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  • Are There Women Out There?Democracy Vigils and the Politics of Representation after the Failed Coup Attempt in Turkey
  • Feyza Akinerdem (bio)

While I am writing this essay on August 8, 2016, hundreds of thousands of people are in the streets and squares mainly in Istanbul and Ankara for democracy vigils, initiated and named by president Erdoğan. The vigils started on the night of July 15, 2016, after Erdoğan appeared on television and called on people to go out, violate the curfew, and stop the coup attempt. Since then, people have been going out every evening, gathering in main squares and waving the national flag till morning. They have also been recording and disseminating images and videos of the vigils on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, thereby putting their mark on this very unusual moment of street demonstrations in Turkey.

I argue that postcoup democracy vigils alter the conventions of public appearances and voices of the street. In Istanbul, the street used to be predominantly a space of representation for the republican ideals of the Kemalist regime on the one hand, and a space of struggle for dissident groups on the other. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has challenged the exclusionary regime of Kemalism during its thirteen years of governance. It assembled the lower class, nationalist, and Islamist populations under the rubric of majority and granted them “authentic citizenship.” Dissident groups, who struggled both with the old (Kemalist) and new (AKP) state throughout the first years of the AKP government and who were consolidated around the 2013 Gezi resistance have since then been brutally restricted from demonstrating in public. Taksim Square was once iconic for its association with [End Page 189] May 1 marches, Gezi resistance, and many other dissident protests and was highly symbolic for Kemalist Turkey. Following the Gezi uprising, due to heavy policing, no mass demonstrations could take place in Taksim Square. That changed on July 15, 2016. The masses that the AKP government hails as “the majority who represent the national will” claim Taksim today. The red flag of Turkey and the streets are now under the tutelage of the state. The state also created new spaces for vigils such as Kısıklı, a small square in front of Erdoğan’s house in Istanbul (see figs. 1–2).

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Figure 1.

The democracy vigil in Taksim

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Figure 2.

From the democracy vigil, Kısıklı

Women’s public appearances are crucial to the claims to and contestation over city squares where democracy vigils are taking place. This is partly because of the historic centrality of the image of “the Turkish woman” to the Kemalist regime. This image divided the nation’s women between those who accepted and pursued the modern secular ideal and those who did not or those who tacitly knew they would never reach that ideal. The former carried the burden of being proper, obedient female bodies within the limitations of the Kemalist ideal; while the latter have been excluded from public institutions through headscarf bans and from the representations of the Turkish woman both in the Parliament and in the media until recently. The AKP government has marginalized the women’s movement and excluded their demands and causes from mainstream politics. I would like to point out the necessity of handling the visual and [End Page 190] political exclusions of different groups of women together, by bringing forward the politics of gender at democracy vigils. I analyze two snapshots from the vigils that alter the conventions of women’s public appearances from different perspectives. First, I will illustrate how previously excluded women alter the Kemalist project by animating the rhetoric of majority in the city squares. Second, I will trace the bold and powerful intervention of a group of women into one of the biggest squares of the vigil in Istanbul. I argue that women staged a very significant challenge to masculinist assertions of the rhetoric of majority, on the one hand, and the exclusionary mechanisms of the regime of representations, on the other.

Are There Women Out There?

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pp. 189-194
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