December 19, 2020
There are certain local and transnational dynamics that have transformed Turkey feminism over the past decade. Some of the reflections of these dynamics can be listed as follows: (a.) Skeptical approach to the state and institutions and moving away from the logic of civil society, (b.) Organizing and campaigning through social media, (c.) Infiltrating other male-dominated social movements, and (d.) forming coalitions among women’s groups that both resist to loss of rights and oppose to interference with lifestyles. Similar reflections can be traced among feminisms in the other parts of the world and in current transnational campaigns such as #MeToo, Ni Una Menos, Las Tesis, and the International Women’s Strike.
In this article, I would like to discuss the effects of the process I’ve mentioned above in terms of “outer-system feminism”. I would argue that “outer-system” that was widely used in the feminism debates in Turkey in the past and that characterized the period of the late 1980s and early 1990s but lost its appeal over time, is a useful concept for determining and interpreting the agendas, organizational types and political strategies adopted by the feminist movement and keeps it up-to-date.
The issue of categorizing feminisms
Let me start with the question: “Where did the idea of reviving outer-system feminism come from?” I am interested in questions like “What is feminism, how is it defined, how is its agenda determined, who is its subject, who is called a feminist and who is not, how are feminists organized?”. For a while, I have specifically addressed myself to the categorizations of feminisms. This came from some of the dominant trends I‘ve determined within my work on the feminist movement and on the women’s movement in Turkey. One of these trends is the categorizations of the women’s movements based on prominent political affiliations across the country. For example, when you look at a master’s thesis written in the field of women’s studies, you may come across a women’s movement where women are categorized as “Kemalist women,” “Islamist women,” “Kurdish women,” or “feminists.” We do not encounter any women’s movement categorized as “vegan,” “queer,” or “anarchist,” because they are not categories at the national level, but at best they are the subject of individual studies.
We see a similar classification practice in the periodization of the feminist movement such as in the use of the metaphor “waves”: the Late Ottoman and Early Republic era as the First Wave, the Second Wave by the 1980s, and nowadays we are discussing the third and fourth waves. The intersections, overlaps, and intertwining between these waves are hardly prominent in academic studies. Let’s also admit that socialist women and organized women’s labor movements are not considered as part of these waves.
The second dominant trend is that the studies in the field of women and gender being generally focused on formal organizations, NGOs, platforms created by NGOs and the campaigns they run, that is, they mainly focus on the formations that address the state. However, when we say feminist movement – although we do not deny the importance of NGOs- there are also informal, small-scale, unprofessional, non-institutionalized organizations that are more spontaneous and that act on the basis of the subject. For example, I am talking about the organizations that are derived from the meetings organized on the occasion of the 8th of March or the 25th of November or through a series of debates that we organize as feminists, where the only concern is not the state, or AKP, or legal rights, debates where a total social transformation is discussed and that raise demands from the bottom up. These formations gain little ground for themselves within the literature, even if we know about them or discuss them amongst ourselves.
In my studies, I have adopted a method with two steps to balance these two dominant trends. In the first step, I approach feminism from a transnational perspective. We can define this perspective as designing the research in a multi-scale way and conducting the analysis in this way in order to comprehend the trends, connections and identities taking place at the local, national, regional and global levels at the same time. From this perspective, we can identify that different women’s groups in Turkey that have experienced different waves at different times, depending on the place they occupy in the map of historical and global inequalities. For example, Gezi was a turning point for the entire feminist movement, wasn’t it? Not actually! Not for the Kurdish women’s movement, for example. For them, the summer of 2015 was rather the turning point of the war that erupted between the 7th of June and November 1 elections. Or, when the achievements of the women’s movement are mentioned, only legal changes that have concerned “all women” have been listed. While talking about the achievements of the 2000s, for example, the abolition of the headscarf bans is not included in the changes in the new Civil Code, or in the changes in the Turkish Penal Code or the Constitution because this was a regulation that only concerned a group of women.
