Doing materialist feminism under contemporary patriarchal capitalism in Turkey
Presented at the Ninth Annual Historical Materialism Conference, London, UK
In this essay, we discuss the opportunities and challenges of doing materialist feminism by focusing on the Socialist Feminist Collective (SFC). In doing so, we aim to elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of our praxis under the contemporary conditions of patriarchal capitalism in Turkey. We would like to start with a word on our interpretation of materialist feminism: In our perspective, materialist feminism relies on historical materialism, and as such it highlights the centrality of overthrowing men’s appropriation of women’s labour in diminishing women’s oppression.
We first provide a historical background of the contemporary feminist movement in Turkey. What follows is the SFC’s critical approach towards feminism of the late-1990s and the early-2000s in Turkey. This critical approach in 2008 drove some feminists to establish the SFC, so we will continue with the key features of SFC’s politics. Next, we discuss the opportunities and challenges we face in our feminist praxis. Finally, we specify the necessary features of today’s materialist feminism that we filtered through our praxis in Turkey.
In Turkey, women were actively involved in class struggle through socialist parties, trade unions and other leftist organisations with the mobilisation of the working class movement reaching a considerable level throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. However, most of these women politicized neither their oppression within those organisations nor women’s oppression in the working class family. Traditional rules and values, which were defined as a remnant ideology of pre-capitalist societies, were pointed as the reason of women’s oppression. Thus, socialist revolution was stressed as the only way for women’s liberation. As a result an independent feminist struggle did not evolve until the 1980s.
After the army coup of 1980 which banned all socialist and working class organisations, the rebirth of feminism as an independent struggle was possible. In our perspective, the socialist praxis in Turkey was one of the important obstacles to the development of feminist praxis, although many of the pioneering names of second wave feminism were involved in socialist praxis before the 1980s. We will not discuss the reasons of this here but we want to point out that this resulted in the delay of second wave feminism in Turkey for approximately twenty years compared to Western Europe. One of the most important consequences of this delay was that feminism had missed the Marxist momentum by the time it started to evolve: meaning that class struggle was defeated and Marxist methodology lost its prestige during the time when second wave feminism developed. Such a situation did not provide an opportunity for feminism to strengthen on a materialist ground like it did for example in France, Britain or the U.S.
Starting from the mid-1990s, feminism in Turkey has been heavily influenced by arguments which targeted the patriarchal oppression of women without necessarily challenging men’s appropriation of women’s labour. According to us, however, feminism has suffered from a number of shortcomings from the mid-1990s onwards:
- First of all, the male subject was detached from the feminist critique of patriarchy. For example, what feminists earlier named as violence against women was reformulated as ‘domestic violence’. This analysis made the male subject invisible as women’s oppressor, and the antagonism between the two sexes as the root cause of violence disappeared.
- Social constructedness of gender was emphasized in a way which resulted in a shift in feminist theory: Patriarchy as a system lost its significance; women’s oppression and male domination were situated within the concept of power relations, and men’s appropriation of women’s labour fell outside of this new perspective.
- The differences between women such as class, ethnicity, nation, religion, sect, and sexual preference were fetishized. Subsequently, identity categories with limited political agenda took over the category of ‘women’ as the subject of feminist praxis.
- Regulations and policies which targeted to increase women’s employment neglected women’s trapped position between paid and unpaid labour (including domestic labour and care labour). However, they were not thoroughly criticized or sometimes even supported by feminists.
- NGOization became a widespread way of feminist activism. Local and international interest groups started to have a definitive say over the content of the feminist agenda by investing their money in women’s activism. This weakened the capacity of the feminist movement with respect to its organizational potential and independence –regardless of the source of funding.
- As a result, feminist movement was fragmented into issue-based groups with less political power and without solid organizational bases to transform the established relationships into a political coalescence.
The Socialist Feminist Collective
The Socialist Feminist Collective was founded by a group of women who shared this critical perspective of current feminism. The collective targets the contemporary forms of patriarchy under its mutual interaction with capitalism by situating the category of women’s labour at the core of its analysis. As of today, majority of women work as unpaid family workers in agriculture, despite the long history of capitalist development in Turkey. Alongside the flexibility regulations in the labour force available since the 1980s, an increasing number of men are losing the necessary resources to keep ‘their’ women at home. Thus, an increasing number of women are employed in flexible, low-paid jobs mainly in export-oriented sectors. However, women are still the main if not the only providers of domestic goods, services –including care work. As a result, women’s double burden of paid and unpaid work is increasing with gender based division of labour persisting at home, and gender based segregation strengthening in the labour force.
Today, in its fourth year, the SFC has some 300 members who are organised in 5 cities in Turkey. Feminist Politics, Kitchen Witches, Purple Point are the regular print and online journals published by the collective. As a women-only group, the SFC struggles against the contemporary forms of patriarchy under its mutual interaction with capitalism by developing the following framework of praxis:
- As a system, patriarchy brings a specific category of labour into existence: Women’s labour. For us, the category of women’s labour is necessary and central to provide a detailed account of women’s oppression.
- Subsequently, men are the oppressor group and oppression creates social practises which are founded on the generation and appropriation of surplus achieved through the oppression of women. These social practises transform physical differences into a category of social relationship known as gender.
- Political identities are being related to the forms of femininity constructed by patriarchy, capitalism and other relations of domination. Thus, we focus on defining the varieties of patriarchal relations among different women.
- Gender based division of labour and women’s unpaid work at home are central with respect to women’s segregated position in the labour force. Thus, we don’t limit our demands only to better public services, but we also demand policies and regulations which encourage and enforce men to share housework and care work equally with women.
- Anti-capitalism is a significant aspect of feminist praxis, since the mutual interaction between capitalism and patriarchy increases the variety of forms that patriarchy takes in contemporary industrialised societies.
- Capitalist institutions interfere with the feminist agenda by funding feminist activism. In order to avoid this, we refuse to take money from local or international NGOs in the form of donation or grant. Our financial resources are limited to monthly fees paid by the members, occasional fundraising activities, and random donations by our individual supporters and a small income from our quarterly journal.
- It is indispensable for feminist praxis to keep itself independent from men, the state and the capital. This means, first, to protect the independence of feminist praxis from the internal dynamics of any other male dominant social movement based on class, ethnicity, religion, etc; second, to keep the feminist praxis independent from the agenda of government and/or international institutions; and finally, to refuse to engage with capitalism either for short or for long term benefits.
Opportunities and Challenges
Given this background, we will now look at the challenges and opportunities that we come across in our feminist praxis. We think that we can group them under four fields, namely, the fields of women’s labour, violence against women, feminism and identity politics, and collective organizing.
Women’s Labour: In the light of our materialist analysis in which the category of women’s labour is of central importance, there are a number of issues that we have the opportunity to bring into discussion. Through this category we politicize the notions of housework and care work, which are otherwise seen as natural tasks that women intuitively perform. We underline the invisibility of housework and care work, which for us provides the basis for women’s oppression both in the family and in paid work, and we make unpaid domestic labour visible in our politics.
This gives us the chance to draw the link between women’s paid and unpaid labour and to show how women’s unpaid labour in the domestic sphere translates into either unemployment or into insecure and flexible jobs when they are employed. And therefore we suggest that any proposed solution to gender inequality has to target patriarchy, especially men’s control over women’s domestic labour. This makes us alert to the so called gender reforms within capitalism which provide women with relative empowerment but not freedom from domestic labour. In this way, we are able to point out that capitalism does not diminish patriarchy but rather the mutual interaction between capitalism and patriarchy results in women’s entrapment between paid and unpaid labour. Gender based reforms within capitalism reduce neither domestic labour nor gender inequality in the labour force.
Therefore, for example, we protested against the new Social Security and General Health Insurance (SSGSS) Law which took effect in 2008 not by proposing women-friendly modifications to it but by refusing it altogether on the grounds that it did not recognize women’s unpaid housework and care work. Likewise, we launched a campaign in 2011 named ‘We Want Our Due from Men!’ where we called for women to stop doing housework and care work until men take equal responsibility with women and until employers and the state perform their share of care work as well as enforcing men’s equal participation in domestic labour.
Here our biggest challenge is to counter the supposedly gender-egalitarian solutions, which take women’s domestic labour for granted through the promotion of motherhood and housewifization, and aim to diminish the negative side effects of women’s disadvantaged but self-evident position. These solutions are often supported by feminist circles themselves in the name of saving the day. Our challenge is to de-naturalize women’s unpaid labour and to work against the widespread belief that gender inequality is a remnant of traditional patriarchy and can be eliminated through structural reform.
Violence against Women: Like the category of women’s labour, we analyse violence against women also within the context of patriarchal capitalism instead of a culturalist paradigm which suggests that violence against women is an uncivilized expression of the traditional male dominant culture. Here, we show the systematic character of men’s violence against women by providing its link with the appropriation of women’s labour. This means that ending male violence is not just a matter of changing the minds of men by educating them; it is rather a matter of targeting patriarchy to eliminate the material conditions within which men control women’s bodies and their labour.
The campaign against femicide which we launched together with independent feminists and sister organizations brought about an awareness of the systematic character of men’s violence against women. But we as feminists are yet to include other kinds of violence in our analysis. The on-going capital accumulation in Turkey has made men and women quite vulnerable in terms of economic resilience and aggressive in their social relationships. Moreover, the Kurdish conflict which remained deliberately unresolved by the Turkish state and the on-going war in the southeast of Turkey resulted in the militarization of our society in an irreversible way. Together with the polarizing language of nationalist, conservative politicians, violence of all kinds became not only pervasive but also encouraged and legitimate.
What lies as a challenge before us, is to reformulate nationalism and militarism as repercussions of patriarchal capitalism, to incorporate other forms of violence into our analysis of patriarchal capitalism in order to show how they perpetuate and help reproduce both men’s violence against women and men’s exploitation of women’s labour, instead of being excuses of them.
Feminism and Identity Politics: The question of identity is perhaps the most controversial one when pursuing materialist feminist politics because challenges come from multiple locations. We develop the notion of ‘women as a political collective subject’ in which we seek commonalities between different forms of women’s oppression. This notion works as an alternative to identity politics because it simultaneously seeks varieties of patriarchal capitalism and the similarities between them, and we say, “We are together alongside our differences.” This gives us the opportunity to go beyond the quest for mere recognition, as is the case with identity politics, and to raise concrete demands as women.
However, for us feminists, it is difficult to raise our voices high and to remain at the same time outside the dominant paradigm which articulates neo-conservatism, Islamism and nationalism into its political agenda. Nationalism divides us into Turks and Kurds, Islamism into Muslims and secularists, and conservatism curtails our quest for sexual freedom. Coming into dialogue with these patriarchal ideologies happens at the expense of failing to pursue our distinctive politics of women’s labour in a systematic way. Out attempt to build alliances across different women’s movements does not prove to be particularly rewarding either. With the religious women’s movement, we find no common ground to organize together as religious women reject the idea that women’s bodies belong to themselves. Secularist women likewise fall outside of our political scope as their analysis if conservatism is limited to the secularism-Islam axis and they pursue nationalist and racist politics against Kurds. Our alliance with the Kurdish women’s movement, on the other hand, is growing. We find it very important to be in dialogue with Kurdish feminists, and to broaden the feminist sphere in Turkey especially before the Turkish state. However, this alliance is also fragile before the everyday conditions of the Kurdish conflict and it fails to be sustainable since Kurdish women’s priority is not always feminism.
Another challenge comes from queer politics which gained popularity in Turkey since the mid-2000s. Queer politics raise new issues that were not previously on the feminist agenda and make fruitful contributions to feminism. For example, they criticize feminism for constructing the female body only in negative terms, as subject to harassment, rape and murder, and they point out the plurality of female sexuality as something to be celebrated. This urges us to expand our critique of patriarchy so as to include the experiences of non-heterosexual women. On the other hand, some queer activists seek to overthrow heterosexism by deconstructing the gender binary and accuse feminists who stick to the categories of men and women for being biological essentialists. We think, however, that the denial of these categories conceals the root cause of heterosexism, and that going beyond the gender binary is possible only by working through the patriarchal social relations in which men have a material benefit from securing it. The pressing need to improve our critique of heterosexism so as to include individuals who identify neither as man nor woman, without detaching it from our analysis of patriarchy, lies as a challenge before us.
Collective Organizing: Last is the field of collective organizing, by which we mean that we do not organize on behalf of all women but we come together as feminists to build a political collective subject. We believe that the agents of feminist praxis are only women who self-identify as feminists –as this is the condition to grow collectively. This principle also relates to our independence from men, state and the capital, since only this way we pursue our feminist praxis without having to be accountable before any non-feminist actor. This makes us free to explore feminist and anti-hierarchical ways of organizing. We have a horizontal organization composed of issue or task-based groups whose participants change on the basis of rotation. This way we try to engage with multiple issues and tasks throughout our membership and we are flexible with introducing new topics, new forms of activism in our politics.
Moreover, we created a space, physically as well as in our quarterly journal, where feminists outside our organization can join into our discussions and launch discussions of their own. Our aim when organizing was to provide the whole feminist movement with a solid ground for activism and to enhance the pluralism of feminist struggle. We believe that in the last four years we achieved this goal to a certain extent. This, in return, constantly feeds us with new people and new ideas and keeps our collective a dynamic one.
Yet, the ideal of growing collectively sometimes is difficult to realize since we are a rather large feminist organization with some 300 members located in five cities in Turkey. We believe that strong personal ties and solidarity among women are vital to build a political collective subjectivity but these are not easily attainable when we are this many and physically distant from each other. Internet certainly does not substitute face-to-face interaction.
Another challenge is the inequalities between us. Some members can spare more time for activism than others, some are more knowledgeable in feminist theory, some are more experienced in feminist politics, some are more passionate, et cetera, which makes our aim to render feminist praxis as much participatory and pluralist as possible sometimes a difficult task to achieve.
To conclude, we want to come back to the title of our presentation, and to point out the necessary conditions that will support feminism to address the contemporary patriarchal capitalism.
– Reclaiming the category of ‘women’ as aware and inclusive of women’s diverse experiences under patriarchal capitalism;
– Bringing women’s labour as an analytical category into the discussions on gender inequality, especially women’s unpaid labour;
– Demonstrating patriarchy’s entanglement with capitalism via men’s appropriation of women’s labour -but avoiding economic reductionism;
– Raising demands that transgress the limits of patriarchal capitalism and target a radical transformation of gender relations;
– Maintaining feminist praxis as independent from the authority and impact of men, the state and the capital.
Situating the case of Turkey in the context of global patriarchal capitalism, something that we did not tackle here, will help us to enhance our strategy of transforming the relations of patriarchal capitalism by understanding the ways in which they vary in different contexts.