Decoding Gender in Turkish Foreign Policy: How Ali Bilgic Gets it Right

This is the fifth and penultimate post in a series of posts by several guest authors  for The Disorder Of Things symposium 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 here.  Swati Parashar is a Senior Lecturer in the Peace and Development program, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash University, Australia.


There is something fundamentally reassuring about reading a book on gendered hierarchies and foreign policy, at a time when we have just witnessed the inauguration of the Donald Trump Presidency in the United States of America. It is reassuring, because it tells us that the global gendered order of states is not going to be replaced anytime soon and gendered hierarchies will remain at the heart of all political contests, resistance and acts of solidarity. After all the biggest challenge to the Trump presidency is going to come from women’s groups who successfully organized the Global March on 21 January 2017.

This is an era of unbridled and competing masculinities in every sphere; the political battleground is gendered as never before.  Leaders globally, in the West and non-West have invoked masculine images and built up frenzied constituencies of men and women, while parading their manliness, their 56 inches chests and other overtly masculine attributes that only macho men can embody. From India’s Narendra Modi to America’s Donald Trump, from Australia’s Tony Abbott to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all these world leaders have come to wield power in recent times within the context of deeply divided societies, invoking the restoration of national pride and patriotism, xenophobia and masculine strength and militarization of the state and society. Gender identity is not just embodied by the ruling elite but by the entire political class in most parts of the world. There is no ambiguity about politics being a gendered domain where gender hierarchies and competing masculinities are more firmly entrenched than before. These gender hierarchies not only determine the gender and racial order within these societies but also determine the relationship that these countries have with one another.

Bilgic’s book could not have come at a better time to understand the world of states, their leaders and competing masculinities between the Global South and North. For those of us working at the intersections of postcolonialism and feminism, Bilgic’s book reminds us that there is no escape from the gender tropes that have always determined whose knowledge and experiences are legitimated and who gets to decide the prevailing norms of masculinity and femininity. At a time when there is a push to reclaim militarised masculinity by states and regimes alike, both in the Western and Non Western contexts, the Global South is keen ever again to play catch up. We have seen this with the domestic and foreign policies of many countries in the Global South when masculine states have used their coercive might to silence their challengers/subject populations in order to receive acceptance from their citizens and the West alike. Bilgic talks about Turkey in that mode till May 2013 and I could easily transpose it to the current Indian state dealing with its dissenters and challengers similarly.  This catching up or getting the West’s approval and attention comes in many forms, either by embracing masculinity as most states do, or by a complex hybrid identity where the state is both masculine and maternal as I have written about.[1] Moreover this appreciation itself is never always in the form of establishing sameness or finding common values; it can also be as a military and economic competitor in the neoliberal era.

Turkey is changing and continues to be a major player in the politics of the Global North and South. The multiple masculinities articulated by its various regimes have had a bearing on Turkish society and its relationship with the rest of the world.  It is pertinent to note that the Turkish Parliament has just backed a plan to strengthen the powers of the presidency, allowing a referendum that could give unprecedented powers to President Erdogan to stay in office until 2029.There is much to be engaged with, in Bilgic’s fascinating account of Turkey’s gendered political evolution and its relationship with itself and with the West, with the constructions of the self and other. However, instead of providing an overview of the arguments in this book, I will focus on three key things that spoke to me as I read this fascinating account that Bilgic provides. One, how researchers are implicated and located in their own work and how that is significant in the knowledges that they obtain and write about. This addresses the question of affect or emotions in the lives of the researchers and the researched. Second, how feminisation and hyper-masculinisation are deployed in the construction of the other, as Bilgic traces the foreign policy interactions of various Turkish regimes with the West. Third, how Bilgic’s gendered analysis can help us make sense of the larger colonial and postcolonial politics in the Global South and how the Turkish experience and trajectory has impacted other countries of the Global South and their relationship with the West, especially with the former colonial powers.

Bilgic provides us a glimpse of his personal journey as a teenager in Turkey navigating through the political identities of the state, first seeking comfort in the Westernness, and with the West’s reluctance to accept it, being forced to rethink its non Westernness. He mentions how these questions of Turkey’s identity and closeness to the West resulted in him being an ‘oscillating political subject between the West and non-West, an embodied hybrid.’  In one of the most radical contributions of this book, the author clearly spells out how the personal is political and international in the study of something as mainstream as foreign policy.
The recognition of emotional journeys of the self is significant in how we legitimise knowledge production and dissemination. Feminist scholars have pointed out the perceived association of emotion to weakness and, to prevent which, experiences and responses of the researcher are often carefully kept out by them. Bilgic challenges this by studying an issue (foreign policy) which is usually addressed by mainstream scholars but also situates himself and his emotional journey in his research. In that, he brings out the issues of  masculine-objectivity being hegemonic in academia which censures emotions as irrational. It is by embedding his emotions in research that he is able to shape his research questions and grasp the political content of the Turkish state and its identity project.

In this study of Turkey that Bilgic presents, the ontological insecurity that is experienced by the non Western states as they navigate through the changing norms of masculinity as determined by the West, also enables affectivity as a legitimate performance. Bilgic’s project is not to engage with the affective impact of the ontological insecurities he maps in Turkey’s relationship to the West, but if one could push him to probe further, the question could be about how we can ‘know’ the state through its emotional language and appeal and how ‘affective citizenship’ is a necessary prerequisite in postcolonial statehood. The affective language enables the state to reject colonial/Western emasculation or feminisation and reclaim its masculinity through demonstrating particular kinds of emotions, and conferring particular kinds of emotional citizenship, where some peoples’ emotions are privileged over others. This reclaiming of masculinity through affective appeals and language is at the heart of Turkey’s statist narrative and guides its foreign policy exchanges and its domestic politics. Bilgic could have probed this affectivity further given the attention he pays to his own emotional journey in his research.

The second key argument of the book that stands out is how feminisation and hyper masculinisation are deployed in the construction of the other as Bilgic traces the foreign policy interactions of various Turkish regimes with the West. He argues, ‘The Wests are also reproduced politically and epistemologically in the mirror of the non-West.’ This reminds of Ashis Nandy’s Intimate Enemy[2] where he convincingly argued that the colonial encounter produced particular kinds of political subjectivities and identities both of the colonised and the coloniser. Bilgic is invested in the multiple performances or changing norms of masculinity as determined by the West that the Turkish state was always trying to embrace through its foreign policy and in its juxtaposed feminisation of the society. He argues that political representations at the state level feminise society vis-à-vis the non-Western state and hypermasculinise dissident groups within the society that challenge the modulation narrated by the non-Western state elites. Non-Western decision makers tell (conflicting) stories about the West which is both idealized and considered problematic.This draws us to those gender tropes where the masculinity of the colonisers was resisted, not by competing masculinities of the colonized, but by the androgynous and feminine responses from the colonised. Gandhi, in India, for example, made femininity a force against the masculine might of the Raj; he rejected the hyper masculine aspects of the anti-colonial movement.[3] The role of the postcolonial state, later, becomes complex because not only must it replace the colonisers in terms of governance and institutional structures, but also embody the values of the national movement, the androgeniety and femininity along with the masculinity that it had invoked in the anti-colonial struggle. This gender nuance needs more exploration in the case of Turkey and Bilgic is the best placed to undertake further research and study.

This constant desire to ‘catch up’ and become like the West results in constructions of hierarchies within the non-West as well.  I was particularly drawn to the argument that the feminisation of non-Western states as irrational and undemocratic occurs during moments of military crises in particular. This gender lens can help us make sense of the power relations between the West and the non-West, especially visible in moments of crises.  As Sara Meger argues in her soon to be published piece, War as Feminized Labour in the Global Political Economy of Neoimperialism,[4] the structures of international relations facilitate political violence in post-colonial states. She says that armed conflict and political violence in post-colonial states form an integral element of the global economy of accumulation in deeply gendered ways. Meger believes that despite the fact that ‘performing violence is a physically masculine form of labour, the outsourcing of armed conflict as labour in the political economy is ‘feminized’ in that it represents the flexibilization of labour and informalization of market participation’. Therefore, while this outsourcing upholds the hegemonic ideals of militarized masculinity within the domestic context, at the international level it aims to establish the ‘weakness’ or ‘otherness’ of the ‘failed’ violent state that is feminized or even emasculated. This discursive construction of the non-Western world as violent, entrenches gender hierarchy and unequal power relations between the West and the non-West. Bilgic and Meger, both offer a sophisticated gender analysis of how orientalism continues to frame the relationship between the West and non-West especially with reference to the political violence that the latter experiences or is drawn into.

My third point is a derivative one about how the ontological insecurities produced through gender binaries has to be explored in the context of non-Western hierarchies too. This may not have been the scope of the book, but certainly prompts us to rethink how the postcolonial/non-Wests perform masculinities and femininities and construct gender hierarchies in relation to one another and not just in relation to the West.The trajectory of one non-Western country can be a big source of inspiration and shape the destinies of many others as the case of Turkey demonstrates. Bilgic, reminds us, non-Western state’s decision makers address feminisation and hyper-masculinisation by telling stories about the Western and non-Western state, society and individuals in a historical way. A suitable example from South Asia would be of Indian nationalist leaders who drew inspiration from Turkey in particular ways to develop the narrative of resistance against the Raj.

During the colonial period of the British Raj in India, Turkey’s Ottoman past inspired Indian leaders to form an alliance in 1920, between the Khilafat Movement[5] and the Indian National Congress. Gandhi was a strong advocate of the Khilafat Movement as part of the Non Cooperation he advocated, with the hope that it would increase pressure on the British to restore sovereignty to the Indians. The Khilafat campaign also had its opponents and was labelled reactionary and communal by those who believed that it sowed the seeds of the violent Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan based on religious nationalism. There was no doubt that the Khilafat supporters looked at the Movement as one form of masculinity (of the Ottoman Caliphate) that could be a formidable ally in the fight against the British colonial masculinity. Indian nationalist leader, Subhash Chandra Bose, envisioned a similar alliance with Hitler and Mussolini to challenge the British during World War II.

Kazi Nazrul Islam, the great influential poet of British India, later East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh had no faith in the philosophies of either Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement or the Khilafat Movement. Instead, he supported Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s new Turkish Movement that had overthrown the Sultanate and believed that only through armed revolution like the one led by Ataturk, could India be liberated. Inspired by Ataturk’s military campaign in the war of independence, which overthrew the feudal Sultanate and turned Turkey into a secular and reformist modern republic with unveiled women walking its streets, Nazrul composed his famous poem: Kemal Pasha in 1921. He desired a similar reformist secular masculinity, which could liberate India from the British. Some translated excerpts of his poem below:

Brother Kemal, the desperate son of a frenzied mother
Has gone furious: so the devils’ dens are full of hue and cry
Looking for self-protection everywhere;
Kemal, what a wonder you’ve worked!
Ho Ho Kemal, what a wonder you’ve worked.
We need such a mighty Kemal to crush the devilish foe.
Kemal, what a wonder you’ve worked! 

Don’t you know him? So foolish sisters all you are! He is Kemal,
Kemal, he is
The intrepid son of a frenzied mother!
Your brother he is.
Kemal, yes. Kemal he is…
Who else could have been so majestic?

Bravo brother!
Bravo to your sharpened sword.
You have sent all your enemies to Hades
in one clean sweep.
Tell me now, who is there on earth
not afraid of Turkish sword? [6]

The big take away of the book is Bilgic’s in-depth analysis of how the standards of the Wests’ hegemonic masculinities are constantly changing and how the hybridity of non-Western subjectivities continues to be produced and reproduced. Attempts to ‘catch up’ by non-Western states is a never-ending process which involves political and social experimentations with many different ideologies from nationalism and communism to modernity, secularism and neo liberalism etc. Bilgic’s analysis of Turkey could be easily framed in the context of other non-Western states, particularly those that are caught up in postcolonial identity struggles and hybridities. I am thinking of India here, where the current state and regime embody strong masculine characteristics, and yet must embrace Gandhi’s maternal femininity and androgeniety in their quest to not only appear distinct and maintain past continuities but also to participate in the elusive ‘catch up’. The challenge for non-Western states is to not only become like the West and be accepted within the global norms of legitimacy determined by the West, but also to retain a narrative of difference and distinctness from their non-Western counter parts and colonial masters in particular. The ways in which these non-Western states negotiate both their postcolonial continuities and adaptability to contemporary Western norms (of masculinity) and their ruptures with their colonial pasts would be the future research to undertake to further Bilgic’s analysis and compliment this thoughtful, provocative and incisive book.


[1]Parashar, Swati (2017, forthcoming) “The Postcolonial/Emotional State: Mother India’s Response to Her Deviant Maoist Children” in Swati Parashar, Ann Tickner, Jacqui True (Ed.), Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, New York: OUP.

[2]Nandy, Ashis (1983) The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism(Oxford University Press: Delhi)

[3]See Nandy, Ashis (1983) The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism(Oxford University Press: Delhi) and Gandhi, Leela (1998) Postcolonial Theory: A critical Introduction (Oxford University Press: Delhi)

[4]This article is part of a special issue on Feminism Meets Postcolonialism: Gender, Violence and the Postcolonial State, edited by Swati Parashar to be published in the journal, Postcolonial Studies (forthcoming)

[5] The Khilafat movement (1919–22) was a pan-Islamic, political resistance campaign launched by the Muslims in British India to influence the British government. It was essentially based on the idea of the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate.

[6] See full English translation of Nazrul’s poem Kemal Pasha at <https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/kemal-pasha/> Accessed 21 December 2016.

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