Organized Anti-Feminism in Turkey: A Quick Picture

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Anti-feminist discourse and hate speech against LGBTIQ individuals have always been among the common practices of the political Islamist and nationalist groups in Turkey. Nevertheless, the turning of these ad hoc attacks into an organized movement is relatively a recent phenomenon. This countermovement first galvanized in the awakening of the 2012 “My Body My Choice” campaign of the feminist groups together with several progressive women’s organisations, which successfully protested against the de jure criminalization attempts of abortion in Turkey.1The anti-feminists have intensified their activities for the last two years, when both the continuity of the AKP rule in Turkey and indeed the smooth functioning of the socio-economic order have been under severe strain. Since then, this organized movement has acquired a considerable lobbying power in and over the ruling party. This short article aims at portraying the key agents of the anti-feminist movement in Turkey, by roughly presenting their ideological gear and providing some preliminary hints about their class backgrounds. While doing so, the article benefits from the heuristic categorisation made by Janet Chafetz and Anthony Dworkin back in the late 1980s to analyse the organized nature of the anti-feminist movements in changing socio-economic contexts.2

According to Chafetz and Dworkin, an anti-feminist countermovement is generally composed of two types of groups. The first type of group is made up of the dominant power elites against which the feminist movements struggle. This group represents the vested interests of the leading political-cum-economic actors and of the religious establishment/clergy. The key anti-feminist strategy of this group displays a pragmatic character. This is mainly because the smooth functioning of the political system, which supports their interests, depends on the general public opinion and the public opinion is not always and necessarily for anti-feminist measures. This is even the case in countries like Turkey, where social conservatism is quite powerful.3

The second type of group is a nebulous one, composed of voluntary (lay) people from the civil society, usually sharing the same social class background with the individuals involved in the feminist movement. These groups typically try to “turn the clock back” or as in the case of Turkey, ask for the un-doing of the public policies that favour women’s rights. They are motivated by fear of personal or collective status loss, frustrated due to their lack of “human capital” and mostly tend to concentrate on single issues – because of a lack of class homogeneity among the two group types constituting the anti-feminist countermovement.4 This last point is significantly important for the case of Turkey, where organized anti-feminism involves considerable internal schisms. In short, the relations between the two groups that make up a countermovement cannot be taken for granted as they reflect and refract socio-economic and political realities, which constantly move and/or challenge that countermovement.

In Turkey, the resource-based and ideational transactions in between these two anti-feminist groups are both intense and fragile. They have a strong common denominator: their shared anti-genderist agendas, which associate every human rights-based objection against the binary gender regime and patriarchal heteronormativity in Turkey with Western capitalism and colonialism. This commonality, however, does not always help in getting over the underlying differences. The strife between the elite and lay-style anti-feminisms creates further complications for the political regime in Turkey, which constantly oscillates between these two diverging anti-feminist state projects and social constituencies.

The Vested-Interests Groups and the Gender Complementarity Narrative

Despite the introduction of the economic liberalisation policies from the early 1980s onward, the gender order in urban Turkey, which is broadly based on a male-dominated family composed of a male-breadwinner and a female housekeeper, has not been drastically changed. Nevertheless, in the meantime, the desire for a potential-self, constantly hindered by a patriarchal socio-political formation and gender-discriminatory market, grew expressively among young women.5 The deepening participation of the Turkish state into the global women’s human rights regime, thanks to the effective struggles of Turkey’s feminist movement during the era of AKP governments since 2002, has also mainstreamed the notions of gender equality and women’s empowerment in different stages of social and economic organisation – even if these have mostly stood at the level of paying lip-service. This feminist human rights activism has further contributed in the making of a new generation of women, who reject being subjugated in the private sphere while giving a significant struggle to transform the public sphere. Recent surveys do show that these women are adopting feminist ideals and in many cases these ideals are not solely confined to the secular publics of Turkey. The new generation of Muslim women are also very assertive in their rights and they are transgressing many of the limits historically posited by their own communities.

It would not be wrong to claim that this creates a gender panic among the Islamist elite of the ruling bloc in Turkey. This elite has already failed to secure a cultural hegemony over the secular sections of the society and is now very worried about losing its cultural and ideological supremacy over its own conservative social constituency. It desires to come to terms with the social transformation contributing in the making of a new self-confident generation of young women (and men) without compensating its own class and power interests. To this end, the wealthy elite of the new regime advocates a counter-gender narrative, slightly different from the anti-genderism and anti-feminism of the nebulous lay groups.6

According to these panicking groups, there are two issues that need full-fledged confrontation. One is the changing lifestyles of the young Muslim women and the other is their changing political/ideological orientation(s). In public debates led by the Islamist intellectuals closely affiliated with the ruling power, it is generally argued that the young Muslim women are distanced from piety and looking for personal safety in post-secular/post-Islamist habits. In other words, the changing lifestyle choices of many young women under the impact of rapid marketisation in Turkey has become a central concern for the more traditional Islamic thinkers – including certain prominent Muslim women columnists.7 The other and related concern about the changing political orientation(s) can be discerned in the following reproach aggressively voiced by an anti-feminist media icon : “Veiled women’s anger is now channelled towards men rather than towards the secularists”.8 On the whole, the pro-government Islamist elite is afraid of totally losing the ethical-political control of the growing gendered social contradictions.

In line with this gender panic, it is possible to see that many women’s organisations, which are directly linked with the rule of President Erdoğan, try to propose an alternative gender ideology while expressly distancing themselves from feminism. Organisations like KADEM and HAZAR – notwithstanding their small internal differences – try to represent this young generation of Muslim women and indeed their demands for a more egalitarian matrimonial relation. On the one hand, they want to foster the institution of family deemed by the AKP to be the cusp bed of the Islamic- Anatolian civilisation and openly criticize the feminist movement for “embracing individualism against our [sic] social values”.9 On the other hand, they still want to reform the institution of family and especially the men in the family. They, for instance, ask for a “more responsible fatherhood” and also criticize the ideal of flawless motherhood pumped in the mass media on the grounds that “rather than convincing, it deters many women from conceiving children”.10 To strengthen their cause, they try to advance the concept of gender complementarity, by historically referring to what they name as the “golden era of Islam”. Accordingly, the era of the Prophet Muhammad gives inspiration to their prospects for a harmonious matrimonial unity between a responsible and protective man and an empowered but still modest woman. From women’s empowerment, these organisations mostly understand advancing the entrepreneurial capacities of women – a position also reflecting their own (petit) bourgeois class backgrounds.

This updated conservatism does not protect these women’s organisations, however, from the attacks of the lay anti-feminist groups, who accuse them of being not so different from the “feminazis” of Turkey.11 On the other hand, the position of these women’s organisations vis-à-vis the lay groups is ambiguous. Although they are critical of their vulgar masculinist campaigns, they give significant concessions to them in heated political moments. Whenever, for example, the feminist struggle for gender equality hits the headlines in Turkey, these women’s organisations try to distance themselves as much as possible from it by accusing the feminists with being hostile to the “local and cultural values” of Turkey and on these occasions, they side with the lay groups. The elite groups also funnel tangible resources to lay groups, such as nepotistic access to public goods, when they want to achieve exact political gains, e.g. during election periods or periods of acute state crisis. This is especially the case in Turkey since the 15th July 2016 failed putsch attempt, which proved the dependency of the AKP elite to street-level male but also female vigilantism to stay in power.

Nebulous Groups and Anti-Genderism Under the Guise of Anti-Capitalism

The making of an organized countermovement in Turkey has been mostly possible by the mobilization of several small scale but also some virtual associations with the help of a few newspapers possessing clearly articulated political Islamist agendas. These newspapers have organic connections to different religious sects. Their political Islamism(s) have also been materially anchored in different social classes.12 In the case of the harbinger radical Islamist newspaper, namely the Yeni Akit, which has been continually active in spurring an anti-feminist mobilisation in Turkey, the socio-political links with an existing but also sometimes imaginary male sub-proletariat should be kept in mind.13 Akit and other similar media outlets regularly pump a nativist populist-masculinist discourse. They basically argue that the state in Turkey protects women by causing harm to the familial unity and supports foreign-funded women’s organisations and enrichened feminist lawyers while punishing and criminalizing the “poor men”.

The ostensible demands of these groups are formulated around the idea of “doing justice” to the men who allegedly suffer from the so-called Western promulgated legal measures, which supposedly privilege women – i.e. custody rights, rights to alimony payments and criminalization of under-age marriages. Nevertheless, the spokespersons of these groups are not entirely composed of men. Indeed, many women are also active in the representation of these groups, frequently organized in single-issue platforms such as The Platform of Divorced People and Family Initiative. These women claim that they feel themselves not being represented by the women’s organisations in Turkey, including the pro-governmental ones like KADEM. They argue that the non-existence of a “social state” in Turkey pushes them to promote the rights of the “male victims” of Turkey’s “unjust gender legal regime”.14 According to them, when, for example, a divorced man remarries, his new wife does also suffer from the injustices of Turkey’s legal alimony system, which “views this man as the main source of income for his ex-wife”.

These groups, including their female participants, accuse the state of being subservient to the gender project of “Brussels”, which they portray as a colonial power desiring to destroy the family-based social support system in Turkey. The feminists are accused of being compradors. However, this rhetoric is not the most powerful or the newest component of the anti-feminist mobilization in Turkey. Portraying feminism as a Western-specific ideology is an old masculinist trick in the Middle Eastern context. The novelty of the current anti-feminist wave lies in the specific combination of anti-genderism with a pseudo-humanitarian critique of global capitalism.

Some Islamist intellectuals in Turkey, who regularly navigate between the vested interest groups and the lay ones, argue that the “Brussels”, the “USA” and the transnational corporations try all together to dismantle the heterosexual family. For them, these actors “want to control the global surplus population which threatens the future of the capitalist system.”15 Accordingly, to include queer individuals into the scope of state protection in Turkey by way of expanding the concept of gender is a core component of this broader plan. This plan supposedly aims to reduce the global population by creating non-procreative families. One should add that besides its far-right populist effect, this anti-capitalist critique serves to mask the technophobic masculinist anxieties of the lay groups. These groups voice additional concerns about the assisted reproduction technologies, which might, according to them, give women soon the ability to procreate without any contribution from men.16

Anti-capitalism exclusively formulated as a moral critique of the market society has always been a component of the political Islamist ideology. The Islamist debates have typically focused on the commodification and marketisation processes from a moralistic point of view and deemed them as destructive for women’s dignity. What exactly makes the anti-capitalist tone of the recent anti-feminist mobilization at present functional is that with the growing impact of the economic crisis in Turkey, it has become a tool not only to mobilize lay people but also to build bridges between the two main groups of the organized anti-feminism. Linking the moralist critique of market society with anti-genderism and coming up with a pseudo-humanitarian critique of capitalism has relatively closed the ranks between those Islamic and/or Muslim intellectuals who go through a gender panic and those lay groups who actually desire a full blown “masculinist restoration”.17

Very recently lay groups have also broadened the remit of their attacks against the so-called “feminist state” in Turkey and started to strategize beyond single issue-based anti-feminist campaigns – such as the campaign against the alimony payments quickly mentioned above. They claim that the state in Turkey has been part of the Westernist gender regime since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Therefore, besides targeting for example the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, which Turkey ratified in 2012, they do also condemn the Turkish state’s endorsement of the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1984. To counter this, they advocate withdrawal from the existing Conventions.

However, this withdrawal option sounds very problematic to the elite groups and not easily feasible due to the potential loss of prestige from which President Erdoğan might suffer in the international field. Therefore, certain criminal and civil law attorneys, who do recently frequently attend the lay group meetings and gatherings, alternatively invite them to a war of position. According to this perspective, only a morally integral and self-reliant man – a man who acts after the role model of his “Turkish-Islamic” ancestors – can resist against the “feminist regime of surveillance and criminalization” promoted in the pro-women international conventions. Men are advised to wisely and skilfully use the existing legal gender equality regime – without necessarily abolishing it – to advance their own personal masculine interests. It is suggested that “the proletarian men” can win against “the feminist ideology, which impoverishes them by way of transferring their wealth to their non-submissive housewives”, only through canniness and moral determination.18

In Lieu of Conclusion

As already stated before, the links between the vested interest groups and the lay groups in Turkey are shaky and even conflictual. Knowing this, the lay groups put a lot of pressure on many figures of the AKP rank-and-file by threatening to withdraw their political support. In order to augment the effectiveness of their pressures, they try to agitate the unemployed young men by underlining the contradictions between the government’s programmatic insistence on augmenting the rate of marriages and the socio-economic realities that assumedly prevent people from marrying in Turkey. As the socio-economic conditions deteriorate and the resilience of the authoritarian regime becomes not so certain anymore, the dominant groups’ dependency on the lay groups augment. This situation paves the ground for the mainstreaming of anti-feminism in state discourse and policy.

However, the state formation and re-formation in Turkey is a very dynamic process. On the one hand, the ruling power accelerates the anti-feminist un-doing of the recently taken gender equality steps in Turkey. On the other hand, the counter struggle is not weak. The women’s movement in Turkey does not give up. The dazzling resistance of women in Turkey deserves yet another thorough discussion, one which cannot be consummated within the limits of this short article.

 

1 For a short discussion on the birth of anti-genderism in Turkey and its relation to the AKP’s neoliberal-neoconservative project, see also Alev Özkazanç, “The New Episode of Anti-Gender Politics in Turkey”, LSE Blogs in Anti-Gender, May 20, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/2019/05/20/new-episode-anti-gender-turkey.

2 Janet Chafetz and Anthony Dworkin, “In the Face of Threat: Organized Antifeminism in Comparative Perspective”, Gender & Society 1, no 2 (1987): 33-60.

