Selin Ozunaldim

by Jade Cave

 
 

Jade: Tell me a little about yourself?


Selin: I’m Selin, I’m an 18-year-old gender equality activist from Istanbul, Turkey. I would say my main focuses are sustainable development goals 4 and 5, which advocate for equal access to education and global gender equality, I’m also the youngest representative of the UN’s global gender equality movement He For She, and also one of the 300 young activists who were chosen by the UN to become National gender youth activists, where our purpose is to make sure that, as youth, our voices are being heard at a UN level, and contribute to the generation equality forum as much as we can. I am also a guiding group member at the United Nations Girls Education Initiative’s Transform Education Campaign. We’re basically reaching out to stakeholders like action coalition leaders and policymakers to ensure equal access to education. And that education is being transformed because, you know, this is the 21st century!


I am also the founder of the first Girl Up Club in Turkey and the founder of the first Girls Who Code Club! Last summer, I was an intern at Girl Rising, an organization that aims to achieve equal access to education through storytelling. During the pandemic, I had the privilege and honor of working with them and working more on the field and in the forefront in terms of adolescent girls' access to education, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. So, yeah! That’s me in a nutshell, I guess!


Jade: Very impressive - that’s a lot that you do, and I’m really curious about how you got involved in all of this. So how did you get involved in gender inequality and access to education activism?


Selin: So, I think I’ve always been sort of a changemaker? Like I would always question things and ask why is this like that? Why do we have this stereotype? And this barrier, you know? I was still trying to find solutions. As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in inequality, social justice, etc. Still, I had never really had that motivation, that spark. So one day, my 6-year-old brother told me that I didn’t have to worry about school because since I was a girl, I could just get married, and my life was so easy. I was like, “Woah, no sir, what’s going on?” Because there are no experiences or examples of that in my family, not in our circle, so I was, of course, very shocked. I couldn’t understand how and why he would say that. And that was the moment when I realized that these stereotypes are so normalized, they’re so ingrained into our lives that we don’t even notice them until someone points them out. I was thinking that this is so toxic and so normalized that even a six-year-old could have that mindset. That was the moment when I said, “Okay, this has to be changed, and I’m going to be the one to change it.”


Jade: Obviously, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of really pressing issues in terms of justice and equity, so what is it about gender equality that speaks to you, what is it that pushed your focus there, and why is that your particular passion?


Selin: Especially in Turkey, gender equality is still a massive issue, I’m sure you remember last year, the black and white challenge, where finally the whole world had a chance to see the real story behind the movement. People say that we’re now equal because women now get to vote, but it’s not just about that. I know that I’m on the lucky side; I go to a private school, live in Istanbul, and my family, friends and school always support me, but I’m on the privileged side of this story. Especially in the East of Turkey, there are still adolescent girls who can’t go to high school or college. I mean, women are getting killed or raped on a daily basis, It’s ridiculous. I remember so many headlines like a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or husband killing women because they didn’t cook well, wanted to get a job, or wore that skirt, and it’s so disgusting. And there are so many issues like that.


What makes me so uncomfortable, and what motivates me to pursue my work is definitely realizing my privilege, or even turning on the news, talking to different girls from different regions, acknowledging and realizing why we need gender equality and why we need someone to stand up.


Jade: What has been, in your opinion, at least, your most defining moment?


Selin: It’s so hard to pick just one, so I’m going to tell two stories. The first one is, of course, when I receive messages and emails from girls saying that I was the one inspiring them to take action. In fact, I was featured in a campaign a couple of months ago, and one of the other girls was at a conference of mine, and she came up to me and said like, “Wow, you inspire me so much you know, I want to do this,” and a couple of months later, we were featured on the same campaign! It was amazing and such an honor and privilege.


Another moment where I was like, okay, well I’m doing this was at this like speed-dating style thing; it wasn’t just speed dating, it was a meeting, but we had hundreds of people, so the organization was doing speed dating as an ice breaker. When I turned on my camera, there was this girl from another country, and I was like “Hey, my name is Selin, and I’m the HeForShe representative from Turkey,” and she was like, “Oh my god, I know you, you’re like the Emma Watson of Turkey.”


Jade: The Emma Watson of Turkey?! Okay, that’s some high praise.


Selin: I know! So I was like, well, okay, I guess I’m doing this now!


Jade: I think you may have passed the “I guess I’m doing this” point when people start calling you Emma Watson!


Selin: It happens quite often, and it’s honestly such an honor. I really feel so honored.


Jade: Okay, this might be the most unoriginal question ever aside from, “What’s your name,” but what is your biggest piece of advice for you women who look up to you, like people who say you’re the next Emma Watson, and who want to make an impact in gender equality?


Selin: I would say - well, I really don’t like the phrase “follow in my footsteps,” because please don’t follow in my footsteps, create your own path, so I would say, be the change you want to see in the world. That’s my motto, of course, by Gandhi. The other thing is, every time you feel like you’re not enough or you don’t fit in a box, ask yourself “Why would I ever want to be someone else’s replica when I could be my own authentic self.” I think that’s an essential thing to internalize, which has helped me a lot. And also, to kind of promote HeForShe at the same time, HeForShe’s motto is super inspiring, so definitely remind yourself of it “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?” Period. That is so true.


Jade: Many people in the world would say that we don’t need feminism; what do you have to say to those people?


Selin: Yeah, I’d have a lot to say to those people. The first thing is I would like to ask them some questions. Firstly, especially from a Turkish perspective and my lived experience, do you ever feel afraid, the rush of adrenaline because you’re walking down a road at night? Or, for example, a friend of mine told me that “We were hanging out as friends and all the guys in the group had permission to stay out until 1 AM, but the girls in the group had to be back in their homes by 10 PM because they couldn’t be on public transport. These are small examples, but they are important because they’re so widespread even though they’re small. If you ask any girl in Turkey that question, they’ll all have a story for you. We even have gender-based stereotypes that are internalized. For example, have you ever asked yourself, “Oh, what will people say if I wear shorts.” So even those little examples show us something. And if you still don’t believe me, then just look at the femicide rates in Turkey: 500. This is not the number of top fortune companies, 500 women were killed in Turkey last year, and those are just the recorded femicides. Just because they were women—that was the only reason. And the penalties are not severe enough; this may not be a global thing, but I am from Turkey, so I feel like I need to talk about it. The penalties are not severe enough at all. We need legislation as soon as possible. For example, suppose the killer or rapist wears a good suit during his trial. In that case, he can get a good behavior allowance on his charges. If he keeps silent and wears a suit, he can get a good behavior reduction because he’s “learned his lesson, and he feels bad.” So this is so ridiculous, and the community tends to blame the victim. Like the first questions that are asked are things like, “oh, what was she wearing, or what was she doing out at that time of day? What has she done? Of course, she deserved it.” Like, excuse you? How much of a terrible person do you need to be to say that someone deserves rape, sexual abuse, or even to be murdered. How dare you?


Jade: Gen Z is an incredibly political generation, and in some ways, we surrender our childhood. Do you ever feel like being a changemaker and activist forced you to grow up faster?


Selin: If you asked me this question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said, “No, absolutely not.” But a couple of weeks ago, something happened: I turned eighteen, and I was legally an adult, and like a few days before that, I remember I literally bought all the old YA books that I was obsessed with while growing up, and I was binge-watching all of the Disney movies, and The Hunger Games and Twilight. So I asked myself, “what is going on with me, like what am I doing?” I talked to my dad, and I told him I have no idea where my childhood has gone. I have been so involved in activism over the last two or three years. I don’t remember anything but meetings and interviews, writing reports, etc. But it is so okay for me to watch a Disney movie or binge-watch Twilight and be like Team Edward! It’s so okay. You know you can do it all, and that’s a lesson I have learned over the past couple of weeks, and now I have learned to kind of allow myself to be a child once in a while. I felt like I was either too childish or too adult, so now I have learned how to balance it. It’s such an important and valuable lesson for me to have learned. Now I have a new tradition, I work 6 days a week, and I only have Sundays off, so now on Sunday I will wake up a little later, make myself some brunch and then I will watch old classic Disney movies like Cinderella or the Little Mermaid, just let myself relax and be myself.


Jade: In your experience, has your identity, either as a girl or young woman or young person impacted the way you’ve been treated or valued in professional spaces?


Selin: Oh, a hundred percent. Two hundred percent. It’s ridiculous and mind-blowing how much it has affected. I’m eighteen now, so they treat me more like an adult, but when I was more like 16 or 17, and I was at a meeting, I’d be talking with a co-worker, and they’d ask my age. The minute I said, oh, I’m 16, or oh, I’m 17, their attitude would change immediately. They’d be like, “Aww, sweetie, good for you!” First of all, they weren’t respecting me or the work that I do or what I stand for because of my age. Second of all, something I’ve realized was that my male peers, who were the same age as me, people don’t treat them the way they treat me. If they say, “Oh, I’m 17,” the response would be “Oh wow, what a young leader and stand up boy you are.” They respect him. But with me, it was always like, “Little princess, you’re adorable,” and stuff like that. So it doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s so unprofessional. Those are people that I call my co-workers in the gender field, so talk about internalized gender stereotypes.


Another thing that I’ve noticed, to use an example like Greta Thunberg, for instance, she definitely made a statement, and so people started judging her appearance. But she’s not a model, she’s not someone that’s getting paid for her looks, she’s there for her ideas and the things she stands for. So people were so desperate to criticize her, and they couldn’t find any material in her ideas or speech, so they used her looks - which no one does to boys.


So being a girl has similarly impacted me; I get so many comments that say things like, “Oh she’s just a privileged girl, she’s daddy’s little princess, she has no idea what she’s talking about.” And yes, I am privileged, but I acknowledge my privilege, and I’m aware of it, and I use it to fight for good. I get so many comments about being a “white privileged girl”, and those are comments I never see directed at privileged white guys. So that’s weird.


Jade: What has been your greatest challenge so far in life, and how did you overcome it?


Selin: Anxiety, probably. I have anxiety disorder, and it’s something I’ve struggled with for many years, I’m not sure if it’s something you can recover from. It’s something that people don’t understand because whenever I say to someone, “Oh yeah, I struggle with anxiety disorder, they respond with “Oh same, I have it too, I’m getting stressed too,” but what people don’t understand is that it’s not just about getting stressed, you know, it’s like living in stress 24/7, and getting anxiety attacks all the time. It’s terrible. It was a challenge in school, obviously. Still, when I became an activist, I had so many responsibilities and school and my personal life, and so being thrust into the public eye, knowing that people do know me and look up to me. There will be interviews and articles popping up when people google you - it was so stressful for me. All of that was really hard to deal with when it came together, and I had no idea how to handle it. Honestly, bless my friends; they helped me so much and meditation and breathing exercises helped me so much. Now I even have a breathing exercise on my smartwatch - that’s how often I do it. I feel like I’ve learned how to manage my anxiety. For example, suppose I feel overwhelmed, and I know I’m under too much pressure. In that case, I’ll play Just Dance or watch Harry Potter or Gossip Girl and take some time off sort of as a small getaway from reality, just focusing on yourself and getting energized so you can get back in the game. It’s such a personal journey and a personal thing for many people, but for anyone reading this who also experiences this, know that you’re not alone and know that I believe you. Because that’s another thing, with mental health issues becoming this sort of trend, people don’t actually believe you. I had family members and friends who told me I was saying that I had anxiety because I wanted attention or because I needed an excuse. Still, I know how hard it is, so know that there are people who believe you.


Jade: How do you manage and recover from setbacks?


Selin: I think that spending quality time with friends and family helps me so much. I’m an INTJ, and I don’t know if I took that personality quiz too seriously because I have read entire books and done so much research on it. I took advice from here and there about being an INTJ and learned what works for me. It may sound weird, but I think everyone should take that quiz. But to answer your actual question, spending time with friends and family or reading a book or even watching a Netflix show that makes you happy, for example, watching To All The Boys I Loved Before, is something I do very often because I’ve realized that it just makes me a teenager, it may be corny, but it lets me relax and just immerse myself in the movie and take my mind off of things.


Jade: How has working as an activist in this field influenced you as a person?


Selin: I have learned how to brag better. I’m still working on that, but I feel like I’m more confident, and I’m not afraid of speaking my own truth or sharing my own opinions even if people don’t agree with me. I’ve learned that having thick skin is so essential and just internalizing that it’s okay not to fit into a box and that it's something we should appreciate. Because why would we want to be someone else’s replica when we could be our own authentic selves? Also, being an activist has given me the opportunity to break the stereotypes I had internalized, acknowledging that not everyone is as lucky as me and that not everyone has the same background. Every day I’m meeting with people who have different stories to me, different families, different values and different cultures, so cherishing those opportunities and making sure to never judge a book by it’s cover. The biggest thing I’ve learned through my activism work is that I am so biased about so many things, and I had no idea; they were all so internalized and I learned so much about how we shouldn't judge a book by its cover.


Jade: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?


Selin: To be completely honest, to look at it from a bigger perspective, I want to see myself on the field, maybe working in a different country. I just want to work directly with adolescent girls, maybe teaching them English or helping them in any way. If I was presented with that opportunity, I would give up anything to do that.