On May 21, women activists organized protests in several cities across Turkey maintaining social distancing. (Credit: Tuğçe Canbolat)

With the first COVID-19 case diagnosed in Turkey on March 11, rallies across the country for International Women’s Day on March 8 became the last large public protests to be held before lockdown. 

Similar restrictions have been enacted in many other parts of the world – but in Turkey, feminist activists were already one of the few groups still able to protest in an increasingly hostile political climate. 

The Istanbul rally, dubbed the Feminist Night March, was officially banned by Turkey’s District Governorship of Beyoğlu in November 2019. However, thousands of protesters nonetheless gathered in the city centre on March 8 this year. Taksim Square was surrounded by barricades and its metro station closed, while all routes into the area – including Istiklal street, the avenue where the march had been due to take place – were blocked off by police. 

Public protest in Turkey, already diminished after the crackdown following the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, has become almost impossible since the attempted coup of 2016. However, feminist activists still regularly found ways to take to the streets, spurred by the slogan, “we won’t abandon the night, the streets, or the squares.” This slogan refers to the women’s demand to be able to go out at night and to protest, without being afraid for their safety.

On May 21, women activists organized protests in several cities across Turkey maintaining social distancing. (Credit: Tuğçe Canbolat)

On May 21, as the government was once again preparing to bring a possible amnesty for child abusers through marriage to the country’s agenda, women activists organized protests in several cities in Turkey, maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. They were holding banners that read: “Don’t whitewash abuse” and “Women are strong together at the time of corona.”

Even before the lockdown, the women involved had found ways of getting around the ban, according to 29-year-old feminist activist Feride Eralp.

29-year-old feminist activist Feride Eralp. (Credit: Aktivist Camera)

“We want to minimise the risk of being exposed to violence but we also don’t want to abandon the streets,” she said. “Our aim is to find creative ways to do it – projecting our slogans onto buildings, for example.” 

In 2017, they foiled an earlier attempt by the Istanbul governor’s office to deter protest by carrying banners that could easily be split in two and reassembled. This year, the protesters gathered on a side street close to Taksim and chose a surprise route for their march. And since the lockdown, Eralp and her comrades have continued to look for ways to continue their activism. 

“Abandoning the streets is unthinkable – governments don’t stop misogynistic policies because of coronavirus,” she said. Eralp pointed to the large, socially distanced protest rally that took place in Athens, Greece on 1 May for International Workers’ Day as a possible model. 

The first mass women’s march in Turkey took place in 1987, in protest at domestic violence, and is now considered a turning point in the history of the country’s feminist movement. In 2003, activists organised the first Istanbul night march for International Women’s Day, which was later adopted in other Turkish provinces. 

Progress in achieving women’s rights has been limited. In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranked 130th among 153 countries. According to the index, only 37 per cent of women in Turkey participate in the labour market. Turkey also ranks low in terms of girls’ access to education, while at the same time it has one of the highest child marriage rates in Europe, according to data from girlsnotbrides.org. Violence against women is also an issue: no official statistics on femicide are collected, so women’s rights NGOs monitor news reports to keep track of these crimes. 

Feryal Saygılıgil, a sociologist based at Istanbul’s Arel University, said that government policies now prioritised the family over the rights of women as individuals. 

One example of this shift in priorities, Saygılıgil said, was when in 2011 the ministry of women and family was renamed the ministry of family and social policies. Social security payments were restructured around family units, which Saygılıgil said ignored the work women do at home, treating them as a cheap workforce. 

“The government and its supporters constantly make statements about the difference between genders,” Saygılıgil said. “It uses the term ‘gender justice’ instead of ‘gender equality.’” 

Retired nurse Hasbiye Günaçtı, 60, said that she had not planned on joining the march until she saw Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, announcing the ban on television.

Retired nurse and a feminist activist Hasbiye Günaçtı. (Credit: Günaçtı’s private album)

“Hearing him say ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ like a parent made me want to march,” she said. “He reminded me of the pressure we were under during childhood to come home early whenever we went out.”

In the event, 32 women were arrested and taken into custody on March 8, with reports of mistreatment by police. Footage of women forced to run a gauntlet of officers before being pushed into a police car was shared on social media and dubbed the “torture runway”. 

Since quarantine measures were introduced in March, said Eralp, activists have concentrated on campaigns online. 

“Social media is obviously essential, but it’s not enough on its own,” she said. As an example, she pointed to protests in 2016 against the government’s attempt to introduce a bill that would have allowed some perpetrators of sexual assault to escape punishment by marrying their victims. 

“Social media and street protests feed off one another. Outrage on social media triggered street protests and the protesters built enough public support to stop the bill from moving forward,” Eralp said.

Women who took part in this year’s March 8 protest still fear they might be arrested.

“Of course we worry,” Saygılıgil said. “I was afraid not just for myself but for every woman who was there. But we believe in each other. One of the most prominent banners this year read: ‘When you feel hopeless, remember this crowd.’”

Günaçtı was defiant. “At my age, I risk getting arrested every time I leave the house,” she said, referring to Turkey’s current coronavirus lockdown. “I can’t be afraid of going to Taksim when women are dying [from sexist violence].”

Retired nurse and a feminist activist Hasbiye Günaçtı. (Credit: Günaçtı’s private album)

According to Saygılıgil, the Gezi Park protests fueled a growth in popularity of the women’s marches. “We started seeing bigger crowds after 2013,” she said. “The Gezi protest gave visibility to women and LGBTI+ people. They got to be outside all day without worrying [about their safety]. Once you’re out on the streets, it’s hard to go back.”

Fidan Ataselim, an activist with the We Will Stop Femicide group, said that the sense of unity public protests provided was essential. 

“When women come together with others who look like them – and those who don’t – they see that they’re not in this alone,” Ataselim said. “That gives them joy, courage and hope. They realize they can change things.”

For Eralp, this means that sooner or later, activists will need to return to the streets.  

“You can gather a digital crowd on social media but you’re physically alone,” she continued. “Being among a crowd, shouting the same words at the same time, is a completely different feeling. Even if you don’t have access to the internet, or even if you can’t read or write, you can still join a street protest. I can’t imagine a world where change is obtainable without them.”