On February 22, 2019, in the Friday Gatherings at Feminist Space, Gülnur Acar Savran and Nükhet Sirman engaged in a dynamic dialogue about feminist politics and the subject of feminism along the axis of being a woman/being a feminist. They probed into the relationship between the subject constituted by feminist politics and social position and discussed whether the subject of feminism is singular or not.
Feryal Saygılıgil: Today we will converse on the following question with Nükhet Sirman and Gülnur Acar Savran: “is it possible for feminism to have a subject?” We have decided to divide this discussion into two parts. In the first part we will focus on the category of woman. We will talk about the stabilization and destabilization of the category of woman. Before this gathering, I went over a previous conversation in which Meltem Ahıska was also present. On that occasion, women who become feminists have been discussed and Nükhet had joined the discussion from a position which included other identities. Gülnur, on the other hand, had talked about the issue of political subject formation and the historicity of the category of woman. She had explained in detail that we do not mean a static category when we speak of the category of woman. We will talk about these matters once again. I leave the floor to Gülnur.
Gülnur Acar Savran: Thank you. I want to start by greeting everyone. Feryal mentioned our discussion which took place approximately eight years ago. However, this debate has a more recent history. In another Friday Gathering in this space, Nükhet asked me a question referring to one of my texts: If feminist discourse is constructing and reconstructing the category of woman on its own terms, is it possible to destabilize the category of woman? And I conveyed my take on the matter by replying that this is neither possible nor desirable for feminist politics. Afterwards, based on the example of the concept of honor killings, Nükhet argued that feminism has transformed this concept into femicide and thus destabilized the concept of honor killings. She concluded by saying “what we call categories are linguistic constructs, they cannot be objective; however, we should also not be scared of this”. Women who were present that day suggested that we should further engage in this discussion in another session. Today, we are here for that performance!
I want to start with clarifying what I understand from the category of woman. Patriarchy or male domination is one of the fundamental constitutive dynamics of the society in which we all live. We can list capitalism, heterosexism, nationalism, and racism as other constitutive dynamics. What do I mean by a constitutive dynamic? I refer to a dynamic that structures and shapes all the levels, spheres, and relations in a society. Patriarchy is one such power structure. It constitutes the women and men as the oppressed and oppressor social groups, consecutively. This binary gender hierarchy shapes all structures and spheres of society. Therefore, this binary gender hierarchy has rooted itself in all the spaces, it has an objectivity. I will shortly engage with this concept of objectivity in detail. What do I mean by levels and spheres? I mean the levels of social reproduction, family, working life, labor market, politics, law, and citizenship, which are very important for us, as well as the levels of culture, ideology, and discourse. In other words, I list here five fundamental building blocks or levels. Of course, these could be expanded on and multiplied. I think that for us these are the levels that are essentially deterministic.
When we look at reproduction, what is at stake here are the reproduction of the human beings, reproduction of the generations, and labor force. Women, through their unpaid labor, undertake not only the care of men but also the care of their children and relatives. Whereas women become more and more disempowered because of this unpaid labor, men acquire more power because of it. In short, this is a level where men exploit and appropriate the labor of women.
Family is the sphere where social reproduction is concretized. Here, we are talking about a family form which is organized around unpaid labor. Of course, this is not what family is all about. There is love, there is sexuality. I want to specifically mention sexuality since it is not necessarily linked to social or biological reproduction. Within the family, women’s bodies, sexualities, and reproductive capacities are regulated and surveilled through violence and consent –in other words, through love. What about the working life and labor market? In patriarchal capitalism we are talking about a labor force which is structured in terms of an independent, autonomous male individual whose care is undertaken by someone else and thus who does not bear any responsibilities. The labor force is structured according to the life patterns of men. Therefore, it partially excludes and partially includes women. However, when it includes women, this is a differential inclusion. What is the difference? Women are included through their precarious, flexible, and low-paid labor.
Women are also partially included and partially excluded in the third level, in other words, in the level of politics, law, and citizenship. The ways in which women are included in this level also differ from those of men. They are included as wives, mothers, caretakers.
When we look at the culture-discourse-ideology level, this is where a binary logic of gender is naturalized, rendered absolute, reinforced, and reproduced through this reinforcement. To give some examples, I would like to mention the legend of the complementarity of man and woman, love, honor, natural disposition, and mandatory motherhood… These are some of the discourses and concepts that naturalize and render absolute the binary construction of gender as well as patriarchal power, which amounts to the same thing.
In short, we are talking about a relationship of oppression rooted in the concrete material and objective processes of the society. And patriarchy constitutes women as an oppressed group at the level of objectivity. Women share a commonality which stems from their oppression by the same power. This is a commonality that is rooted in an objective position that women occupy whether they become aware of this fact or not. I call this a negative commonality. This is a commonality that is brought about by the fact of being oppressed. I will argue that it is not possible for a political subject to autochthonously emerge from this commonality.
What is then the aim and goal of feminist politics? For me, feminist politics aims at transforming this patriarchal structure, this binary gender system together with all the spheres that it structures. What I have in mind is objectively and concretely transforming them in practice. Women can only destroy this power that oppresses them as a social group by way of transforming and restructuring concretely all these spheres in practice. This can only be achieved if women confront this patriarchal power structure in every sphere of life. Therefore, what I am saying is that women can move beyond the patriarchal ordering of society only by way of traversing this hierarchical binary construction of genders and taking on their position as an oppressed social group. This is on the one hand a process of transformation through concrete practice. Another part of the transformation is the struggle to denaturalize and break the absoluteness of concepts and perceptions which are naturalized and presented as if they are self-evident by the discourse-ideology level of patriarchy. In other words, in this level, deconstructing, destabilizing, and de-absolutizing some of the categories is a part of feminist struggle. However, I am talking about the concepts of patriarchal ideology, the concepts through which this ideology acquires absoluteness, concepts such as honor or mandatory motherhood, etc. When it comes to the category of woman as a subordinated social group… This is where Nükhet’s understanding and mine diverge. As long as various conditions of subordination continue, this subordination cannot be destabilized in the same way as the other concepts that I have talked about. It is possible and desirable to destabilize these concepts since they are absolute concepts which are imposed on us by patriarchy. However, I do not think that we can destabilize the category of woman which articulates our own position and being as a social group. I have said that patriarchy is rooted in material conditions. As long as these conditions persist, we cannot destabilize this category. I think that such an attempt would be harmful for feminist politics. This is because the category of woman as a subordinated group is constructed in and through that same subordination. If we had conceptualized the category of women as an identity category, for instance, had we thought about it as a sum of the subjective experiences of various states of womanhood, then deconstructing and destabilizing this category would have been possible, comprehensible, and necessary. A category of woman which has been constructed as a sum of different identities would have been necessarily an exclusionary category since it will be a sum of certain subjective experiences. However, when I speak of the category of woman I am talking only about an objective position. I do not fill this category with subjective, lived experiences. Therefore, I do not constitute this category as an exclusionary category, and I argue that there is no need to destabilize this category. Indeed, I think that the feminist politics will have a hard time if this category is destabilized. We are talking about a conflict of interest between men and women and the interest of the subordinated party is to constitute itself as a party to this conflict. This conflict can take the form of a political conflict if and only if women constitute themselves as a subject in and through feminist politics. I have stated that we should traverse the gender binary. What I mean by this is to undertake the responsibility of taking one’s side. We can set ourselves free of being a subordinated social group only by taking on the identity of this social group. Only in this way can a social group eliminate that category. This can be possible by realizing concrete practical transformations in the levels that I have talked about and by deconstructing the concepts and categories of the hegemonic patriarchal ideology at the discursive level. I stop here. I will talk about the feminist subject in the second part.
Nükhet Sirman: I kind of got startled when I saw the crowd. We have been discussing this issue with Gülnur for many years. The meeting Feryal mentioned took place in 2011. Today, the opportunity to engage in this discussion has been created again. Without Gülnur and her argument, I would not be able to say what I am going to say here and now. My position in this discussion takes Gülnur’s position for granted. I start from where the feminist discourse that Gülnur articulates ends. Mine is a stance about that position having been unsettled. What Gülnur has talked about has begun to be shaken by life at one point. I mean it was not discourse that shook that position, it was life itself. What I mean by life is the intensification as well as the diversification of communication in our world and very different politics that emerged out of this intensification. As Gülnur described in detail, we are destabilizing all the categories. Nonetheless, the category of woman is exempt from this destabilization. Why has the category of woman been treated exceptionally? I want to question this exceptionality. Setting the issue in terms of destabilization makes one think that what is being done is a negative act. Therefore, I want to formulate the question differently: Why does the category of women need a foundation? This is the question that I am asking. Words such as category or group are used rather interchangeably. However, these are two very different things. Category is something which is established in language, in discourse. It is something like “people with white hair cannot climb the stairs”. However, I can. And I have white hair. Let’s think about several people with white hair who come together and establish a group called “white haired people who can climb the stairs”. This is a group. Groups are made up of people. Categories are discursive entities, they are cultural. I want to make this distinction. Women also exist in real life. In Ankara in the 1989 Declaration of Woman we said that “women as a sex are subordinated and exploited “. We made this statement. We said, “our labor, our bodies, our identity, our history, and our future are being appropriated”. When this was stated, I was there. As Gülnur said, because we utter this sentence, women are being subordinated and exploited. As feminists we create “woman” in language as a subordinated and exploited category. It is not that this subordination and exploitation would be less than it really is or be less credible if it is not founded on a real category. When we were writing this declaration, we had discussions about the order of words: should we write exploitation before subordination, are women being exploited or subordinated, should we first say labor or bodies? Socialist feminists and radical feminists were suggesting different views. However, not much has changed in the ways in which women in real life are exploited or subordinated simply because we were engaging in discussions about these things. This difference was only determining the politics we will engage in and the feminist subjects which will be created in and through those politics. Back then I was involved in the Thursday group in Ankara. In order to counter this discussion, we called ourselves the acrobatic feminists. If categories were not to be established in language, why on earth would we engage in such discussions? This discussion pertained to how the category of woman would be established with respect to feminist politics. This means that different feminist women had different takes on the discussion and objectivity can take different forms depending on the general political stance.
Before coming here, I also looked at the dialogue of 2011. Meltem provided examples from the history of how “woman” was created as a homogenous category. She also stated that the category of woman which sets women as a subordinate group is also a fiction. Meltem in that discussion says that “it is important to start with women who are defined as a separate group… Can only those who have a vagina be feminists?”. If one is not born a woman but becomes one, then it means that anyone who identifies as a woman, in Meltem’s words, anyone who says that “I am a woman” and steps into the contradictory sphere of womanhood, can become a “feminist subject”. Then it is necessary to investigate what this step amounts to. This is what I want to argue for. What kind of a step is this so that I become subordinated and say that I am a feminist? How am I taking on this identity as I take this step? If we say that only those with a vagina can become feminists, no one will accept this statement; Gülnur would not accept it either. This would be biological determinism. However, when something other than this is stated, we get involved with the issue of relating to and taking on an identity. This entails a much more difficult and problematic relationship to objectivity. In Ankara, as the Thursday group we used to go and talk with women with the intention of making them feminists. We used to say, “you are subordinated”. And a woman said, “I am not subordinated, you are”. So, are these women not included in the category of woman? Why do they refuse to take on this identity? They are being subordinated. I think that they are being subordinated. So, what happens when they do not accept this category, when they do not take on this identity? Objectively they are women, but they do not accept womanhood and as such they refuse the category of woman which is defined by feminism in terms of a commonality of subordination.
Here, there is another question, also asked and answered in negative terms by Gülnur: Can men be feminists? And I am saying that “you should stop there; it is not that easy”. I want to specifically refer to Judith Butler’s book Bodies That Matter. Butler in this book argues that there is a matrix formed of norms. We are becoming feminists within and by rebelling against this matrix. This is the negative relation which Gülnur talked about and what others defined as a paradox. In other words, the contradiction of simultaneously claiming and disclaiming womanhood… As we live, these norms are inscribed on our bodies, in other words, they are materialized on our bodies, be it in the forms of pain, power, powerlessness, and hope… Therefore, every Tom, Dick, and Harry cannot say that they are feminists. There is a history to it which has many layers. All that one experiences and lives through marks one’s body. For instance, I belong to a generation who developed humpbacks over the years because of walking in the streets trying to hide our breasts. This is a generation whose bodies were inscribed by patriarchal norms governing “how women should walk in the streets”. Therefore, it is possible to utter “I am a feminist” only by speaking within and against that matrix. In that talk Meltem refers to Butler as well. Meltem asserts that “insofar as womanhood does not cease to exist for a group of people, it is inevitable for feminism not to set off from women as a group.” However, she did not clearly articulate the grounds of her statement. I comprehend to some extent what Meltem problematizes and discusses but I do not understand why she sees it as inevitable. There is a jump or an omission in her argument, and it is exactly this gap that I want to address and question. Could there be exceptions to this inevitability? In other words, are there any situations where feminism does not or cannot set off from women? It is customary to put forward feminism as a matter of decision. This way feminism becomes a matter of political choice. If that is the case, then we should discuss what this decision entails.
In a discussion Gülnur had said: “blowing up the category of woman on account of its internal differences”. She also said that “this deconstruction is based on discontinuity, on constant deconstructing and reconstructing of the category of woman”. If so, then we must trace the changes that this historical category goes through over time. Since it is changing, it shows up with new forms of subordination and exploitation. Thus, we face the necessity to construct new feminist discourses. For instance, lately there is a discussion revolving around “being a bad feminist”. In a piece on the website 5Harfliler, drawing on a text of Roxanne Gay, Nur Kıpçak slily invites women to a rebellion against feminism by asking women to think about the things they refrain from doing out of the fear of being labelled a bad feminist. I think this is a new kind of antifeminist discourse. This is different from the backlash in the US or pro-government discourses such as Sema Maraşlı’s statement “we have to save the society from feminist revolution”. This shows us that the opposition against feminism is also coming from different positions. Thus, if we understand the categories of feminist and woman not as constructed but as given, then we will get stuck in a rigid and fixed discourse and we will not be able to cope with the changes. This is my only concern. Of course, we do no such thing. We riposte to the discourses aimed against us. As a matter of fact, feminists have confronted the representation of feminism and feminists in that piece and produced their word against it. For instance, Selime, Cemre, and others confronted the representation of feminism in that piece by saying that “the text represents feminism as an authority that tells everyone what they are supposed to do. However, this representation does not reflect the contemporary situation. Maybe in the 1960’s feminism might have occupied such a position but that is no longer the case.” I hope that I am describing the argument of that text clearly. I have read it quickly. That piece in 5Harfliler takes feminism and feminists as a real and given category. On the contrary, feminists show that feminist discourse is articulated through discussions on and search for different ways of addressing change. So, I say that what we do is not what Gülnur describes but what I talk about. We feminists do not act as Gülnur says, we act as I say. The feminist discourse is formulated from a particular location, while the analysis proceeds from a position that heeds to differences.
We should not think of the deconstruction of the category of woman as a game or in terms of discontinuity. We should distinguish between the Derridean and queer formulations of deconstruction. I do not get this argument: if there is no objective reality then there is no need for feminism. I do not understand this sentence. Gülnur says “then discourses of universal justice and equality would be enough.” I do not get this form of reasoning. We discursively articulate that women are oppressed and exploited as women, not as something else. We say that “women as a sex are oppressed and exploited ”. If this is not about discourse, why did we have all those discussions on what should come first, body or labor? When we use the words subordination and exploitation, what do we do: do we refer to a reality, do we offer an analysis of that reality, or do the discourse construct that reality? Gülnur also says that “we can do feminist politics only by exposing the objective conditions through political propositions”. Why do we need such objectivity? I am constantly asking this question. I haven’t yet come up with an answer to that question. Or rather, I suggest this: I think that the categories of woman and feminist are linguistic constructs. But we should not be troubled by this. We should not be holding on to a specific category while we deconstruct and destruct all the others. We do not need a base; we do not need a foundation. Butler calls this a structure which solidifies and reifies over time. I think what lies beneath this fear –and now I will get the stick– is the impetus to preserve the base-superstructure dyad.
Gülnur: I knew you would have come to that. But I won’t get peeved.
Nükhet: According to this logic, the foundation is constituted of objective, in other words, structural social contradictions. And Gülnur has talked about these social conflicts. Nonetheless, Butler’s description is also material. Butler’s is a form of materiality that is constructed without a need for a base-structure differentiation. The title of Butler’s book is Bodies That Matter. Lack of materiality on the part of the word and the discourse from a materialist point of view characterizes a form of idealism. Butler argues against this understanding. There is a difference taking materiality as a foundation and as something that is constituted. I am also arguing for taking materiality as something that is constituted.
Gülnur: Our difference is predicated on an epistemological difference. I see categories as abstractions of reality that are intended to explain objective reality. Therefore, there is a strong connection between categories and reality. I would not use the base-superstructure dyad, but I think that we can talk about structures and objectivity first and then we can stabilize discursive categories. But when I talk as such, then I open a door for Nükhet’s criticisms. Yet, I still think that there is something important in what I have said. It is not without reason that I talked about the labor force, working life, and family. These forms of relations will not transform without taking practical and concrete measures. This is exactly what I understand from material processes. We can destabilize certain concepts as much as we like, still, we will not be paid the same wages as men, we will continue to be exposed to violence in the family, etc… I am talking about processes that political subjects cannot transform on their own. And in saying that I also argue that we can only change these relations by transforming the society. Also, Nükhet questions why the category of woman is exempt from destabilization? I tried not to talk about destabilizing all categories. I specifically talked about the categories that are rendered absolute and naturalized by the patriarchal ideology and discourse. For instance, I specifically used “mandatory motherhood” and did not say “motherhood”. Or I could have said the institution of motherhood, but I wanted to use their form in the discursive realm. We have been involved in feminist politics for many years now. For all these reasons, we have been suggesting ways to transform these material conditions, and I think that without the transformation of power relations and structures in society the category of woman will remain as it is. Discourse, of course, can be developed and changed since it is already a part of politics.
I have talked about objectivity, positionality, and negative commonality. In other words, I have said that women are not in and of themselves political subjects. Nonetheless, I have also talked about a commonality that constitutes a potential for becoming a political subject. If becoming a feminist subject necessitates taking on an identity of a social group that is being oppressed and constituting oneself as a political side, then how does one become a subject?
The concept of a feminist subject refers to various dimensions. First dimension concerns the difference between feminists and those political actors that identify the “woman issue” as one of the social problems that needs to be addressed and solved via external solutions. Here we talk about the difference between various political actors such as political parties and NGOs on the one hand and feminists. What these actors see as a set of problems, feminists see as a relation of domination, a relation of power. In other words, for feminists, this is not a matter of identity or democracy as defined by another movement or a group; for feminists this is a struggle, a power struggle to which they are a political subject. So, the feminist subject first refers to this dimension.
The second dimension refers to the relation between feminists and women in general. Feminists always say this: “Feminism is not about doing politics on behalf of others, but for oneself. What feminists do is not about saving some other women who are attributed various qualities or identities. When feminists engage in politics for women, they do not do it in the name of all women.” This is an essential principle of feminism. Therefore, becoming a feminist subject, in one way, is about doing politics for oneself. In other words, it is not about coming up with external/outside solutions, it is not about saving some women who are positioned external to one’s self.
That said, I think the most important dimension is the following: Exactly because doing politics for one’s self and not in the name of others is the distinguishing principle of feminism, we have to think about the feminist subject as a dynamic subject. This approach challenges the idea that there is a given and defined feminist subject who does politics. We should talk about the ways in which women as a social group and a potential subject which does not yet constitute a collective political subject in and of itself construct themselves as political subjects through the mediation of feminist consciousness and feminist politics. Becoming feminist, becoming a subject… I further think that when we talk about becoming a feminist subject, it is necessary to understand this process as one through which more and more women become subjects of their own emancipation. Therein lies the importance of the dynamic subject. I suppose Feryal also referred to this concept when we started.
The greatest obstacle before women in their efforts to construct themselves as and become collective subjects is the differences between women. These differences obscure the connections between women with different subjective experiences. What I mean is that our subjective experiences might be different, but we can form connections between these subjective positions in terms of our objective situation and position. In so doing, we can explain through feminist theory and politics how these different subjective experiences are constructed within patriarchy in terms of opposition and hierarchy, and how binaries such as “proper woman and improper woman” and “chaste woman and unchaste woman” are formulated. This way we can articulate not only the connections between these experiences but also tackle patriarchy’s relationship to these experiences. Thus, I claim a feminist subject is not a given but is constructed through forming connections and building bridges between these different experiences. For instance, “married/prostitute”, “chaste/unchaste”, “proper/improper” … Feminism demonstrates how each position reinforces the other one: If I am characterized or rewarded as a chaste woman, then I am also confined to the house as a chaste woman. The “chaste/unchaste” binary while rendering some of us open to violence, abuse, and injury, confines others to home and family. By questioning and rejecting this binary, we can pave the way for saying “we women” and becoming feminist subjects. Therefore, while feminist politics form these links and render women the subjects of their own emancipation, it also makes it possible for women to see the connections between themselves and other women who have different experiences. For instance, the connection between a lesbian woman who cannot have the custody of her child and a heterosexual woman who is deprived of alimony because she is found “faulty” can be rendered visible through feminist politics: exposing the patriarchal surveillance and control over women who are positioned as opposing each other. The experience of motherhood offers us another example both to articulate how these opposing positions are constructed and to disentangle absolute identities and see how women’s immediate experiences are linked to patriarchy. Motherhood –in relation to ethnic origin/class/race– have always caused a rift between women in terms of being a mother/not being a mother or having many/few children. Nonetheless, feminist politics by linking the position of motherhood to patriarchy and by connecting the specific care given by a mother with a single child to the care given by a mother with many children can overcome the oppositional positioning of these experiences. However, we should be careful not to miss an important point here: links can be made between subjective experiences of womanhood, and thus, a pathway for many more women to take place in the process of feminist subjectification can be opened. Yet, there will always be obstacles on the way. There will always be political differences. It might never be possible to involve all women, but it is possible to be open to all kinds of experiences of being a woman.
I talked about a dynamic subject, a dynamic process. Perhaps, we can unpack this dynamic process as follows: there are points of collective subjectification and of acting as a collective political subject. So, I am not talking about a once-and-for-all and static collective subject. When I talk about a political subject and a process of subjectification, I am talking about subject positions that are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. Feminists and feminist politics can formulate the immediate needs of women as common interests through various campaigns. I really think that we manage to do this through certain campaigns. For instance, in our feminist struggle against the social security and general health insurance law and in Socialist Feminist Collective’s “We will get from men what they owe us”, due to the connections we formed between housewives and wage-worker women through the mediation of unpaid labor we managed to formulate a rather inclusive and open-ended politics. When we look at another one of our campaigns, namely the Campaign Against Femicide (and here I am going to talk about what Nükhet mentioned as an example of destabilization), our point of departure was honor killings. “Honor killings” which is assigned to a specific identity is a concept with racial undertones. We transcended and destabilized this concept. Then we tackled the concept of honor and transcended and destabilized it as well. Then we arrived at the concept of femicide. This way, in other words, by transcending these concepts which are forced upon us and fix us, we reached a concept that brings together women from different social segments in an open-ended way. I think we can see this as one of the points of the process of collective subjectification.
Now, let’s talk about the question “can men be included in this feminist subject?”. Nükhet briefly mentioned what I think. I do not think that there is room for men on account of the following reasons: the oppression and exploitation of women results in a conflict of interest, the oppression and exploitation of women renders men more powerful, and the interests of men lie in women being oppressed and exploited. They do not have a place in this politics today; and I hope they will never have a place simply because whatever subjective intention a man has, it is not possible for him to completely strip off/get rid of this objective social position. I do not think that anyone can provide me with a contrary example. Since Nükhet talked about it, I should also clarify my thoughts on the following matter: If gender was not founded in objective structures and did not cause an objective conflict of interest, in other words –at the risk of repeating myself– if we were not to take into consideration the structure of the market, the organizational form of social reproduction and family, the legal regulations that govern these relations and if gender was solely a norm, then it would have been possible for men to take part in this transformation process. But then we would not have needed a feminist subject because being democratic, pro-equality, pro-justice would suffice for not wanting the oppression and exploitation of women. But if we are pointing at an interest, then we need a specific collective subject which is not fully open-ended.
Nükhet: I’d like to clarify this before I move on. I used the base-superstructure dyad ironically. I want to remember Kumru Toktamış here. Back in the day, we went to the Mülkiyeliler Birliği (Association of Political Science Graduates, Ankara University) for one of our Thursday meetings. We were talking about violence against women. In the Q&A section, a man said: “What you are talking about is all about superstructure, therefore after the revolution, those problems will no longer exist.” Kumru had replied saying “Well, while I am being battered, I do not have the time to contemplate whether those blows are coming from the superstructure or the base!” I used that terminology to refer to and recall that history.
In a sense, I am constantly reconstructing the feminist subject when we discuss the destabilization of categories. I want to begin with the word “subject”. The word subject is, of course, a bottomless pit. The first differentiation I want to make concerns the difference between a subject and an agent. It seems to me that one becomes a subject constructed in and through power, but one can only be an agent of a conflict. We should pay attention to this difference. The way we use these words are important. I mean, sometimes we use the subject to refer to an agent. I wanted to take note of this difference. Furthermore, I want to argue that when we claim that feminist politics must be done by feminists, we may not be only speaking of a subject here. It is important to take heed of who is taking that action. Subject is and must be a theoretical construct. There are various theories that construct subjects. There are multiple theories. For instance, psychoanalysis is one of them. I will provide a very reductive definition of psychoanalysis here. When we refer to psychoanalysis, we are talking about something that is constructed through tensions between the subconscious, preconscious, and conscious… Subject is something the content and form of which we cannot always know. Foucault is tracing a definition which is more discursive. For Foucault, it is about occupying a certain discursive position. In other words, he is talking about a subject position rather than a subject. Based on this understanding, we can question who the subject of statements such as “There is Life Outside the Family” or “Our Bodies are Ours” is and define the subject. In other words, we can say that the subject of both statements is a feminist subject. These two sentences can only be uttered from a feminist position. However, this is different from acting or talking like a feminist subject in real life. If we think about the subject along these lines, then we cannot say that when one becomes a feminist, one speaks as such. Rather, we should say that when someone utters these words, then that someone becomes a feminist. This brings me back to the issue of the discursive construction of the subject.
Teresa de Lauretis is a feminist theorist from another generation, she wrote in the 1980s. She argues that the subject is not homogenous or unified, but is a plural entity gendered in and through life experiences. Numerous other feminists also made this point, and others are still making it. What is at stake here is not the subject of a discourse but the social subject. There is a subject in psychoanalysis, and it strolls around in locations like the consciousness or the subconscious. It is necessary to differentiate between the subject as the subject of a discourse and as a social subject. In other words, this is a theory which tries to construct the relation between the social construction of the subject and the sociality. Gülnur is also trying to do the same thing. We are trying to figure out the kind of relation between a social position and a discourse. I argue that there is a gap between the social position and the subject in discourse. We cannot automatically equate the two. In other words, there is something called sociality and there are subjects which are constructed within this society. So, what is the relation between these, how does it come into being? Since Simone de Beauvoir we know that the subject is always already gendered. According to de Lauretis the gendering of subjects does not solely proceed from a woman-man binary but is intertwined with different forms of experiences of class, race, and ethnic identity (and these are the elements that constitute Butler’s matrix) that are mediated through language and different cultural representations. According to de Lauretis, who is also a film theorist, feminist subject is also constructed through what cannot be said. In other words, there is a gendered subjectification practice which remains outside discourse, and it is this outside/exclusion that destabilizes and deconstructs any discourse, including that of feminism. This amounts to saying that the subject is not only constructed in discourse but by those things outside discourse that destabilize and disrupt it. I guess we all have come across these kinds of subjects, subjects that destabilize the feminist practice and bewilder us. I am going to voice a question and we may not agree on the answer, but… Has Nevin Yıldırım destabilized our feminism, or hasn’t she? I am thinking about something along these lines. A subject which has a real-life equivalent is an intricate entity. This can be articulated in phenomenological, psychoanalytical, or in discursive terms based on the theory that is referred to. That said, when feminist subject is constructed in discourse, this construction reduces this opposition and complexity in language. Feminist discourse is a way of doing politics by logically arranging the complicatedness and complexity of life on a specific plane. Thus, it reduces complexity. Language focuses on certain levels or creates a mixture of its own. The language can be constructed together with factors such as gender or racism/racial attitude or cultural attitude and in this way the gendering of the subjects is undertaken together with other forms of discrimination in society.
During the discussions in 2011, Filiz said the following on the issue of feminism becoming popular: “If we say that the subject of feminism are women who have become feminists, then we are doomed to remain a very small group.” I totally agree with her. However, if we strive for a politics which aims to build bridges between women coming from different experiences of womanhood or oppression –as Gülnur has just said– then the subject of feminism will be women and feminism will become a movement that can address and reach a wider group. I am interested in how these bridges will and could be formed? Is it possible to form such bridges without constructing new subjects in discourse?
Feminist discourse was constructed against the discourse on women constructed by men. In so doing, it created its own feminist subject. This subject, as it is the case for all discourses in one way or another, brought into existence its own domain of power. Those who wanted to adopt other utterances as feminist statements started calling these feminists “mainstream feminists”. Muslim women came up with another term, “secular feminists”. We heard it the other day. bell hooks calls them “white feminists”. Many feminists do not want to accept the jineology of Kurds as a form of feminist discourse. So, we have many differences amongst ourselves, there are differences in feminist discourses. This is not only about differences in positions, but also a matter of discursive differences. In other words, it is a matter of placing adjectives before the word feminism. For instance, according to the Muslim feminists, family relations of mainstream feminists are ridden with issues and it is problematic for mainstream feminists to argue that the engagement of Muslim feminists with Islam’s discourse on women is wrong. So, what do they do? They create a position, an identity, a discourse, a stance called Muslim feminist. This is exactly the way feminism came into being in the first place. At a historical period when the male power in Europe tried to define for women who they are and what their duties are, in other words when modernism, the nation-state –or whatever you want to call it– said that “the place of woman is her house, the duty of woman is to take care of her children”, women rebelled against this discourse and formulated a feminist discourse countering it.
Thus, I think it is wrong to refer to a feminist subject. For sure, there are feminist subject positions, and these can change over time. This means that the feminist subject is both complicated and changing. In other words, I think that we should be careful about the distinction between a feminist subject and a feminist subject position because I do not think that we can do politics in and through the notion of a feminist subject. I think that it is possible to construct the political feminist subject by focusing on the dialectical relationship between the feminist subject position formed in discourse and the intricate feminist position in society. How can we formulate a political feminist discourse? In order to construct this discourse, we have to take a look at a dialectical relation. But which dialectical relation? The coming and going between the discursive subjects and the social subjects… There is a constant shuttling between these two, and this is a changing and transforming dialectical relation. All I am saying is that we can only formulate feminism as a dynamic political movement in and through this dialectic. Indeed, I claim that even if we have not been naming it as such, we have been doing this all along.
Participant: About what you said in the beginning on the difference between group and category?
Nükhet: Yes, the two-way street between a group and a category… Not only the group, but also the word “position” uttered by Gülnur is more important. I think that the subjects created in society and the subject positions in discourse constantly influence and transform each other. This entails a changing dialectical relation and I think that the political feminist subject is a product of this relation. For instance, we made our way based on the criticisms directed to us by Kurdish women. Now, it is Muslim feminist women’s turn. We will listen to what they have to say, and our feminist discourse will change and transform in response to their words. I am trying to argue for this kind of practice. We engaged in similar kinds of practices with respect to the LGBTIs, we changed and transformed. What will be our relationship with queer? As feminists, we must all think about all these different forms of relations. We must refrain from constructing the conflict or the woman-man antagonism that Gülnur said from a single center, but rather multiply them and consider how these pluralities will be reflected in the feminist discourse.
Gülnur: I think that this proliferation is in a way related to making room for the different manifestations of the conflict between men and women in different levels. Then again, some of these are related to political issues. It is relatively easier to build bridges between different states of womanhood, but we might also be politically hindered forever in some situations. We may not concur in our ideas forever. Nonetheless, for me this is fundamental: If we are engaging in feminist politics for real, I argue for taking the conflict between men and women as the primary conflict and constructing all other conflicts as internal differences that feed this primary conflict.
Nükhet: I have no objections to taking that as the primary conflict.
Transcription: Ayşe Alnıaçık, İrem Gerkuş
For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan