"We women have learned a lot from each other"

Publishers and editors Iclal Ayse Kucukkirca and Handan Caglayan
Iclal Ayse Kucukkirca (right) and Handan Caglayan, editors of the German anthology “Women's Movements in Turkey”, which highlights broad aspects of the feminist movement in Turkey, one of the strongest women's movements in the Middle East (image: Orlanda)

From the Kurdish women's movement to the labour movement and Muslim feminists: the German anthology "Women's Movements in Turkey" builds a bridge between activism and academia. A conversation with the editors Iclal Ayse Kucukkirca and Handan Caglayan

Interview by Ceyda Nurtsch

This book was preceded by a conference of the same name that you organised in 2021. What motivated you to publish the results of this meeting in book form?

Iclal Ayse Kucukkirca: All those who contributed to this anthology perceive themselves as both activists and scientists. We don't view these two areas as distinct from one another and we're also trying to change society with our research and the insights gained from it.

The feminist movement in Turkey is one of the strongest women's movements in the Middle East and that's why we think it's important to share our experience. That's why we've deliberately published this book in German.

It was important to you to spotlight the movements from a historic and intersectional perspective. Why?

Handan Caglayan: We're seeing that the Turkish feminist movement is part of a continuous process going back to the era of the Ottoman Empire. In some ways, the founding of the Republic was a turning point. It brought about a state feminism that certainly gave women some important rights, but that wasn't primarily focused on the freedom of women, but with making them the figurehead of the modern Republic.

A "feminism from above", so to speak. The Muslim feminist movement for example, which emerged in the 2000s, can't be properly understood without this contextual background. 

Women vs. police during protests in Istanbul against the revocation of the convention (archive photo)
Women protest in Istanbul in 2021 against Turkey's withdrawal from the European Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women, a step initiated by President Erdogan (image: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The intersectional approach was important to us because it allows us to see how feminist movements interact with different social dynamics.

For example, when we look at the radicalised feminist movement that began in the 1980s, one that took to the streets against violence in marriage, we can see that it has an historic context and that it was fed by the left-wing, socialist youth movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Achievements are being rolled back

The essay "Die Krise des herrschenden Subjekts: Patriarchale staatliche Gewalt" (The Crisis of the Ruling Subject: Patriarchal State Violence) deals with the question of how violence against women has changed during the tenure of the AKP government and why it has increased. What's the reason?

Caglayan: We're seeing a similar development in the gender debate in countries such as Hungary, Poland, the U.S. and even Germany. The achievements of the women's movement since the 1960s are being rolled further and further back, particularly in nations with neoliberal, authoritarian regimes.

This is manifesting itself in different ways in each country. In Turkey, the women's movement gained strength from the 1980s, fostered by particular political developments.

For example, radical legal and institutional changes benefiting women were made during E.U. accession negotiations. The Kurdish movement also grew stronger, especially in local organisations.

But after the attempted coup of 15 July 2016 in particular, many organisations faced enormous pressure. A massive counterattack was launched and all the structures that empowered women began to totter. 

Labelled "terrorists"

As explained in two essays, another movement emerged in the 2000s in the form of the religious women's movement. How have the different groups converged?

Caglayan: When Muslim women took to the streets in the 2000s, they weren't just protesting their right to wear a headscarf. They were also starting to question their own structures. For the first time, they formed organisations and started talking about their problems and experiences and developing their own narrative.

This was a time when the Kurdish women's movement was also gaining strength. It had succeeded in liberating itself from the corner it had been forced into and from the "terrorists" label that had been imposed on it. The women's conferences organised by the U.N. were also taking place then.

At the same time, E.U. accession talks were in progress and after 9/11, the U.S. had attacked Iraq. Against this backdrop, the secular, Kurdish and Muslim women's movements – although the Muslims didn't describe themselves as feminists – came together for the first time in their joint demand for peace at home and abroad.

Another common theme was legislative changes to bring about equality to women, as well as the issue of femicide and suicide and violence against women.

Kucukkirca: One of the outcomes of this was that lay groups had to come to terms with secularism as it was practiced in Turkey. 

Women wearing headscarves in Turkey
Muslim women are also fighting for their rights: "When Muslim women took to the streets in the 2000s, they weren't just protesting their right to wear a headscarf. They were also starting to question their own structures,” says Handan Caglayan (image: picture-alliance)

Women in politics made visible

The Kurdish women's movement is seen as particularly strong. How does it interact with other movements?

Caglayan: The strengthening of the Kurdish women's movement can also not be viewed in isolation from social dynamics. In the 1990s there were already feminists publishing magazines. They criticised the Kurdish political movement as too nationalistic and patriarchal and the Turkish political movement as representing the official nationalistic identity politics that were being propagated at the time.

Kurdish women have created a highly networked women's movement. They've shown how important it is to constantly stage political activities and combine these with intellectual knowledge and good organisation. Rather than adhere to a particular model, they have always been prepared to try out new things.

There has been tension between them and other movements, but also mutual influence. Their biggest achievement is certainly that they've made women in politics visible. In political parties, as speakers on all issues, taking part in decision-making processes and helping to set the agenda.

More women were appointed to political leadership positions during the local elections in March. Some called it the "silent revolution of women". How do you see these results? Do they make you optimistic for women in Turkey?

Caglayan: The expression "silent revolution" is slightly off the mark, I think. Women aren't silent. But a system that becomes increasingly authoritarian in relation to religious references, and that undermines those on low incomes, jeopardises women's lives first. And women are noticing that.

That's why, feminists or not, they want to protect their rights. The local election results don't constitute a revolution yet. If you look at the global development, it doesn't look good. But the results reflect the attitude of women. After all, they're also saying "stop"; and we've seen that people outside of political parties can find a common stance and overcome polarisation. That inspires hope. 

Kucukkirca: The elections brought structural change to Turkey and women played a key role in this. That gives us hope, for sure.

Interview by Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Handan Caglayan, Iclal Ayse Kucukkirca: Frauenbewegungen in der Türkei. Eine historische und intersektionale Perspektive, (Women's Movements in Turkey. A historical and intersectional perspective) Orlanda Verlag, 2023