International Women’s Day and the hidden moments of everyday struggle

By Fulden Ergen and Audrey Williams

Despite government bans and the likelihood of police violence, International Women’s Day will see thousands of women and LGBTI activists take to the streets in a powerful demonstration of solidarity and anger against the struggles they continue to face every day.

Preperations get underway for the International Women’s Day march in Ankara 2017 Source: Tuba Engel / Independent Turkey

I.

In a very cute, touristic little town by the sea, there is a square filled with cafes where men hang out exclusively. As tourists walk through the square joyfully, the wives of these men cannot even step foot in these cafes and ask for help from the owners to call their husbands.

On one of their daily trips to the town, my mother, aunt, uncle, and his wife noticed this dynamic with anger and decided to hang out in that square regularly. When they would go there on the weekends, they would grab some food from the bakery, sit at one of the tables, and spend their day in laughter. The women of the quarter felt safe, because they had a man with them.

Some time passed; my uncle died, but my women did not give up going to the square. They felt powerful and would joke with the local women, saying “we will kick men out soon and let you into the square”.

One day, when I am visiting my mom, we decide to take a trip to the town. We happily spend all day there, until a drunk young man comes around, shouting and cursing in our direction. He tears down a large umbrella meant to cover the customers from the sun, throws it towards our table, and kicks the waiter. I begin to feel panicked and beg my mom to let us leave immediately. She refuses for a while, but the young man becomes more aggressive, and we finally leave the square.

We rush to the police, but with a chuckle they say he is just a young drunk guy that everyone around town knows. At this, my mom loses herself, crying and shouting, “You are doing this to us because we are all women!” Later we go and have some tea; my mother says she is sad because she lost the battle.  

II.

Another day at work, a colleague comes by and tells she wants to ask me something. I go out to the balcony, we light a cigarette, and she tells me a transexual friend of hers is in need of help. I ask what she needs exactly; she says she wants to talk to someone from one of the LGBTI NGOs. I give her some names and phone numbers, a couple of humble pieces of advice and talk with her friend on the phone.

After I hang up, my coworker looks right into my eyes; I can see that she is thankful. I ask how she knows this person. She answers that she just met her through another friend and does not actually know much about her. She puts out her cigarette, thanks me, and excitedly takes out her phone to call and let her sister know about the new connections she has made for her friend.

III.

One weekend, I go to a party at a club, order a drink, and start dancing with my friends. I notice a circle of women nearby; a couple of men are right behind, constantly disturbing them. They push each other as a “joke” in order to get near to the circle of women; they dance back and forth, trying to open up conversation with them.

The women give them bad looks to discourage them, turn their backs to them, and continue dancing, trying hard not to let the unwanted advances ruin the night. I get angry watching this scene play out when suddenly I make eye contact with one of the women. I smile at her to show I am aware of what is going on; she smiles bitterly back.

My friends and I decide to help in our own way and slowly approach the circle to join. We become a bigger group, dancing close to each other to keep the circle safe from the disturbers. We don’t even feel the need to say a word to each other. When the disturbers finally go away, we say goodbye and continue dancing as separate groups.

These little stories from my life sometimes vanish from my memory in the everyday rush of life; the absence of the feeling of hope in face of these daily struggles for women makes everything harder. But whenever March 8 International Women’s Day (IWD)  approaches, I begin to feel excited. This year, as March 8 has drawn closer, I started going through the photos and videos of the 2016 march organized to commemorate this day.

As in previous years, the 2016 march to be held on March 6 was cancelled due to security concerns. However, suspicious of this excuse, women marched anyway, and faced the violence of police. The event was organized on March 6 because it was a Sunday and thus expected to attract more women. However, the march was quickly rescheduled for the evening of March 8. It turned out to be likely the most crowded gathering I have seen in recent years not only in Istanbul but also in all the other cities where the night marches were held. During the march, I read all of the signs and took in the faces of the women marching with me. I recall thinking that  March 8, 2016 was like a deep breath and a welcome relief from all the mess of everyday patriarchy and politics in Turkey; the solidarity I experienced that night made me smile all day long. During these times, with the ongoing state of emergency, these events are a means to make the voices of women across the country women who are so often deprived of the chance to share their stories heard. After going through difficult times due to increasing oppression against women and LGBTI, as well as an overall demoralizing political situation in Turkey, I realize how important and political it is to feel hopeful towards future.

A year later, and not much has changed regarding the International Women’s Day marches. It is cancelled in the major cities once again. But there is little doubt March 8 will again witness a great crowd of women and LGBTI activists to remind everyone that solidarity is as strong as, and perhaps stronger than, the causes that create and reproduce patriarchy, heterosexism, and oppression. Beyond these marches lies the struggle in the everyday lives of women in different ways and places a struggle that is often neglected by or simply not known by many. To remember, share, and make our stories known is vital for all of us who fight for a better future.

Happy International Women’s Day!

March On, Sisters: A Brief Contextualization of IWD in Turkey

International Women’s Day has for years now become a rallying cry for equal rights across the whole country. But when we think of the history of women’s rights in Turkey, it is easy to first think of the modernizing reforms undertaken by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who, alongside his compatriots sought to carve out space for greater rights for women within a particular political understanding, including through the abolishment of polygamy and the granting of women’s suffrage. But as Sirin Tekeli, founder of the Association for the Support and Training of Women Candidates (KADER), writes, the reforms of the early Republic were built upon foundations laid by nearly half a century of women’s activism throughout the latter decades of the Ottoman Empire. What’s more, the oppressive nature of the single-party regime in pre-1950 Turkey first under Atatürk and then under his successor, Ismet Inönü stifled what had once been a vibrant environment for women’s activism. As part of a larger crackdown on civil society, women’s groups like the Turkish Women’s Union were forced to close under the rational that, with the legal recognition of ‘full equal status with men’ under the new Republic, a women’s rights movement was unnecessary and troublesome.

Since then, women’s movement’s like any movement in civil society have flourished and withered based on the government in power. The march towards greater women’s rights in Turkey has been a marathon, not a sprint, and there have been plenty of starts and stops along the way.

The environment for women’s rights under the current AKP government is similarly complex. Today, millions of women who wear the headscarf have been granted the agency they were previously denied, no more so than after the 1980 coup, when the staunchly secularist military junta banned women from wearing headscarves in universities and public professions. Since the late 2000s, the current AKP government has made incremental progress against this headscarf ban. And last month, women in the military were finally granted the right to wear headscarves if they so choose though not without controversy.

Yet other essential women’s rights are being threatened in today’s Turkey. While abortions are not explicitly banned, state-run hospitals are increasingly refusing to perform them in non-emergency situations, or even at all. Rhetoric from AKP politicians has included statements that women should not laugh in public, and hammering home the idea that motherhood is the most celebrated role for women. President Erdoğan has even said that the lives of women who do not have children are “incomplete.”

But patriarchy in Turkey, like anywhere else, is pervasive. It is not the domain of one political party or segment of society. And, as is well known by women around the world, legal guarantees of women’s rights such as access to abortion or criminalization of harassment and sexual assault do not automatically translate into societal acceptance and across-the-board implementation.

This is why women in Turkey will take to the streets this year, as they do every year. But if the past is anything to go by, potentially ugly scenes await them. Last year, the IWD rally planned for March 6 in Istanbul was banned by the city’s governor; women showed up anyway and were attacked by the police with tear-gas and rubber bullets. This year, similar bans are in place, and already, students at Ankara University who set up a stand to commemorate IWD on their campus have been detained by police.

Just as they have before, the country’s women’s movements are experiencing difficult times. While some gains have been made and the opening up of opportunities for women who choose to wear the headscarf women is a considerable one in a majority-Muslim country many others are being challenged or lost. These challenges are intersectional, and so are the women who rise up against them. While the Western media often focuses on polarization in Turkey, setting up false dichotomies like “secular vs. practising Muslim,” the truth is that women across different segments of society have a long history of coming together to support each other, both in their day to day lives, and on marches and protests. They will do so again today.

The message is clear: against stereotypes and the patriarchy, women in Turkey march on.

Editor’s note: This article has attempted to take a deeply personal narrative as the basis for a wider exploration of the importance of International Women’s Day in Turkey and beyond. As such, whilst it is a joint contribution, we wish to highlight the importance of the individual experience expressed above.      

Leave a Reply