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.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism