Asena Günal

It Started with the Modernisation Process…

Asena Günal is the project coordinator of Depo, an exhibition space and centre for critical debate in Istanbul. She co-edited the book 90’larda Türkiye’de Feminizm (Feminism in Turkey in the 1990’s, Iletisim, 2002). She is an activist and a member of the Socialist Feminist Collective.

I am wondering; Islam was a state religion in the Ottoman time and there was an official head of religion within the state, but the actual Islam took place in the houses and communities, and wasn’t controlled by the officials of the religion. Most spiritual things in the communities were taken care of by women, and not by priests like in many Christian traditions. Wasn’t the position of women quite strong then, because they had most say about the things that are important in any community, i.e. dying, giving birth, marriage and other things that have to do with life?
It’s true that things that have to do with life were reproduced by women. They were responsible of such things in the house, as well as for work connected to these things, like textile or other traditional crafts. It was a powerful position for women, but it restricted them to the private sphere. Women’s appearance in the public sphere increased with the modernisation process of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century. Growing up in a leftist secular family, I had a distance to religious things.
This changed when I went to university and started reading works by Muslim and leftist intellectuals who tried to understand Islamic practices. Also anthropological surveys about Turkey and all the Middle East and the Mediterranean region changed the vision of many women. We started to look at those practices around life and in the house, not as repressing, but as empowering women at the same time. But at the present moment, and especially now after the Justice and Development Party gained power, and women are again enclosed in their private sphere, the appearance of women in the public sphere is something we actually are struggling for. For instance there is still this “unjust provocation article”: When a man kills a woman who “provoked” him, the sentence for murder can be reduced. Provocation, who defines that? Men have been benefiting from this law for years. If you look at the judges and public prosecutors, they are still arguing from a very patriarchal perspective. They don’t think the private is the political. If the lawsuit is about a domestic fight, i.e. the prevailing opinion is: “You have to solve it among yourselves.”

So how do you define “public space” and “private space”? If the private becomes political and domestic practises are moving out into the public space, then…
…then women will automatically be in the public space? Yes, maybe. But you know, even though it empowers women, there should be a way to escape these traditional roles. Because women have a double burden now. With modernity, they started to work outside, but many of them are still managing all the work at home. Actually this is what the Kemalist modernisation process proposed. In Atatürk’s vision, women would go to high schools, to universities, they would be in the public sphere and by repressing all their womanhood, become like men and be the comrades of the new Turkish nation state. Although they still were responsible for the house and they still had to be very good mothers, and wives.

Because men didn’t and often until now don’t have any idea of that private space and the work connected to it there is still segregation. I think one solution is to incorporate men into that private space.
Maybe it’s a two-way thing, yes. Get the women more outside and the men more inside. But the situation is now ideal for men. Women now contribute to the family income, so the men don’t have to take all the responsibility for that anymore. After the neo-liberal transformation in Turkey, women started to work more, because the service sector is expanding, you can do it with women.

…and pay less.
Exactly, women are cheap labour. I am sure you have seen the sweatshops in textile neighbourhoods such as Zeytinburnu and Merter. There are workshops in the basement of the buildings where women work on textiles, and they are paid the least of all, working long hours. They are doing the work, which the ones, mostly men, higher up in the chain of outsourcing are getting the money for.
In her book Money Makes us Relatives, Jenny White describes how she worked with women producing embroidery for the big markets in small workshops or in their own houses. She explains that these women, even if they sometimes earned more than their husbands, still didn’t see this as real work, because in their conception, women can’t do “real” work. Especially, related to tradition, like embroidery. To change this internalized devaluation is another important issue.

Do you think that in order to change something about women’s rights, you also have to do some-thing about capitalist structures because they represent and intensify patriarchal cultures?
Yes, that might be true, but it is very complicated. The connection between the feminist movement and those women in Kartal trying to set up their own economical network you worked with on your project Olacak! is not strong. The feminist movement was very active in the late 1980s, women started to learn from both their own campaigns and activisms, and set up gender studies. But in the 1990s, there was a challenge of Kurdish, and of Islamic feminism. With the rise of the Kurdish movement, women became important activists in that movement, both critical of the patriarchal structures of their movement and of the exclusionary character of Turkish feminism. Also Islamic feminists were critical of the top-down attitude of Turkish feminism.

And that they were condemning monotheism?
Yes. Starting from 1990s onward, the process of institutionalisation started and the time of project feminism prevailed. The feminist movement lost its radical say and its charm for young women. But now it is changing. Young women are involved in feminist activism. There are different groups such as Women For Women Human Rights, Foundation for Women’s Solidarity, Amargi and our Socialist Feminist Collective, with women from different generations and backgrounds working together hand in hand.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Any Day Now, pages 90-93