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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage