Challenging Conservative Neoliberalism in Turkey: The Socialist Feminist Collective

By Selin Çağatay


 Ankara, May Day 2014

The politics of gender in Turkey have undergone significant changes under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP carried the decades-long neoliberal socio-economic restructuring to its final stage while imposing a conservative and increasingly Islamist worldview upon social, cultural and political spheres of life. At the heart of this conservative neoliberalism lies the reorganization of gender relations towards a more profound exploitation of women’s paid and unpaid labor. On the one hand, women’s increasing employment in flexible, insecure, low-paid jobs is celebrated as "women’s inclusion in the labor market." On the other hand, conservative discourses that sanctify motherhood and pro-family policies make sure that women remain the main if not the only providers of housework and care work. This dual process reinforces women’s double burden, as a gendered division of labor persists at home while a gender-segregated labor market becomes the economic norm. 

At the same time, the concept of "gender equality" is mainstreamed in legislation, thanks mainly to Turkey’s EU accession process. A growing number of women’s organizations are now mobilized around issues of violence, employment, education and cultural rights. Yet, most of these organizations are being co-opted into state structures by means of an outpouring of funds provided by the EU and other transnational institutions. The "NGOization" of the women’s movement works somewhat as an antidote for cuts in welfare state provision by enabling certain services to be delivered to disadvantaged women, albeit quite randomly and for a short period of time. Problematically, this depoliticizes the radical concepts of "empowerment" and "liberation" by equating feminism with women’s temporary access to resources with no intended structural transformation of the relations of gender.

This has had unfavorable consequences for feminist activism. Feminists who adopted the language of the global (and highly unequal) gender equality regime ended up detaching "men" as perpetrators of women’s oppression from their analysis of patriarchy. While men’s appropriation of women’s labor was no longer openly problematized, the implementation of policies to increase women’s employment and projects targeting women’s entrepreneurship were uncritically supported by mainstream feminist groups. Moreover, activists’ dependency on external funding weakened both their ability to organize and political independence.

The Socialist Feminist Collective (SFC) was founded in 2008 by a group of women who shared this critical perspective on the current state of feminism in Turkey. As women who believed that gender equality was more than legal reforms, international agreements and employment packages, we had a two-fold aim: developing an analysis of patriarchal capitalism, at the core of which stands the category of women’s labor, and establishing a solid basis for not only socialist but all anti-systemic feminists to organize and become a ‘collective political subject’ pursuing their independent agenda.[i]

Our analysis of patriarchal capitalism calls for an understanding of the mutually reinforcing relationship between patriarchy and capitalism as two systems of oppression that cannot be reduced to or abstracted from each other. Conservative neoliberalism, the current form of patriarchal capitalism, amounts to a commitment to budgetary austerity where the state’s responsibility for social care and protection is delegated to non-state actors. It simultaneously designates the family as the main site of child, sick and elderly care and identifies women as the caretakers. Increased unpaid domestic labor hampers women’s access to formal employment and pushes them into low-paid, part-time, flexible, insecure jobs. Precariousness of women’s paid labor, in return, renders women dependent on their families (read: men) and more prone to patriarchal oppression.[ii]     

The SFC aims to de-naturalize women’s unpaid labor and to counter the idea that gender inequality can be eliminated through structural reforms in the labor market.[iii] The relationship between women’s paid and unpaid labor shows that gender equality cannot be achieved unless specific policies that target men’s control over women’s domestic labor are implemented. Such policies are far from being compatible with the logic of conservative neoliberalism.

Therefore, in 2011, we launched the campaign “We Want Our Due from Men!”[iv] Instead of demanding reforms to increase women’s employment, we called for women to stop doing housework and care work until men assume equal responsibility with women and until employers and the state undertake their share of care work as well as enforcing men’s equal responsibility in the domestic sphere.

Since the AKP formed a majority government for a third time by increasing its votes in 2011, the state’s pro-family policies and the party’s conservative rhetoric became all the more vigorous. The Ministry of Women and Family Affairs has been turned into the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, a move indicative of AKP’s determination to assimilate women into the institution of the family. Prime Minister Erdoğan does not miss any opportunity to remind women that their primary duty is to give birth (read: reproduce the labor force). Launching educational programs on family and housewifehood, assigning imams the task of counseling to prevent divorce and restricting women’s access to abortion are some elements of AKP’s “strengthening the family” project, where the family turns into a social policy instrument to subjugate women to men, to capital and the state.


Thousands March for Reproductive Rights in Instanbul. June 27, 2012

Our 2013 campaign “There is life outside the family!” challenged the conservative neoliberal notion of family based on unpaid labor, lifelong caregiving, violence and oppression.[v] Among our demands were free, universal, qualified and 7/24-available child, adult and elderly care services; birth control programs as well as sperm banks and free, accessible abortion; divorce support programs, unconditional subsistence allowance and vocational training for divorced women; and access to social security and to unemployment pay for women searching for a job.

On violence against women and issues of sexual citizenship, the SFC collaborates closely with independent feminists and other anti-systemic feminist groups in Turkey, and it contributes its materialist approach to joint campaigns.[vi]  We politicize the issue of violence against women by stressing the systematic character of male violence within patriarchal capitalism. In this perspective, ending violence is possible only by eliminating the material conditions by which men control women’s bodies and their labor. Similarly, Istanbul Feminist Collective’s 2012 campaign against the banning of abortion, in which the SFC was actively involved, highlighted women’s confinement in the heterosexual family for the appropriation of their unpaid care labor and the reproduction of the labor force.[vii]

Women everywhere, not only in Turkey, bear the burden of conservative neoliberal politics in the form of tightened mechanisms of control over their bodies and labor. Thus, the SFC is dedicated to build a transnational socialist feminist alliance to fight against global patriarchal capitalism more effectively by sharing experiences with anti-systemic feminists who pursue politics in different countries and diverse contexts. In 2011, we organized the conference “Women Trapped Between Paid and Unpaid Labor”[viii] where we invited feminist scholars who work on gender and labor such as Heidi Hartmann, Jean Gardiner and Helena Hirata. A conference volume was published thereafter[ix] and distributed to socialist feminist scholars and activists in Turkey and abroad.[x] Members of the collective who live abroad participate in conferences[xi] and feminist gatherings[xii][i1] [M2]  and engage in discussions with feminists who similarly struggle against patriarchal capitalism.[xiii]

Today, in its sixth year, the SFC has some 300 members who are active in five cities in Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Eskişehir. We are organized in issue-based or permanent commissions in which members take part on the basis of rotation. We publish a quarterly journal, Feminist Politics,[xiv] that reaches more than 40 cities throughout Turkey. In this journal, we open our political discussions to a broader feminist audience[xv][M3] [i4]  as well as providing a ground where different feminist voices outside our collective can be heard. This enhances the pluralist character of feminist struggle. To keep our political agenda independent of men, capital and the state, we don’t lobby, we refuse to receive funds and we remain a woman-only collective. As we struggle against conservative neoliberalism, we mobilize a growing number of feminists[xvi] who share with us the idea that women’s liberation is possible only by a revolutionary transformation of gender relations and a total overthrow of male control over women’s bodies and labor.

Selin Çağatay is a member of the Socialist Feminist Collective and a Ph.D.candidate at the Central European University, Budapest, Department of Gender Studies.

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