Finding Feminist Common Ground in US-Turkish Relations
By Defne Sarsilmaz | May 1, 2018
Recently-confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted back in 2016 that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey was a “totalitarian Islamist dictatorship”. Things have gone further south in recent months, mainly due to stark policy differences between the two governments on the Kurds in Northern Syria, along the Turkish border. Specifically, the U.S. continues to arm the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Northern Syria despite Turkey’s protests. Moreover, relations have been aggravated by the United States’ refusal to extradite the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of plotting the failed coup in July 2016. And relations hit a new low in fall 2017, when the arrest of two local U.S. Consulate employees in Istanbul caused a dueling visa ban between the two countries that lasted for two months.
U.S.-Turkish relations have many points of tension, but developments in the border region of Antakya may provide some common ground. These developments show a radically different side of Turkey not often represented in the U.S. media. At the grassroots, women activists from the ethno-religious Arab Alawite minority group are pushing for a more inclusive, secularist, egalitarian nation.
Shifting the Focus from Meta-Narratives
Meta-narratives help get the gist of bilateral relationship, but often tell a partial story. Shifting the focus to the local and the personal humanizes even global relationships. Analysis of seemingly peripheral politics in Turkey demonstrates that Turkey is far from a homogenous Muslim country, but is instead a complex, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation and the site of solid feminist activism.
Leftism and The Arab Alawites in Antakya
While there is a multitude of anti-hegemonic movements across Turkey, I want to hold a lens over Antakya, a border region home to the majority Arab Alawite population in the country. The Arab Alawites, once numerically dominant in the Antakya region, are now an ethno-religious minority group within the Turkish/Sunni-dominated state structure. Growing Islamist social and political forces have increased the politicization of Antakya’s largely secular Alawite community and Alawite women’s leadership has been a key driver of this process.
As a leftist and socialist stronghold, Antakya has historically offered a platform for women’s politicization.
Arab Alawites aligned themselves largely with leftist, socialist, and communist movements starting in the 1970s, because of their identification with these movements’ class-based struggles. The more secular Alawite culture also encouraged women’s increased economic, social and political agency. Today, Alawite women continue to work with the left, and are also determined to fight sexism within leftist organizations. Along with their allies from different ethnic and religious factions, they have started women’s branches and feminist initiatives within leftist organizations. One of these is the Socialist Re-foundation Party (SYKP), co-headed by a female and a male leader, and where female speakers get seven-minute floor time and male speakers get five minutes, as part of their “positive discrimination” policy. While this might not automatically account for real power, it is an important step in the right direction.
Resistance: Dress, Language and Public Engagement
Arab Alawism does not require women to cover their heads and many Alawites view this as a mark of progress. In the face of growing Sunni conservatism in Turkey, Alawite women use dress as a form of resistance in the public sphere. Teaching their kids Arabic and speaking Arabic in public spaces is also an act of resistance, in light of the periodic bans on Arabic since the founding of the Turkish Republic and the punishing of Arab students for speaking Arabic in the classroom.
Nationalism, across the globe, has often utilized women as symbols of the nation, but rarely has recognized their political agency.
Arab Alawite women’s social and political mobilization contests this nationalist vision, by centering on feminist understandings of socialism in the Middle East. This has meant developing coping mechanisms and resistance tactics, which aim to open up spaces for women’s empowerment. Domestic violence, second-class citizenship, cultural preservation, and war are all high on the political priority list of Alawite women. For example, the annual Evvel Temmuz Festival – an Alawite cultural tradition celebrated since 2000 – holds a women’s panel every year, bringing attention to different issues women face. In July 2014, they focused on domestic violence. Similarly, in March 2016 the Women’s Labor Collective in Antakya, hosted the panel “War – Violence – Women”. Panelists consisted of lawyers and human rights/feminist activists, who spoke on the need to build relationships with female Syrian refugees – bringing attention to the different plight faced by women and girls than that experienced by men and boys.
Public engagement through events like these are important to the growth and the diffusion of feminist ideology and action.
Women who participate, while principally Alawite, come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. They are exposed to feminist thought and learn in greater depth about how specific social and political phenomena impact women and girls. They connect with other women and realize they are not alone. They learn how to make demands on their community and the state.
For Arab Alawite women, the meaning of ‘liberation’ is multifaceted. First and foremost, it means collective liberation as women of Turkey. This entails the closing of the gender gap in all spheres of life, ending domestic violence, retaking control over their bodies, and having the freedom of expression that is not regulated by religion or patriarchy. Secondly, liberation includes a more integrative practice of Islam, one that recognizes Alawism, and other Islamic sects, as an interpretation of Islam, without calling it ‘deviant’.
Changing the U.S. Perception of Turkey
The feminist movement in Antakya demonstrates that the U.S. should not view Turkey as a homogenous Muslim country that is becoming less reliable as an ally. The geopolitical heterogeneity within Turkey should not go unnoticed. The level of grassroots women’s organizing that informs national political discourse is remarkable. Instead of turning a blind eye to these actors, the U.S. should find ways to work with them, invite them to the table, and support their efforts through different avenues.
— Defne Sarsilmaz, Ph.D. recently graduated from the Florida International University’s Global and Sociocultural Studies Department, where she focused on minority women’s political activism in Turkey
— Photo by Quinn Dumbrowski