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.
Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit