Feminism and the ‘Anti-Social Hera’

Source: Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

A couple of years ago a female student came to my office to discuss her term paper on women and international refugee law. Excited about the chosen topic, we started to discuss possible theories of International Relations that could frame the essay. ‘Let’s start with considering Feminism…’, I said enthusiastically. ‘If you do not object, Hocam (professor)’, she replied, ‘I prefer to choose any theory but Feminism’. ‘Oh?’ I responded eloquently. She hesitated, then continued: ‘I do not feel included by the way feminism is practiced most of the time. I believe in equality, but there are so many expectations to be a certain way—to take up a certain role. And, sometimes, because I wear this (she pointed to her veil), I don’t always feel embraced. I’m not saying that people discriminate or anything; they just don’t engage at all’.

Feminism can immobilise young women in Turkey. The pursuit of gender equality, despite its visible achievements, has fragmented feminist politics and activism. There is a great deal of controversy regarding the nature of who can, should and will speak for Turkey’s women’s movement. Critics argue that feminism in Turkey is overwhelmingly middle and upper class and has pushed working class women’s issues to the sidelines. When ‘looking for women’, one is more likely to find them among the ranks of urbanised women with public roles (a form of individualised feminism) as well as in ethnic groups where the experience of multiple and related oppressions assisted the development of feminism as part of the struggle against the patriarchy of the nation-state order.

An additional difficulty is that personal experience is not open to challenge by those who do not speak from within that experience. Thus, if you are not a veiled woman or a member of a particular ethnic group, you may not have the legitimacy to support or challenge her politics. This has contributed to different groups not engaging with each other, especially in politics. Furthermore, the institutional structures of Turkey have not created an environment where gender equality can flourish. Women’s involvement in politics and public administration is consistently very low, and public institutions are minimally concerned with what happens behind closed doors. Furthermore, feminism has been appropriated and portrayed by the ruling party as disconnected from Turkey’s culture and beliefs, implying that being ‘feminist’ (broadly defined) is being non-faithful or anti-state.

What does feminism require from those young women in Turkey that may feel excluded from its application, especially ‘intersectional’ young women that have many aspects to their identity (preferred personality traits, social expectations, geography, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and immigration status) rather than just one? Should they depoliticise feminism and be professional role models instead? Does feminism mean to resist and ‘make a difference’ on social media? To be a strong critic of imperialism and economic fundamentalism? Or to be humanitarian activists that alleviate women’s suffering—only what constitutes suffering and how to alleviate it is a matter of intense debate among Turkey’s women themselves? There is no general consensus on this. If feminism belongs to young women, then perhaps its rigid application, inspired by one or another strand of identity politics, is likely to be a burden. Whatever feminism asks from young women in Turkey, it asks for it in a cracked glass.

Nevertheless, younger women are in the encouraging position of being able to contribute to the articulation of new forms and agents of feminism in Turkey. This could slowly transform a fragmented movement into an enduring one that could bring about real improvement in women’s lives. There are a couple of ways in which this can be kick-started, although these are neither exhaustive nor a cure-all.

An effective way to avoid being excluded by an ideal that speaks the same language as us (perhaps even with the same accent), is to revisit the basics of the ideal and connect them dynamically with our own experiences and empathy. Feminism by nature advocates for the rights of the underprivileged gender, yet its first and foremost concern is with life itself. Its various strands embody ideals that all underprivileged people, female and male, wish to benefit from: civil, political and economic justice; equality and non-discrimination; professional development; creativity and intellectual freedom; and rewarding relationships between and among the sexes.

As such, feminism can be put into practice by empathising with its subject, namely with ‘other’ humans, and launching simple solidarity actions for them. By engaging all people in efforts to understand and relate to others of different backgrounds, interests, and convictions, we can begin to alleviate the divisions caused by how different identities are included or excluded. In ancient mythology, the goddess Hera was most closely associated with what we call today ‘female empowerment’ and was worshipped by both sexes. Like feminism, Hera belonged to the people. However, who will help the people understand the unconventional and anti-social Hera? The emasculated male, the Arab refugee, or the gay person who espouses religious beliefs? Without empathising with its own subject, namely the human and her/his complex needs, the practice of feminism may involuntarily be reduced to playing the role of a gate-keeping public prosecutor.


Furthermore, in the age of social media resistance, it is important that young people not just represent ideas, but also communicate them. Chitra Nagarajan rightly argued that Twitter feminism is a politics of representation; our attention needs to move towards a politics of communication and change. Speaking out online about gender issues such as sharing hashtags about Özgecan and personal experiences of gendered violence is an encouraging form of protest. However, Twitter debates do not mobilise people into action; issues are aired but not addressed. In fact, there has not been enough coherent, concerted feminist response to Özgecan’s death, or the biased remarks towards female MPs in Turkey’s Parliament, low numbers of women in politics after the recent elections, or the precarious position of female Syrian refugees in Turkey, to name but a few. Endless social media debates can lead to stagnation—the same discourse being repeated over and over— and to unresolved frustration. Instead, we can communicate through dialogue and be genuine. From communication we can derive knowledge, action planning, and the joy of recognising each other’s humanity. From social media debates, whatever we derive will be a reproduction.

Feminism, like any other critical theory, is anti-dogmatic by its nature. It obeys its own principles and is guided by its own rhythm. It has the potential to belong to all people, female and male. Ultimately, who are Turkey’s young feminists? Whoever they are, their essential purpose is to creatively connect their personal experiences to their consciousness and empathy, and challenge the injustices exercised by structures of power in a way that is personally appropriate. Their value will be determined by their ability to be interested in everything that takes place around them and by their willingness to look at everything from more than one perspective.

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