The second step of the method I’ve adopted is to distinguish between dominant feminisms and feminisms in the opposite public spheres, in a way that again coincides with the transnational perspective, instead of focusing on NGOs and formal processes. Opposite public spaces is a concept developed by feminists as Nancy Fraser and Rita Felski in the USA in the late 80s. For example, Fraser defined opposing public spaces as “areas of struggle in which people who belong to oppressed social groups produce and circulate opposing discourses about their identities, interests and needs”. In other words, we are talking about an area of struggle that operates in the triangle of state, civil society and global governance, that does not oppress existing inequalities and that tries to transform them by addressing them, in other words, approaching the issue of women’s oppression from a more intersectional point of view, unlike those who belong to the dominant social groups. It is this definition of public spaces of the counterpart that made me rethink the concept of outer-system feminism.
Outer-system feminism which emerged around the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, discussed both the woman being oppressed as a gender and the exploitation of women within capitalism, and emphasized the continuity between the private and the public spheres, and a conceptualization that was developed by women organized among the groups around the magazines such as Feminist, Kaktüs and Pazartesi. Outer-system feminism also coincides with the distinction between dominant and opposing public sphere feminisms I’ve mentioned above to the extent where it separates itself from egalitarian feminism or state feminism, which it considers as within-the-system. However, the concept of outer-system feminism was not widely used in Turkey, in other words it did not “become popular”. Gülnur Savran explained the reason for this in 2011, in the Amargi Feminism Discussions as;
Previously we used the definition “outer-system feminism” and this was not adopted by multiple feminists. I think those who react to the concept of “outer-system feminism” were right in one part, because the system that is commonly referred to was capitalism. Yet what we, as feminists, should mean when we say outer-system in the means of women’s liberation must be patriarchal capitalism or… capitalist patriarchy. Therefore, we need to consider the mutual dynamics of all these two systems, both capitalism and patriarchy.
In 2008, the Socialist Feminist Collective [SFC] was established with a similar analysis of patriarchal capitalism. The call made to feminists at the establishment said:
Feminism is a revolt against the common oppression of all women, despite all divisions based on class, nation, race, religious beliefs and gender identity. There are requirements to fight gender-based discrimination and oppression on a common ground with all women, and we always stand side by side in this. However, we think that the priority of socialist feminists today should be a political orientation that takes women’s labor to the axis by establishing a link between capitalism / neoliberalism and patriarchy, but immediately creates itself in the struggle against all oppression women have been experiencing. … We believe that independent feminist policies should be independent from men, capital and the state, as to put it in general terms.
The publication of Social Feminist Collective, Feminist Politics, started out in 2009 as a magazine that discussed the agenda and the needs of outer-system feminist politics. In my opinion, the concept of outer-system was developed in two directions within the discussions in this magazine. The first corresponds to what we now call Social Reproduction Feminism, what we then called the “paid-unpaid labor clamp.” In other words, it corresponds to the agenda of politicizing the social positions of household and care work and their consequences for women, including emotional labor. Second, outer-system feminism now distinguishes itself not only from egalitarian feminism and state feminism, but also from project feminism. It should also be noted at this point that the issue of project feminism is not limited to the debate outside the system, and that the dependence on institutions, funds and short-term, unsustainable, result-oriented initiatives are the common concerns of feminisms that have grown in opposite public spheres since the 2000s.
Current agendas, organizational types, political strategies of contemporary feminism
As I mentioned at the beginning, it is possible to talk about some developments in the 2010s that led to the need to update the conceptualization of outer-system feminism. We can observe the skepticism towards the state and institutions and digression from the logic of project/NGO fetishism as a growing trend throughout the world and in Turkey. With the rise of right-wing, conservative and authoritarian governments in recent years, especially young women are keeping aloof from making politics in institutions and institutions are already closing their doors to them. Thus, more and more women are organizing informally. The number of people and groups spreading from metropolises to provinces and from urban centers to neighborhoods who call themselves feminists or not, but who are ultimately fighting against male domination is rapidly increasing. Practices of organizing and running campaigns through social media reinforce this process. Thanks to social media, it is possible for women who do not have the opportunity, to reach out to a wider audience and to learn from each other’s experiences. In this way, it becomes easier to deal with the issue of women’s oppression in a more systemic way, to map patriarchal capitalism in a sense and to see its relation to racism, environmental crisis, and the binary gender regime.
On the other hand, the infiltration of feminism into other social movements affects the agendas and political strategies adopted by feminisms. As feminism infiltrates left-socialist movements, anti-racist movements, environmental movements, anti-militarist movements and – rarely – conservative movements, it turns into a more popular, mass social movement. At the same time, the practice of forming coalitions among different women’s groups that both resist loss of rights and that oppose interference with lifestyles is gaining momentum. In these coalitions, the emphasis on coexistence with differences, in line with the massification process become prominent instead of the strategy of achieving legal gains by pushing differences that emerge by being a woman aside – because this strategy doesn’t work anymore. We can say that the formation of Women Strong Together is one of the current examples of this strategy.
Rethinking the “outer-system”
I think the developments I mentioned above have enabled us to develop the concept of outer-system feminism in three directions. I can summarize the first as going beyond the continuity between the private and public spheres, revealing the private within the public sphere and continuing to emphasize the role of the public in the private. Interventions such as the #MeToo movement in general, and #SpeakUpToEnd, #StopYourSleep movements in particular show that women are determined not to back down in the areas of sexual harassment, rape, stalking and mobbing. This raises the need for a detailed discussion of the relationship between public and private spheres over the interventions for women’s physical and mental integrity as well as for their labor.
My second suggestion is about addressing the differences between women. “Outer-system” sees inequalities among women that are based on differences such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity as different manifestations of patriarchal capitalism. In this sense, it stands at a slightly higher level of abstraction. However, in recent years, we see that transnational campaigns such as the International Women’s Strike and Ni Una Menos, which have risen in the opposite public spheres, are beginning to displace the duality between class politics and identity politics. Similarly, in Turkey, it is possible to talk about the existence of a quest to include identity politics without pushing the analysis of capitalist patriarchy aside and to establish the collective political subject of feminism without exhausting the differences among women. This, in my opinion, points to the need to strengthening the “outer-system” by establishing a dialectical relationship between different levels of abstraction. For example, instead of seeing the Flormar resistance solely as the solidarity of feminists with working women, it is possible to consider it as a channel where the secular-religious duality has been overcome. Although we divide the politics of class and identity analytically, we must admit that they are almost always intertwined in our everyday practices of solidarity.
My third suggestion is not considering the dominant and outer-system feminisms as fronts set against each other. Based on the character of feminism being a movement in conflict within itself and keeps its actuality this way, it is possible for us to see the “dominant (within system)” and “outer-system” as tendencies that correspond to the two main veins of the feminist movement, often contrary to each other but sometimes complementing each other. The complicated relationship between dominant and outer-system feminisms has multiple manifestations in Turkey today. For example, while criticizing NGO/project feminism, with the increasing pressure on NGOs in recent years, we’ve started to look after them. Perhaps, with the influence of neoliberalism, we’ve resorted to becoming NGOs ourselves in to meet our financial needs. In a situation where all feminists are coded as enemies, traitors, terrorists, it is unrealistic to see NGOs as the strongholds of dominant feminism. Moreover, many NGOs are now starting out with highly opposing and with outer system agendas and with militants.
Let’s address another example as the feminist women who are active in left-socialist organizations but who also established their own self-organizations. Looking at this feminist group whose numbers have increased especially after Gezi, I observe that the perspective of “organization independent from the state, capital and men” is no longer the defining feature of outer-system feminism.
Finally, let me end the article by stating that the boundaries of “outer-system” are not stable, and that these boundaries are narrowed and expanded instantly according to the position of feminist subjects in politics. For example, when the government tries to restrict the right to abortion, many women of different involvements fill the opposite public spheres, however, when it comes to peace, we are not able to see a similar crowd. This requires us to consider the inner and outer systems in a multiple way, in other words, in the light of the positioning of feminisms within multiple systems.
The first draft of this article, with the title “Agendas, Organizational Types and Political Strategies in Turkey Feminism: Rethinking the ‘Outer-System’”, was presented on December 19, 2020, at the “Being an Immigrant Woman Within the Local Movement” conference organized by Havle Women’s Association. You can click here to access other texts of our Feminism Localization conference.