The False Promise of Turkish-Style Feminism – or, the Future will be Better Tomorrow

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

To mark International Women’s Day, President Erdoğan took to the stage to announce a new Turkish-style Feminism. The President began his speech by declaring that a Turkish woman should first and foremost be considered as a mother, and ended it by stating that women should deserve better than mere economic independence. In a satirical video mocking the statement, the comedian John Oliver has since quipped that “such an observation would even be inappropriate on Mother’s Day”. Nonetheless, the contents of the speech were circulated widely, leading to both praise and cynicism regarding the possibility of a Feminism Alla Turca.

Perhaps the most pervasive myth in contemporary Turkey is the desire for a Turkish-style politics. The fact that the Italian Alla Turca, itself derives from an orientalist re-appropriation of Turkish marching tunes in European classical music, is an irony that is all but lost among the Turkish political elite.

Of course to include women’s rights under the umbrella of Turkishness should in no way be considered a celebration of feminism. Rather, it can be seen as but the latest in a series of attempts to accost and marginalize any pluralist or emancipatory conception of Turkish society. The distinguishing feature of Erdoğan’s Turkish-Feminism is that it focuses exclusively on women’s role in relationship to the State-defined, and hence unreservedly masculine, constitutionally enshrined ‘privilege’ of Turkishness.

Turkish-style Feminism, as long as it is dictated from above can only ever be a perversion of emancipation, an empty signifier that serves only a an ideal devoid of any bearing on reality. But even though the desire for a Turkish-style Feminism is an illusory one, the declaration of such a politics is inherently the positing of a void. The desire to have a nationalistic interpretation of motherhood, let alone womanhood, here already betrays a fear of ‘not being oneself’. In other words, the desire for a nationalistic feminism is fuelled by fears of embracing a supposedly Western conceptualization of feminism.

In this way the rhetoric of a Turkish-style Feminism at its very core also entails a rebuke to the humanist, supposedly emancipatory moralist politics of the West. That is to say, the drive for a Turkish-style politics is both a reaction to the false internalized moral high-mindedness of the West, as much as it is completely and entirely unrelated to the overarching principle of feminism as a universal project. In the case of a nationalist counter-Feminism, the real is on the side of fantasy.

In other words, there can be no such thing as a Turkish-Style feminism. Just as much as there is no uniquely French-Style, or American-Style cultural feminism. The desire for such a project can indeed only ever be a contradictio in terminis.

It is tempting, therefore, to think of a Turkish-style Feminism as a negated negation. For is not the essence of a desire for a State-approved Feminism that of what exactly it is not? In other words, one begins to suspect that behind every call for a Turkish-style politics lurks a desire for a non-politics, i.e. a non-democratic system of representation. It is not surprising that as a result of this illusion the idea of a Turkish-style politics has been re-appropriated, dressed up, and wheeled out onto the political stage. Not merely as a hallmark of resurgent Turkish exceptionalism, but as the ideological wing of the constitutionally enshrined Turkishness.

Yet doesn’t this rekindling of a desire for a Turkish-style politics follow precisely the trajectory of any totalitarian project? As there exists no way to critique Turkishness as such, inevitably any failure of the Turkish-style politics can conversely only be attributed to its own shortcomings – which of course is out of necessity deemed impossible – and is therefore blamed on foreign meddling. A paradox ensues. The more the Turkish project fails, the stronger grow the convictions of its proponents that theirs is a project destined to persevere.

Like the totalitarian project, the lack of a concrete conceptualization of Turkishness, can only ever be the very reason that a Turkish-style politics requires affirmation in the first place. To illustrate this, one might think of a scene in the satirical cartoon-show ‘South Park. In a telling episode, the character Cartman, who can easily be identified as embodying the ‘id’ of the show’s foursome of friends, explains to an emaciated African refugee the concept of eating an appetizer. He points to the food laid out on the table and says ‘in America we eat this to make us more hungry’. The refugee, knowing only famine, reacts in horror at the prospect of experiencing yet more hunger. To relieve him of his anguish, Cartman consumes the appetizer himself, leaving the African without any food.

Is the negated desire on display here not similar to that which irks the Turkish state today? Fearing a loss of national identity, the Turkish Government seeks to repress any true emancipation of its people by feeding it the virtues of yet more empty nationalism. Like snake-venom used to counter a poisonous bite, the Turkish political elite seeks to prescribe another dose of nationalism to combat the failures of nationalist ideal in the first place.

At this point the vassals of the current government will no doubt clamour the much-toted truism that Turkey is in fact a parliamentary democracy, not a totalitarian regime. Yet not all democracies are created equal. In this sense, for those who argue that at least Turkey is embracing a form of Feminism, the question remains whether Turkishness is at all compatible with Feminism.

On the surface of things, there exists no good reason why there should not be a Turkish feminism, complimenting other ‘forms’ or ‘waves’ of feminism. Yet the President’s suggestion for a Turkish Feminism enshrined in the State’s ideology rests on the idea that there can be no feminism outside of Turkishness, which conversely means that there can be no universal feminism, or at least that Turks would not be a part of it. This neatly mirrors Turkey’s own desires to be simultaneously an isolationist regional power, as well as an international and globalized competitor. In fact, the promise to fulfil this paradoxical premise is the platform on which the AK party came to power in the first place.

In this way, the clamouring for such a deterministic politics reveals as much, if not more, in what it leaves unspoken; that perhaps even Turks no longer know what it means to be Turkish, let alone to be a feminist. This dilemma can only be solved if we can disconnect the idea of feminism from nationalism. If anything, perhaps the desire for a Turkish-style politics is the very thing that makes Turkey most like its European and American counterparts, where emancipatory and cultural politics have been elevated to the level of manifest destiny, effectively masking the state’s relative impotence to actually alter the economic or political status quo.

That the contemporary desire for a Turkish-style politics has no ideological underpinnings other than the tautological compulsion to promote more Turkishness (here the division between preserving and promoting falls apart, not unlike French attempts to both ‘spread’ and ‘preserve’ the French language) we find ourselves back at the faulty circular logic of the totalitarian project.

In other words, the reason there exists a desire for a Turkish-style feminism can only ever be due to the fact that there can be no Turkish-style Feminism! The more aggressively the State insists upon its own true feminism, as opposed to new and more radical conceptualizations of Turkish identities, the less likely it is that there can ever be such a thing. What this means for feminism in Turkey – as opposed to a Turkish feminism – is that one needs first to reject the idea of a feminism Alla Turca in order to stage a collective struggle for emancipation proper. Otherwise, the future will only ever be better tomorrow.

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