Özge Elif Özer, who goes by Elif, left the little town of Erzurum in eastern Turkey when she was just 17. Since then, she has lived in six different countries and travelled across over 30 more. Elif kicked off her talk at ZafigoX with a Turkish saying; “No matter how far you have gone on the wrong path, we can always turn back.”

Elif tackles the subject of diversity of her home country, Turkey; with the eastern districts practising more traditional values while the western areas were more liberal and westernised by its close proximity to Europe. “I didn’t realise that Turkey was all that diverse when I was little, because I grew up in a little village in the east, with a population of less than half a million, in a very conservative part of Turkey. My mother grew up in the west part of Turkey, so she had her fair share of getting judged and being told what to do, so it was like living in a different country for her. I realised all this dissimilarities though, on the first day of my menstruation.”

Coming of age


Getting her first period at the raw age of 11, Elif recalled how scared she was, mostly due to the fact that it was never explained to her. Seeing blood leak from her own body made her think death was upon her. “So I went to my mother and I was crying. Firstly because I am dying, and secondly because my favourite panties are ruined. Those were my priorities. And I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m dying. Here’s what happened.’ She laughed, but I saw the concern in her eyes and I think she kind of blamed herself for not preparing me.”

Her mother then sat her down and explained the situation; “I hadn’t made peace with being a girl and now I’m a woman? It’s crazy. I get a call from my grandmother from my mother’s side, east and west is a little different in Turkey, so I pick up the phone and she was just like, ‘Congrats you’re a woman now!’”

Her paternal grandmother took the news a little differently when Elif proudly announced the news to her. “My grandmother starts telling me how unashamed I was and how I was supposed to be silent and how it is nothing to be proud about, ‘How can you scream it in front of me? What if your grandfather, your father, your brother heard it?’ It didn’t occur to me it was a secret, so I was shocked. My mother was just rolling her eyes in the background while shaking her head.”

Involuntarily unshackled

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At the age of 17, Elif was accepted into both a university in Milan, and a university in Turkey. “My dad was like, ‘There’s not discussion, you’re going to the university in Turkey.’ But my mom, she proved to him that the university in Milan was the better choice and she basically forced me to go even though I was afraid. I was 17, I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t speak the language, I was so scared. To this day, I’m so glad she made me do it. I met so many people from all around the world in Milan, and I had an international friend group from Latin America, North America, Asia, and Europe.

Jealousy and clarity

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At dinner with her friends in Milan, Elif recalled how one of the boys received a text message announcing his sister’s first menstruation. His reaction surprised her; “OMG! My little sister just got her first menstruation, she just became a woman I can’t believe it, she was so tiny, how did she grow up to become a woman so fast?”

Elif went on; “So he was looking for flowers, and then he turned to us and said, ‘You know how it feels. What should I write on the card? What kind of flowers should I get? Should I call her? What should I say? Should I give her a period time and call her tomorrow instead?”

Then it hit her, Elif realised that what she felt was bitterness. “I was so jealous of this little girl I didn’t know. I was sitting at that chair, and I was so deeply bitter. And then I thought of my first day and how people reacted to mine. And how I never talked to my brother or my father about it. And how it was a secret and I only got flowers from my mother. You all know what I’m talking about, it’s your body changing. It’s hormonal, biological, physical, mental, and everything is changing. And you’re being silenced? I never questioned it; I was ashamed to tell my friends even though I was the first one to get it, I was ashamed to tell my teachers when I had to use the bathroom urgently when I was still learning to deal with it.”

Travel to unlearn

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Moving to Milan and being exposed to different cultures made Elif realise that had she not moved away from home, she would have never thought like that and realised how ridiculous it is to be silenced for something you have no control over. “If I never had this experience, I may have told my nieces a different thing. I may have done what my paternal grandmother did to me.”

Elif’s parting words were simple; “When you travel, you unlearn things that have been imposed on you, all the the information that you have been receiving without any question. After Milan, I decided to go unlearn a few more things in India, then the States, then Kazakhstan, then the UAE, and now Malaysia.”

“Travel more, unlearn everything, start from a new page, don’t live your life with any taboos, and talk about menstruation more.”

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