Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Peer-reviewed articles Anti-Gender Movements in Europe and the case of Turkey

This article explores recent developments in Turkey in the light of the newly emerging literature on anti-gender movements in Europe, with the ultimate aim of assessing the prospects of the emergence of a feminist politics strong enough to challenge the threat. Today, Turkey is one of the leading countries where an authoritarian regime combined with a blatantly anti-gender equality agenda has recently been on the ascendant. The Turkish case displays many characteristics shared by right-wing populisms and strongly illiberal regimes, yet it also represents a particular instance where we don’t see “anti-gender movements” as such.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:1 pp 45-55
Published on on May 25, 2020

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This article explores recent developments in Turkey in the light of the newly emerging literature on anti-gender movements in Europe, with the ultimate aim of assessing the prospects of the emergence of a feminist politics strong enough to challenge the threat. Today, Turkey is one of the leading countries where an authoritarian regime combined with a blatantly anti-gender equality agenda has recently been on the ascendant. The Turkish case displays many characteristics shared by right-wing populisms and strongly illiberal regimes, yet it also represents a particular instance where we don’t see “anti-gender movements” as such. Thus, I argue, it is an interesting case that calls for comparisons with other examples in Europe, especially in the Central and Eastern parts of the region. To this end, I will first summarize the general characteristics of anti-gender movements, mostly drawing on instances in Eastern and Central Europe. Then I will evaluate the Turkish case in the light of the recent literature, making some comparisons with certain East European countries. Lastly, I will discuss the question of feminist politics under the rise of authoritarian right-wing populisms and anti-gender movements.

KEY WORDS: Anti-gender movement, illiberalism, Turkey, masculinism, feminist politics, radical democracy.

Anti-gender movements in Europe

Firstly, I will give a general picture of the anti-gender movements in Europe. A newly emerging literature on these movements has already set the terms for the theoretical and political debate in the field. Until now, the literature on anti-gender movements has mostly focused on Central and Eastern Europe, mainly Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, Germany and France. Although there are some differences between the countries, the term “anti-gender” generally refers to those movements against so-called “gender ideology” or “genderism” that erupted after 2010 and attained massive support around 2012—2014. “Gender ideology” is considered to pose a serious threat to the fabric of society and even to human civilization as such, but most certainly to the nation and national culture defined in terms of “traditional family values” and heteronormative definitions of gender identities. The anti-gender movements target many aspects of gender equality policies but mainly concentrate on reproductive rights, LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, and sex education for children. The very concept of gender itself, together with the discipline of gender studies, feminism and queer theories, are particularly targeted for being non-scientific, ideological or even totalitarian, or at least a version of cultural Marxism. The movements are mainly grassroots- and locally based, usually but not necessarily triggered by the Catholic Church, and conservative intellectuals and some religious (especially evangelical) NGOs. Within a few years, these local initiatives have grown to become robust nationwide movements of a wider alliance including many different right-wing parties and movements from the center right to the far right, and even developing crucial transnational connections between themselves. As for the main political aim and agenda of these movements, we see that they mostly aim to curb the power of the EU and what they describe as a “liberal-leftist” agenda of gender equality which is seen as detrimental to national culture.

A novel and global phenomenon

The relevant literature mainly regards the anti-gender movements in Europe as part of the global and transnational resurgence of illiberal populism. As Gunnarsson Payne observes, “gender’ has come to play a central role in the construction of political frontiers in the currently polarized political situation that Chantal Mouffe has called Europe’s populist moment”. A number of themes recur in the literature on anti-gender movements in Europe which I will be exploring under three headings. First, the literature highlights the historical novelty and global character of the phenomenon. Pointing to its transnational and global character, it draws our attention to the ever growing organizational and discursive networks among European right-wing activisms and especially the role of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in gathering a united religious conservative alliance as a potent global force to compete with the powers of global actors such as the EU or UN. As Kuhar and Paternotte observe, “the proclaimed support of the EU for gender equality is seen as one element in a wider program of colonization whereby what was once Marxism is now replaced by gender politics”. Korolzcuk and Graff perfectly capture the global importance of the phenomenon in their attempt to analyze “anti-genderism as a coherent ideological construction consciously and effectively used by right-wing and religious fundamentalists worldwide”. Highlighting that gender is contextualized within an anti-colonial frame and even likened to “Ebola from Brussels” they write as follows:

Today’s right-wing opposition to gender equality and feminism takes the form of a transnational political mobilization — an alternative illiberal civil society — based on an alliance between religious fundamentalists and illiberal populists. This alliance is facilitated by the persistent use of the terms “gender” and “gender ideology” (aka “genderism”). These terms have become empty signifiers, flexible synonyms for demoralization, abortion, nonnormative sexuality, and sex confusion (Mayer and Sauer 2017), but they also stand for the ideology of global (neo)liberal elites (hence the significance of the anticolonial frame). “Genderism” — a term that sounds ominous and alien in most cultural contexts — has replaced “feminism” in global right-wing rhetoric, strengthening the critique.

Korolzcuk and Graff, together with many others, elucidate the novel character of this global formation which can no longer be seen as just a new form of the usual conservative anti-feminism, but rather as something with much broader ideological articulations and organizational networks culminating in a hegemonic challenge against both the liberal establishment and neo-liberal global capitalism. It is essentially based on the populist dichotomy of “ordinary people” against the “global elites” of global organizations and corporations that are held responsible for the dissemination and imposition of a liberal world view. Despite the consensus in the literature on the broader alliance of right-wing forces against the global powers, there are different views as to what provides the ideological coherence to this loose coalition of forces. While Korolzcuk and Graff argue that it is the anticolonial frame that gives it coherence, others assert that it is “gender” that acts as a “symbolic glue”.

Gender as symbolic glue

The notion of gender as symbolic glue has been introduced by some feminist academics from Hungary and Poland. In their 2017 article Grzebalska, Kováts and Petö explain how “gender” became an umbrella term for the rejection of (neo)liberal order. They argue against the views that see the rise of illiberalism simply in terms of a backlash against recent victories of emancipatory politics, achievements of feminism and of sexual minority rights. Instead they suggest that gender plays a crucial role in the paradigm shift where liberal democracy is challenged by illiberal forces and for which “the concept of gender ideology has become a metaphor for the insecurity and unfairness produced by the current socioeconomic system”. There are three ways in which gender functions as symbolic glue: the first relates the way gender becomes an umbrella term covering the whole progressive agenda. Thus they write:

“Gender ideology” has come to signify the failure of democratic representation, and opposition to this ideology has become a means of rejecting different facets of the current socioeconomic order, from the prioritization of identity politics over material issues, and the weakening of people’s social, cultural and political security, to the detachment of social and political elites and the influence of transnational institutions and the global economy on nation states.

Second, they point to how gender ideology has been demonized and deployed as a tool to construct a “new conception of common sense for a wide audience; a form of consensus about what is normal and legitimate”. Here the human rights paradigm is labelled and rejected as “political correctness” — or even as a new incarnation of extremism like Nazism and Leninism — and counterpoised to a livable and viable alternative centered on family and nation. Third, the writers draw our attention to how a range of rightwing actors such as “different Christian churches, orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Muslims, mainstream conservatives, far right parties, fundamentalist groups and even football hooligans” have been able to unite in their opposition to “gender”.

The question of the illiberal state

We see that the literature on anti-gender movements mainly highlights the social movement aspects of the phenomenon, with the effect that the problem of the state and state power is not adequately considered. Yet the question of the state seems to be of critical importance to understanding the rise and strength of the anti-gender movements in general, as well as to delineating the differences between various countries. Here, Petö and Grezebalska’s work is helpful, for they provide us with a framework to grasp the matter theoretically with particular reference to Hungary and Poland. They suggest a new conceptualization, the “illiberal polypore state”, to understand the current transformations of central European ex-communist states and the gendered nature of this transformation. For them, the “illiberal polypore state is a new form of governance (not a backlash) stemming from the failures of globalized neoliberal democracy, which feeds on the vital resources of the previous system at the same time as contributing to its decay (appropriating the institutions, mechanisms and recourses of European liberal democracy)”. The success and the accompanying weakness of the progressive actors stem from three dynamics: securitization, familialism and the polypore state. Securitization basically means the transformation of human rights-based civil society through the discourse of securitization whereby the civil society actors fighting for human rights are framed as foreign-steered and a threat to national sovereignty. Also, it functions by creating a parallel civil society and pro-government NGOs, thus fostering repoliticization of de-politicized civil society. Familialism denotes the major shift from the concept of gender to the family, from “gender mainstreaming” to “family mainstreaming”. Feminism is regarded as a foreign-steered project backed by the EU, large corporations, international NGOs and domestic liberals. Along with the attack on feminism and labelling of gender studies as pseudo-science or ideology comes the appropriation of critical gender studies discourse to advance the conservative agenda by using EU funds. The concept of the “polypore state” puts words to the ways in which this new state exploits and drains the existing institutional setup of the liberal democratic state by appropriating the language and infrastructure of human rights, by building a parallel civil society, and by misusing the democratic procedures to serve the ruling elite and their allies. As for the functioning of the polypore state, Petö mentions a range of governmental strategies such as backlash, appropriation, compliance, and reconceptualization.

To sum up, the literature on anti-gender movements reveals its novel and global character and the centrality of the gender question for illiberal states. Needless to say, such a general overview of the literature can neither replace nor suffice for an elaborate discussion of the complexities of the phenomenon at hand. A more comprehensive analysis would require considering the different trajectories of anti-gender movements within the European region (especially between more liberal-democratic regimes and illiberal regimes). Limited as it is, my aim is to evaluate the case of Turkey by focusing on the illiberal polypore state and its gendered nature as well as “gender as symbolic glue”.

The case of Turkey as a leading illiberal regime

The “New Turkey” under Erdoğan’s rule is undoubtedly a perfect example of the global phenomenon of emerging illiberal regimes. The complex dynamics of the transformation of the regime after 2010 are much discussed in the literature and different conceptualizations are being offered such as “hybrid regime”, “neoliberal populism”, “competitive authoritarianism”, “Bonapartism”, “neo-fascism” or even soft or hard “totalitarianism”. Leaving aside the conceptual problems of naming the new regime, there is no question that the “New Turkey” under Erdoğan’s rule takes part in the novel global trends where neoliberal globalism is challenged by an ultra-nationalistic and Islamic populism. Beginning with a critical constitutional referendum in 2010 and then with the AKP’s third electoral victory in the 2011 general election, the government gradually started to follow an authoritarian route by eradicating opposing forces both within the state and in civil society. When strongly challenged by a growing coalition of democratic forces in the 2013 Gezi Resistance and then in the 2015 elections, the authoritarian slide of the regime became more reckless and severely militarist, culminating in the declaration of a state of emergency after an attempted coup d’etat by its former ruling coalition partner in 2016. Under the state of emergency regime, all democratic opposition has been suppressed and a new “constitution” was imposed with the effect of establishing a one-man regime.

It is also very clear that gender politics and attacks on gender equality lie at the heart of the new authoritarianism in Turkey. In fact, the gendered nature of this authoritarian turn has been explored in its many aspects by the recent feminist literature. It is not my aim here to discuss the complex interactions between neoliberalism and authoritarianism and to answer the question of how gender regimes and gender politics are implicated in this nexus. What I seek to do, is to draw attention to a missing theme in the existing literature in Turkish, with the aim of making some comparative observations. Until now there has been no attempt to consider the Turkish case in relation to anti-gender movements and illiberal regimes in Europe and elsewhere, the most likely reason being that in the Turkish case we do not witness the rise of anti-gender mobilizations similar to those in Europe. As I will try to show in the following section, instead of an anti-gender popular movement which is critical of government policies of EU orientation, what we have in Turkey is a fully-grown illiberal regime with harsh anti-gender politics. As a fully-developed illiberal regime, Turkey displays very similar characteristics to the illiberal polypore state and its gendered aspects. But, when it comes to gender acting as symbolic glue, the Turkish case departs somewhat from the expected course and needs to be examined in its own right as an example where gender constitutes not the unifying element but the Achille’s heel for the New Turkey.

The illiberal state and its gendered nature

The Turkish experience shows striking similarities with the illiberal polypore state and its gendered nature in all three characteristic attributes of the new regime, namely its securitization of civil society, familialism, and polypore nature. It is not clear whether the new Turkish regime can be evaluated as a kind of polypore state in so far as a polypore state feeds on the vital resources and institutions of European liberal democracy, given the fact that Turkey has never had such an establishment. Still, we can argue that for the last 30 years Turkish civil society and politics have been transformed to certain extent in the direction of liberal democracy and in line with the EU accession process led by the AKP. Thus, we can see many striking similarities such as appropriating the language and infrastructure of human rights, building a parallel civil society, and misusing democratic procedures to serve the ruling elite and their allies. In addition, the existing state apparatus for gender equality has been totally transformed into an apparatus to serve only family support services, marginalizing the term “women” and “gender equality” in the state bureaucracy. As for securitization, we have seen the massive deployment of a nationalist-culturalist ideology regarding a global conspiracy to destroy the nation against which the country needs to protect its distinct national values from encroachment from the outside Western world. Moreover, we have witnessed the same fearmongering language about the bigger plots of global powers, (the plots of “the super-mind”, as it is called by government circles) and the criminalization of human rights-based civil society on the basis of alleged associations with terrorism (including all organizations of the Kurdish women’s movement).

Regarding familialism, we should note that it has been the most basic tenet of the governmental discourse, not only of its gender politics but the entire Islamic-conservative ideology in general. As a matter of fact, the AKP had inherited a strong legacy of familialism from its Turkish-İslamic tradition which was nothing new and surely not restricted to the AKP. Yet, the AKP turned familialism into the basis of an entire web of economic, political and ideological relations. The AKP not only founded its neo-liberal populist economic policy basically on the social aid delivered to families but it also turned this family-based local constituency into its main electoral and political power base. Familialism has also been promoted and supported on various different levels and by multiple means such as the promotion of a strong pro-natal policy without any precedent in recent Turkish history, by directly attacking reproductive rights, encouraging marriages or even early marriages, introducing new laws to make divorce more difficult, packaging the entire family policy in an overtly Islamic cover both ideologically and institutionally, with the primary aim of preventing divorce.

Alongside pro-family policies, assaults on various aspects of gender equality and feminists have been business as usual for government circles, both at the level of central figures as well as local politicians and religious leaders, although with differing degrees of severity. In his speeches Erdoğan often opposes the concept of “gender equality” as ignoring the basic natural (fıtrat) sex differences and instead suggests the term “gender justice”. In his infamous 2014 speech, he declared that “women and men cannot be equal because they are different by nature”, suggesting instead that “they should have equal worth or equity”. Also he occasionally mentioned feminists, saying that “feminists wouldn’t understand his reverence for mothers as they have trouble with mothering” and also because they are “alienated from our civilization”. The use of “gender justice” in more elaborated pro-official discursive contexts is more of case of re-appropriating UN gender equality terminology by privileging the utmost importance of “the family as the founding element of society”, the domestic responsibilities of women and above all by an intense insistence on the different qualities and characters of biological sex differences.

Yet, side by side with this apparently “reasonable” conservative stance lie the more blatant forms of misogynist and discriminatory attitudes regarding the looks and manners of women shown by local party people, and a great deal of Islamo-fascist intervention in daily life by local officers, police forces and civilians. In fact, after the state of emergency regime in 2016, assaults on women protesting on the streets and on feminist organizations labelled as affiliated with terror have greatly intensified. Together with the increasing stress on the ideology of fıtrat came the increasing assaults on not only feminists but any women who are deemed as rebellious in the domestic or public spheres.

A major dimension of AKP’s familialism has been its pro-natal policy with clear implications for reproductive rights. Thus, in 2012 Erdoğan made an attempt to illegalize abortion on the grounds that it is immoral (indeed he declared it to be “murder”) and also based on his firm conviction that the superpowers are plotting to reduce the Turkish population. It was entirely an attempt by Erdogan alone without any grassroots demand or support, so he had to withdraw his original plan to illegalize abortion altogether, though leaving behind various impediments for access to the services. Another inevitable aspect of the familialism has been the strengthening of heteronormativity backed by an increasing attack on LGBT rights. There is a growing attempt to curb and violate the fundamental rights of LGBT people, especially their right to association and free assembly. The Gay Pride parade has not been allowed since 2013 (when 100,000 people were reported to have joined in the Istanbul parade). The Ankara Governorship directly issued a ban in 2017 on all LGBT activities on the grounds of public morality and “protection against assault”. As for the attacks on gender studies that seem to be typical of anti-gender movements, it is interesting to notice that so far, there has not been an attack on gender studies as such in the sense of labelling it as ideological or cutting funding etc. On the contrary, it seems to be the case that AKP is trying to appropriate the language of women’s rights and institutions of women’s research centers in the universities by eliminating dissident academics and appointing pro-government cadres.

Turkey differ from the European cases

Despite the striking similarities regarding the gendered nature of the illiberal polypore state, the role and saliency of gender politics in relation to the wider Turkish political landscape seem to be rather different from the European cases. In fact, when looked from the perspective of the Turkish experience, the conception of gender as symbolic glue seems rather questionable. I think that there are two main reasons why gender does not act as symbolic glue, but as something problematic and even potentially divisive of the right-wing forces. First, we do not observe that anti-genderism exists as a coherent ideological construct unifying religious fundamentalists and non-religious populist right-wing actors. We observe a similar coalition of right-wing forces in Turkey, and the cement for this coalition of ultra-nationalists and Islamic forces can be said to be an ideology of lslamo-Turkism framed in an anti-colonial discourse together with an acute condemnation of human rights discourse. However, we see that the unifying cement essentially comprises statist and nationalistic (read as anti-Kurdish) sentiments and the gender question is not at the forefront. In other worlds we can say that the themes related to gender are mostly disguised or overlaid by the prominence of concerns for national security and national unity supposedly threatened by the USA and EU. Gender might act like a symbolic glue, particularly in Central Europe where it becomes a strategic identity marker in the absence of other important ethnic and religious markers, as in the case of Poland for example as observed by Grzebalska. Yet this certainly is not the case in Turkey where several deep seated identity markers such as ethnic and religious divisions have always been at the heart of the political conflicts.

Gender as the Achilles’ heel

The other reason why gender does not act as symbolic glue relates to the specific content of gender politics in contemporary Turkey. Today the most heated topic of gender debate in Turkey revolves around the problem of rampant violence against women and child abuse in such a way as to make gender politics not the strongest part of the regime but its most contested one, even its Achilles’ heel. I argue that this is the main reason why the Turkish case differs from the European cases. To understand why and how, we need to consider the importance of gender violence in relation to the problem of masculinity, a crucial topic mostly neglected in the discussions of anti-gender movements, which basically draw our attention to familialism in the broader context of nationalistic responses to global neoliberalism. The literature on Eastern Europe mainly considers the phenomenon as a nationalist response with a large number of social equality concerns, employing the gender issue as symbolic glue. I think that the problem with putting too much emphasis on the pro-family stance of anti-gender movements or illiberal regimes is the risk of overlooking the urgency and autonomy of the question of the (crisis of) masculinity. Yet, the question of masculinity should be taken seriously in any analysis of anti-gender movements, as some writers observe. Korolzcuk and Graff write, “Moral panics around the alleged destabilization of natural gender roles link anxieties about depopulation with grim visions of the end of patriarchy and men’s power (often referred to as a “masculinity crisis”). Similarly, as Tryczyk puts it, “antigenderism at least partly reflects the growing frustration of men with no economic prospects who turn to patriarchal values rather than address the economic sources of their misfortunes”.

I think that the Turkish case attests to the urgent need to consider masculinity, hyper-masculinity and indeed the crisis of masculinity as a crucial aspect of anti-gender politics. By the “crisis of masculinity”, I mean the new forms of masculine discontent and reactions to the shaking of gendered power relations as women and LGBT people are empowered and as patriarchal male bonding is being undermined by neoliberalism. In analyzing the Turkish case we must consider hyper-masculinity as a sign of the crisis of masculinity in order to account for rampant gender violence. The Turkish case is also crucial in drawing attention to the critical difference between traditionalism-conservatism and hyper-masculinity. Whereas conservatism calls for support for pro-family policies and traditional values, a political regime which reflects the characteristics of hyper-masculinity (or is indeed an embodiment of heightened masculinity) can neither be explained by its recourse to family values nor any traditional gender roles. On the contrary, it can only be understood in the context of the dissolution of the patriarchal family and is directly reflected in the problem of domestic violence and child abuse. In fact, I consider that the term conservatism cannot really capture the novelty and cruelty of the gendered nature of the new regime. What we see here is not power but the demise of the “traditional” or “patriarchal family” amid the dissolution and fall of the state of law and the ensuing crisis of patriarchal power. The resulting pathology is a far-right male supremacist reaction with heavy sexism, heterosexism and great deal of misogyny against the public visibility and human rights of women and LGBT people. The interwoven nature of gender, violence and masculinity as well as its centrality for the new regime has been more apparent since the suppression of the 2016 attempted coup.

Although the government tries to present itself as supporting women against violence or supporting working mothers, the growing masculine or hyper-masculine character is too apparent to hide. We see this character most strikingly in the problem of rampant gender violence and child abuse as a form of gender violence. As I said before, gender politics is not the strongest aspect of the right-wing populist attempt to form a hegemonic bloc; it is its Achilles’ heel, its weakest, most vulnerable point. The reason for this should now be clearer: the very heated and polarized debate on gender violence is such that the AKP government is held at least politically responsible if not seen as totally and directly triggering or encouraging it. So, considering the problem of widespread domestic violence and child abuse, the “threat to family” comes not from the outside world, i.e. the West, (in the form of liberal gender equality laws imposing sex education, over-sexualization of children or gay marriage) but from within the patriarchal family and society backed by the new regime in its attempts to erode the legal rights of women to get a divorce, or to escape from domestic violence by divorce, and to lower the age of consent etc. In contrast to the “concerned parents” of European anti-gender movements who depict the children as in danger of being overly sexualized or under threat from gender equality politics, in the Turkish case, this “threatened child” figure is mostly a real victim of child abuse in a domestic setting or in government-controlled educational units or forced underage marriages. Further we should add that the pro-family and pro-morality image of new regime is grossly damaged and contested as many incidents of sexual scandals involving conservative politicians are revealed to the public and the covert practice of adultery among religious people is widely and fiercely reproached by the secular sections. Overall we can say that both the pro-family stance and the morality of the Islamic government are highly contested in Turkish politics. I am not arguing that the existence of an acute problem of gender violence is a barrier for anti-gender mobilization in itself. Rather, the specific contingencies of social and political forces in Turkey and particularly the impact of a strong women’s movement block the emergence of a wide coalition of rightwing forces based on gender as symbolic glue.

