Gender justice the “Turkish” way: anti-gender politics in the land of AKP

Interview with Alev Özkazanç, visiting Scholar at the University of Oxford with the research project on anti-gender movements and gender violence in Europe and Turkey

How would you define anti-gender politics in Turkey?

Firstly, I must say that the term “anti-gender” and “gender ideology” did not exist in the vocabulary of Turkish gender politics until very recently. Many feminists have been and still are unaware of the usage because there has not been any mass mobilisation against the “gender ideology” as we have seen in other countries. It is only recently that some journalists and Islamist intellectuals have started to use the term “gender ideology” and condemn the term “gender” per se.

But what we can term as “anti-gender politics” goes back to 2011 when the Islamic-nationalist authoritarian ruling party, AKP, started to bypass gender equality laws and go for pro-natalist policies promoting motherhood. The government wanted to change the terminology by introducing the term “gender justice” instead of gender equality. By “gender justice”, they mean that the gender roles are God-given and naturally complementary.

Since 2011, the policy of the government has been to promote the mothering role of women together with weak support for part-time employment for women. It has been openly anti-feminist declaring that feminism was something alien to Islamic civilisation and reflected the Western culture and its decadence. It was also said to lead to the confrontation between the two sexes which need to remain complementary.

Yet, we see that in the high government circles, the global terminology of women’s movement and UN terminology such as “promoting women’s rights”, fight against “violence against women”, promoting the “female labour participation” etc. prevails.

While the official policy of the government is still trying to stick to the gender equality agenda, even to a very limited extent, lower echelons of the party, the more radical Islamist people, and some pro-government media “intellectuals” have recently displayed apparent signs of distaste for any remaining trace of the global gender equality agenda. They attack the term “gender equality” more firmly and are misogynistic in their attitudes. They demand some gender equality laws to be amended or repealed. They particularly aim to repeal the Istanbul Convention which they see as the Trojan horse (under the guise of fighting against violence) which aims to introduce tolerance for “gay perversity”. They target the law no.6284 to protect women from domestic violence saying that it unjustly favours women. Furthermore, there is an emerging men’s rights movement organised around the claims of “unjust” laws covering alimony payments, child custody and violence against women.

In short, there are four main strands of anti-gender politics in today’s Turkey. One is the conservative-Islamist government policy favouring and promoting traditional family values and gender roles and motherhood. The second is the more radical views (still pro-government) opposing the government and asking for more severe anti-gender politics. The third is the emerging men’s movement organised on social media and supported by pro-government people. The recourse to Islamic values is very crucial in anti-gender politics and the role of the Council of Religious Affairs is very effective to spread the word. Lastly, there is the growing verbal or sometimes psychical attacks and misogynistic intimidations on women, feminist women, young people or LGBT on social media and on the street level by ordinary men.

What are the most common arguments used against feminism/gender equality in Turkey?

The common arguments against feminism and gender equality are that they are alien concepts to Turkish and Islamic culture, that they aim to destroy the family and promote perversity. Anti-western attitudes are very important in anti-gender narratives in Turkey. Paradoxically, we see that anti-gender narratives are the same and that the local Turkish anti-gender activists are reading, learning and even imitating the European anti-gender narratives. For example, there was until now no opposition to the Istanbul Convention (signed in 2012) in Turkey. When some pro-government journalists found out that some Eastern European countries were protesting against it, they also started to campaign against the Convention which has now become an important debate.

Who are the main actors of this anti-gender backlash?

The actors are diverse but in close connection to the government which tries to control everything in an authoritarian manner. Government figures, mostly president Erdogan, KADEM (the government-organised women’s rights NGO founded by Erdogan’s daughter and supporting “gender justice”), various pro-government journalists of Islamic belief, some NGOs for the protection of family and morality, the Council of Religious Affairs, men on social media supporting “men’s rights” claims etc.

At the national level, all the actors of anti-gender politics seem to be closely coordinated but they do not seem to have international ties. Yet, some anti-gender intellectuals seem to discover and learn from their European counterparts. In fact, the very term “gender ideology” is borrowed from Western anti-gender politics.

What would you say is the main difference between anti-feminism and anti-genderism in Turkey?

The difference is important because anti-genderism targets many different actors other than feminists. It targets the UN, the EU, Soros, multinational corporations etc. for imposing “gender ideology”. Moreover, anti-gender movements do not only attack feminists but also LGBT movements.

It goes beyond the classical anti-feminism in that it somehow incorporates or appropriates some of the women’s right and human rights concepts to undermine LGBT rights and women’s rights.

Would you agree with the assertion that the anti-gender narratives and movements are getting stronger?

Yes, they are certainly getting stronger. Yet, it is complicated to assess the potency and efficacy of the anti-gender attitudes in Turkey. On the one hand yes, they are getting more powerful or vocal. On the other hand, all these patriarchal attempts to “save the family” and the “nation” unintentionally proves that the patriarchal structures are losing ground and secularisation is growing together with the rising aspirations of women and LGBT people. In Turkey, there is a very strong women’s movement and a vivid LGBT movement. The deepening forces of secularisation have been effective on the conservative sections as well, especially on their young people and middle-class women. Thus, the conservative’s reaction to rising expectations and demand of women can be seen as a symptom of them losing power.

What do you think would be effective strategies to counter the anti-gender/anti-feminist arguments?

The effective strategies should be evaluated within this frame of the crisis of patriarchy. The impact and destructive powers of the crisis should not be underestimated. Feminist should be as strategically minded as possible so as to bring different sections of women together.

I believe that the women’s movement should act together with the LGBT movement. At least, show solidarity. The most important strategy is to stand together in the most inclusive coalition. This radical democratic coalition of forces should include all the pressing problems of equality, justice and freedom. The fight for gender equality should be a strong part of the democratic movement, a popular-left coalition of progressive forces.

As it is nowadays, what would you say are the limits found within the feminist and LGBT movements and how to resolve them?

The limits and the deficiencies of identity politics, NGO politics, feminist bureaucracy, expert UN terminologies need to be recognised. The new politic should be more “political”, more grassroots but more coalitional at the macro level as well. We should be more open to dialogue with religious-conservative sections. The language of the movement should be less legalistic and identitarian but more care-solidarity-humanity focused. As for our adversaries, the main enemy should not be seen as “men” but as the male domination, destructive global powers of capitalism, and state violence. The links between gender discrimination and other oppressive structures should be underlined in our political struggles. We should stay away from censoring, labelling, deciphering, criminalising, ethically blaming language and more involved with talking to “others”, calling for change, leading the society intellectually and morally as a new hegemonic force.