The Politics of the Female Body In Contemporary Turkey
“Female bodies have…. constantly been spaces lived or experienced by women, and entities gazed at or encountered by others, with the latter largely shaping the former. They have in this respect been privileged sites of male control and domination throughout history,” opens an exciting new contribution to our understanding of gender dynamics in the Turkish Republic.
Inspired by French writers Simone De Beauvior and Michel Foucault, the authors of a new book turn their eye to how the Turkish state since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power 20-years ago, has sought to govern women’s bodies and police their sexualities.
The Politics of The Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity, Sexuality edited by Hilal Alkan, Ayse Dayi, Sezin Topcu & Betual Yarar, will expand our scope for engaging with global politics.
"Thinking about the female body as constructed by conservative forces, the book is partially about how many everyday women are pushing back against these norms in a variety of different ways"
The authors contest that what we see happening in Turkey is a marriage between neoliberalism, authoritarianism and patriarchy which intermingles and even changes conservative and religious dynamics.
What we see happening is playing out globally from Hungary, Brazil to the United States, and Turkey is in no way unique in this, but the Turkish Republic does provide an interesting case study for how neoliberal authoritarian gender politics play out.
As a number of the essays make clear the authorities in Turkey try to police female fertility through a series of mechanisms including privatisation of certain health functions, banning or increasing requirements for certain procedures like abortion, socially stigmatising women in non-traditional relationships and other means.
While each essay is different from the last and providing a summary for all of them is difficult, this is the best overview that characterises them.
I found Burcu Mutlu’s essay on egg donation and egg tourism in Northern Cyprus particularly illuminating. The ability of women to donate eggs to enable another woman to have children is restricted in mainland Turkey, however, in North Cyprus, the rules are more flexible and fertility clinics have grown in recent decades.
Many Turkish women, both Cypriot and mainlander, come to clinics on the island to sell their eggs. Multlu carries out field research and interviews a number of the women who are looking to sell their eggs. For most of the women interviewed, lack of employment and financial opportunities was the key reason driving their decision, as one 25-year old university student Nalan put it, “It is difficult to be a student... Money my father sends is not enough. What else can I do? Should I sell weed or what? God forbid! This is the easiest way to make money for now!”
However, conservatives attitudes towards women are prevalent in society and for single women to give their eggs to anonymous donors is frowned upon, as Mutlu notes, the women do not only treat egg donation as a financial transaction but also frame their actions in a moralistic outlook.
As Mutlu observes, “For them, donating eggs is also a better way for making money than the (rhetorical or not) alternatives of selling sex, drug dealing or low-paying service work since it enables them to help others to have children.”
"The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey covers a wide range of issues, but at its core is an attempt to make sense of the gender politics of neoliberal authoritarianism"
Aside from reproduction, other essays look at the rise of misogynistic vigilantism under the AK party’s rule and the way ‘pious’ women’s fashion challenges conservative discourse.
In Esra Sarioglu’s essay on mob street violence against women, we encounter a phenomenon that has been on the rise in Turkey over the last 10 or more years. Attacks against women who are viewed as violating conservative norms with Sarioglu opening the chapter with a troubling case of a young woman violently assaulted by a group of men after she hugged her boyfriend near her home.
The attack made it onto the news and the attackers proudly went onto TV to justify their actions, the impunity they felt in some ways typifies the trend of violence towards women. What Sarioglu’s essay does is connects this vigilantism to the AK party’s gender rhetoric and policies, the men in the vigilante's group see themselves as the enforces of moral order, which finds echoes in what the AK party says and does, “The concept of moral transgression seems to occupy a recognizable place in the AKP’s recent gender politics too with the government condoning punitive practices against women who allegedly commit moral infractions.”
The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey covers a wide range of issues, but at its core is an attempt to make sense of the gender politics of neoliberal authoritarianism, an issue that plays out internationally.
Thinking about the female body as constructed by conservative forces, the book is partially about how many everyday women are pushing back against these norms in a variety of different ways. It also aims to move the conversation on from a culturally specific and deterministic way, in the hope of joining wider conservation about the characteristics of gender politics.
The book greatly contributes to our understanding of modern Turkish politics and will prove to be a resource for scholars and students alike.
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt