The conservative-Islamist politics which coalesced in the structure of AKP (Justice and Development Party) today, does not wholesale refuse the ideas and concepts that feminism produces, but rather colonizes them. This process of colonization does not entail only a simple appropriation of the concepts, but also a thorough re-representation and re-signification of them.
In this piece, I want to make a note on the effects of the ongoing conservative authoritarianism, the permanent state of emergency, and the regime of statutory decrees which suspend the law, over feminist academics and critical gender studies. However, in trying to understand this, it is necessary to keep in mind the history of women’s contentious and variable relations with philosophy and science as well as academia as an institution. Lending an ear to this history makes it possible for us to think upon “what has befallen us” not only in the context of the state of emergency but also in relation to the patriarchal-neoliberal restructuring of academia.
Waxing gender studies, waning feminism
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about the effects of the state of emergency over academia are the statutory decrees. In total, 6,081 academics have been purged from their posts at the universities. This unlawfulness also sends a strong message to those academics who are still employed in the universities that they can easily lose their jobs if someone files a complaint against or reports them. This uncanny environment also puts a pressure on gender studies as much as it does on other disciplines. Among the 549 academics for peace who are suspended from the universities, there are many feminists. These academics have contributed to the establishment of women/gender studies institutes in academia in Turkey, opened gender-focused courses, provided connections between the students and those who pursue feminist and LGBTI+ politics, supervised and sat in the dissertation juries of students who conducted research with a feminist perspective, and struggled for the establishment of boards and committees that address sexual violence in universities. Their purge not only made it extremely difficult for them to pursue their work, but also resulted in the isolation of feminist academics who are still employed in the universities.
Even a quick perusal of the MA dissertations on the Council of Higher Education’s (YÖK) website is sufficient to understand the complexity of the issue of “feminist in the academia”. For instance, when I wrote down the keywords such as “woman, gender, gay, queer” on the simple search option on the dissertation section of YÖK, I saw no decrease in the number of studies conducted on these topics, on the contrary, I figured out that there is an explosion in the number of dissertations that include the concept of “queer”. Moreover, as I randomly skimmed over the columns to check the dissertation titles and abstracts, I realized that most of these dissertations were not written from a conservative perspective. This tangential research has shown me that the academia in Turkey, so to speak, is working on gender and making use of feminist theories extensively. Academics keep on supervising their students and conducting their own research in this field. This is great news no matter how you look at it! Nonetheless, I cannot refrain myself from asking this question: so, how come homophobia, transphobia, violence and sexual assaults against women, as well as humiliation, abuse and mobbing of women are so pervasive in the universities? How come these places where such research is conducted are at the same time scenes of violence and abuse which sometimes make it to the media, sometimes spread through gossip and most of the time are swept under the rug and rarely investigated?
This is puzzling because in order to understand the conditions of feminism in academia we focus solely on academia. Yet, feminist theories, concepts, discussions and research entered the academia in Turkey –perhaps in a way not seen in any other academic field this clearly– through political activism. Feminist academics, taking strength from the feminist politics of which they are also a part, opened women/gender studies fields in academia. In other words, as it has been repeatedly voiced before, women and gender studies in Turkey have become academic fields with the discourses, forms of knowing/knowledge, perspectives and practices produced together with women and feminist movements that have been organizing since the 1980s. Surely, there were many catches to these collaborations. However, the hallmark of the state of emergency which became permanent today is that it further weakened the bonds between academia and politics and reinforced the apolitical tendency in neoliberal academia through different forms of oppression and violence. As such, feminism is increasingly becoming a sterile, well-funded academic field where hip theories are discussed and neoliberal success stories can be written. Yet, academics who are nurtured by feminist theories and work on gender theories can as well undermine the male-dominated culture that pervades the academia in many different ways such as by refusing to laugh at a homophobic joke, or, for that matter, by not taking the class of a lecturer who is an abuser or by not carrying out joint projects with a professor who makes sexist comments. Only then, this valuable attention shown at gender studies can be more empowering for those academics and students who are marginalized not because they work on feminist theory but on account of the “killjoy” (Ahmed, 2012) attitude they embrace against the male-dominated culture in academia.
Colonized feminist knowledge
Today, when we look at how the ways in which conservative-Islamist power circles approach and relate to feminist theory and concepts, I think that it is vital to re-comprehend feminist theory itself as a form of political agency. Traditionally, conservative-Islamist political subjects’ relations to feminism were about total rejection. However, for the past four or five years, a change is taking place in the ways they relate to feminism and feminist theory. This change in strategy might have many reasons that are beyond the scope of this piece. Nonetheless, we can say that in today’s Turkey an injunction such as “women when they are pregnant shall not walk on the streets” does not resonate with most of the women coming from different backgrounds. Women’s demands of equality and freedom both in their private as well as public life is gradually increasing. For this reason, the conservative-Islamist politics which coalesced in the structure of AKP (Justice and Development Party) today, does not wholesale refuse the ideas and concepts that feminism produces, but rather colonizes them. This process of colonization does not entail only a simple appropriation of the concepts, but also a thorough re-representation and re-signification of them. For instance, the concept of “gender equality”, which has been used in the field of social sciences for the past 50 years and whose intellectual roots date even further back in time, becomes a matter of discussion again. The head of YÖK, Yekta Saraç himself, when arguing for the revoke of Gender Equality Position Document, does not simply reject the concept of “gender”, but instead proposes the definition/itinerary “justice-based women studies”. KADEM-Women and Democracy Association, which is intimately intertwined with the family members and close circles of Erdoğan has previously proposed to use –instead of “the concept of gender”– “gender justice”, a concept which deploys a heteronormative anti-gender perspective and defines women and men “not as equal but equivalent”. Another fruitful example to understand this colonizing approach is the proposition/directive put forward by President Erdoğan to establish women only universities. However, what is meant here is not based on a reference to segregation practices of Islamic tradition, rather (although the intention is the same) there is a reference to practices in Japan as a model of non-Western modernization, science and development. It is possible to provide other instances of such colonizing strategies, however, what I want to emphasize is that today, the conservative-Islamist power circles instead of rejecting the feminist theories and feminist concepts are attempting to re-shape and thus re-use them in a conservative way.
Penchants of fathers
Even if I see universities not as apparatuses but as fields that involve different positions, today, the feminists’ hand is gradually weakening in this struggle revolving around feminism. This situation has been rather consolidated during the state of emergency which creates a state of exception (Agamben, 2013) by way of suspending law. Once the written rules are suspended and replaced by orders based on an understanding “this is what my precious heart wants”, law is substituted by penchants. So how are these inclinations determined in the universities, whose tendencies become a tradition in university administrations and decision-making processes? Again, if we look at YÖK’s statistics, we see that in Turkey, 98% of the university rectors are men (and women are not always very delightful). Given the statistics regarding department heads, institute directors, deans, and professors, the list of asymmetries between women and men in the administrative and academic staff of universities goes on and on. Hence, it is not surprising that under such conditions, the inclinations of men, who occupy decision-making positions and top roles at the legitimate academic hierarchies, turn into laws. This way, the universities gradually turn into family structures where the fathers’ propitious moments are waited for. For instance, the significance of the Gender Equality Position Document –which was revoked by YÖK and removed from its website– as an empowering legal reference for the women academics, who conduct gender studies and try to establish mechanisms such anti-harassment units and gender equality communities, has been reflected in the study carried out by Sabancı University / SU Gender. However, in the absence of such empowering references or in cases when the existing ones do not work, academics working on gender issues often have to deal with informal restrictions and “soft comments” –the legitimacy of which is ungrounded – such as “well, what about expressing it like this, how about taking this paragraph out”.
However, despite all the conditions, we can still say that “genie is out of the bottle”. Today, we are living in an age where feminist values are becoming more and more widespread among women and especially the youth. Despite all the investments for raising a religious generation, the youth watch Netflix shows the leading roles of which are acted by gay people; although the laws that protect them (the Istanbul Convention or the right to alimony) are brought into question, women overturn the patriarchal bargaining table every day, even if the price they have to pay for it is high. The above-mentioned academic interest in gender studies does not decrease under these oppressive conditions, on the contrary, it increases. Despite marginalization and oppression, numerous academics continue their struggle for gender equality. Moreover, solidarity academies founded by the Academics for Peace make us rethink the idea of “academia”. Solidarity academies, like other forms of critical knowledge, open up a space for the political reading of feminist epistemology by creating a rich and powerful ground for the production, sharing and dissemination of feminist knowledge. We have no reason to be hopeless if we keep in mind that feminist knowledge production necessitates cooperation, dialogue, and reciprocity, and as long as we do not see oppression in academia as “problems of provincial universities” and keep on strengthening solidarity.
Ahmed S. (2012) “Oyunbozan Feministler” Mutluluk Vaadi, (transl.) D. Mayadağ. İstanbul: Sel Yayıncılık. [Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness]
Agamben, G. (2013) Kutsal İnsan; Egemen İktidar ve Çıplak Hayat, (transl.) İ. Türkmen İstanbul: Ayrıntı Yayınları. [Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life]
Translator: İpek Tabur
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için
 This text is based on my presentation at the Solidarity Keeps Alive workshop which was organized last month by KAOS GL and Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR) New Ways.
 For a recent multi-angled study that reveals the effects of this unlawfulness and oppressive environment on the academics, see this report: http://insanhaklariokulu.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/O%CC%88zdemir-O%CC%88rdek_Rapor_2019.pdf