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Who is a Revolutionary Subject?

In the face of legal restraints, police repression, political violence and the pressures and insecurity precipitated by the pandemic, the feminist movement in Turkey has persisted in mobilising in the streets across the country. Across several nights of the year thousands of bodies join in motion on the streets of major cities in defiance of police barricades to engage in stubborn collective joy. The most recent Feminist Night March in Istanbul, which took place this year on International Woman’s Day on 8 March 2022, set itself against patriarchy, heterosexism, male violence, labour exploitation, capitalism, homophobia, transphobia and war. The capillary of backstreets of Beyoğlu district sang with the movement of bodies, an accumulation of hope, hurt and protest articulated in the rhythm of shouted and painted slogans –‘Tie your hair Rapunzel, let the asshole use the stairs’; ‘There is shit in the fridge and a riot on the streets’; ‘Our labour, our body, our identity are ours’; ‘If you feel despairing, remember this crowd’. In the words of Saidiya Hartman, from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the whole world in a bent note, a throwaway lyric, a singular thread of the collective utterance.’

 

The feminist movement in Turkey connects itself to a long tradition of riotous chorus, whose shouts against violence and despair continue to echo through different passageways into the present day. The Greek etymology of the word ‘chorus’ refers to a ‘dance within an enclosure’, a dance which is transmitted through different mediums – in the history of the street, in the pages of a book and the sharp lines drawn by the visions of women who came before. Among this chorus, the voices of a generation of women writers from Turkey working in the 1970s and 80s, considered cult writers today, are still active participants in the feminist imagination. These writers are distinct for their examination of the lives of women within the contours of their social and economic conditions – not tracing these contours, but testing their limits through foregrounding the inner lives and concerns of their subjects. The translations of some of their works are slowly becoming available in English for the first time. A Strange Woman (Tuhaf Bir Kadın)  (1971), by Leyla Erbil, was published in April 2022, translated by Nermin Menemencioğlu and Amy Spangler. Noontime in Yenişehir (Yenişehir’de Bir Öğle Vakti) (1973), written by Sevgi Soysal, was published in 2017, translated by Amy Spangler; a translation of her novel Dawn  (Şafak) (1975) is forthcoming this November. Cold Nights of Childhood (Çocukluğun Soğuk Geceleri) (1980) by Tezer Özlü is forthcoming in 2023, translated by Maureen Freely. 

 

‘Their effects on today’s literature in Turkey are enormous,’ writes Duygu Çayırcıoğlu, author of the recently published book in Turkish, Kadınca Bilmeyişlerin Sonu [The End of Feminine Ignorance] (2022), which examines the importance of this group of feminist writers producing work in between 1960 and 1980. ‘In particular, they […] paved the way for breaks in the traditional understanding of literature; they were innovative in their content and expression. They have been a source of inspiration for us women as we position ourselves as female subjects both in the field of literature and in everyday life. They encouraged us.’

 

Since the publication of their works, conservative nationalist ideology has remained constant in Turkey, regardless of what political party has been in office, maintaining strict control over the position of women and girls in schools, in the workplace, in the home and in bed. Today, the language used to describe defending the nation’s borders (sınır namustur, or the ‘border is honour’) is nearly the same as the language used to discuss defending or protecting a woman’s honour (also known as namus). While the galvanisation of women’s rights advocates in the 1980s and 1990s paved the way for a reform of the penal code in 2005 – which recognised women as individuals for the first time; prior to this, sexual crimes against a woman were prosecuted as ‘a crime against society’, or a ‘crime against public morality and the family’ – men and women were in reality never truly equal in the Turkish socio-political space. President Recep Erdoğan proudly stated as much in 2010, when he announced that ‘Women are women and men are men. Is it possible for them to be equal?’ But the feminist movement in Turkey has consistently been the strongest form of political mobilisation in the last few decades, clear-eyed about the intersecting layers of inequality targeting women and driven by the weight of the stakes stacked against them. The current generation of feminists are resisting not only the increasingly corrosive state intrusions into the lives of women and the suppression of LGBTQI+ communities – reflected in the government’s withdrawal last year from the international Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women, the horrifying rise in the number of women being murdered across the country and the ongoing political attacks against the queer community – but also rebelling against war, poverty, alienation and the exploitation of invisible labour. The voices of writers from the 1970s continue to ring sharply in the present conjuncture, holding cult status not only in Turkish literature but in the feminist imagination – a contemporary generation who link the fate of women with the ostracised of society: the precarious, the migrants, the queer. The vision of these writers casts a gritty and unsentimental eye on the workings of power. ‘Instead of making the pain epic, making love unrealistic, and making the revolution utopian, [Sevgi Soysal] caressed the pain with compassion … and made the revolution stubbornly vital’, in the words of contemporary writer Can Gürses. 

 

‘Stubbornly vital’ is an apt description to convey the stickiness of both Leyla Erbil and Sevgi Soysal’s concerns. Their writings, full of courage, malice, disobedience and irony, do not so much reflect an existing feminist movement on the streets (which did not emerge in Turkey as a strong political movement until after the 1980s) as forge a new voice, inquiring into the power of capital and men, while keeping in mind the tempestuous and fickle nature of human relationships, with their power to subvert, inflame and destroy.

 

By the 1960s, male literature in Turkey was dealing largely with a mix of social realism, psychoanalysis and existentialism, much of which was imbued with political promise. ‘Women’s issues’ were declared a bourgeois business by left-wing politics, something to be dealt with once the class revolution was won. These writers restored women, whom patriarchal society had claimed first as their subjects, then as their victims (when they were not merely bystanders), to their position of active participants in matters of exerting and dissecting power – including in the service of upholding and resisting the patriarchal state. Soysal’s Noontime in Yenişehir, published in 1973 but set the decade before, asks not so much about the position of woman in society, as it does about the ways in which various individuals navigate the shifting social and political transformations and hypocrisies being wrought around them. Since the 1950s, radios and televisions had been appearing on the street and in living rooms, introducing adverts for shiny homes and glamorous lives. Unfamiliar goods – nylon clothes, records, canned food, neon lights – were beginning to flood Turkey’s streets. Simultaneous to the emergence of a new middle class, people from villages across the country were starting to move to cities in large numbers, setting up make-shift homes overnight and forming new labouring class configurations. They would form the basis of social and political movements – the Revolutionary Workers’ Unions Confederation (DİSK), which was founded in 1967, staged the largest workers’ resistance in the history of the Republic on 15/16 June 1970. Amongst the febrile velocity of these changes women remained living within the structures, language and a history defined by men.

 

Soysal started writing Noontime in Yenişehir as a political prisoner, having been arrested after the military coup on 12 March 1971 for her membership of a leftist organisation. One of her self-imposed rules during her second term of her arrest (she was in and out of prison multiple times) was that she would write eight pages every day. As well as starting Noontime according to this rule, she also translated Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928) (Üç Kuruşluk Opera) from German during the same period. Her memoirs, entitled Yıldırım District Women’s Ward (Yıldırım Bölge Kadınlar Koğuşu), which she published in 1976, the same year as her untimely death at the age of 40, describe a complex relationship between the prison experience, the ideology and practice of the militarised state regime, and various leftist factions dominated by men.

 

Noontime opens in Kızılay, downtown Ankara, capital of Turkey. It is sometime in the late 1960s. The centre-right party is in power, but will be deposed by military intervention in a few years time. The political sphere is rapidly dividing and variants of right- and left-wing politics are emerging. Leftist mobilisations are gaining strength. On the street, bitterness, blame, the crushing weight of arrogance and the false deity of the market abound. Middle-aged university professors, unemployed young men, hucksters and other streetwise individuals trying their luck are on the move. Soysal leads us directly into the melee that political and economic fractures are creating in the everyday troubles of individuals on the street, following the collection of lives which are passing within the vicinity of a boulevard on which a poplar tree is collapsing. Everyone claims to know better than the others about such precarious subjects as faith, social status and justice – animated by petty hierarchies, obsessions over consumer culture, and the fine lines which blur the acts of domination and being dominated. 

 

People experience and perpetuate inequality through various degrees of conflict and command. Urban space is being rapidly reconfigured by the ongoing rush of industrialisation and urbanisation processes; the radical disorientation of the street is leading to the mingling of new populations. We meet Ahmet, the sales manager of a department store, responsible for ensuring that its customers get screwed by the tempestuous currency rate (‘his job was equivalent to the jealous sailor who attempts to sequester the regiment’s whore yet himself spends months at sea. It was a tough, calculating task, trying not to get cuckolded by money’). He believes in the power of appearance, but his carefully maintained wardrobe encounters resistance from the girl he’s pursuing, Şükran, who is engaged in her own calculations about the best strategies to navigate seduction (this, for her, should not involve anywhere as slovenly as the back cupboard of a basement warehouse). But this is not a novel of sexual politics or the myriad ways in which men can betray women – at least, it is not only that. While the encounters offered here provide intimate glimpses of the things people can do to each other, the giving and receiving of hurt, they also cast a damning light on the political and material realities of class difference, repression and injustice. 

 

Hatice Hanım, an excruciating housewife who burns with anger at imagined crimes against her idea of ‘order’, engages in the theft of teaspoons. Mehtap, a ‘reserved, hardworking’ young banking clerk, is grappling with the splintering realities of her existence. The daughter of an impoverished migrant family whose father toils long hours as a welder on public railways, she holds steadfastly to her belief that ‘anything is possible if you just put enough effort into it.’ Her thin assurances about life are punctured by the failings of her figure of authority, Necip Bey, the educated, cosmopolitan upper-class patriarch from Thessaloniki in Greece, who enters her bank verging on bankruptcy. Necip Bey is hardly a ‘perfect gentleman’, as we are told. He is snobbish, entitled, anti-Semitic and living off the riches of his Greek mistress whilst never questioning the entrenched hierarchies of ownership (‘He insisted that he knew what communism was, and who communists were […] some particularly spoiled youths had rediscovered this fashion, but it didn’t matter, because once they inherited their father’s money, or began working, they would certainly forget all about that youthful craze’). He represents one figure of authority produced by the patriarchal Republic state, which did not overturn single-party rule until 1950 and which, while giving women the vote in 1934, making them equal to men in the law and outlawing polygamy, could not prevent the normalisation of violence against women.  

 

Obnoxious, obsequious, opportunist. These are the qualities of the people we witness on the Ankara street, gathering around the collapsing poplar tree. They are all searching for some stratum of power in a society which favours the rule of a patriarch and the flow of money. Soysal is broadly empathetic in her darkly humorous treatment. She does not fictionalise individuals as heroes (or villains), but places them within the context of their surroundings, giving life to all the circumstances which shape their flows of becoming. The sharpness of her critiques reveal the slippery nature of identities, culture or the much feted ‘people’ – not as fixed entities to be wielded as a sword, but constructed within struggles over the relations of production and reproduction. Her characters are not subjects; they return our gaze as flawed men and women ‘laughing rebelliously with their pens’, in the words of Çayırcıoğlu.

 

If Noontime in Yenişehir pulls at the threads which tie the unequally dispossessed in hierarchical relations of power, A Strange Woman, written by Leyla Erbil, published two years earlier in 1971 and published in English this April, is more explicitly focused on the position (or absence) of woman in the political project of class consciousness raising and the disjuncture of living as a woman within the language of a history constructed and written by men. In an interview from 1997, Erbil described herself as ‘belonging to a generation that was taught to be responsible for other people.’ Her writing, which she described in an interview with the magazine Düşler Öyküler in 1997, brought Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud together ‘despite the fact that this combination was derided as a self-contradictory project by her contemporaries, presumably because attention to the individual self impeded the development of a collective class consciousness.’ This tension is pushed, often ironically, throughout A Strange Woman as she follows her protagonist, an idealistic young woman named Nermin, through various stages of her life, tracing the course of her political awakening(s) and her strained relationship with her family.

 

Irony is one of the main tools used by Erbil to destabilise easy assumptions about the relationship between women and power. She turns her piercing gaze to the neuroses created by a patriarchal society and its impact on the young female protagonist, Nermin, whose rebellious mind strains to provoke the boundaries she feels encroaching on her freedoms. Nermin’s initial romanticised ideas about revolution, intellectualism, economic independence and playful sexual provocation have curdled by the end of the book into a messianic and mechanistic devotion to ‘the people’ who she wants to educate and ‘liberate’ from oppression. 

 

The irony of her patronising devotion is made apparent in the middle section of the book when we meet her father on his deathbed. In a lyrical recollection of memories which emerge in a stream of consciousness and verge on the surreal, with layers of Joycean, Faulknerist or Freudian emotions, we learn that he is the son of a wealthy Ottoman landowner but ended his life as a sailor working precariously between different ships (starting on the British-registered Egyptian Khedivial Lines between Istanbul and Alexandria). His memories are intermittent and fractured, breaking down and disintegrating along with his physical body. He is fixated, in poetic incantatory fervour, with the question of who killed Mustafa Suphi, the founder of the Communist Party of Turkey who drowned in an assassination plot during a 1921 voyage to engage in a possible collaboration with the founding father of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk. He does not recognise the imagined oppressed ‘people’ who Nermin is so enraptured by, he is cynical about power and false deities of mankind (preferring to worship Allah), and full of grief for those he has lost and the bitterness of wasted lives. Their perspectives may not be so different (they have both been involved in separate iterations of the Communist Party of Turkey), but clash irreconcilably within the fractures of their messy relationship. They see each other without ever truly knowing the other, unable to translate their worlds to one another.

 

Both Noontime in Yenişehir and A Strange Woman provoke and mock the question of ‘the people’ (a ‘people’ who are still being invoked by Erdoğan, who came to power 20 years ago through an anti-elitist rhetoric which appealed particularly to the working- and middle-class Anatolians). In Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double (2011), Jacques Rancière argues for a socio-political understanding which foregrounds multiple ways of being and ways of acting, in which there are always several kinds of workers in the factory, several forms of movement in the street, several audiences in a theatre, rather than simply voices from below against one discourse from above. ‘There is not on the one hand the ideal people of the founding texts and on the other the real people of the workshops and poor neighbourhoods,’ he writes, but only a mixed scene to be staged and interpreted in between. Something similar might be said of the power of Erbil and Soysal, which comes in the playfulness of their ‘staging’ of scenes, which eludes easy interpretation and destabilises any fixed binaries between ideas and reality or between appearance and essence, offering instead a place for political inventiveness. Neither writer is interested in fixing a particular idea of a woman in place, but rather they posit the individual, male and female, as a structure through which evolving forces and historical currents pass. Their sharp reflections, absurd and ironic, puncture any easy assurances about economic independence, sexuality, love, jealousy and ask instead what types of relationships might be possible. Such a question remains ever present. ‘This generation has instilled great power and inspiration in the female reader, both with their lives and their works,’ writes Senem Timuroğlu in the Turkish literary periodical K24. ‘They increased the limited options; succeeded in expanding freedoms; opened up spaces for women to breathe. Unfortunately, today’s women writers have not yet overcome these liberated areas that this generation have scraped away at with their life and blood.’

 

Defiant, flawed, piercing. Reading Erbil and Soysal today restores the volatility and violence of female concerns, and expands our horizons of understanding how inequality operates. Their irreverent ways of endless seeing continue to stir the bounds of possibility – not through their glorification of women, but their clarification that we are all tied irrevocably, achingly, to others. Both women are more interested in the people on the margins of every system and the question of what we owe to others and ourselves than upholding any claims to identity or narrow sexual politics. There are few prophets in the world, few sublimely beautiful women, few heroes, in the words of George Eliot, whose mix of social realism, a wide-ranging approach to characters, and empathetic emphasis on the importance of context might be said to connect her nineteenth-century work to these Turkish writers. Through a dexterity and playfulness of writing, Erbil and Soysal illustrate how sites of quiet resistance may also be imprisoning to others, misinterpreted or become embittered. Justice is elusive when rebellion and domination go hand in hand. But their perspective also expands freedoms and opens up spaces for women beyond the narrow confines of their relationship with men. Female desire is too capricious, powerful and fractious to be caged by such dynamics. 

 

Towards the end of Noontime in Yenişehir we are introduced to Aysel. ‘She’d had her hair cut short. Her large mouth, her far too darkly lines eyes, her bra which lent to her bosom the ridiculous appearance of sharply pointed projectiles, everything about her gave her away at first glance… There was something about her every movement that provoked, in one way or another, everyone she encountered.’ Aysel was born out of her father’s rape of her sister and has spent her life betrayed by other women, pimped out or abused by men and exploited by a legal system of citizenship which does not recognise her. She is brave and sharp, easily able to discern the meshes of power obstructing her, although not so easily able to cut through them. Buoyed by having just received a fake ID from the police (‘the contradictions she encountered on a daily basis erased any semblance of the concept of crime that she might once have possessed’) she stops to tend the wounds of Ali, who has been beaten up on the street. They get into a discussion about the fight. Ali refuses to condemn his attackers, excusing them as being ‘bitter because they’re oppressed.’ His rational empathy is scorned by Aysel, who has been shaped by a life of intolerable betrayal and exploitation. ‘After all that talk of yours about standing up for one’s rights,’ she rebukes him with. ‘Where I come from, if you don’t know how to curse, there’s no way you’re getting your bucket filled at the fountain.’ She continues:

 

‘And why the hell should I be happy? So you think a street dog can be happy, is that even possible? I mean, like the song says, “C’mon world, is this your idea of justice …”’

 

Ali reflects on their encounter, and the patronising role he’s assumed within it.

 

‘I talked with that girl like those fanatics who went to the Industrial Market crying, “We’re here to enlighten the workers”, only to get the crap beat out of them by the small business owners there.’

 

The brusque pragmatism of Aysel, borne from her particularly cruel experiences of being a young woman, ruptures Ali’s calm idealism. It is not an irreconcilable fracture but a pointed rejoinder to the intricacies of inarticulate power, one which she, with all her experiences of accumulated violence, is in a better position to understand than him.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a researcher and writer based in Istanbul.

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