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Pink buses and race politics

Hundreds of women marched in Istanbul, Turkey, on 29 July 2017 to protest against violence and animosity they face from men demanding they dress more conservatively. Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.If
you see a pink bus pass you on the streets of Istanbul, don’t be surprised. These
are the furiously debated, female-only buses that have been touted as the
answer to harassment on public transportation in Istanbul, and are already in
circulation in cities such as Bursa and Şanlıurfa.

Admittedly,
the first time I was asked for my opinion about the concept I was torn. Having
experienced the relentless exhaustion and fear of harassment, being able to let
my guard down on public transportation did not sound bad at all. No, it would
not fix the problem, but then again, the idea that women must remain victims
offered up on a platter while we do nothing to solve it did not thrill me
either.

The
pink buses are not a new idea, despite the recent
uptick in debate about them. If the motivating logic was truly to offer women
an optional safer public space while simultaneously
addressing the systemic sexism and violence that make such spaces necessary, I
might be on board (pun intended).

But, like their counterparts in the US, both
conservative and liberal politicians in Turkey have a long history of couching
harmful political agendas within the rhetoric of protecting and supporting
women – the pink buses are no exception. They are little more than the physical
manifestation of the idea that the problem is not men’s behavior, but women’s
presence in public spaces. 

There
has been a massive online backlash against the pink buses, and most of it has
been heartening and necessary. However, one image that has become popular
on Twitter serves as a disturbing warning of the ease with which feminist
rhetoric can slide into problematic racial stereotypes.

The image, which is
comprised of two separate pictures, is ambiguous without its accompanying
caption. It appears to show in the top picture a man who is reading on a train while
sitting next to a row of women wearing shorts. In the bottom picture, several
men are seen casually glancing in the direction of a veiled and ‘modestly’
dressed woman as she walks past. The generally included caption (roughly
translated) clarifies what we are intended to take from this picture: “It’s not
how you dress your girls, it’s how you educate your boys.”

The
sentiment is one of the most fundamental tenets of feminist social thought. Asking
women to change their behavior to meet increasingly impossible standards while
men are raised, in a myriad of different ways, to believe that they have a
right to our bodies and that their violence holds no consequences, is dangerous
and unsustainable.

But the image presents a more complicated message than that.
We are expected to understand that the top picture represents good, pure,
appropriate sexuality, whereas the bottom represents bad, perverse, backward sexuality.
It is not accidental that the people, both men and women, in the top image are
clearly white, and those in the bottom are conspicuously racialized.

The
rendering of brown people – particularly those who are visibly recognizable as
Muslims – as perversely sexualized or as in some way prone towards ‘unnatural’ sexual
behavior is not new. It was widely accepted and used across the political
spectrum in the United States following the 11 September attacks
to justify invasion and torture while maintaining the American self-image as a
morally righteous power. The body of the citizen was pure, the body of the
terrorist perverse. 

In
the US, the history of sexualizing race (or racializing sexuality) has its
longstanding historical roots in the creation of the nation and of the concepts
of citizenship and belonging. Despite their very different histories, the
modern state of Turkey is characterized by similarly problematic understandings
of race and ‘whiteness’ (or here, ‘Turkishness’) as a means of assigning
privilege and citizenship.

It is not strange at all that the same racialized
sexual panic in the name of ‘protecting women’ that so often finds root in
American feminist politics is also present here. Muslim/men of color, so the
story goes, are raised wrong in such a way that it results in a backward sexuality
that threatens the good, progressive sexuality of the community – with women as
the first victims. 

In
sitting with this argument, it’s difficult not to see the problems with it.
White boys, secular men, political progressives without a hint of religiosity
in them also abuse, rape, and kill. And those who don’t often find more
insidious ways to assert their power. As a personal anecdote, a white,
economically privileged man who I knew considered himself to be a genteel liberal
shoved me into a wall and spat in my face when, in response to his bluntly
stated offer of sex in his car, I laughed.

As Bianet writer Çiçek Tahaoglu wrote on who commits gender-based violence, “It can be a man with no
employment or it can be a lawyer who kills his wife, so there's not a social
pattern of this. This problem is bigger than that.” 

Now,
with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the helm of a massive,
post-coup-attempt restructuring of both political and social life, reports of
violence against women have increased. In these times, violence
committed by the State against women is made invisible, and the degree to which
gender-based violence in society has increased or decreased is made
intentionally hard to ascertain. Politically, parties
and organizations across the spectrum often give lip service to ending such
violence, while simultaneously relying on its ongoing existence as a political
tool.

Both
religious and secular parties alike campaign on the promise that they alone
hold the key to setting women free, conveniently ignoring their own ongoing
histories of silencing, whitewashing, and directly enabling physical, verbal,
and economic violence against women (and plenty of others).

This is not to say
that there is no difference between the values and ideologies of different
parties, groups, or social organizations regarding women. In cases where
gender-based abuse has been committed within a particular group or community,
groups with leftist and/or progressive ideological leanings are generally more
likely to take such acts seriously and as deserving of punishment. Yet the
violence still happens, indicating a troubling difference between ideology and
reality.

When
a bizarre form of capitalist, neo-Ottoman authoritarianism is the political order
of the day, it is easy to simplify the problem of violence against women by
blaming it on those who fall outside of a narrow brand of secular citizenship –
the poor, people of color, and religious conservatives, to name a few. But this
type of willful blindness to the depth and scope of the problem, and to our own
roles in it, is ultimately a self-defeating and xenophobic tactic that can yield
no positive change.

The
problem is not dark-skinned men watching a woman walk past, and the answer is
not white men covering their eyes on a train. When we talk about raising ‘our
boys’ differently, we cannot afford to only be talking about brown boys. To
ally campaigns for women’s rights with racism is to accept the very logic that,
at its ideological core, feminism seeks to destroy. It is to say that what we
want is not a more livable world for all, but rather a small slice of the power
for ourselves. 

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