Urban utopia: a feminist perspective on the Gezi resistance


It is around ten o’clock on a calm and warm Tuesday night in August, 10 weeks after the beginning of the protests in Istanbul. We are in Abbasağa Park in Beşiktaş that 40 people – more men than women – meet for tonight’s discussion topic: “Who is afraid of feminism?” In a country not famous for exemplary gender equality, this seems like a minor wonder.

Triggers and causes of the Uprising

On the surface, everything started in Gezi Park, which was to be replaced with a shopping mall. But obviously things are more complex: in the last decade Istanbul has transformed very quickly. There are plans to build a third bridge across the Bosporus, a new airport in the Belgrad Forest, a huge mosque on a hill in Üsküdar and a canal parallel to the Bosporus, which should give you an idea of the city’s future challenges. Areas of different socio-political and economic backgrounds have undergone urban gentrification. Here, gentrification means violently driving out residents living in newly wealthy areas, whose homes are then sold for economic reasons without regard for people’s rights – they were moved to suburbs far away from their place of work, school and social network to areas without proper infrastructure and social services or healthcare.

The reconstruction of Taksim Square and Gezi Park could only be stopped by a whole country in unrest.

Like the city itself, lifestyles are being paved over by arbitrary laws, like bans on alcohol and demonstration on İstiklal Avenue, patriarchal instructions on how to live and how many children to raise, new restrictions on abortion rights and the oppression on freedom of speech by increased media control and imprisonment of journalists. These developments provide a foundation of unrest that served as deeper causes of the protests.

The reconstruction of Taksim Square and Gezi Park could only be stopped by a whole country in unrest. These protests were triggered in the night of May 27th, when bulldozers started to cut down trees in Gezi Park without valid permission from the court. People who demonstrated against this illegal destruction were confronted with harsh police brutality. The riot police attacked peaceful protesters with water cannons and pepper gas in the early morning hours, burned tents and drums. The protests were fuelled by police violence and Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan’s (also called “Erdogone” by protesters) arrogant behaviour, as he called the protesters terrorists and looters and went on a trip to North Africa instead of taking the people’s demands seriously. The unrest quickly spread throughout the whole country.

The proportions this uprising assumed, however, make clear that it is not only about Istanbul or Turkey, nor simply about gentrification and environmental destruction. It is bigger, global and more general. A feminist critique brings these more macro-level forces into focus: the power of economic and political elites, which results from patriarchal male bonding, the hegemonic neoliberal way of governing, the selling of public space for economic reasons, the lack of the citizen participation in decision-making and the concomitant loss of a self-determined lifestyle, have been reasons for the uprising.

Public Space and Concepts of Citizenship

Normal citizens are created through political discourse: the state “gives” them rights but in return requires obedience to their norms.

The concept of state citizenship contains the idea of belonging to a certain nation, religion and gender. Normal citizens are created through political discourse: the state “gives” them rights but in return requires obedience to their norms. This keeps citizens dependent on the state in order to control them. “Citizens of the Turkish Republic” and their rights are defined by law with the terms of the state. These policies and processes appear to be gender-neutral, but in fact are deeply gendered and geared towards a certain state-created ideal of the average middle-class heterosexual family.

These issues had been denounced by feminist and LGBT activists even before the Gezi resistance, through demonstrations for the right to access to and movement within public space without harassment. Thus public space does not mean the same thing for everyone: it is socially constructed, made for the “normal” citizen and dominated by heterosexual male norms. LGBT people and women are confronted with male dominance in public space and may not always be able to move in an unhindered manner. Before the protests, they experienced what it means to have only restricted access to public space.

Over time, more people in addition to feminists and LGBT activists became dissatisfied with the politics of the ruling AK-Party and its hegemonic approach and restrictive rules. Even people who had been satisfied with the rights given by the state or people belonging to the middle or upper-middle class comfortable with state-sanctioned identities took part in the resistance, as they experienced new restrictions on access to public space. They reclaimed public space and showed their disagreement with government and police behaviour. Through the Gezi resistance, the concept of citizenship has changed: people could not identify with the type of citizen the state wanted them to be and created an alternate model of society in opposition to that offered by the government.

Living Urban Utopia

People experienced a new solidarity in the Gezi Commune. It was an alternative community, with a new usage of public space. The protesters reclaimed their space and experienced an urban utopia. In the Gezi Commune, there was no state violence because police were not allowed entry, no cash flow because everything was free, no authoritarian politics but instead directly democratic forums. An ideal public space was created, which empowered different perspectives and made possible something unique: different people contributed with their individual abilities and made themselves agents of history.

People’s individual abilities were valued by others. Commune members learned from each other, interacting in a way that demonstrated how people can resist the government-enforced lifestyle by uniting and creating a positive alternative. ln the park, people felt responsible for their surroundings. It was interesting to witness how people organised themselves, how everyone found a way to contribute and make decisions by reaching a consensus.

Different groups, even different football clubs who had fought against each other before, united in solidarity. Next to the football fans were the feminists, who painted over sexist slogans and explained that Gezi Park and its surroundings were no place for sexism. Anti-capitalist Muslims planned a workshop about sexuality and religion together with LGBT activists. Kurdish people, nationalists, leftists, old and young chanted slogans together.

The park was the creative source of the resistance: urban gardening, workshops, music, yoga, lectures, dancing, concerts, t-shirt printing and much more. The creativity seemed to be endless and created several different forms of protest: banging on pots and pans, news exchange via internet, prank calls to TV channels that did not report on the resistance to catch audience attention and decode the channels’ political position, the performance of the standing man, the dancing dervish with the gas mask, protest songs, biking around the Taksim Square and organising a water fight in front of the water cannons. People acted with an enormous power, support, creativity, solidarity and humour. “Tayyip – connecting people” was one of the jokes and indeed it was like that.

In this short period of lived urban utopia, public space was used in a democratic, integrative way. It made obvious what the people who built the commune expected from public space and therefore from politics: public space is undoubtedly part of a political debate. It also showed that people want a new practise of political discussion and social existence, something different from what the ruling party has designated for them.

New Concepts of Urban Citizenship

The urban utopia was destroyed and violently taken back by the state. What stayed is a new concept of urban citizenship. It contains the possibility of a democratic understanding of citizenship on a smaller scale, defined not only by the state, but formed by citizens participating on a more local level. This is what the situation looks like now and what the resistance has achieved. The forums in the parks are one part of renewed participation in residential neighbourhoods and public spaces. People are sharing their experiences and knowledge. They have created a place for political activism and participation. People are using their right of urban citizenship and try to affect the decision-making process. Before the protests, only activists sought to reclaim public space. Now there is a greater awareness of these topics and people can organise themselves better.

Feminist and LGBT activists took part in the protests and showed their presence in the end of June at the trans and gay pride parade, which was the most crowded in the history of Turkey. The feminist and LGBT scene was an essential element of the resistance, and many people expressed solidarity by joining pride events. That so many people showed their solidarity at pride demonstrates once more a new political awareness and a new understanding of solidarity that includes the right to live as an urban citizen the way one wants. People rejected a patriarchal political system and the commercialisation and privatisation of public space.

It is now midnight in Abbasağa Park but the discussion is still lively. Some just come to listen for a while, and others have come prepared to contribute actively to the debate. But everyone who came tonight is a little bit less afraid of feminism.

Image: Getty