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Women for democracy in Turkey?

Melanie Pichler and Edma Ajanović interview five feminist academics from Academics for Peace on the political situation in Turkey and the role of women's groups in fighting for structural change

October 5, 2016
13 min read

21495904133_38457d5caa_oPhoto: Flickr/Esin. Commemoration/protest by feminist groups after the murder of Özgecan Arslan, aged 19.

Can you briefly describe the emergence and history of Academics for Peace?

Academics for Peace (Barış İçin Akademisyenler, BAK) developed out of a signature campaign initiated in 2012. In October of that year 10,000 Kurdish political prisoners, most of them politicians and NGO workers, started a hunger strike with three demands: (1) the right to defend themselves in Kurdish language in court, (2) the improvement of prison conditions for Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) who has been kept in solitary confinement since 1999, and (3) the beginning of a peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK. Over 200 academics in Turkey signed a petition supporting these demands. In 2013, when the Turkish state initiated the peace process with the PKK, the signatories accompanied the process with web information, meetings and petitions. In 2015, when the peace process collapsed and the government started a war against Kurds—killing hundreds, arresting thousands, destroying cities, and applying emergency rule and curfew in the whole Kurdish region—BAK mobilised again to launch a petition with over 2,000 signatories in January 2016.

The petition declared that academics will not be part of the crimes committed by the government and called for independent observers to evaluate the situation in Kurdish cities. The government’s response was fierce, blaming the signatories for treason. Many academics lost their jobs, came under administrative investigation, remained in custody and four of them were kept in prison for almost a month. At the moment, BAK primarily supports those who have suffered from these assaults.

Following Western media, Turkey is divided into a pro- and contra-Erdogan camp. Is there a third ‘camp’? Where would you position yourselves?

Reading Turkey’s politics in terms of a dichotomisation between pro- and contra-Erdoğan camps is related to the personalisation of politics and the fixation on one man as both the leader and the ‘villain.’ BAK stands outside such dichotomisations. This is not to say that each and every signatory to the Peace Declaration rejects this dichotomisation and/or avoids prioritising a contra-Erdoğan stance in her/his political stance. Rather, BAK stands as the very evidence of political options beyond those dichotomies. Asking unconditionally and proactively for peace and calling on the government to take responsibility for the construction of peace excludes any personalised, manly, force-based and power-seeking political options. It calls for a radically non-dichotomous political alternative that focuses on the elimination of structural violence. We believe the path taken by BAK so far resonates with such a priority.

From a feminist perspective, how would you evaluate the ongoing power struggle between Erdoğan and Gülen?

The hegemonic mode of politics is currently characterised by arm wrestling between two male actors, Erdoğan and Gülen, over power and influence. An extended conflict is taking place between their proponents, which feed on populism, sexist and racist stereotyping and polarisation. We rarely witness any vivid political debate on content and method with respect to the solution of socio-political problems. Instead, we witness a patriarchal revanchism, which destroys both sides. An illustrative example of this can be observed in the circulation in the media of the pictures of a general after his arrest in combination with the failed coup. On his face and arms were bruises, which suggested that he had been tortured in custody. Rather than a pursuit of truth and justice, politics has become a conspiracy where the hostile camps second-guess when their opponent will strike back and take extraordinary measures in the meantime to be well prepared for the next round. This is a mode of anti-politics; nothing original and inspiring can ever come out of it.

Furthermore, limiting the analysis on the clash between two authoritarian personalities risks by-passing the broader structural changes in Turkey’s politics as well as the power circles that benefit from the power struggle. A feminist look at the power struggle calls attention to the male tunes it embodies as well as the way it reproduces the patriarchal order of things. Both the AKP and the Gülen community as well as the business circles supporting them, act in and through different versions of the patriarchal and capitalist mode of politico-cultural relations. Thus, the power struggle between the two groups can be read as an example of intra-patriarchal conflict between two visions of Islamist ‘malestream’ politics.

What are the consequences of this power struggle for Academics for Peace? How can we interpret mass suspensions and dismissals at the universities in this context?

