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