How can Foucault explain Turkish women’s struggle?

By Merve Kaynak

“Let your report sink, and women live.” This has been one of the mottos upheld by a group of women protesting the recent divorce commission report, which women’s groups such as Equality Watch Women’s Group (EŞİTİZ) and Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation are staunchly opposed to.

Turkish women’s struggle

Source: Diken

The controversial commission report has caused minor civil uprisings across the country as women mobilize and demonstrate to prevent the report from being passed in the general assembly.

From the beginning of its political reign in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demonstrated its intent to institute a ‘conservative democratic’ state system.

Upon the official party platform of the AKP, the former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that family, as an institution, and family-centred policies would be the building blocks of the government during their administration.

That is why women-centric policies are so rigidly shaped and policed by conservative and neoliberal models of government. The government produces policies and norms in Turkish society intended to protect the unity of families and strengthen families as an institution, seen as a governmental investment in the future.

In order to strengthen family institutions, the AKP government uses every imaginable means to produce norms acceptable to society, which are reinforced by producing discourses of validated knowledge by the government, disseminated throughout society using various mechanisms: the media, religious institutions, education, the list can go on.

In this regard, the analysis of bio-power that emerged with the French thinker Michel Foucault in the 20th century can help us to understand contemporary Turkey. In fact, it can help us to understand most modern societies if looked at through Foucault’s infamously complex yet equally and undeniably brilliant frames of understanding social reality.

The simple definition of bio-power is politics that deals with lives of human species. The Foucauldian understanding of social reality involves an analysis of discourses and the incorporation and role of discourses in the exercise of power, often with significant consequences.

What bio-power exercises over women is that it constitutes their subject (constructed identities), turning them in to an object (much easier to regulate and control) with discourses and scientific knowledge.

Foucault used ‘‘dispositif’’ (apparatus) as a methodology, which involves discursive practices (speaking on the basis of knowledge) and non-discursive practices (acting on the basis of knowledge). The relation of these two produces tactics and strategies for power to intervene in human life – often and some argue increasingly, women’s lives.

These ideas can be applied in the Turkish case – seen clearly in both the discourses of the government and the institutional regulations applied in society. In its discursive practices, the AKP government uses conservative rhetoric to produce norms which, unsurprisingly, dictate what is normal and what is abnormal in society. The discourses of the government are moulded into the framework the family institution, in order to pressure women and children into compliance with these norms.

Paternalistic policies such as the divorce commission are imposed upon women and children due to their supposedly vulnerable and inferior status in the eyes of the Turkish government. The AKP government regularly employs discourses of motherhood and family sacredness, sending a clear message about the AKP’s intended social reality.

There are numerous controversial statements in this regard: the former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statements that girls and boys should not stay in same house, the infamous “en az üç çocuk” policy of “at least three children” to name but a few. The former Parliamentary Speaker Bülent Arınç also caused outrage when he argued that laughing in public was inappropriate for women.

Most importantly, the Supreme Court of Judges and Prosecutor suggested in 2011 that “a woman who is raped should marry with her rapist to decrease the burden of the judiciary”. In a similar manner, the former Minister of Health Recep Akdağ asserted that the “state would take care of babies born out of rape.’’ When analyzing these discursive and non-discursive practices, we can see the biopolitical state, invading every sphere of women and children’s lives.

Using Foucault’s analytical tools, we can also see how women’s marriage to their rapist can be internalized as an appropriate policy, even the norm, through the support of such discourses.

All the discourses of the Turkish government can be seen as an apparatus, used to control and produce women, additionally using non-discursive practices, which include institutions, regulations, and laws. The Ministry of Family and Social Policies, abortion laws and the divorce commission report can all be seen as non-discursive practices that have controlling and regulating power over women and children.  The discourses compliment and validate such a reality, illustrating that women are seen as productive machines.

They encourage marriage by offering credit support and some advantages in order to impose a traditional and domesticated vision for the role of women in Turkey. Discourses representing caesarean-sections and contraception as treason indicate the objective of fostering population growth and constraining women to the home in purely reproductive role.

These developments reinforce the predictable trajectory the AKP government has been tracing in its increasingly conservative approach to women and children over the years. Women and children are now to live under the added threat of more regulatory policies affecting their lives following the release of the Parliamentary Commission Report on Divorce in Turkey.

Rights groups claim that the report is “tabooing divorce” and astonishingly, that the report suggests offering parole to rapists if they marry their victim. According to EŞİTİZ, “this report, with the recommendation that the children be married off to their rapists, communicates that we should ignore the crime as well as the criminal”, which will doubtlessly engender child marriages.

The government also intends to institute policies to prevent divorces through “reconciliation” methods for couples and offers counselling to married couple within a religious framework. This shows the main logic of bio-power, which refers to the biological status of the population, promoting marriages at early ages and making divorce difficult due to considerations of population growth, which implicates statistical values of economic growth and the size of the labour force.

Additionally, religious-conservative values and discourses are used by the government to produce “ideal women and children” in compliance with what they impose as the dominant narrative. They constitute one accepted and standardized identity over women and children with these apparatuses.

Efforts to strengthen families and to produce normative and ideal conceptions of women and children have resulted in numerous constraints on the lives women, relegating their role to the home while simultaneously constricting the lives of children who remain defenceless in the face of the state’s determination to reach its demographic goals.

Nevertheless, there is still hope as women’s groups engage in resistance techniques against these policies imposed on them, and they have the power to respond, using their mere existence to challenge the bio-political regulations of the AKP government. Women need to continue to eschew these policies attempting to govern and invade their personal lives, and will have to use new tactics to combat the biopolitical state in Turkey, and globally.

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