Seeing the pervasiveness of the relations which feed on inequality, abuse, and sexual violence and the few number of relationships that do not hurl into flirting violence do not mean that we should expand the definition of sexual abuse or demand the most severe punishment but rather recognize that inequal relationships are not isolated but systematic incidents and not be a part (not only the “victim” but also the “witness”) of these relations.
Disclosures and forms of masculinity have been on our agenda for a while. Majority of the discussions which mostly took place on social media and partially in online meetings focus on, reasonably, what the principle “woman’s testimony is fundamental” means, the responses to objections directed against this conviction, and the efforts to explicate feminism all over again. That said, in exchanges between the feminists, the discussions about disclosure as a method is still wanting. There are of course various reasons behind this, and I begin this piece with the belief in the importance of rethinking, over and over again, these methods with a feminist lens.
I think it is necessary to clarify one thing at the onset: Whereas “woman’s testimony is fundamental” is a feminist principle, disclosure is a feminist method. These are two different things. “Woman’s testimony is fundamental” has been pervasively adopted by feminists as a principle after many years; however, disclosure as one of the methods does not automatically follow from this principle and it is open to discussion and transformation by feminists. That said, for sure, we can also discuss the principle, and it is not possible to conduct discussions without referring to the principle, but in this piece, I want to make some points drawing on the recent disclosures. I think that raising our voice at the face of different forms of masculinity and revealing and disclosing these forms are indispensable to feminism. Here, I suggest that when we discuss disclosure in terms of feminist politics, we focus more on nuances and primarily focus on disclosure’s relation to women’s empowerment and emancipation.
History and context
Disclosure is a method used in feminist politics; however, a discussion on disclosure should not be reduced to a discussion on method. As far as I am concerned, it is important to note that this is also a discussion on feminist history. If we approach from this lens, we can both come up with a comprehensive evaluation and re-think disclosure which is not only a matter of recent years. As someone who has been involved in feminist movement since 2008, I want to relate some of my observations based on my experiences and what I witnessed.
What was the place of disclosure in organized feminist movement? Is disclosure, as is frequently said, “the scream of women who recourse to it as a last resort?” How can we take a look at the context of this last resort?
To begin with, disclosing masculinity in left/oppositional/socialist politics, in other words, in structures where organized/institutionalized politics are pursued, has always been an issue. In the 1990s, feminists encouraged women not to cover for violence and to expose it with the Purple Pin campaign, and the violence of inner circles was also included in this call. When we go back to the 2010s, we also see certain members of these organizations being disclosed one after another. In the case of KESK, the demand to operationalize certain mechanisms to address the case of a member, who occupied an administrative position, abusing a woman member, has been discussed among various political organizations. However, when the discussion hit a dead-end despite the struggle of women who are KESK members, the woman who was exposed to abuse and a group of non-affiliated feminists came together and decided to follow the path of disclosure. The disclosure was the act of a feminist group, and the demand was to direct any responses not to the woman who was exposed to abuse but to the group itself; what was requested was the operationalization of the institutional mechanisms which were available. What happened? Despite the disclosure, which was made as a “last resort”, demanded the operationalization of the mechanisms, this demand was left unanswered, and during the following months, a series of discussions were held where women from different organizations and feminists confronted each other. The woman who was exposed to abuse, to put it mildly, was not at all content with this process; disclosure did not bring about justice and “happiness”. This form of disclosure was common to the way disclosure was organized at the time, it affected the processes in many other organizations, and had positive and negative consequences. During these discussions, it became clear that oppositional organizations are also the spheres of feminist struggles.
Another example pertains to a MA student who was disclosed with the accusation of transphobic violence by a group who called themselves Feminists at Boğaziçi University. At the time, CİTÖK (Sexual Harassment Prevention Office) has already been established at the university, and the students who did the disclosure were asked by the office about why they do not use the institutional mechanisms. The group replied saying that their aim is to make sure that this person is disclosed within the friend circles and treated accordingly. This was more or less the path disclosure led to, and the perpetrator was to a large extent excluded from the social and political circles.
A second issue concerns the disclosure of private relations within left/oppositional circles. In other words, it was about the unequal forms of masculinity produced in the common circles and relations where feminists were also involved. Although these discussions resemble those conducted in Boğaziçi University in terms of targeting relations in the social and political environment, the text entitled “Expanding the Narrow Spaces” which was signed by 10 feminists in 2014, constituted a good and more comprehensive example of the discussions. It was a proclamation which argued that while we tackle the circles which include pro-feminist men, we should also focus on ourselves, on our positions, and the forms of relations which we can or cannot establish. This text, which first and foremost underlined the roles and responsibilities of women, was a call for carrying the statement “the personal is political” beyond being a motto and for creating a link between the private and social experiences without being hurled into conservative and moralizing norms.
I am giving these examples of disclosure because I want to make us remember the history of issues pertaining to “social circles” and to remind us that both the organization of disclosures and demands put forward through these processes vary. My other motivation is to rethink and tackle from another perspective the questions that were brought forward in the 2014 text about morality, sociality, and the positions we occupy.
I will continue with the period following the years 2013-2014 when feminist organizations such as Amargi, Istanbul Feminist Collective, and Socialist Feminist Collective disintegrated and were replaced by posts shared on social media and feminist sites. I also want to point out that I do not see the disintegration of feminist organizations simply in terms of nostalgic value. The disintegration of feminist organizations and the decrease in their numbers entailed the limitation in spaces where people were able to come together and engage in comprehensive discussions and debates on feminist politics and criticism. Today, social media constitutes an important development in terms of its primary role in feminist politics.
Information and justice
I think that the most important aspect of “woman’s testimony is fundamental” is its force to reveal the truths against the male dominance which have been changing and transforming over the years. In other words, the declared forms of masculinity-domination and femininity and how these forms combine to create a system. It is a system some features of which reiterate while others change and diversify. These are forms of masculinity, and even if not every form of masculinity necessarily is or has to be a crime, they still render each other and a system possible. What we do with these forms in terms of our demands is the second question. The first question pertains to where we locate the information that we gather in contemporary feminist politics. Can we assign the statements any other place than the status of “disclosure”? What does feminist movement do with the information that comes from disclosure, or what should it do? What do these statements mean when we take into consideration the historicity of “the personal is political”? I think this line of questioning is important to break the homogenous structure that comes to mind when we think of disclosure. Although we say that every case is unique, when we contemplate on the disclosure debate and produce arguments, we may risk assuming that the nature of the statement-crime-justice triad is the same in each case.
Another facet of thinking about information pertains to the relationship between disclosure and demand and justice. We should also think about what we give and get in return when we make public certain information. In the post-truth era, what does it mean to disseminate information as we pass from silence to “let everyone know” phase? For instance, what do we aim for when we say, “I want my teachers to know, the whole institution to know, everyone on social media to know what happened to us”? What happens when everyone knows? Are the expectations met by disclosure, or what are the expectations in the first place? Do the women who disclose specify what kind of justice they demand? What do they say about what should happen when they disclose certain information? Or do we approach disclosure as if there is justice and results? For instance, will the perpetrator be excluded from the social circles, banned from a social media platform, dismissed from an institution, suspended from an organization? Or will other mechanisms become operationalized? Will feminists stop talking with the perpetrator? Is there a specific period of pardon? Is there a place to discuss all these questions? Who can discuss these? Who makes the decisions? I guess it is possible to see that these are questions with no straightforward answers.
One of the best examples that I can think of is the Susma Bitsin Platform, which was established in 2018 after a series of disclosure waves by women from the film and TV series industry. When we think about the relationship between information, disclosure, and justice, in this particular example, we see that the disclosure process has evolved into a ground which would empower women. It is a movement and a field of doing politics based on information with a far-reaching purpose. From here I want to move to the issue of empowerment.
Empowerment, support mechanisms, and organizing
When we take a look at the disclosures that have recently taken place on social media, we see that the disclosure process is initiated by one account and supported by others. This process shows us that today the disclosure process can take a more alienating form. How does disclosure render women powerless? Or in what form of powerlessness does it take shape?
Keeping in mind as a question the above mentioned argument about disclosures being the “last resort”, I propose to take a look at the disconnection between individual pursuit of justice and systematic struggle.
When there are no supportive social or political mechanisms, how we experience “victimization” due to an incident as well as our demands and expectations from the others can be shaped by this absence. In other words, these shortcomings affect how we evaluate an incident we are exposed to, what we expect as an outcome, and whom we wish to take action for it. If there are supportive social or political mechanisms, for instance, if single or divorced women are seen by the state, if women living alone are not targeted, if young women who have succeeded in university exams and choose to live outside of their parents’ home are supported, then women who are living their lives outside the heteropatriarchal family would not be hurled into a disadvantaged position. Their complaints would not be silenced but known since there would be an interlocutor to act upon those complaints. I am not only talking of state policies. I also refer here to the friend circles in the sense that men who mansplain, manipulate, and commit sexual violence would not be accepted and protected but excluded from these circles. When subjected to dating violence, family would not be another issue to deal with; premarital or extramarital relations can be told to the family and the person who is exposed to violence would know that others would be supportive and thus not feel alone. In addition, we can talk about the areas where we can establish solidarity relationships and support mechanisms. I think that in a general state of not feeling safe and secure with no such relationships, areas, or mechanisms if the act of disclosure is limited to social media and defined in and of itself as a method of doing feminist politics, then people would be doomed to be alone and leave others alone. We can fight oppression and become less affected by oppression only if we can strengthen our oppressed position by means of other positions. Our demand for justice and our expectations of others are also affected by this. Only then, we can define our relation with law in terms of the legal sphere and limit this relation with struggles in this sphere and look for power and strength in other dynamics and build our own politics. We can then account for what we cannot share with our families and rebel against all that we allow to take place in our circles. This way, flirting violence, humiliating behavior, persistent demands would not be relations in which we try to exist.
On the other hand, this isolating and unsafe fragment from patriarchy today tell us about the ways in which women experience flirting, what they go through when they say no to sexual abuse (since saying no is not a one time thing, you may say no to your boss and this is a process with a background and an aftermath), how they experience sexuality for the first time, how they reach accurate and relevant information, why they remain silent in cases of abuse and why they continue despite abuse (for instance as students, teachers, employees, interns, etc.), and, finally, the context in which women create their own definitions and voice their demands. Revealing this context and relating this experience to others would be empowering for a newly hired graduate, a student leaving home, a woman who is experiencing her first relationship. I think this, and the holistic approach we create starting from our own circles are one of the genuine ways to achieve solidarity in cases of disclosure. In this way, the relationships of support which we establish can be more open and negotiable, and do not rapidly hurl into hostility.
I take a detour now and return to the issue of morality. I tried to explain how experiences of masculinity can be even more hurtful in this insecure and isolated world. As we discuss what is going on within this framework, we sometimes find ourselves taking shelter in morality. While raising our voices against unequal relations, we also end up generating new norms. Norms make us feel safe in a way, and we sometimes come up with certain roles and stick to them. But this is not something that ultimately empowers women. For sure, I am not talking about setting the terms of the debate in such a way to discuss whether a certain act was actually an invitation to flirt or harassment. However, bad relationships exist, maltreatment exists, bad sexual relations exist, and what I am trying to suggest there that we should be able to hold patriarchy responsible for this. By bad, I am talking about a male dominated, unequal, and painful relationship. In other words, if a man does not see the other person as his equal, he will not experience sexuality and romantic relationships equally, he will not be curious of the other person or respect the other person. Most likely, the woman involved in this heterosexual relationship will be vexed by what she experiences, but she will continue to think that this is what a relationship is. We see that this is a common experience among women. The point here is not to normalize sexual violence or rape, but seeing the pervasiveness of the relations which feed on inequality, abuse, and sexual violence and the few number of relationships that do not hurl into flirting violence do not mean that we should expand the definition of sexual abuse or demand the most severe punishment but rather recognize that inequal relationships are not isolated but systematic incidents and not be a part (not only the “victim” but also the “witness”) of these relations. I am not only talking about not being a part of such relationships, but I also suggest that we should not be approving these kinds of relationships when our friends are involved in them. I am also talking about the possibility of walking out of these “bad” experiences having figured out what we want and to what we can say no. Thus, every disclosure statement would not get stuck in a crime and punishment scheme and get melted in the same pot. Not everything experienced would be rape and every relationship would not end up being hurtful. What I mean by this is that these are related to not remaining silent and disclosing inequalities in different ways.
So, whose issue is disclosure really? Does it concern all women? Do the disclosures on social media mean something in the lives of every woman? Is there a link between the murders of many women in this country and disclosure? These are some of the questions that have been voiced in recent discussions. It seems to me that directly placing many acts –from humiliating behaviors to sexual abuse– which are revealed by disclosures under the harsh burden of femicides is heavy and wrong. Femicide is the last stage of male violence and different forms of masculinity can only exist systematically to the extent that they make each other possible. But saying that “in a country where femicide is such a harsh reality, women can only make their voices heard through disclosures” can also weaken women by causing despair and renders the spaces of struggle –particularly the everyday struggles– invisible. Moreover, disclosure, just like femicide, is a global issue and every context, different forms of femininities, gains and ways of organizing have their own nuances.
Politically opposing femicide is the common ground of the feminist movement. When we utter our opposition to femicide as a political statement, we do not close the gaps between our daily lives. When we draw a direct line between a systemic analysis and a particular woman’s experience, it is once again the experiences of that woman that are ignored and rendered invisible. When disclosure is perceived by the feminist public as a one-shot move, that is, when it is stuck in the aim of making the perpetrator get the highest punishment or excluded from the social circles, what is systemic and collective might end up disappearing, and we end up fighting against one person. This is a risk where complex details quickly dominate the discussion, the women who are struggling subjects are limited to a woman –from the plural to the singular– and the system we are fighting against is reduced to a single man. In my opinion, it is important to establish the link between different forms of male violence, but it must also be kept in mind that this does not automatically render our experiences of femininity identical. Let me thus emphasize once again the importance of locating the information revealed by testimonies and disclosures somewhere within the spectrum of dominance and doing something with the revealed information (apart from taking the issue to the level of law and legal penalties). Here, making sense of women’s experiences and discussing which political positions they demand are as important as constructing a spectrum of male domination. The thing that will establish the relationship between a woman who tries to make her voice get heard on Twitter in order not to be killed and a woman who was harassed by her boss and had to quit her job, is demanding the mechanisms that do not work at the face of different forms of femininity and male violence, to work. In other words, in the former case the police officers fail to do what is necessary and the family sends the woman back to where she has been exposed to violence. In the second example, what is at issue is the lack of struggle against the sexist structure of workplaces, which involve multiple subjects. We have to take into consideration these nuances. This is what I mean by demanding a political position.
For all these reasons, I think conducting this discussion from the holistic perspective which I tried to sketch is important both for fighting the male dominated system and not reducing the issue of disclosure to a discussion of crime and punishment. Thus, we can assume a position other than “victim of violence” for ourselves. I think we all agree on the fact criminal law is not the only thing that can transform systematic inequality.
In conclusion, I guess I managed to explain why I care about dealing with disclosure from the perspective of women’s emancipation and empowerment. I see in the empowerment of women the movement that will make these forms of violence and masculinity less dominant in our lives and force patriarchy to retreat. I believe that the power to change the system lies in increasing the spaces for women where they can say no, turning this into a shared experience, and going beyond feminist politics stuck in some form of disclosure.
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan