Seda Kalem, an academic at Istanbul Bilgi University, published an article entitled “Feminist Mücadelenin Üniversitedeki Ayağı: CTS Birimleri” [Feminist Struggle at University: PSA Units] in Fe Dergi. In the article, she presents experiences of eight people working in this field and examines the relationship between the prevention of sexual harassment units at universities and feminism. We interviewed Seda about the article.
We hope that this interview will contribute to further documentation and sharing of PSA experiences and rally more support around them.
Can we get to know you a bit? What’s your relationship to PSA ? And certainly, could you explain what PSA is?
I am the coordinator of the Unit for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Assault at Istanbul Bilgi University. The unit was founded in 2015, and similar to other PSAs, we try to provide support for the constituents of the university around issues related to sexual harassment and/or assault. Our unit is composed of a 5-member council. Most of our time is devoted to evaluation of applications, and making administrative, legal, psycho-social support referrals in accordance with the needs. Although they do not take place as often as we’d like them to, we conduct trainings and engage in activities to raise awareness around sexual violence at the university. The unit’s objectives are to provide support and to engage in preventive activities within this framework.
PSA are administrative units that were founded in the past 20 years. They are mostly the products of initiatives voluntarily undertaken by professors who partake in the feminist movement, but there are cases where the units were set up following administrative requests. Goals of the PSA units are the same, even when they have different organizational structures and methodologies: providing support services for survivors of sexual violence incidents that could take place among people studying or working together and fighting for an anti-sexist academic culture. Sexual violence and sexism are immense social, cultural, and political issues that need to be addressed in and beyond universities. We believe that a greater social transformation is possible and will be triggered by the institutional transformation universities will have to undergo, as we continue to fight against the forms of sexual violence and sexism experienced at universities. In this regard, universities hold a pivotal role in society by providing a space for the young population to socialize.
The title of your article is “Feminist Struggle at University: PSA Units”. First, what motivated you to write this article? Secondly, why did you want to link PSAs to feminism- instead of exploring the units as part of institutionalization processes at universities or gender studies within academics? Or would you consider PSAs an addition to these options?
I guess, my starting point was my own questioning around these issues since I am an active member of a PSA. With time, I started to reflect on the place units held within the feminist movement, and feminist activism. I was curious about the visibility of our actions, and if they were not so visible, what was the reason behind that. I was concerned about building a stronger network of solidarity around PSAs. Perhaps these questions were triggered by how much I cared about the PSA activities undertaken at several universities −currently there are over 20 active units− each according to its capacity and resources, and in solidarity with another; and how strongly I believe that the perception of PSA activities as part of the feminist struggle would only make them stronger.
After all, there are people who take an issue with sexual violence in academia, and find themselves confronting university administrations, YÖK (The Council of Higher Education), and the government to fight against sexual violence, and never give up on their dream of one day the university will be a place free from sexism and violence despite all the hardship they have gone −and continue to go− through in the past 20 years. We are those people, whose lives have intersected with feminist thought and movement, and who are devoted to the PSAs with our hearts and souls because we are affected by our “feminist stubbornness” as Sara Ahmed would have put it. I think that’s why I ended up writing about PSAs.
What are the linkages between the gains of the feminist and women’s movement in Turkey and the prevention of sexual harassment units at universities? Could you explain that further?
Right, like I’ve mentioned before, the women who take on these initiatives are somehow linked to the feminist movement – sometimes, just at an academic level. Rarely, these units are established by administrations themselves to serve different ends, and it simply means that a person gets appointed to serve at these units. In fact, there is always an administrative appointment to these units, but those appointed, they, already approach the post in a feminist manner. Most of the time, they are appointed because they have put pressure on the administration and convinced them to establish these units. That does not necessarily mean that they are active in feminist organizing outside of the university or activists. They might not be a part of organizing practices of the women’s movements, either. From this perspective, they might fall outside of the visible and recognized forms of activism and performances of the women’s movement in Turkey. I consider this point quite important with regards to feminism permeating to universities in different forms – a point raised a lot during the interviews. It was repeatedly said that the founders of these units did not see themselves as feminists or that they had to deter from engaging in public feminist performances so they could protect these units. On the other hand, it is obvious that the work carried out, support provided, and solidarity shown through these units are feminist endeavors. That’s how I saw them anyway; the women I interviewed also made remarks supporting that idea. I believe that the PSAs theoretically and performatively expand the feminist space through this framework.
You have spoken to eight representatives of different universities in Turkey. How did you identify your interviewees? Where do you situate your sampling with regards to other research conducted on this subject (establishing prevention of sexual harassment units and the struggle for institutionalizing them) in Turkey? Do you think your sampling is representative of all units or fall short of that? And finally, what are the common problems, concerns that surfaced in your interviews?
The interviewees are all colleagues of ours with whom we work on, discuss about, and stand in solidarity with PSAs. I believe the eight women I have interviewed are quite active both at the units they represent and personally. Since we were conducting qualitative research, our main goal was not focused on having a representative sample. Despite that, I believe our findings draw a clear picture of the PSAs, thanks to our sampling, which consists of established units alongside nascent ones and reflects the dissimilarities between public and vakıf (owned by private foundations) universities and the regional differences. Moreover, these units adopt diverse operational methodologies.
Perhaps, it would be too pretentious to say a unit can set the example, but among the units we have interviewed, there were certain units –and women– that have paved the way for such activism, and others who have re-defined the framework of fighting against sexual violence at universities with their innovative approach and activities/programs. Within this context, I wish I could have included the units formed by women who openly identify as feminists. I could point at that as a shortcoming.
Sustainability was the most common concern that surfaced during the interviews. On one hand, sustainability is raised as growing concern at the backdrop of a political power that targets feminist gains and university administrations that –directly or indirectly– try to intimidate the movement; on the other hand, sustainability comes up as a form of exhaustion that stems from inadequate support the units receive within the universities. Often during the interviews, we heard that the units were standing thanks to a small number of committed staff members. Since my experience has been similar, I could say that the latter concern takes a larger toll than the struggle against the executive and administrative powers. I think we need to think about why researchers, professors that define themselves as feminists, or work on gender, are not more involved in these units; and why these units do not garner more support. I don’t think the problem at hand is related to the workload, since the workload we are talking about can only decrease by dividing it.
After all, it’s a constant struggle to protect this field and the units. Doesn’t that attest to that we cannot think of PSAs independent from feminist history and struggle?
Based on your research and observations, if you were to evaluate the connection between feminist academic works and the movement, would you say that there is a “stronger” interaction between the academia and the movement than the PSA units? Is academia and the movement more actively engaged than the units and the movement? Or is the relationship different for other reasons? What do you think?
In lieu of comparing the strength of the interaction, perhaps, we should consider the quality and transformational impact of the interaction. I believe the interaction between academia and the movement is stuck in certain patterns. Law is a good example of that. The feminist discourse produced in the legal field rarely has an impact on activism- even academic feminism. Even today, it is difficult to find an article on feminist law in a feminist collection. Law gets its proper edition and gets treated as a subject on its own. When I think about the historical connection between feminism and the law, I would have expected academic feminism in the study of law –or let’s call it “feminist legal scholarship”– to be much more visible and impactful in terms of the transformations it should have triggered. So, we can think about the interaction between PSAs and the movement from this larger perspective, in terms of the obstacles academic feminism runs into.
On the other hand, the knowledge and experience accumulated at the universities in the past 20 years can inform other fields and trigger a greater transformation in the struggle against sexual violence today – which was voiced during the interviews as a hope for the field. That translates into the knowledge and experiences of PSAs becoming mainstream and, therefore, securing the role of PSA units within feminist struggle.
According to your argument, there isn’t a close relationship between the feminist and women’s movements and PSA units. One of the important reasons for that, in your opinion, is the lack of communication/interaction over social media. How do you explain this situation, or better put, what the article defines as fundamentally missing?
I conclude the article with the following observation: PSAs are not that visible on social media, and in cases they are, they are not followed by activist accounts of the feminist movement. In other words, it is as if what PSAs do or say does not reach the feminist movement. This statement could be further developed. To develop a better understanding of the relationship between the PSAs and the movement, we should be asking the feminist organizations within and outside of the universities about the PSAs. That’s something that did not fall within the scope of the study.
Finally, I think we should be thinking about the potential of young feminists at universities to transform the movement. I don’t think we have fully grasped what digital feminism or millennial feminism means. What I mean by that is we should be questioning the transforming feminist discourse and method, and its impact, in conjunction with the need for an intergenerational dialogue – which is also something I value a lot. The discussion around public allegations of sexual violence could be a good starting point. I believe that we should be discussing public allegations in its various forms, along with its reasons and consequences, and how often it is used. These discussions, again, can be linked to the PSAs, and therefore, can develop a new discourse around the boundaries of academic feminism and activism.
 The Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Assault Units at universities are called PSA units in short. The abbreviation in Turkish is “CTS”.
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan