The women of Gezi Park are protesters, not pin-up girls

Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan wants to cast women as mothers, sisters and wives, and those who oppose him should be careful that their imagery doesn’t do the same.

On 31 May in Taksim Square, a photographer captured the moment a beautiful woman was drenched with tear gas at point blank range. Positioned somewhere between that Tiananmen Square photo and Delacroix’s "Liberty Leading the People", she quickly became the emblem of Turkish unrest – her image was reproduced on badges, graffitied on shop walls, and prompted a whole heap of marriage proposals from rebellious romantics. Travel south to the city of Izmir and you can fleetingly assume the revolutionary mantle yourself by sticking your head through a poster with her portrait on.

Ceyda Sungur is a reluctant icon at best; the academic-cum-pin-up girl politely reminded the world media in her one statement that she was not alone in getting gassed that day. Unsurprisingly, her modesty has had little impact. Whereas most portrayals of male protesters in Istanbul have hinted at borderline anarchistic tendencies (fists clenched, face covered, flag flying and preferably flames) women have been used to emphasise the occupation’s quasi-religious righteousness. A second photograph of a woman standing, arms outstretched, as the jet from a water canon hits her, has grown via social media into some similarly striking internet memes.

To be fair, it’s not just the young and beautiful who have captured hearts in Istanbul.  Last week, a picture of a line of middle-aged women holding hands went viral. According to the slogan, they had formed a human barricade to shield their children from the onslaught of the police. It was a rousing image, but ultimately a lie. These were indeed mothers, but the line was more of a euphoric conga than front line defense. I can say this with some certainty, because I was among the crowd who cheered them on their way. 

Is there anything wrong with a healthy dose of rousing iconography? Maybe not, but having spent time in the now dismantled Gezi Park occupation, it’s hard not to wonder whether the potency of its female symbols wasn’t at best a distraction, at worst an obstruction, when trying to grasp the impact women really made.

Speaking to women in the occupation, the lady in red was generally met with media savvy resignation. "This is just advertising," an exhausted looking videographer told me, "and advertising always uses beautiful women." Her friend agreed nonchalantly: "Every movement needs symbols, I guess."

When it comes to the idea of women as mothers, things are more ambiguous. While the lady in red was largely a symbol which popular culture picked up and ran away with, motherhood became a rallying cry within the occupation itself. And in doing so it split women’s opinion right down the middle.

Mothers joining their children in Taksim square undeniably provided some of the movement’s most rousing rallying cries. Erdogan besought mothers to take their children home, and so they chanted that the mothers of the police should take theirs home instead. Erdogan described the protesters as çapulcu (looters) and so they shouted "the mothers of the çapulcu are here with them." The applause was deafening, and it was hard not to feel moved. In fact many women I spoke with insisted that it was the strong presence of mothers which made this protest so hard to ignore. "It is because families are here that the government cannot say that this is just a protest by extremists,"one of the women leading the chanting later told me. "It means we’re not marginal."

The problem is that one of the main reasons people took issue with Erdogan’s government in the first place was his apparent inability to treat women as individuals outside of the family unit. If you’re rallying against a Prime Minister who is on record stating that all women should have three children, and who has done his upmost to ban the morning after pill and limit abortion, shouldn’t you be cautious about embracing mothering imagery? Evran Kocabıçak, who spent two weeks manning the camp’s feminist stand, thought so. "When the big mothers’ demonstration happened, people rushed over and asked us why we weren’t participating," she said with a wry smile. "I told them because I came here as an individual, not as a role."

Unless we’re going to bulldoze the Statue of Liberty, the heady symbolism of "woman as nation" isn’t going to lose its pulling power any time soon, but we shouldn’t let it eclipse issues of larger significance. This was a protest whose women should be remembered for being powerful, not pretty. When women raised concerns early on about possible harassment in the occupation, they organised a march and flyering campaign to make it clear it wouldn’t be tolerated, and it worked; in a camp crammed with over 1,000 adrenaline pumped rebels there was, women told me, an atmosphere of complete security and respect. When protest chants labelled Erdogan the son of a whore, women held seminars to explain the issues the insult prompted. And when similarly unimaginative graffiti surfaced, they methodically painted over it. It didn’t come back. "This is a new movement so created a new language for it," Rüya Kurtuluş told me, dismounting from the platform where she has just been issuing a televised rallying address to the crowds.

None of this would make for a particularly striking photo essay. Most likely, it’s pretty much impossible to capture a mood, still more an absence, on film. But we need to find some way to mark the achievements of the women in Gezi Park, because otherwise we do them the disservice of reducing their fortnight long struggle to an "any old icon" scrap book of aesthetically appealing dissent. "Here women fought with men, resisted with them, and changed their opinions," a woman wearing a teargas canister as a necklace told me. "I hope that is the lesson that people remember."

Harriet Fitch Little is a writer based in Beirut, with a focus on women's issues and social commentary. Follow her on Twitter @HarrietFL

The image of the "woman in red" being tear gassed went around the world.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Show Hide image

United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.