The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

  • January 9, 2014

Gender & Governmentality

The large presence of women in the Gezi uprising was not just an act for women’s rights; it was a milestone in the politicization of women’s identities.

By Yasemin Acar and Melis Ulug.

If you had the opportunity to participate in the Gezi Park protests either in Istanbul or another city in Turkey, you probably noticed the large number of women there. Nearly half of those occupying the park were women, a number in stark contrast to their presence at previous protests, not to mention women’s lack of visibility in the private sector, in parliament, and in other aspects of the public sphere. So what was it about Gezi Park that increased the presence of women?

Violence Against Women

We can begin to address this question by taking a look at the recent history of women in Turkey. The slogan “every day, men’s love kills three women” (erkeklerin sevgisi her gün 3 kadın öldürüyor) has been used to shine a spotlight on violence against women, and it sums up the situation they find themselves in today. Between 2004 and 2011, murders of women went up 1,400%. In 2012, 210 women were murdered; in the first eight months of 2013, 122 were murdered, 118 were raped, 146 were injured, and 117 were sexually abused by men.

According to the Ministry of Justice, between 2002 and 2008, 61,469 women were raped; between 2009 and 2011, 29,980 women were raped. These figures indicate that on average 10,000 women are abused and/or raped per year. Of course, these are only the figures that reach the relevant authorities and made public. Beyond these are the countless incidents of abuse and/or rape that, due to fear, pressure, or a number of other reasons, are never officially counted or made known.

Patriarchal Domination

Along with the physical, psychological, social, and cultural violence that women face every day, comes the patriarchal presence dominating women’s lives, from what they wear in the street to what goes on in their bedrooms. An excellent example is Prime Minister Erdoğan’s December 2011 statement: “I am a Prime Minister against cesarean-section births. I see abortion as murder. You can kill a child in the mother’s womb or after it is born. There’s no difference. No one should be able to allow this.”

This is a much more complicated situation than just the Prime Minister sharing his views. The same Prime Minister, after saying “No one should be able to allow this,” stated: “I even told my cabinet minister, we are preparing an abortion law and we are going to pass it.” By doing so, he has taken steps to legalize his opinion on women’s bodies. If this is taken hand-in-hand with his statements about having at least three children per family, it seems completely natural for women to want to protest.

Though these statements and policies may be reason enough to take to the streets, there is still a point to asking why women participated in the Gezi Park protests and why they were at the front lines. In order to answer this question, we will take a social psychological perspective and use the social identity model of collective action to understand participation in protest.

According to this perspective, there are three main factors that explain why an individual would participate in collective action: 1) perceived injustice based on an identity that the individual adheres to; 2) the degree to which a person adheres to that identity; and 3) the degree to which the individual believes his or her actions will bring about the desired results (perceived efficacy). Below we will examine each factor in turn, through the lens of the Gezi Park protests.

Women’s Sense of Perceived Injustice

If we take women living in Turkey as an example, these women could quite naturally compare their positions to those of the men around them. They could then perceive themselves to be in a lower status position. The important point comes in at how they evaluate that position. If a woman perceives her status as an injustice created by her society, government, or country, then this could lead her to participate in some sort of collective action to alleviate this problem. The likelihood that she will participate in collective action is much greater than another woman who also finds herself in the same position but does not perceive it to be some kind of injustice.

According to the theoretical model, identity-based perceived injustice is a strong influence on an individual’s willingness to participate in collective action. So why is that some women who perceive injustice participate in collective action but others don’t? It’s here that emotions come into play. It is especially the degree to which a person feels they belong to a group or identity that plays a part in how they perceive their situation. When compared to another group, if the in-group’s status is perceived as unjust or unfair, group-based feelings of anger and resentment can result in mobilization towards collective action. These feelings are especially useful in creating a state of readiness to act.

The discrimination that women feel in every walk of life, the intrusion that women face when decisions are made about their bodies without their consent, the distress surrounding losing another woman every day to male violence, all make it seem almost expected that women would participate in the Gezi Park protests. Yet some still chose not to participate. Below we examine another important aspect of participation.

Identification as a Woman

According to social identity theory, when an individual joins a group, a positive sense of self develops based on that identity. For example, supporting a successful football team can raise self-esteem and create positive affect for the individual; when the team does well the individual experiences pride and satisfaction. However, just as the individual can take pride in the group’s successes, the individual could also make a comparison with another group and realize that the in-group is in a comparably low status situation. This does not, effectively, provide the positive sense of self expected from positive comparison.

This begs the question why, if at all, an individual would maintain ties with a low status group. An important point of note here is whether or not the group is considered permeable. In the previous example, being a football fan is considered a completely permeable identity. The individual can choose to support the team one day but not the next, or even change the team that he or she supports. But some groups, such as race or gender, do not have that same kind of permeability. Though one could effectively no longer consider oneself a member of a particular racial or gender group, the perception that one receives from observers still affects the individual. They may view a more effective solution to raise the status of the group as a whole, rather than to try to leave the group as an individual. In these situations, collective action may seem like a plausible way to seek social change.

In response to the many issues facing women in Turkey, many women have been working to make their voices heard even before the Gezi Park protests. However, these actions were considered only related to a particular segment of the population and were participated in by a group already considered marginalized by society at large. Yet with the Gezi Park protest, the numbers of women were larger than for any protest related specifically to women’s rights.

It’s important to note the importance of cross-cutting categories. A woman does not possess a single, “woman” identity. She can, at the same time, be a mother, a Kurd, a feminist, a lesbian, and a leftist — many identities that are already considered “low status”. What made the Gezi Park protests so different from previous acts of collective action was its ability to bring together so many cross-cutting categories and identities. It’s for this reason that it was not just “women” as a category represented at Gezi Park: it was Kurdish women, lesbian women, feminist women, and leftist women, among others, raising the number of participants in the protest as a whole.

Women’s Perceived Efficacy

Social identities also determined certain social ties. For example, a woman can be a wife, a mother, and a sister. These types of identities exhibit social but not necessarily political position. However, a process of politicization can create a politicized identity. For example, we saw during the protests that a “chain of mothers” created between the police and protesters on June 13 could suddenly become a political entity worth reckoning with.

A person with a politicized identity is more likely to participate in collective action because such an individual is more likely to believe they will gain the rights they seek through this type action. In addition, the sense of efficacy was much higher during the Gezi Park protests due to the sheer number of people participating and the politicization of identities of those who were there. In other words, individuals with previously politicized identities — and those with newly politicized ones — were more likely to believe that their own actions could have a greater effect.

Women’s rights, workers’ rights, the increasing number of political arrests over recent years, the prevention of celebrations on May Day and of course, urban development projects starting without the consent of residents — most recently the attempted demolition of Gezi Park itself — all built upon each other and finally exploded with the treatment of those attempting to defend the park in the initial days. All this, and more, functioned as a turning point for Istanbulites who had finally had enough and took to the streets (and the parks) to express their frustrations.

Within this larger community of protesters, the feeling that “this time we are going to succeed” was hugely important for the women present. Compared to previous protests, the numbers at Gezi Park were higher, the amount of support from the greater community was higher, and the number of cross-cutting categories was higher. Directly or indirectly, everyone participating in the protests was supporting each other’s causes, and therefore was also supporting women’s rights. The change in identity from “feminist women protesters” to “Gezi Park protesters” increased numbers and provided a sense of efficacy and belief that women’s voices would be heard through this new platform.

The Gezi Park protests were a great opportunity for those who supported women’s rights. It provided a new platform for women activists, and allowed a greater portion of society that had yet to hear this perspective to understand why they were protesting in the first place. But beyond this, women’s social identities also experienced a sort of evolution, as these identities became newly politicized. In this way, Gezi served not just as a means for women to protest for their rights, but also a milestone in the politicization of their social identities.

Özden Melis Uluğ is a PhD student in Psychology at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany. Her research interests include conflict and peace, political solidarity and collective action.

Yasemin Gülsüm Acar is a PhD student in Applied Social Psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. Her research focuses on real world manifestations of intergroup relations and social identity dynamics. She is particularly interested in identity in the context of activism and protest.


Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

ROAR Collective

The ROAR Collective published ROAR Magazine (2011-’22), an online journal of the radical imagination that provided grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy.

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