Of Malls and Mosques

This is the fourth post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereAida A. Hozic is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Florida.


The publication of Ali Bilgiç’s book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy in 2016 could not have been more timely. There are few historical moments in our recent history when politics of gender and race have been so forcefully pushed to the front and center of global conversations. Conflicts, refugee flows, uprisings, coups and counter-coups, populist blowbacks and rising authoritarianism – all seem to be written through, with, and over racialized, gendered bodies of men, women and children, justifying the persecution of some and advocating protection of others. Turkey, as the events (and the trail of bodies) of the last few years tragically confirm, sits at the crossroads of all these trends; civilizational cliché that it is the country where “East meets West” can no longer suffice to explain (and perhaps never could) multiple fissures and violent contradictions of its polity.

Bilgiç’s book, in a nutshell, argues that non-Western states – and Turkey in particular – navigate and adapt their own masculine personas in response to the shifting and multiple hegemonic masculinities of the West. By doing so, they produce and reproduce gendered power hierarchies not just between the West and non-West but also vis-à-vis their own societies. The Turkish state, always trying to catch up with the West, has enacted and produced among its citizens different forms of hyper-masculinity (“civilizational,” “Cold War,” “neoliberal”) against the backdrop of a hyper-feminized (“immature”, “backward,” “irrational”) society. Since such attempts to catch-up with the West are a never ending process of (re)production of gendered insecurities, this approach allows Bilgiç to highlight both uncomfortable continuities in Turkish elite politics (between Kemalists and Islamists, for instance, usually portrayed as political opposites) and their modalities in critical historical moments (e.g. signature ceremonies for important treaties with the West or military and political crises in their relations). “Gendering,” argues Bilgiç, “normalises, legitimises and reproduces this hopeless quest, which, in fact, works for non-Western political elite’s power over society.”

In the latest iteration of this performance, explains Bilgiç, “when the state became an aggressive ‘market man,’ expressing a Turkish-Islamic ideology, society eventually reacted over ‘a few trees’ in Gezi Park, Istanbul, 2013.” The protests in Gezi Park, which mobilized millions of people and lasted more than two months in the summer of 2013, revealed tenuous foundations of the most recent state-society pact in Turkey, fostered by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party, as well as important rifts among the regime’s Islamist supporters. This summer, this on-going intra-elite strife pushed the country, in Ayse Zarakol’s terms, “through the looking glass,” resulting in a botched coup and in systematic purges of civil servants, military, opposition politicians (Kurdish in particular), academics, journalists and businessmen. And while Europe, United States, Russia and Turkey continue to haggle over Syria, Turkish President Erdoğan is successfully blackmailing his neighbors to the West by holding millions of refugees on Turkish territory, threatening to unleash them onto Europe at the slightest sign of their disapproval.

Women, as is often the case, hold the key to this precarious, authoritarian, balancing act – and to the possibilities of its demise. Bilgiç perfectly captures the spirit of the Islamist/neoliberal synthesis with the phrase “mosques and malls,” underscoring the connections between the neo-Ottoman/market-friendly project of the Turgut Özal’s regime in the late 1980s/early 1990s with the Erdoğan’s in 2000s. It was already under Özal that nearly 1500 mosques were being built annually in Turkey, notes Bilgiç ; to that Erodgan would add economies of scale and international ambitions, building mega-mosques from Istanbul to the United States, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Similarly, Özal brought the first shopping mall to Istanbul; at the time of its opening in 1988, Galleria was the symbol of Turkish modernity and of Özal’s successful economic policies. But even in this respect, Erdoğan would try to surpass him. Economic miracle of the Erdoğan’s regime has mostly rested on large scale construction and infrastructure projects – bridges, highways, tunnels, housing – employing hundreds of thousands of low-skilled men. The other side of this gendered bargain, however, have been the shopping malls – “the locomotive of the economy” as the daily Hürriyet called them in a special report. By 2014, there were 333 shopping malls in Turkey, and the projections were that they would account for $50 billions of investments and $34 billions in sales. Majority of shoppers, obviously, were women – married, working, with high-school degrees only.  It would be a leap, of course, to argue that it was such investments in women-as-consumers that have bought their support for Erdoğan’s regime – although women have been the pillar of his electoral victories. Yet, the malls and fashion were definitely a part of the redefinition of women’s role in the society, in line with expectations that they should each have three children and quietly accept rising levels of domestic violence, including femicides.

One of Istanbul’s mega-malls perfectly embodies these tensions between expectations, opportunities and violence as engendered through the “mosques and malls” synthesis. When it opened at the end of 2005, Cevahir mall in the Şişli district of Istanbul was the largest mall in Europe. The mall was built by Cevahir family, close associates of – at the time – Prime Minister Erdoğan, who had made their fortunes with construction projects in Saudi Arabia and Libya. Although the mall housed the same global brands as all the other malls in Istanbul, the proximity of its owners to the ruling AKP party attracted a very different clientele than the crowds that could be seen at other Istanbul’s fashionable shopping centers. It was not so much the presence of veiled women at Cevahir (who could, after all, be seen anywhere) as the absence of Istanbul’s secular elite that made the mall seem as if it was situated in one of the Gulf states, rather than Turkey. Shortly afterwards, the mall was, indeed, sold to Kuwait Investment Authority and became one of the favorite shopping destinations for tourists from the Arab world. But the mall has also had its own share of tragedies. Now known as “the mall of death,” it has seen a number of people – men and women – commit suicide by leaping to their death from its upper floors.

There is, of course, the other side to Turkish politics also. In June 2015 elections, thanks to the coalition of feminists, peace activists and Kurdish politicians, more women than ever before were elected to Parliament. The electoral success of the Kurdish political party – HDP – denied absolute majority to Erdoğan’s AKP, forcing him to engineer the repeat “snap elections” in November of 2015. A series of bombings in the summer and fall of 2015, which the government blamed on ISIS but also Kurdish PKK, and intimidation of HDP representatives and their supporters, enabled Erdoğan to regain his parliamentary majority. The coup and the purges followed. But the ability of women to affect politics had not been destroyed. Just this past fall, a broad coalition of women activists successfully defeated government efforts to push through a law that would allow rapists of underage women to leave prison if they promised to marry their victims. On November 25, thousands of women marched in solidarity on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, still the symbol of Turkish cosmopolitanism and independence. And just a few days ago, on March 8th, the International Women’s Day, in another massive display of their power and creativity, women once again turned Istanbul into a site of freedom and defiance of authoritarianism and patriarchy. Walking along Istiklal, they chanted “end male-perpetrated violence” and “Tayyip, Tayyip, run, run, we are coming”.

Feminist, post-colonial, queer analyses complicate our understandings of states’ domestic and foreign policy making but they also create possibilities for us to think and act differently. What I have found most inspiring about Ali Bilgiç’s book – despite or perhaps because of its coincidence with the deeply troubling political events in Turkey, Europe and the US – is that it unmasks states’ masculine posturing as just that: posturing. Make no mistake – these are dangerous, violent masculinities that we are dealing with, ever more so these days as they are so profoundly and easily threatened. But, to paraphrase Cindy Weber, the states are also faking it. Exposing and confronting the gendered and racialized hoax that cloaks their violence may be the only hope we have.

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