In Turkey, International Women’s Day is not celebrated only at corporate breakfasts and morning teas. It is celebrated on the streets and at night by marching, dancing, and chanting. At Feminist Night Marches, celebration also means resistance, writes Burcu Cevik-Compiegne.
This year marks 20 years of Feminist Night Marches in Turkey. On 8 March International Women’s Day, women take to the streets in major cities to march, sing, dance and repeat their iconic slogan: “If you ever feel hopeless, remember this crowd”.
“If you ever feel hopeless, remember this crowd”
This is a simple yet powerful slogan, as it is not uncommon to feel hopeless in this country. At a time when femicide and transphobic crimes have skyrocketed, it is easy to succumb to feeling powerless. In 2021, Turkey withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence.
The Istanbul Convention, as it is known, saves lives by laying out the framework to deliver justice and support to women who have suffered gendered violence. When a presidential decree can undo years of work overnight – which is essentially what happened when Turkey withdrew from the Convention – it automatically raises the question: what is there to celebrate on the International Women’s Day in Turkey?
Celebration takes on a different meaning in the context of contemporary Turkey. An increasingly authoritarian rule has systematically attacked women’s rights and freedoms in an attempt to shape society made up of families after its own image, featuring an unrestrained, vindictive and self-righteous male head of the household. The role that is defined for women in President R. T. Erdogan’s so-called New Turkey is one of the dutiful wife and mother.
Against this background, claiming the streets and the night to perform their spiteful joy is a powerful response to neoconservative familism that aims to confine women to home, and their social and public life to the daytime only.
Women take to streets at night on every 8 March to express a range of views and emotions. In the current political environment, the power of their actions cannot be overstated.
The two emotions that stand out are anger and hope. Yet it is joy that links these two together and sets the atmosphere of the Feminist Night Marches. When women are told not to laugh out loud in public by top government leaders and they are arrested for insulting the President by jumping to the rhythm, a joyful celebration at night on the streets gains a whole new meaning; it becomes resistance.
The Night Marches do not use joy to tone down anger or smoothen the rough edges of feminism in a bid to make it more palatable. Women use music, dance and humour to create an atmosphere where they feel united, strong and untamed in equal measure. The witty and dark sense of humour that comes through the placards is not to please the outsiders. One often used slogan suggests “We don’t want a dictator, we want a vibrator”. Another advocates for “three orgasms per week” rather than the three children recommended by President Erdogan. These slogans intend to shock the sensibilities of the mindset that ties women’s sexuality to reproductive and marital duties.
This resistance hasn’t gone unnoticed. The authorities’ response to Feminist Night Marches is loud and clear. Every year, the security forces put in place blockades to prevent women from marching, using intimidation and arrests as dissuasive measures. The very same women who ordinarily feel threatened on those same streets become perceived as a threat to an order that oppresses them.
However, the reason why the authorities perceive the marches as a threat is not just about their challenge to the patriarchal order. Their unambiguously egalitarian ethos and the intersectional solidarity they foster are diagonally opposite to what an authoritarian regime wants and needs. Feminist Night Marches are the embodiment of resistance to authoritarianism.
The legitimacy of authoritarian rule depends on the polarisation of society, and the creation of constant crises. In a highly polarised society, like Turkey where difference can be a matter of life or death, Feminist Night Marches do not just tolerate, but instead embrace and celebrate difference. Run by a coalition of diverse organisations, the press releases are broadcast in four of the most common native languages spoken in Turkey (Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, and Armenian).
Women can be seen carrying their placards in their native language, joined by the rainbow-coloured flags of the vibrant LGBTQI+ communities. Women proudly proclaim their identities as Muslim feminists, socialists or sex workers. Along with the Pride marches, Feminist Night Marches is arguably the only regular event that has achieved and nurtured such solidarity. And that in itself is worth celebrating!
- Feature image: The feminist night march was organized to protest violence against women and defend women’s rights. Turkey Istanbul Beyoglu March 8, 2021. Picture: Shutterstock
Burcu Cevik-Compiegne is the Convenor of Turkish Studies and Lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University. She teaches Turkish language, history, politics and culture. She is passionate about her research on war commemoration, women’s movement in Turkey and Turkish-speaking communities’ commemorative and literary activities in Australia.Find her on Twitter @BurcuCevik_Comp