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Erdogan’s Masculinity and the Language of the Gezi Resistance

[Billboard of Erdoğan with graffiti reading [Billboard of Erdoğan with graffiti reading "çok tatlısın" ("so sweet"). Image via Street Art in Turkey Facebook page http://on.fb.me/127AquE]

Most observers of Turkey have been surprised by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s unwillingness to compromise with the Gezi Park protestors, whose resistance for the preservation of an İstanbul park has transformed into a nationwide wave of popular urban protests—despite ongoing efforts at violent suppression—and threatens to become a full-fledged political, and economic, crisis. When Erdoğan hastily left the country for a North Africa trip after the escalation of protests, the moderate comments offered by his deputy Bülent Arınç and President Abdullah Gül created a public expectation for reconciliation. Instead, Erdoğan continued to play the same provocative tune from Tunisia, leading to conspiracy theories and speculations, such as the suggestion that he might be approaching the end of his biological and/or political life. The word on the street suggested that he might be “losing it.” Maybe his health was rapidly failing and he was heavily medicated. Maybe he was being sacrificed by his party, for whom he had become a liability, and was acting out of fury. Once back in Turkey, Erdoğan proceeded to deliver increasingly aggressive and intimidating public addresses, despite widespread calls to start a dialogue and seek compromise with the protestors, leaving even his usual supporters in the media to wonder about his unnecessary stubbornness.

Since the beginning of the protests, Erdoğan has been repeatedly criticized for being arrogant, brash, and stubborn by dozens of domestic and international commentators. These alleged personal qualities actually sit well with his now well-established political style, characterized by condescending to and scolding his opponents. We only need to remember how he shaped the vocabulary of the protestors, who responded to Erdoğan’s degrading name-calling by reclaiming and identifying with his insults such as “looter” and “drunkard.” Nevertheless, explaining, or rather explaining away, Erdoğan’s authoritarian political style by referencing his personal whims psychologizes politics at the expense of a deeper understanding of its cultural politics. This article seeks to challenge these psychologizing approaches by analyzing Erdoğan’s political style through the lens of gender and illustrating how the language of the Gezi resistance was forged in a dynamic relationship with the particular gendered power embodied by Erdoğan.

“The Child Breaks, the Mother Mends, and the Father Looks the Other Way”

After weeks of brutal police attacks against the protesting masses (resulting in four dead and thousands of wounded citizens) proved ineffective, Erdoğan personally met with a handful of artists in a poorly executed public relations campaign to help the government sway increasingly critical public opinion. Hülya Avşar, a very popular actress, explained to journalists after her meeting with Erdoğan that she spoke “as a mother raising a teenager” and advised Erdoğan about how successful families work when a conflict arises: “The child breaks, the mother mends, and the father looks the other way.”

Erdoğan finally held a meeting with the representatives of the resistance, during which he got angry, harshly scolded one of the few women in the room, refused to calm down, and left the meeting abruptly, escorted by his daughter, his official consultant. A brief truce was declared, only to be shattered even more viciously by a final police raid of Gezi Park, leading to an even larger popular uprising and a campaign of state terror.

Three weeks and hundreds of thousands of gas canisters later, Erdoğan is still relentless, responding to criticisms of his “roughness” by declaring that “this Tayyip Erdoğan will not change.”

Interpreting Erdoğan’s “stubborn” political style as a psychological or behavioral problem means disregarding the universe of meanings and feelings that renders Erdoğan’s way of exercising power so evocative. Analyzing the political repertoire upon which Erdoğan built his rule and charisma from the perspective of gender, Erdoğan’s “stubbornness” can be framed not as a matter of personal eccentricity, but rather as a matter of masculinity.

To begin with, Erdoğan embodies a very particular masculine political persona. His masculinity is an innovative synthesis of Islamist and urban tough styles and orients his voice and his body language, as well as his particular way of exercising power. With an aggressive, uncompromising, and domineering “personality,” he aspires to act as every citizen’s father, brother, and husband. (Indeed, one of the inventive feminist graffiti artists of Gezi Park “divorces” Erdoğan through talaq: “Talaq Tayyip, talaq!”) So far, this patriarchal authoritarian masculinity has been seen as one of the sources of the charismatic popularity that has propelled Erdoğan’ successful political career. It may also be the reason why he cannot compromise and is currently being crushed under the weight of his own power.  

Erdoğan has been intensifying his exercise of power through performing this masculinity as the very instrument of his governance. He repeatedly recommended that women of Turkey have three children, recently supported a prohibition on the retail sale of alcohol after ten pm, and reported that girls were sitting on men’s laps in Gezi Park to delegitimize the resistance movement. Put differently, he enacts the role of a husband who wants three kids, a father who forbids drinking at night, a brother who snitches on his sister for socializing with men. He is a man who dominates, forbids, orders, scolds, degrades, and threatens. When he cannot maintain his rule by consent and/or coercion, he has no choice but to look away, to ignore, and hope that the mother will intervene, placate, pacify, and smooth things over before he returns home. (In this case, his deputy Bülent Arınç initially played the mother part but Hülya Avşar stole the role.)

The Language of Resistance

This masculine rule is what lies behind Erdoğan’s seemingly puzzling antagonistic personality and irrational behavior, and it is what prevents him from acknowledging the agency and dignity of the protestors. This masculine rule is what produces the anger of the protestors against being controlled, being looked down upon, and not being listened to. It is also the reason that the supposedly apolitical language of the resistance, which deploys humor and cursing rather than any party ideology, speaks to Erdoğan mainly through masculinity. Precisely because Erdoğan plays the role of the father, brother, and husband, the language of the protestors targets Erdoğan’s masculinity though swearwords that question his penis size, heterosexuality, and impenetrability. The language of the resistance engages with, questions, and answers Erdoğan through the imperatives of hegemonic masculinity.

The language of the resistance, personified by the leftist soccer fan group Çarşı, speaks in the lingo of urban poor male youth and challenges the policemen “to strip their helmets and drop their batons” to get ready for a fair fight “to see who is the real man.” This masculine language of the resistance threatens to feminize Erdoğan through swear words derived from penis- and penetration-centered sexual acts. This language deploys the same masculine idiom that Erdoğan uses and despite, or perhaps precisely because of, this, it becomes the voice of the masses resisting Erdoğan’s masculinized exercise of power and dominance. On the one hand, this masculine language creates a space to question and resist political authority. On the other hand, it "others" women, LGBT individuals, and sex workers who have been fundamental to the resistance from the very beginning, by brandishing swear words that demean these groups and threaten them with sexual violence. In other words, the resistance is speaking the language of power.

A feminist intervention is possible. It is not only possible but also required in order to recognize one of the main axes of power and resistance, namely gender and sexuality, and to articulate feminist and LGBT activism with other social justice struggles that constitute the Gezi Resistance. Feminist analysis suggests that what we see on the walls of the Gezi resistance is a reverse image of what is reflected through the camera obscura of gender ideology. Phallic swear words targeting Erdoğan express a discontent about his performance of masculine rule. The matter is indeed Erdoğan’s masculinity. The good news is that feminist and LGBT activists have long articulated their discontent about Erdoğan’s masculine rule, about his taking on the role of the father, husband, and brother of the whole society, and have contributed to critiques of and resistance against this masculine rule

The masculine language of the resistance has been reclaimed and transformed by feminists and LGBT activists, who covered (hetero)sexist graffiti with purple paint, urged “no cursing of women, gays, and whores” on T-shirts, signs and stickers, subverted chants (for example, by substituting “see the gays” for “let’s see who the real man is”), contributed their own slogans (such as signs declaring a “Tayyip- and harassment-free zone”), and encouraged everyone to transform their language by inviting them to “resist by persevering, not by swearing.” A feminist “swearing workshop” was held in the park to reconsider existing swearwords and slang and to collectively reinvent a non-sexist language. Productive strategies like subversion and reinvention allowed for a resistance in which the anger expressed by urban poor male youth through sexist slogans were not erased but rewritten in non-(hetero)sexist ways. These feminist interventions are crucial for the full recognition of women and LGBT peoples and their political struggles as integral to this popular opposition, and of feminist critique as essential to understanding power and resistance.

The Gezi resistance transformed women’s and LGBT individuals’ everyday experiences of the male-dominated public sphere through the new public spaces it dynamically constituted and reconstituted for the past three weeks. Before the eruption of the protest, Taksim—the political, cultural, and touristic center of İstanbul—was also infamous for the rampant sexual harassment of women, especially during public gatherings like New Year’s Eve, as well as a site of constant police violence against transgender people. The claim that Gezi Park and Taksim Square were completely free of sexual harassment, a common statement among the protestors, may be an overstatement; but it is a fact that women, gays, transgender people, and sex workers reclaimed the streets, parks, plazas, and nights in the course of the Gezi resistance. It is also true that they were empowered in this new public space in which they were not subjected to routine street harassment. These gendered experiences, knowledges, and languages acquired in and through the resistance have contributed to the feminist and LGBT movements, as well as the larger Gezi resistance.

As this resistance was banned from Gezi Park itself and police repression and violence rendered mass protests impossible, the resistance has spread to new spaces and morphed into new shapes. The latest form of resistance, standing still quietly in public, was initially dubbed “the standing man.” “Standing woman” and “standing person” immediately followed. Gezi resistance is reinventing itself as it reinvents the language of resistance.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in Turkish at bianet.org.]

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