3 Recent studies done by preeminent social research centres show that the public perception of gender equality among both women and men is on positive progress in Turkey. For instance, see, Gender and Women's Studies Research Centre, “The Perception of Gender Equality and Women’s Status in Turkey”, Kadir Has University, June 03, 2016, https://khas.edu.tr/tr/haberler/toplumsal-cinsiyet-ve-kadin-algisi-arastirmasi-2019-sonuclari-aciklandi.

4 Chafetz and Dworkin, “In the Face of Threat”, 37-38.

5 For a discussion on the violence of contradictions between the libertarian youth/women and the cracking paternalist/patriarchal gender contract in Turkey, see Yakın Ertürk, Sınır Tanımayan Şiddet: Paradigma, Politika ve Pratikteki Yönleriyle Kadına Şiddet Olgusu (İstanbul: Metis, 2015).

6 For a short elaboration on the counter-gender narrative of the AKP notables in comparison with other cases from Europe, see Selin Çağatay, “Varieties of anti-gender mobilizations. Is Turkey a case?”, LSE Blog on Anti-Genderism, January 29, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/2019/01/09/varieties-of-anti-gender-mobilizations-is-turkey-a-case/.

7 See, for example, Fatma Barbarosoğlu, “DİB hiç bilmediği hayatlara vidyo hazırlıyor, Instatürban kadınlar coşuyor”, Yeni Şafak, November 20, 2019, https://www.yenisafak.com/yazarlar/fatmabarbarosoglu/dib-hic-bilmedigi-hayatlara-vidyo-hazirliyor-instaturban-kadinlar-cosuyor-2053409.

8 Sema Maraşlı, “Kadem Söylemleriyle İslam Düşmanı Kadın Dernekleriyle Yarışıyor”, İslami Analiz, May 02, 2019, http://www.islamianaliz.com/h/71958/sema-maraslidan-sert-elestiri-kadem-soylemleriyle-islam-dusmani-kadin-dernekleriyle-yarisiyor.

9 See for example KADEM’s vice-chairperson and President Erdoğan’s daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan’s opening speech on International Women’s Day in 2019. Sümeyye Erdoğan, Açılış Konuşması, Kadem, March 09, 2019, https://kadem.org.tr/kadem-yonetim-kurulu-baskan-yardimcisi-sumeyye-erdogan-bayraktarin-iii-olagan-genel-kurulu-acilis-konusmasi.

10 See for example, “6. Toplumsal Cinsiyet Adaleti Kongresi Sonuç Bildirgesi”, KADEM, March 13, 2020, https://kadem.org.tr/6_tcak_sonuc_bildirisi_aciklandi/.

11 On this and similar hate speech practices, once can visit the websites of the Islamist newspapers such as Yeni Akit. Please see also the following section on lay anti-feminism.

12 On the material character of Islamism in Turkey, see Cihan Tuğal, “Islamism in Turkey: Beyond Instrument and Meaning”, Economy and Society 31, no:1, (2002): 85-111.

13 Although this radical Islamist newspaper argues to represent the underclasses who are assumedly hit hardest by the capitalist Western modernization in Turkey, this representation is dubious in many respects as the social groups including the male sub proletariat they argue to represent are not necessarily buying their anti-feminist motives.

14 For further information on the propaganda tools of these single-issue anti-feminist groups, one can check the social media accounts of the Platform of Divorced People and Family Initiative [in Turkish: Boşanmış İnsanlar ve Aile İnisiyatifi (BİA)]. As an example, see also Birsel @BirselLknur, “Süresiz Nafaka Ne Zaman Kalkacak”, Twitter, July 12, 2020, 07.14 am, https://twitter.com/BirselLknur/status/1271491083499945991.

15 Mücahit Gültekin, “2053’te Türkiye nasıl bir ülke olacak?”, May 12, 2018, İslami Analiz, http://www.islamianaliz.com/h/65186/mucahit-gultekinden-2053te-turkiye-nasil-bir-ulke-olacak-yazisi-bati-tarafindan-hacklenmek.

16 For more details on this specific anti-feminist discourse, one can also check the propaganda materials, press statements and related publications of the Family Council of Turkey [in Turkish: Türkiye Aile Meclisi], which are mostly available on the internet site of the İlke News Agency, https://ilkha.com/tag=t%C3%BCrkiye%20aile%20meclisi.

17 On the concept of “masculinist restoration”, see Deniz Kandiyoti, “Locating the politics of gender: Patriarchy, Neo-liberal Governance and Violence in Turkey”, Research and Policy on Turkey 1, no: 2 (2016): 103-118.

18 On these and other similar “model man” advices, see Lütfi Bergen, “Erkek (racul) Olmak: Feminizme Direnmek”, Lütfi Bergen’s Blogspot, March 10, 2020, https://www.lutfibergen.com/category/feminizm.