North Africa, West Asia

Pink buses and race politics

To ally campaigns for women’s rights with racism is to accept the very logic that, at its ideological core, feminism seeks to destroy.

Janine Rich
6 September 2017
Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Hundreds of women marched in Istanbul, Turkey, on 29 July 2017 to protest against violence and animosity they face from men demanding they dress more conservatively. Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.If you see a pink bus pass you on the streets of Istanbul, don’t be surprised. These are the furiously debated, female-only buses that have been touted as the answer to harassment on public transportation in Istanbul, and are already in circulation in cities such as Bursa and Şanlıurfa.

Admittedly, the first time I was asked for my opinion about the concept I was torn. Having experienced the relentless exhaustion and fear of harassment, being able to let my guard down on public transportation did not sound bad at all. No, it would not fix the problem, but then again, the idea that women must remain victims offered up on a platter while we do nothing to solve it did not thrill me either.

The pink buses are not a new idea, despite the recent uptick in debate about them. If the motivating logic was truly to offer women an optional safer public space while simultaneously addressing the systemic sexism and violence that make such spaces necessary, I might be on board (pun intended).

But, like their counterparts in the US, both conservative and liberal politicians in Turkey have a long history of couching harmful political agendas within the rhetoric of protecting and supporting women – the pink buses are no exception. They are little more than the physical manifestation of the idea that the problem is not men’s behavior, but women’s presence in public spaces. 

There has been a massive online backlash against the pink buses, and most of it has been heartening and necessary. However, one image that has become popular on Twitter serves as a disturbing warning of the ease with which feminist rhetoric can slide into problematic racial stereotypes.

The image, which is comprised of two separate pictures, is ambiguous without its accompanying caption. It appears to show in the top picture a man who is reading on a train while sitting next to a row of women wearing shorts. In the bottom picture, several men are seen casually glancing in the direction of a veiled and ‘modestly’ dressed woman as she walks past. The generally included caption (roughly translated) clarifies what we are intended to take from this picture: “It’s not how you dress your girls, it’s how you educate your boys.”

The sentiment is one of the most fundamental tenets of feminist social thought. Asking women to change their behavior to meet increasingly impossible standards while men are raised, in a myriad of different ways, to believe that they have a right to our bodies and that their violence holds no consequences, is dangerous and unsustainable.

But the image presents a more complicated message than that. We are expected to understand that the top picture represents good, pure, appropriate sexuality, whereas the bottom represents bad, perverse, backward sexuality. It is not accidental that the people, both men and women, in the top image are clearly white, and those in the bottom are conspicuously racialized.

The rendering of brown people - particularly those who are visibly recognizable as Muslims - as perversely sexualized or as in some way prone towards ‘unnatural’ sexual behavior is not new. It was widely accepted and used across the political spectrum in the United States following the 11 September attacks to justify invasion and torture while maintaining the American self-image as a morally righteous power. The body of the citizen was pure, the body of the terrorist perverse. 

In the US, the history of sexualizing race (or racializing sexuality) has its longstanding historical roots in the creation of the nation and of the concepts of citizenship and belonging. Despite their very different histories, the modern state of Turkey is characterized by similarly problematic understandings of race and ‘whiteness’ (or here, ‘Turkishness’) as a means of assigning privilege and citizenship.

It is not strange at all that the same racialized sexual panic in the name of ‘protecting women’ that so often finds root in American feminist politics is also present here. Muslim/men of color, so the story goes, are raised wrong in such a way that it results in a backward sexuality that threatens the good, progressive sexuality of the community – with women as the first victims. 

In sitting with this argument, it’s difficult not to see the problems with it. White boys, secular men, political progressives without a hint of religiosity in them also abuse, rape, and kill. And those who don’t often find more insidious ways to assert their power. As a personal anecdote, a white, economically privileged man who I knew considered himself to be a genteel liberal shoved me into a wall and spat in my face when, in response to his bluntly stated offer of sex in his car, I laughed.

As Bianet writer Çiçek Tahaoglu wrote on who commits gender-based violence, “It can be a man with no employment or it can be a lawyer who kills his wife, so there's not a social pattern of this. This problem is bigger than that.” 

Now, with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the helm of a massive, post-coup-attempt restructuring of both political and social life, reports of violence against women have increased. In these times, violence committed by the State against women is made invisible, and the degree to which gender-based violence in society has increased or decreased is made intentionally hard to ascertain. Politically, parties and organizations across the spectrum often give lip service to ending such violence, while simultaneously relying on its ongoing existence as a political tool.

Both religious and secular parties alike campaign on the promise that they alone hold the key to setting women free, conveniently ignoring their own ongoing histories of silencing, whitewashing, and directly enabling physical, verbal, and economic violence against women (and plenty of others).

This is not to say that there is no difference between the values and ideologies of different parties, groups, or social organizations regarding women. In cases where gender-based abuse has been committed within a particular group or community, groups with leftist and/or progressive ideological leanings are generally more likely to take such acts seriously and as deserving of punishment. Yet the violence still happens, indicating a troubling difference between ideology and reality.

When a bizarre form of capitalist, neo-Ottoman authoritarianism is the political order of the day, it is easy to simplify the problem of violence against women by blaming it on those who fall outside of a narrow brand of secular citizenship – the poor, people of color, and religious conservatives, to name a few. But this type of willful blindness to the depth and scope of the problem, and to our own roles in it, is ultimately a self-defeating and xenophobic tactic that can yield no positive change.

The problem is not dark-skinned men watching a woman walk past, and the answer is not white men covering their eyes on a train. When we talk about raising ‘our boys’ differently, we cannot afford to only be talking about brown boys. To ally campaigns for women’s rights with racism is to accept the very logic that, at its ideological core, feminism seeks to destroy. It is to say that what we want is not a more livable world for all, but rather a small slice of the power for ourselves. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData