I.B. Tauris published The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity, Sexuality during the summer of 2021. We spoke to Hilal Alkan, one of the co-editors of the book alongside Ayşe Dayı, Sezin Topçu and Betül Yarar, on policies targeting women’s bodies, how women deal with them and the story behind the publication of this book.
You have put together an anthology that centers on discussions around women’s bodies and various tools for bodily intervention in Turkey. Along with the four editors of the book, there are nine contributing authors. What brought you together? Why did you publish this book?
Personal, political, and academic reasons are naturally all intertwined. There are a number of researchers who focus on women’s bodies in Turkey. Many amazing feminist women are currently doing or have completed their PhD research, especially on reproduction, birth, fertility, and sexuality. We wanted to bring these works together and look at what they said as a whole. Although we have not probed into what motivated researchers to study these subjects individually, from what we have gathered from their texts and our conversations with them, their political motivations are not that different to ours. Women’s bodies are under attack in Turkey and almost anywhere else in the world. It is most obvious through femicides, but our bodies are not just targeted by physical force, there are also softer, technical, medical, and subtle interventions that shape us as “women” and punish those that do not conform to the norms. We thought of the book as a feminist intervention that try to analyze these issues and render them visible.
You have also mentioned there is a personal reason.
Yes, then there’s that. We all live abroad; Ayşe, Betül and I were dismissed from our jobs at our universities after signing the Academics for Peace and moved to Germany. Sezin lives in France. Despite that we lead our daily struggles in different places, it’s the feminist agenda of Turkey makes our heart beat fast and lose sleep. There are certain moments when being far from home is unbearable. We yearn to live our anger, resistance, obstinacy, and sometimes sadness by standing next to each other in solidarity, shouting and marching. Academic endeavors are never a cure for this yearning but, at least, this book was able to bring us together. When there are thousands of kilometers between us and our comrades, we hope we were able to contribute our small share. Therefore, we have dedicated the book to women who have lost their lives due to gender-based violence and feminists who unrelentingly lead a struggle for all of us.
The book focuses on the past 15-20 years of Turkey despite the fact that policing of women’s bodies is not a new thing. What makes this period different from others?
Undoubtedly, there is a lot of continuity over the years. Patriarchy, for example, experiences a shock and transforms, but resists, too. Or women’s fertility is always a topic of social order. With the birth of nationalism, controlling, restriction and shaping of women’s bodies transformed into a central issue of the nation state – since women were assigned the mission of reproducing the nation, on top of everything else. It’s not much different in Turkey. In Serpil Sancar’s words, the makbul (ideal citizen in the eyes of the government/state) men are expected to build the state, whereas makbul women are expected to build families in Turkey. On the other hand, if we are to look at the past 20 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, especially during the last 10 years, we see that neoliberal economic policies are coming together with conservatism and authoritarianism in complex and original ways. We have seen the president of the republic shriek how many children women should bear. The pronatalist discourse, which promotes bearing lots of children, is constantly shoved in our face by state officials and institutions. Although abortion still remains legal, Kadir Has University Gender and Women’s Studies Center reports from 2016 and 2020 demonstrate that access to abortion is quite restricted and rendered almost impossible at state hospitals. This fact establishes that abortion is not only no longer considered makbul by the state, but also became marketable as a health service that only those who can afford it will have access. A similar transformation can be observed in access to contraception, as presented in the articles by Ayşe Dayı and Eylem Karakaya in the book.
Despite these issues, there is easier access to various medical fertility technologies in Turkey. Are there articles that address this issue in the anthology?
Yes, there are great articles on how these technologies affect women’s lives and how they use these technologies as a bargaining tool. For example, Burcu Mutlu wrote about women going to Northern Cyprus for egg donation, which is illegal in Turkey. It is called a donation, but they receive a payment in return. During this process, they are in a myriad of conflicts –spanning from ownership of their bodies to norms surrounding chastity, and their ideals to be financially independent– and try to negotiate ethical ways out. Nurhak Polat wrote about how men position themselves during sterility treatments and in-vitro fertilization processes. In a sense, Nurhak demonstrates how the excitement surrounding these technologies is a way of distancing themselves from their bodies and the intimacy of the experience. Şafak Kılıçtepe tells us about Kurdish women who make use of these technologies, who receive treatment. On one hand, they have to deal with their patriarchal families who expect them to have more than one child; on the other hand, they have to deal with different facades of Turkish nationalism at the hospital and clinics. Seda Saluk looks at how GebLiz (Gebe, Bebek, Loğusa Izleme Sistemi – Pregnant, Baby, Postpartum Monitoring System) has transformed the quotidian relations at the primary care clinics (Aile Sağlık Merkezi – Family Health Centers). It’s about how a computer program is situated in a gendered context. Azer Kılıç zooms in on the motivations of women who freeze their eggs to postpone giving birth, and the social processes behind their decisions.
The term “reproduction technologies” sounds really neutral. They are medical procedures at the end of the day. But they are always implemented in a social context to living bodies. The disposition of those bodies and the social regulations surrounding those bodies shape those procedures, what is implemented to whom, and who will have to deal with them. In short, despite all these devices, medications, needles, getting pregnant the hard way is not so much a medical issue but rather a social one.
Similar to giving birth, right?
Exactly! The results of Sezin Topçu’s ethnographic research on cesarean sections (c-section) are quite striking. If you remember, in 2012, there was a serious debate around c-sections, and a regulation that came to be known as the c-section ban which allowed for them to take place only when the patient presented a medical need. There is also a serious feminist critique towards c-section, which argues that it is masculine medical intervention that renders women powerless and takes away women’s right to decide what happens to their bodies. It is possible to say that approximately 80-90% of c-sections performed benefit the physicians rather than the women and their babies. Sezin questions whether the regulations in place protect women against this medical intervention and expert authority. It seems that the regulations do not always consider women first at state hospitals, whereas private hospitals always come better off using these regulations. Private hospitals are not just selling a comfortable birthing experience, balloons, decorations, hairdressing services during postpartum anymore, but also ‘free choice’.
Selen Göbelez wrote about experiences of women while they are in labor. Women put up with the physical and verbal violence exerted by medical professionals when they are in labor and try to forget it afterwards. This violence is so normalized that instead of dealing with it, women find trying to adapt to one of the biggest changes in their life more sensible. I remember this feeling from when I gave birth. I was only able to fully remember the awful treatment I received and the wounds of that violence years later, when I was listening to Selen’s talk on this subject. Obstetric and gynecological violence do not yet receive the necessary attention that it should. Selen is also doula who is trying to feature this issue on the feminist movement’s agenda. I hope that her contribution to the book will be valuable in this regard.
There are also articles on sexuality; however, they are not directly linked to sexuality but rather how women are sexualized.
For the most part, yes. Burcu Kalpaklıoğlu discusses how vaizes (women preachers employed by Diyanet [the directorate of religious affairs in Turkey]) respond to women’s questions received on Alo Fetva (Fatwa Hotline) on marriage and sexuality. In that sense, we can argue that this article is directly about sexuality. Burcu talks about how vaizes not only respond to these questions by religious criteria but also try to protect the rights of the counselee by building a genuine and mahrem (confidential and private, with religious undertone) relationship with the women. The other three parts of this article, on the other hand, talk about how sexualization of women itself serves as a control apparatus. Betül Yarar, focuses on the discussion that divided the Muslim community: Süslüman (a word play by adding and contracting the word for fancy, süslü to Müslüman, Muslim in Turkish). Didem Ünal focuses on the positions defended by religious women columnists during the debate around abortion.
Esra Sarıoğlu’s article focuses on the violence women face from complete strangers on the street. The men Esra wrote about have attacked women for they considered their smoking daring, not liking the way they dressed, or their attitude. You might remember that there were many cases like that in 2016. Esra argues that the patriarchy at play in these cases go beyond the definition of male dominance and should be considered as misogyny. In a society where masculinity is promoted, and men are deemed the vigilantes of social order and societal moral norms directed at women, we find that certain men attack random women because they have assumed it’s their responsibility to establish justice. Turkey frequently goes through these periods of social vigilantism, as Esra demonstrates in her case study, of Democracy Watch rallies following July 15 [coup attempt in 2016]…
What is the impact of government imposed religiosity on these issues?
We interpret the situation within the context of conservatism, rather than religiosity. And we do not talk about conservatism on its own, but refer to a kind of conservatism that goes hand in hand with authoritarianism, which looks like a combination of the following statements: “the only fact is the one I pronounce; I am the authority that has a say over traditions, customs, morality; everyone must know their place”. On top of that, you need to add an expanding health market mentality that has been able to permeate even the public institutions. This is the mélange we are presented with in Turkey, but it is not that unique. The situation is quite similar in Hungary, Poland, the USA, and India. It’s such a global phenomenon that it cannot be boiled down to the religion-secularism conflict. On the other hand, we must grant that religion, as a discursive tool and a powerful reference that strikes the right chord with its audience, has an important function in these interventions. This is an area of conflict not only between religious and non-religious communities, but also among various religious communities. Betül’s article describes the conflict between religious men, who feel like they should have a say over women’s clothes, and dissenting religious women.
Thank you so much for taking the time. We are waiting impatiently for the book to be translated into Turkish.
We are, too! Hopefully, we will soon find a publisher.
The editors Hilal, Sezin, Ayşe and the authors Burcu, Şafak, Nurhak and Selen will be joining Dilek Cindoğlu and Sertaç Sehlikoğlu at an online event organized by Kadir Has University Women’s Studies PhD Program on November 11, 2021. This discussion will continue there.
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan