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Women of ‘new’ Turkey: dystopian sacralised mothers and everyday feminists

Not a single International Women’s Day or Mother’s Day can pass by without reasserting women’s main duty as child-bearers and men’s responsibility to ‘protect’ and ‘rekindle’ fragile mothers.

March 8, 2017 - Istanbul, Turkey - Thousands of women join the rally at Istiklal Street on the occasion of International Women's Day, in Istanbul, Turkey. Can Erok/Press Association. All rights reserved. Last January, shortly after Turkey’s military operation started in Afrin, I was at a women’s event held by a pro-government civil society organisation in a working-class suburban district of Istanbul. After talking tearfully about the first woman martyr of Islam in the seventh century, the invited speaker uttered a prayer for Turkish soldiers who had died on Syrian territory and concluded by wishing us all the chance to become the blessed mothers of martyred soldiers one day. The enthusiastic approval with which this last statement was greeted by the other women participants shocked me profoundly. What could make the idea of having dead sons desirable for those women? What could make the idea of having dead sons desirable for those women?

Women are usually among the first targets of human rights violations in undemocratic regimes and armed conflicts thought of as ‘weak’ targets, self-sacrificing individuals, or the instruments of mass mobilization strategies. In Turkey on a daily basis, authoritarian governance is increasingly constructed and validated through women. Nationalism and sacrifice for ‘the common good’ recognises no limits and seeks to subordinate every social activity and individual to its own ends.

The attempted control of women’s bodies, public presence, and their social, economic and intellectual activities have also become an integral part of the authoritarian politics. Yet, as in all repressive political system, women’s resistance exists in an available public space, pushing back the boundaries of ‘the allowed’.

False promises of authoritarian politics and conspiracy against the nation

Political authority may no longer be the preserve of men, yet political culture remains overwhelmingly masculine everywhere.

The intertwined nature of masculinity, political culture and women’s oppression is nowhere clearer than in undemocratic political systems. Having monopolised the formal political field in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has turned to a struggle for domination over social and cultural fields. Consent for oppressive measures on political and civic freedoms is manufactured through a false promise of creating a ‘new Turkey’ and ‘a new nation’ to be born through reactionary victimhood, revenge, strong leadership and so-called ‘national and local values’. This politics of salvation allows the AKP to bury the authoritarian codes of the new Turkey deep inside the capillaries of the individual sphere.

Discourse and policies concerning women epitomise the false promises of the politics of salvation and the national rebirth myth. During the AKP’s fifteen years’ rule, women’s rights have been progressively reduced to securing the family and future generations. A mixture of Islamic and nationalist references has become key in promoting the primary role of women mainly as mothers and caretakers of family.

Government officials and particularly President Erdoğan have suggested that women raise at least three children on several occasions, calling birth control a ‘conspiracy against the nation’, condemned the right to abortion, encouraged marriage over education and participation in the workforce, discouraged and stigmatised divorce.

Not a single International Women’s Day or Mother’s Day can pass by without reasserting women’s main duty as child-bearers and men’s responsibility to ‘protect’ and ‘rekindle’ fragile mothers. Accordingly, gender equality is an alien and artificial construct. Women can achieve the highest social status and emancipation once they carry out the ‘sacred duty’ of transferring the national and moral values to the next generation.   

Government-controlled ‘family reconciliation centres’ have been recently introduced to curb the divorce rate, creating a disproportionate pressure on women seeking divorce, according to feminist organisations. The top-down attempt to mould women into the ‘new’ Turkey is not only confined to the private sphere of family. Women are often told how to dress up and behave in public by politicians or the state-led Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).

Neoliberal family life

Islamic references are abundant in justifying the discourse and policies concerning women’s bodies and public acts. Yet, contrary to the common assumption, the AKP’s policies do not aim at Islamisation per se. While emphasising their role in the new Turkey as mothers, in the first instance, policies concerning women have become subservient to authoritarian politics.

The subjugation of the private lives of women to the demands of the state is akin to the politics of women under fascism. The AKP carefully defines how women should look and behave in public and what roles they should assume in the process of building the new mighty nation. The political authority depicts society as in a constant crisis regarding family and the national values, attacked by Western modernity and feminists, a society which can only be saved by selfless women. The political authority depicts society as in a constant crisis regarding family and the national values, attacked by Western modernity and feminists, a society which can only be saved by selfless women.

Referring to the need to raise healthy and pious generations, the party-state constantly reminds women that their reproductive capacity must be put at the service of the state. Sacralised mothers are expected to raise children for the imminent national re-birth under AKP rule. If needed, they are also asked to heroically sacrifice them for the sake of the communal good.

Yet, the AKP’s authoritarian governance is built on neoliberalism, which cannot put the continuation of the unequal economic growth at risk. For this reason, total exclusion of women from the workforce is inconceivable. Women’s labour, however, should be instrumentalised, forcing them to fill the gap in the decline in social welfare provisions and favouring a return to the family

The unpaid domestic labour of women is encouraged through a discourse of ‘our national tradition of familial relations’ as opposed to secular republican modernity. It serves as the best instrument to meet the needs of the extended family – the elderly, the disabled, and children – resolving the social problems arising with the retreat of the state from social care.

Women are encouraged to stay at home through cash transfers paid by the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs. Eased regulations concerning subcontracted labour in the public sector and women-intensive sectors – like garments, catering and cleaning – institutionalised precarious and irregular employment with no benefits.

And the false promise of authoritarianism carries on: supported by meagre cash transfers from the state and part-time employment, women can reconcile work and their indispensable familial roles, as the role-model citizens of the ‘new’ Turkey.

Then there is the violence

The masculine hegemony of authoritarian politics is further entrenched by the evident impunity and double standards surrounding violence against women.

The rise in femicides and domestic violence have been exponential in the last decade. The lack of official data itself reflects the policy of denial and impunity. Not only the cases of femicide and violence are on the rise, the brutality of physical violence is also increasing, according to women’s rights groups and feminist activists.

The culture of denial and impunity condones violence and fails to fully prosecute the perpetrators. Penalty reductions are granted to men who claim that women deliberately ‘provoked’ them by wearing a mini skirt or speaking up. Statements by the government and Diyanet judge women as sufferers of violence through the lens of masculine social morality. Not long ago, it was suggested that women should marry their rapists to get rid of the social stigma, and give birth if a rape results in pregnancy because abortion would be a crime worse than rape. In 2012, the Minister of Health even suggested that if necessary, the state could look after the babies born out of rape.

Double standards in condemning violence have become the new norm. Government officials, pro-AKP women’s organisations and the media alike renounce certain cases of violence, such as when women are veiled or when violence is conducted by a husband.

They would choose to remain silent on other cases when women are physically harassed for wearing shorts or when the perpetrator is an intimate partner but not a husband (so the violence is conducted without the marriage bond) or the victim is transgender or lesbian.

A condemnation by the president or the prime minister means that the perpetrator will receive a full sentence according to the criminal code without ‘provocation’ reduction in sentence. These double standards only reproduce Manichean authoritarian politics prioritise an elect community of women who fit in among the accepted citizenry, but reproach women with secular lifestyles, ignoring or justifying the ‘deserved violence’ against such non-conforming women.

Women are fighting back in everyday solidarity

The authoritarian attempt at shaping and controlling women’s lives and bodies have inadvertently created new forms of women’s resistance in Turkey. Groups such as Kadın Meclisleri (Women’s Forums) and Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu (We will stop femicides) emerged out of the efforts of young women activists.

Women increasingly come together voluntarily and establish democratic and open platforms for discussion, participation and solidarity. Although it started as an urban response to increasing violence, women’s activist groups have begun to expand to smaller cities, districts and universities across Turkey. This dynamic and localised organisational structure makes feminist resistance an everyday phenomenon in many women’s lives.  

Activists emphasise that violence is no longer only about the domestic sphere. I was told that ‘public violence, seen recently in the attacks on women in public transport or parks for what they wear, should equally concern the society. It is a reflection of the glorification of violence and masculine power of authoritarian politics’.

New activism creates venues for women from all educational and socio-economic backgrounds to get informed about their legal rights and to propose solutions out of their own experiences to the prevalent domestic and public violence.

Voluntary activist-lawyers organised through these networks also become an official party to court cases offering legal assistance. When they are involved in such cases, security forces try and avoid rejecting a woman demanding legal protection from a bullying male partner.

Thanks to this everyday involvement, such activist groups increasingly surpass the traditional women’s organisations in Turkey in terms of reach and effectiveness. They assert the need to seek new ways of raising awareness and mobilising the public opinion. I was told:

‘We are not invited to consultative meetings with the government, and this is why we try to be visible through alternative channels. If they close one channel, we invent another one. We distribute leaflets on the street, run information campaigns in district markets, put badges on public transportation to raise awareness. When hundreds of women organise a protest and when there are thousands of people tweeting with the same hashtag, the government cannot cover a case of violence or the scandals of child pregnancy. Even the government-controlled media cannot remain indifferent to hundreds of women protesting in front of a courthouse rejecting sentence reduction granted to a murderer’.

Last year’s International Women’s Day march

In fact, the night march on the International Women’s Day last year demonstrated the surprising level of women’s mobilisation in speaking up against the authoritarian control of the private and public spheres under the restrictive measures of the extended state of emergency.

This year women are determined to expand the reach of the night march, despite the security measures. The direct experience of discrimination, systemic injustices and violence motivate women to sustain a truly grassroots social movement in Turkey. The stakes are high, an activist told me, ‘we are literally struggling for our lives and freedoms. We are not a charity organisation or a therapy group for women. We have entirely political demands’.

The stakes are high, an activist told me, ‘we are literally struggling for our lives and freedoms. We are not a charity organisation or a therapy group for women. We have entirely political demands’.

Not being able to influence the legislation or the political discourse, they are aware that mobilising on a case-by-case basis is exhausting and they cannot dethrone the current system favouring masculine authoritarianism alone.

However, when political authority seeks to homogenise politics and society and the opposition parties and labour unions fail miserably in mobilising the grassroots, women continue to display the most effective and sustained democratic resistance.

Women hold placards reading "stop the weapons", "Women want peace" and "we don't want any war in Sur-Cizre-Silopi" during a night march on Altiparmak avenue in Bursa, Turkey, to mark International Women's Day on March 8, 2016. Photo by Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved.

About the author

Bilge Yabanci received her PhD degree from the University of Bath, UK based on a doctoral dissertation on the social and political dynamics and the emerging forms of local resistance against the EU-driven democratisation and conflict resolution process in Kosovo and northern Cyprus. She is affiliated with Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome and London-based Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey.

Her current research interests include populism and ruling populist parties, the relationship between authoritarian consolidation and civil society, and democratic reversal in Turkey. Her recent peer-reviewed work ‘Populism as the problem child of democracy’ on government-dependent trade unions and women’s organizations under the AKP rule appeared in the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea studies.


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