A new episode of anti-gender politics?

In this article, I repeatedly pointed out that Turkey is a particular case in that there has been no anti-gender movement as yet. Yet, I have to say something that could cause an interesting change in the course of the argument, not for the time being but certainly for the future. It is my very recent observation that seeds of an anti-gender movement in the European style are currently being planted. This is very recent development which needs to be watched and about which I can only say a few things to point out to its novel character. It reflects a more radical Islamist reaction to the AKP and is mostly based on the crucial politicization of some critical gender issues regarding family law, such as child custody and divorce maintenance payment as well as the law protecting women against violence. With the emergence of this new discourse we are witnessing an attempt to link the growing popular masculine reactions firmly to an Islamic project, something different from what the AKP has done up to now. It does not yet represent a broad coalition of right-wing forces at the bottom of society, but there are attempts to form such a coalition as we see in the case of the currently unsuccessful divorced fathers’ movement. We also see that some pro-government journalists or writers have just started to condemn the use of the term “gender” to wipe out the “gender equality” agenda or whatever is left of it. This discourse of masculine victimization and male resentment is a real novelty for Turkish gender politics, though it resonates highly with the incitement of sentiments of resentment and rage in the new Turkey. It shows that the masculine discourse is moving away from the protectionist religious and traditional discourses and calling for justice for victimized men. This newly emerging discourse also condemns the concept of gender as the Trojan horse lurking behind the Istanbul Treaty, aiming to destroy the natural order of sexes and promoting “perversity”. It is a very interesting coincidence that just in the first weeks of 2019, while I was trying to finish my article, a new wave of attacks on gender equality was launched by pro-government newspapers. It was triggered by a columnist who wrote a piece on “fools of the tribe of gender”, condemning gender studies as unscientific and ideological. To my knowledge, this comment is the first of its kind in a newspaper and it seems to be a direct borrowing from the European debate.

Feminist politics

The rise of anti-gender movements in the broader context of rightwing populisms and illiberal regimes poses important questions as to the contemporary feminist politics and feminist theorizing. As Gunnarsson, Payne and Tornhill put it, the difficult question is how to repoliticize gender in a context where the depoliticization of gender and sexual diversity by state bureaucracies and corporate structures meets the repoliticization of gender by rightwing populisms. Thus once again it is time to reinvent the political dimension of feminism. We have already witnessed some remarkable feminist resistance and challenges to the new threats in many different parts of the world such as the USA, Ireland, Poland and Argentina in the last few years. Inspired by these global trends and motivated to go further, a new feminist theorizing on feminist politics has emerged which promotes two basic and recurring themes. One is reclaiming feminism’s lost socialist or anti-capitalist dimension. And the other is a call for a transnational and intersectional feminism. As for the first strand of critique, Nancy Fraser has set the terms of the debate, highlighting the problem of feminism being complicit with neoliberalism in its individualism and in its focusing so much on identity politics at the expense of social justice and economic issues. Whether one agrees with Fraser or not regarding the responsibility of feminism in legitimizing the neoliberal order, there is no question that feminism should reinvent and revive its political potentials in new ways in order to cope with the challenge of authoritarian populisms.

The calls for social justice-oriented or anti-capitalist feminism or a more inclusive and intersectional feminism are perfectly well grounded, yet it is not certain what kind of implications this turn would have for feminist politics because there are definitely different ways of doing “left feminism”. In this context, a particular line of leftist thinking is emerging that proposes the idea of radical democracy and leftist populism which is currently being revived in feminist thinking as well. Thus we see that many feminist observers of the illiberal regimes of Central and Eastern Europe are highly critical of previous and existing feminist strategies which are falling short of challenging rightwing populism. Petö and others, for example, suggest that “resistance alone is not enough” and a new progressive politics is needed for the enhancement of feminist politics. Petö suggests that progressive politics should move away from the technocratic and NGO style of functioning and engage in building legitimacy and mass support for the cause through political action. We have recently witnessed that women in Hungary are coming forward in the opposition to Orbán’s macho politics. In Poland, the reason for the success of the Black Protest is that “the struggle of women has become constructed as a struggle against the regime”. Similarly in Argentina, the Green Wave movement represents a perfect and inspiring model whereby we witness the emergence of a “feminist people” by forming a chain of equivalences between gender equality demands and other demands of social justice against the neoliberal-conservative ruling coalition. Hence, Di Marco claims that “the feminist people” articulates the counterhegemonic resistance to the ruling hegemonic bloc under the leadership of Catholic Church.

Thus, a growing strand of feminist thinking argues for a kind of leftist populism in the form of a “feminist we” that is much indebted to the idea of radical democracy elaborated by political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. As Laclau and Mouffe have shown, for socialist politics the choice is never between identity or “the cultural” and “the economic” That’s why calls for a return to “the social” would not be enough to tackle the new challenges of illiberal anti-genderism. The real question has always been and still is the creation of a “we the people” on the political level. Mouffe explains the rise of right-wing populism as a reaction of classes that are the losers of globalization and abandoned by neoliberal regimes. She suggests that the left must create a populist frontier of all classes against elites and the establishment. Here populism means forming a chain of equivalences and establishing a collective will around a common agenda and against a common adversary. So identity politics needs to be replaced by hegemonic struggles whereby a large “us” should be counterpoised to a small “them” through a war of position in and outside the existing institutions. In line with radical democracy, I also believe that the real question for feminist politics for our age of illiberal regimes is to reinvent and win a crucial position for gender equality demands in the construction of a large “us”.

An inspiring moment for radical democracy and feminist politics

So, how are we going to think the prospects of feminist “populism” — “a feminism of the people” — in Turkey? Could the acute problem of gender violence and illiberal authoritarianism be linked in politically creative ways so as to challenge both at the same time? Can gender equality be a nodal point to oppose the atrocities of masculine power carried out in the name of the holy trinity of “state, nation and family”? Can feminism be a leading political and intellectual force in the formation of a “we the people”? It is difficult to answer these questions amid the utterly gloomy atmosphere of heavy oppression where all democratic opposition seems to be repressed. Yet, for the same reason it is of vital importance to recall a very recent episode in Turkish history which has the most vital implications for both radical democratic and feminist politics.

Between 2013—2015 we saw the formation of a chain of equivalences between the different democratic struggles against an authoritarian neoliberal regime and the emergence of a radical-democratic “people’s” formation, expressed firstly in the Gezi protests in June 2013 and then in the HDP’s electoral victory in June 2015. We have witnessed the inspiring flourishing of an intersectional politics where the social divisions and boundaries between different long-established political subjectivities and binary contradictions were blurred and overcome for a while. In fact, the eruption of intersectional politics at this moment was the end result of the culmination of democratic and feminist struggles for the last two decades. Beginning in 1990s, both the Kurdish political opposition, and leftist mobilizations of various sorts (especially the movement of public employees) as well as many resistance movements concerning human rights, secularism, the environment, and urbanization had been rapidly growing and transforming the political landscape despite the ongoing neoliberalization. Moreover, a vibrant feminist movement had already emerged and succeeded in forming intersectional coalitions to a certain extent within women’s movements and while being strongly involved in all other democratic struggles as well. Thus, although the Gezi resistance appeared as a really striking “event” in terms of its novelty and unpredictability and its force, its social and political background already existed.

This blurring of deeply rooted divisions and the construction of bridges was the symptom of a nascent radical democratic and hegemonic politics of coalition building. The huge expansion of the intersectional sphere was striking and spectacular, representing a rising politics of coalition building prescribed by both intersectionality, radical democratic and queer politics. Crucially, it was the women’s movement and LGBT movement that played a strategic role in the process. The women’s movement was the constitutive part of the newly emerging democratic-popular formation and played a crucial role in both the Gezi movement and HDP politics. The strategic role of women’s mass participation as well as the role of feminist and LGBT movements in the constructing of this new people formation was remarkable. It took many forms, finally culminating in June 2015 in the İstanbul Pride Parade where more than 100,000 people participated.

And then came the backlash. It was such a promising and inspiring political moment and it was so powerful even in its initial phase that it had to be severely suppressed by the government resorting to all kinds of extreme violations of the rules of democracy. After 2013, and as a reaction to the possibility of an alternative counter-hegemonic politics, a new and hyper-masculine regime has been set in motion. It is important to note that even under the oppressive conditions of the state of emergency, the women’s movement proved to be still alive, in fact as the only resisting political force on the streets. The vitality of the women’s movement was expressed by the huge numbers of women who gathered to celebrate Women’s Day on March 8, 2016. (50,000 women joined the Night March in Istanbul). It was also proved when women successfully protested to curb several of government initiatives to introduce new laws threating women’s rights. Yet whatever the resistance capacity of the feminist movement, it is clear that “resistance alone is not enough”. A new strategy should be developed in order to challenge the new regime. I believe that the real question for our times must be: what could be the original contribution of feminism in constructing and enlarging the new people in the fight for radical democracy? I also believe that a queer, radical democratic and intersectional feminism has the most potential to build the bridges across established social divisions and boundaries.

As Mouffe writes, “30 years after Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the aim is still to radicalize democracy, but in order to radicalize democracy, you first need to recover it…the first step is to re-establish what has been lost.” I hope that the generous potentials of feminism can be re-invented and drawn upon to help to recover the idea of radical democracy.


  1. Gabriele Kuby, The Global Sexual Revolution: The Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom (New York: Angelico Press, 2015). See: Weronica Grzebalska, Ezster Kovats, Andrea Petö, “Gender as symbolic glue: how gender become an umbrella term for the rejection of the neoliberal order”, January 2017. E. Kovats and Maari Poim, eds., Gender as Symbolic Glue: The Position and Role of Conservative and Far Right Parties in the Anti-Gender Mobilizations in Europe (Budapest: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2015) Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte, Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe Mobilising Against Equality (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017). Anti-Gender movements on the rise? Strategizing for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by H. Böll Foundation (Publication Series on Democracy. No. 38, 2017). M. Kottig, M. Bitzan and A. Petö, eds., Gender and Far Right Politics in Europe (Palgrave 2017).
  2. For different country cases see: E. Kovats and M. Poim, 2015; Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017.
  3. For the role of Vatican see; Elzbieta Korolczuk, “The Vatican and the Birth of Anti-Gender Studies”, Religion and Gender, vol. 6, no. 2 (2016) 293—296.
  4. Jenny Gunnarsson Payne, “Challenging “Gender Ideology”: (Anti)Gender Politics in Europe’s Populist Moment”, The New Pretender, February 10, 2019,
  5. Kuhar and Paternotte, 2017.
  6. Elzbieta, Korolczuk and Agnieszka Graff, “Gender as Ebola from Brussels: The Anti-colonial Frame and the Rise of illiberal Populism”, Signs, vol. 43, no.4 (2018): 797—821.
  7. Kováts and Põim 2015; Kuhar and Paternotte 2017. See also Andrea Petö, “Epilogue: “Anti-gender” Mobilizational Discourse of Conservative and Far Right Parties as a Challenge for Progressive Politics.” In Kováts and Põim (2015):126–31.
  8. See Gunnarsson Payne, 2019.
  9. See Weronica Grzebalska, Eszter Kovats, Andrea Petö, 2017.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Andrea Petö and Weronica Grzebalska, “Gendered Modus operandi of the illiberal Transformation in Hungary and Poland”, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 68 (2018): 164—172. Also see Andrea Petö, “Hungary’s illiberal Polypore State”, European Politics and Society, 21, (Winter 2017).
  13. Petö and Grzebalska, 2018.
  14. Interview with A. Petö, “Resistance alone is not enough”,, August 26, 2017.
  15. See: Kerem Öktem and Karabekir Akkoyunlu, “Exit from Democracy: Illiberal Governance in Turkey and Beyond”, Southern European and Black Sea studies, 2016, 16:4, 469—480. Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey”, Third World Quarterly, 37.9 (2016): 1581—1606. Murat Somer, “Understanding Turkey’s Democratic Breakdown: old vs. new and indigenous vs. global authoritarianism, Southern European and Black Sea Studies, 16:4 (2016): 481—503. Cihan Tugal, “In Turkey the regime slides from soft to hard totalitarianism”, www.opendemocracy.nor, February 17, 2016.
  16. For the most recent literature see the articles; Les Cahier du CEDREF, Special Issue: Transformations of the Gender Regimes in Turkey, by Azadeh Kian and Buket Türkmen, no. 22/2018. Especially articles by Betül Yarar, “What is lacking in our critiques of AKP’s neoliberal neoconservative and authoritarian politics: searching for an alternative feminist approach”; Zeynep Kıvılcım, “Gendering the State of Emergency Regime in Turkey”. See also; A. Güneş-Ayata and Gökten Doğangün, “Gender Politics of AKP: Restoration of a Religious-conservative Gender Climate”, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 19:6 (2017). F. Acar and G. Altunok “The politics of intimate at the intersection of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism in contemporary Turkey”, Women’s Studies International Forum, 41 (2013).S. Coşar and M. Yeğenoğlu, “New Grounds for Patriarchy in Turkey: Gender Policy in the Age of AKP”, South European Society and Politics”, 16:4 (2011).
  17. For the saliency of conspiracy thinking and paranoia for the “new” Turkey see Zafer Yılmaz, “The AKP and the Spirit of the New Turkey: imagined victim, reactionary mood and resentful sovereign”, Turkish Studies, 18: 3 (2017): 482—513.
  18. Zafer Yılmaz, “Strengthening the Family Policies in Turkey: Managing the Social Question and Armouring Conservative-Neoliberal Populism”, Turkish Studies, 2015, 16:3, 321—390. Ayhan Kaya, “Islamization of Turkey under AKP: Empowering Family, Faith and Charity, South European Society and Politics, 20:1. (2015): 47—65.
  19. Ayse Güneş- Ayata and Gokten Dogangun, 2017.
  20. Erdoğan’s speech at the 1st International Women and Justice Summit organized by KADEM, 2014.
  21. See the article by the founder of KADEM (the most prominent women’s NGO) Sare Aydın Yılmaz, “Gender Justice for women,” Better World: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, vol.1 (UN Publications, UN Human Development Forum Series, UNCCD, 2016).
  22. For violations of women’s rights under the OHAL regime, see the report by HDP MP Filiz Kerestecioğlu, submitted to the European Council, Commission for Equality and anti-Discrimination, “Türkiye’de Kadın Hakları İhlalleri Raporu”, (2016). See also Zeynep Kıvılcım, 2018.
  23. For reproductive rights see: Cevahir Özgüler and Betül Yarar, “Neoliberal Body Politics: Feminist Resistance and the Abortion Law in Turkey,” Bodies in Resistance: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Age of Neoliberalism, ed. Wendy Harcourt (Palgrave, London 2017). Also see Dilek Cindoğlu and Didem Ünal, “Gender and Sexuality in the Authoritarian Discursive Strategies of New Turkey”, European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 24(1), (2017): 39—54.
  24. Gender Studies have been most adversely affected by the great university purge in 2016 whereby hundreds of Academics for Peace were dismissed, leaving almost all critical social science departments including gender studies devastated. For further information on Academics for Peace see:
  25. Karabekir Akkoyunlu and Kerem Öktem, “Existential Insecurity and the making of a weak authoritarian regime,” Southern European and Black Sea Studies, 16:4 (2016): 505—527.
  26. See: “Poland” by Weronica Grzebalska 83—10, in Kovats and Poim, 2015.
  27. See Korolzcuk and Graff, 2018.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Roger Horrocks, Masculinities in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies and Realities, (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010). See also: Pankaj Mishra, “The crisis in modern masculinity”, March 17, 2018,
  30. On this point there seems to be a similarity with Hungary where, in Petö’s words, “Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice…The conservative values are only fig leaves and behind them aren’t any values but power: economic, social and symbolic power”. Interview with Petö, “Nothing will go back”, LA Review of Books, 7 June 2017,
  31. For a further discussion of the fall of the Law of the Father, see Alev Ozkazanc, Amok Runners: Crisis of Patriarchy and Gender Violence in Turkey, July 14, 2019, The New Pretender, For a similar analysis of the rise of gender violence as the sign of the crisis of patriarchal governance in Turkey see: D. Kandiyoti, “Locating the politics of gender: patriarchy, neo-liberal governance and violence in Turkey”, Research and Policy on Turkey, 1:2 (2016).
  32. See the articles in the Special Forum: Making Gender Dynamics Visible in the 2016 Coup Attempt in Turkey, Middle East Women’s Studies, March (2017) 13:1; see the articles by Salih Can Açıksöz “He is a lynched soldier now”, and by Zeynep Kurtuluş Korkman, “Castration, Sexual Violence and Feminist Politics in Post-coup Attempt Turkey”.
  33. For violence against women in Turkey see: Yakın Ertürk, Violence without Borders: Paradigms, Policies and Praxis Concerning Violence against Women (Women’s Learning Partnership, 2016). Domestic Violence Against Women in Turkey, Main Report,, Selda Taşdemir Afşar, “Violence against Women ad Femicide in Turkey”, European Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, vol.1, no. 5 (2016). Grevio Baseline Evaluation Report Turkey, Council of Europe (2018).
  34. For a detailed examination of child abuse and incest see: Alanur Çavlin, Filiz Kardam and Hanife Aliefendioğlu, Ailenin Karanlık Yüzü: Ensest (Metis, 2018).
  35. Serdar Arseven, “Cinsiyet Eşitliğine Dayalı okul da ne demek?” Milat Gazetesi, [What is so called “gender equality-based schooling”? Milat newspaper.] 4 Ocak (2019), All newsreports by Faruk Arslan in Yeni Akit are on this subject.
  36. For the saliency of resentment, victimization and rage for understanding the spirit of the new Turkey see: Nagehan Tokdoğan, Yeni Osmanlıcılık:Hınç, Nostalji,Narsisizm (Iletisim 2018) and Zafer Yılmaz, “The AKP and the spirit of the new Turkey: Imagined victim, reactionary mood and resentful sovereign”, Turkish Studies, vol.18. no.3 (2017): 482—513.
  37. See the blog by Sema Maraşlı, Cocuk ve Aile [The child and the family], See the blog by Ümit Şimşek, “br güncelleme öyküsü: toplumsal cinsiyet eşitliği” [“The story of a islamic updating: gender equality”], 19 Eylül 2018,
  38. Ergün Yıldırım, “Toplumsal Cinsiyet Kabilesinin Şaşkınları” [“The bewildered people of the tribe of gender”], Yeni Şafak, January 6, 2018.
  39. Jenny Gunnarsson Payne and Sofie Tornhill, “Düşmanın Düşmanı: Queerfemimist antikapitalist tasavuurlara duyulan ihtiyaç ve toplumsal cinsiyet karşıtı politikalar” [“The enemy of the enemy: the need for queer feminist and anticapitalist imaginations and anti-gender politics”], KAOS GL no.163 (2018).
  40. Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History”, New Left Review 56, (March April 2009): 97—117. Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced. How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009); Sylvia Walby, The Future of Feminism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).
  41. C. Mohanty, Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique. Signs, 38 (4): (2013): 967—991. Nira Yuval Davis, “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics”, European Journal of Women’s Studies, no.13 (2006).
  42. Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History”, New Left Review 56, (March April 2009): 97—117. Fraser, N (2013). “How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden -and how to reclaim it”. The Guardian, 14 October 2018. Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, (London, Verso, 2013). Johanna Oksala, “Feminism and Neoliberal Governmentality”, Foucault Studies, no. 16 (2013): 32—53. For a discussion of the Turkish case see Betül Yarar, 2018.
  43. For a sound critique of Fraser see: Özlem Aslan and Zeynep Gambetti, Provincializing Fraser’s History: Feminism and Neoliberalism Revisited, History of the Present, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Summer 2011): 130—147
  44. See Grzebalska, Kovats, and Petö, 2017 and E. Kovats and M. Poim, (eds.), 2015.
  45. Petö, “Resistance is not enough,” 2017.
  46. “We won’t keep quiet again: the women taking on Viktor Orban”, December 21, 2018,
  47. Korozcuk, Interview with A. Graff and E. Korozcuk, “Is it the swan song of patriarchy or the beginning of a new ice age?”,, March 7, 2018.
  48. Paulo Biglieri, “Arjantin’deki Yasal Kürtaj Savaşı: Politik bir Mücadelenin Anlamları ve İmleyenleri” [“The legal battle for abortion in Argentina: the meanings of a political struggle and its significations”], KAOS GL, 163, Kasım Aralık (2018).
  49. For Di Marco, see Biglieri, 2018.
  50. E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, 1985). See also E. Laclau, The Populist Reason (Verso, 2018).
  51. An Interview with Mouffe, “America in Populist Times”, December 15, 2016.
  52. There is rich literature in Turkish on Gezi movement. For the main sources in English, see David Isabel and Kumru F. Toktamış (eds). Everywhere Taksim: Sowing the Seeds for a New Turkey at Gezi. (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2015). Günes Koc and Harun Aksu (eds) Another Brick in the Barricade: The Gezi Resistance and its Aftermath. (Bremen, Weiner Verlag für Sozialforschung, 2015). Umut Özkırımlı, (ed) The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey # Occupygezi, (Palgrave Pivot, 2014).
  53. For a similar analysis see: Günes Koç, “A Radical Democratic Reading of the Gezi Resistance and the Occupy Gezi Movement,” Another Brick in the Barricade, 2015. Serhat Karakayalı and Özge Yaka, “The Spirit of Gezi: the Recomposition of Political Subjectivities in Turkey”, New Formations, (2014):117—135.
  54. For women and LGBT presence in Gezi protests as well as gendered analysis see Zeynep Gambetti, “Gezi as the Politics of the Body” in Umut Özkırımlı, (ed.) (2014), 89—102. Öykü Potuoğlu-Cook, “Hope with Qualms: A Feminist Analysis of the 2013 Gezi protests”, Feminist Review, 109, (2015): 96—123. Zeynep Kurtuluş Korkman and Salih Can Açıksöz, “Erdoğan’s Masculinity and the Language of the Gezi Resistance, Jadaliyya, June 22, (2013). On LGBT presence in Gezi see: Emrah Yıldız, “Cruising Politics: Sexuality, Solidarity and Modularity after Gezi”, in Umut Ozkırımlı (ed) (2014): 103—121. For Kurdish women’s politics see; Nadje Al-Ali and Latif Tas, “War is like a Blanket: Feminist Convergences in Kurdish and Turkish Women’s Rights Activism for Peace”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol.13, no.3 (2017).
  55. Interview with Mouffe, “America in Populist Times”, The Nation (2016). Available at

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