture has to change, and women are part of it. But who will transform men?” she asks. “It’s not possible with the religion we have. I can’t compete with Islam, so I have to go around it.”
Ironically, Hulya’s approach to women’s emancipation has overlapped with that of her more religious women’s rights activists. After the Islamist Justice and Development Party rose to caliphate in 2002, some religious feminists clamored for gender-segregated spaces, including single-sex gyms, to the chagrin of liberal feminists. “Some secular feminists thought gender segregation was a resurrection of religious fundamentalism,” comments Burcak Keskin-Kozat, associate director of Stanford’s Islamic Studies program. “Other autonomous feminists said, ‘If our veiled sisters want segregated spaces, we should support them in the name of womanhood.’”
For now, as B-Fit gyms remain as segregated as Turkish baths, Hulya has created co-ed gyms called Muzipo for children ages 18 months to 12 years. “They think they’re playing, but actually we’re teaching them how to move and exercise,” she says. Parents can choose to accompany their kids on workouts; 20 of these gyms provide playgrounds for 1,000 kids across the country.
More interesting than the question of gender segregation, though, is one of Hulya’s favored aphorisms from de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Perhaps her gyms allow for such a becoming.
- J.Y. Lee, OZY Author Contact J.Y. Lee