A Feminist’s Fieldwork Notes on Women’s Solidarity and Differences in Turkey

A Feminist’s Fieldwork Notes on Women’s Solidarity and Differences in Turkey

Pelin Dincer

Women’s Movement in Turkey: Fragmented and Differentiated

After the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, many political, social, economic and cultural policy changes took place to establish a secular and modern nation-state that set westernisation and modernisation as primary goals. It was later called Kemalism, named after the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The century old women’s movement in Turkey, which could be traced back to the Ottoman era in the late nineteenth-century, was mainly under the influence of this Kemalist modernisation process from the 1920s until the 1980s, when feminism came to the fore. In the 1990s, however, a new phase in the women’s movement emerged with the rise of religious and Kurdish women’s movements, both of which have challenged Kemalism and feminism. Despite this fragmented environment, women’s solidarity as a concept is widely used by all groups of activists in Turkey: in their associations’ names, in meetings, in protests, in booklets, brochures and so on. Most of them see it as a goal to achieve, an ideal that is important in the women’s movement, but what does women’s solidarity mean? Is it more achievable with women who share the same ideologies, beliefs and identities or is it possible to act in solidarity with women who are very different in some way? Do women articulate common goals to achieve this or is merely sharing the same self- identified sex enough, given women’s subordination in general? It is widely accepted within feminism that ‘woman’ is not a unitary category. However, the question is can it still be a unifying category?

Women’s solidarity and working across differences: two concepts that are central to my research. I work on the fragmentations within the contemporary women’s movement in Turkey and try to understand how solidarity can be established among women across their differences. Therefore, seeing millions of women marching together on January 21, 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, in support of women’s rights and protesting against his misogynistic, racist and discriminative campaign strategies and policies was very inspiring. On the other hand, reading critiques from, and paying attention to women of colour and trans people on how white-centred and gender essentialist these marches were, is crucial. We are different. What is more important, however, is how we approach these differences: as barriers to women’s solidarity or sources of solidarity instead?

In order to answer these questions and explore the differences and similarities among varied ideological and political positions among women in Turkey, I conducted interviews with women activists and academics with very different backgrounds.

Long live women’s solidarity!

I have heard this phrase several times during my fieldwork, each time this confirms how idealised and romanticised the concept of solidarity is. “Solidarity is a magic thing, I think, something to keep in cotton wool”, one interviewee said.

We discussed solidarity both as a concept and its practical possibilities after we had discussed fragmentations within the women’s movement in Turkey. Although they were mostly critical about each other’s ideological position, when it came to talking about solidarity, almost everyone from all different backgrounds, was completely positive. The word I heard more than others, when attempting to define solidarity, was power. Most interviewees think that if women ever successfully achieved such solidarity, then it would bring power to the movement as well as making women feel more powerful on a personal level and in their struggles in everyday life. Solidarity as a concept and what it means, however, is not well defined by activists in the women’s movement. It is a widely used term, sometimes excessively used, but when it comes to what it means to these activists it was not an easy question for them to answer, even for some whose associations’ motto is women’s solidarity: “What we call solidarity is accepting someone as however she is? I don’t know”, one said hesitantly.

One of the reasons behind the difficulty of defining solidarity is trying to do this in a theoretical context. This is because what is more important for these activists is how they feel when they are in action — it is therefore more about the practice. Hence, it was much easier to think about this concept when reflecting on ‘doing’ solidarity with others, rather than finding a definition for it in the abstract. When they thought about their experiences, solidarity was about them seeing the shared oppression and the links between different oppressions, sharing the same goals and hopes to abolish inequalities, having other women around when they and others were suffering, recognising a common voice and a collectivity. When I asked to my participants what solidarity entailed, most of them defined ‘being a woman’ as the basis of solidarity. In that sense, an embodied view of ‘woman’ as a unifying category was seen as very important. (Which in its self raises issues of a binary classification of sex and gender, though that is not my focus here.)

However, the problem with solidarity starts if we understand it as always meaning necessarily full and unequivocal support for another’s position, where critique is not permitted. As one of my participant nicely puts it: “solidarity can become the other party’s such demand: To approve and stand by her, whatever she does. [It turns to be] criticism-free and turns into affirmation but whereas solidarity is a trust relationship that makes conflict possible.” Her answer is especially relevant here, as criticism of another’s stance, for example, could be construed as an anti-solidarity act, whereas it could be argued that solidarity should entail being able to expressing one’s hesitations and criticisms. Only this can establish an open dialogue among women, which also brings with it the need for debates to try and understand each other’s differences.

Can we be together despite our differences?
“Being together despite our differences” is a motto which is embraced mainly by feminists, but is also used by different groups of women in their meetings, rallies, protests and journals/magazines to emphasise the importance of women’s solidarity in Turkey. During the interviews, however, I realised that some feminists find the motto very problematic. One woman offered this critique: “if we are together despite our differences, it’s not togetherness. So it is not a good thing”. The main criticism here was the negative connotation that the word “despite” has, which puts emphasis on differences rather than commonalities.

For some other activists the motto is associated with an unrealistic approach and, as well, sounds like a cliché, which is not achievable in practice. Further, even if it can be achieved it lasts only for a short period of time, given its inherent superficiality. The solution, I argue, is naming what kind of differences we are talking about. Being together across/with differences, is the term I prefer using, since it is more inclusive and positive, and thus necessitates discussing these differences fully and openly in the first place.

Another problem related to this motto was highlighted by those participants who could be defined as religious activists. Some thought that the motto creates a delusional idea of homogeneity within groups, making assumptions that there are no differences within the groups and therefore only one person can represent a particular group as such. Further, such a position incarcerates an individual within a specific category. One interviewee, a very well-known religious feminist, illustrated these views by saying: “Well it was once meetings’ sine qua non. It was making people sick. Why? Because you are here just for your difference. One said lately in a meeting, ‘one from homo category, one from veiled category, one from Alevi quota’. True. As if we have no commonality with other people and we are just about our differences. It is a psychological mantra.”

The political polarisation in Turkey has a great impact on activists’ approaches to diversity and their perceptions of each other. My fieldwork has revealed, however, that communication and interaction among activists are amongst the most important factors to both critique the notion of an unproblematised conception of solidarity, and attain it in the everyday. Encounters among women, whether formal or informal sorts of meetings, help them to see their commonalities, avoid structured stereotypes of each other based on poor knowledge, understand and respect their differences and see them rather as sources of solidarity by supporting each other.

Pelin Dincer is a PhD student in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. She has a BSc and Master degree in Politics from Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey, where she works as a research assistant. Her work focuses on the contemporary women’s movement in Turkey and the potential for working across differences.

Image Credit: Frank Gunn/AP