As for the power struggle between the Gülen supporters and the AKP, it is important to recall their historically close relationship that only recently turned into a rivalry. To illustrate this, we can work through an example of suspension at the university: the Rector of the Dicle University in Diyarbakır, Professor Ayşegül Jale Saraç, is currently under arrest within the scope of the ‘investigation against the coup d’état.’ In 2008, she was appointed rector by then President Abdullah Gül (AKP), although she was only ranked 3rd in the polls among university professors. The appointment is especially interesting as Professor Saraç was among the AKP’s MP candidates from Diyarbakır in the 2007 general elections. Professor Saraç veiled after assuming the post of rectorate and thus became the first veiled woman rector in Turkey. The timing of her veiling was found suspicious by the mass media and she was accused of using it as a ‘shield’ to avoid being caught in the AKP’s ‘cleansing operation’ in public service that was one part of the power struggle between the government and the Gülen movement. However, at a time when the ratio of women who fill in the rectorate offices in Turkey’s universities does not even make 10%, it is concerning that the power struggles for male stakes are still carried out along women’s bodies—and in this specific case, through women’s agencies over veiling.

As for the consequences for Academics for Peace, BAK signatories have been subject to oppression immediately after the Peace Declaration, way before this power struggle. These measures have ranged from suspension or dismissal from office, mobbing, as well as disciplinary and judicial investigations. However, there is the risk that the investigation against the coup d’état might be turned into a ‘legitimate’ reason for a further witch-hunt against all opposing groups. For example, 21 academics from Anadolu University (Eskişehir), among them signatories to the Peace Declaration, were suspended from office in early August. This was followed by the suspension of 3 signatory academics from Gazi University (Ankara) some days later. The suspension of the 21 academics was the result of the investigation that had been started 6 months ago due to their signing of the Peace Declaration. The timing of the implementation, however, can be read as a projection of the risk noted above.

It is clear that the figures responsible for the attempted coup d’état should be judged in a fair trial. The labelling of all opposition groups as ‘terrorists,’ however, is a strategy the government has been using for some time. It is our responsibility to struggle against the risk of the melting of the BAK and all opposition groups in the same terrorist pot with the members of the Gülen community.

21495889053_4d1153774d_oPhoto: Flickr/Esin.

What are the consequences of the attempted coup and the post-coup measures (e.g. state of emergency) for the feminist/women’s movement?

As for the immediate consequences, there are no arrests and no legal measures that would target women’s/feminist movements in particular.

According to recent research by the well-known research company Konda, 48% of the people who took to the streets to resist the coup and participate in the so-called Democracy Guards were women. This shows that a considerable number of women support the government and that the Democracy Guards have opened up a public space for women. This public space, however, seems to be highly militarized and nationalized. So, while women became visible in public space and politicians emphasised their significant role in the resistance against the coup, we have also witnessed occasions where women with mini skirts were targeted by strollers in cars. Thus, the coup and post-coup order of things work through the privileging of some women (and women’s groups) and the discrimination of other women (and women’s groups) which has divisive effects for the women’s movement.

Another example of the ambivalent reactions of the government to women’s anti-coup engagement is the story of women’s cortege in İstanbul in early August. When a group of women stood behind a banner reading ‘The only solution against coups is peace; women do not want war’ and chanted slogans that connected the attempted coup to the military operations in the Kurdish regions since summer 2015, the police told them to disperse. They claimed to have received complaints by ‘citizens’ about the women and their slogans.

Thus, although it is too soon to evaluate the effects of the post-coup measures on women and the feminist movement, it is safe to argue that it will be increasingly difficult for feminists to struggle against a government that has been extremely successful in translating the anti-coup sentiment into popular support for its policies. This can be observed in the passing of a new law that embraces castration for rapists and child molesters in the midst of the post-coup measures—as the number one topic on the agenda of the government. Feminists have objected the law, which categorises molestation and rape as sicknesses that should be treated medically. Rather, we see them as crimes to be punished. However, our voice is not heard in an atmosphere where such issues are depoliticised. This depoliticisation of rape and child molesting fits into a general tendency of ‘maleist’ governing to make the gendered suffering of women in the war against Kurds invisible. Not only their suffering but also the gendered suffering of those who died and lost their lives in anti-coup insurgency is made invisible where nationalism, collectivity, one nation-one language-one people ideology reigns.

These developments show a serious problem that seems to evolve out of the post-coup measures: finding a language and space to develop an anti-coup politics that does not further strengthen the already authoritarian politics.

The EU has expressed concern over the post-coup measures taken by the government. Meanwhile, Erdogan puts the EU increasingly under pressure by threatening to annul the ‘refugee deal.’ How would you evaluate these developments?

‘An increasingly Islamic and authoritarian Turkey is a Turkey at odds with traditional European values.’ This is perhaps one of the most commonly used formulations on the relationship between the EU and post-coup Turkey. One needs to go beyond this language of European values and traditions in order to understand the dynamics of that relationship. We have signed a declaration that openly criticised the Turkish state for committing atrocities against Kurdish civilians in 2015, which at that time had been going on for months. It was only in May 2016, however, that the United Nations expressed concerns over alarming reports of human rights violations in South-East Turkey. Although BAK has received considerable international support including statements by the EU, the refugee deal became a protective shield for Erdoğan’s assaults on us, academics, and other opposition groups. The undemocratic, authoritarian and arbitrary rule of neoliberal conservative governments in the developing world is tolerated by those claiming democratic values because they help containing and controlling the masses who are displaced, dispossessed and discontented.

From your perspective, how do the attempted coup and the post-coup measures impact the chances for durable peace in the country?

From our feminist perspective, durable peace means structural peace, implying a condition of substantial equality that requires an end to exploitation and oppression that runs through class, ethnicity, and gender lines. Thus, chances for durable peace involve the political will, attempts, organisations, actions, and policies that aim towards such a condition. Coup d’états have been familiar incidents in Turkey’s political history. As barriers to democracy—under equal-cum-free conditions—they are instances of violent acts that further hamper attempts to eliminate structural violence. Thus, they do not only repress calls for peace in its widest sense but their sine-qua-non is the loss of hope for peace. The fact that the attempted coup ‘failed’ is an important asset. However, the measures taken by the government after the attempted coup have so far not (re)presented a willingness, a program for and/or initial steps towards peace as a priority. So, both the attempted coup and the measures adopted in its aftermath mark a rather violent turn in Turkey’s contemporary political history.

Which possible exits do you see from this current mode of politics? Which alliances do you see/are possible for progressive politics?

If we are looking for originality and inspiration, we can find them in Kurdish women who recently started out a small textile atelier in Cizîr after their homes and cities were completely destroyed. We find originality and inspiration in feminist women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup, declared that the risk of a coup can never be entirely eliminated until the war is and that male violence stays male violence no matter which forms it may take (war, coup, state of emergency, etc.). In fact, Women’s Initiative for Peace (Barış İçin Kadın Girişimi), or Women for Peace (Barış İçin Kadınlar) as they are frequently called, has so far delivered valuable input in terms of labor and resources as well as vocabulary and discourse. Not least, we find it in our friends of Academics for Peace who, despite systematic intimidation and persecution, insist on a durable solution to the armed conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK—to give just a few examples. The primary task for progressive groups is to build durable alliances to promote common short- and long-term goals, mainstream these into the public discourse and challenge political elites’ predominance over the political agenda. Peace, redistribution, gender equality and ecology are among the burning issues which people cannot afford postponing until the arm wrestling is finalized.

This interview is the outcome of a collective feminist process. The five feminist academics, Görkem Akgöz, Çağla Karabağ Sarı, Ayşe Dursun, Nazan Üstündağ and Simten Coşar, share their signatures on the Peace Declaration of January 11, 2106, although they do not represent Academics for Peace (Barış İçin Akademisyenler, BAK). The authors are no uniform group but share a common denominator: privileging the connection between equality, justice and peace.

A German language version of this interview is available at http://mosaik-blog.at/demokratie-feminismus-frieden-tuerkei


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