Men, Know Your Place: Turkey's women take on sexism with satire

Thousands have taken to social media to highlight everyday sexism and flip it around

Courtesy Şişli Belediyesi
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Fed up with lifetimes of patronising put-downs and well-meaning but chauvinistic remarks, Turkish women flooded Twitter recently with humorous messages reversing the bias of everyday sexist language.

In a country plagued by violence against women and where conservative attitudes persist, tens of thousands of mostly female social media users adopted #ErkeklerYeriniBilsin – Men Know Your Place – to put men at the heart of common sexist expressions.

The trend was launched last week when a user Ruq, who goes by a single name, posted “My husband can work if he wants” – a not-so-veiled dig at men who consider themselves enlightened because they “allow” their wives to work.

After being retweeted more than 11,700 times, the sentiment caught on as people posted images such as a bridegroom showing off an engagement ring to a circle of adoring male friends.

Social media-savvy local authorities soon joined. Bodrum municipality boasted of public lighting that would mean “men can wander the streets safely”, while Sisli council in Istanbul jokingly trumpeted the arrival of pink male-only buses.

“Even in the most repressive periods in Turkey, women have managed to lift the veil of the oppressive atmosphere with very creative campaigns and actions,” said opposition MP Filiz Kerestecioglu.

“It was a very clever and humorous response to the stereotypes and injustices that women find demeaning.”

Canan Gullu, president of the Turkish Federation of Women’s Associations, praised the reactions of women “shackled” by sexist language.

“The contribution of local authorities’ messages has raised awareness about the rhetoric that women are subjected to,” she said.

Esin Izel Uysal, from the We Will Stop Femicides platform, said the campaign reflected women’s frustration at the lack of accountability for the “violence we encounter in every domain, the sexist statements”.

She added: “This trend was important because it revealed what all women encounter in everyday life.”

The hashtag showed how people can find ways to resist when the usual methods of protest are limited, said Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor in international relations at Johns Hopkins University.

She commented on “the attention-grabbing humour they use in doing so, which encourages sharing and thus amplifies the message in an online forum, inverting and subverting quickly recognisable power structures.”

Cases of murdered women – often at the hands of a boyfriend, husband or ex-partner – create headlines on a near daily basis in Turkey.

Despite ratifying the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women in 2011 and passing other laws to protect them, 474 women were murdered by men last year, according to We Will Stop Femicides.

The number of femicides – the murder of women by men because of their sex – has risen steadily over the last decade, the platform said.

Since 2008, most murderers of women in Turkey – 62 per cent – have been their male partners. Another 28 per cent of killings were carried out by other family members.

The World Health Organisation says 38 per cent of Turkish women experience violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime, compared to 25 per cent across Europe. Women’s groups and police have reported a rise in violence under coronavirus “stay at home” orders.

“Even in ‘usual’ conditions, for women, the home can be as dangerous as it is outside due to male violence,” said Ms Kerestecioglu, who has criticised the lack of support during the pandemic for women at risk. “Domestic violence is the deadliest form of violence.”

The movement from villages to cities in recent years has transformed Turkish society, offering women more opportunities to work and have a life outside the family.

While overseeing this change, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also sought to impose the roles of mother and homemaker on women. In the past, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described working women as “rejecting motherhood” and declared childless women “incomplete”.

Fatmagul Berktay, a professor of political science and women's studies at Istanbul University, said the rise of conservative policies had been accompanied by calls to repeal the Istanbul Convention and other protections for women.

"But women also acted back and used their legal rights more, especially those pertaining to divorce, alimony and gender violence," she said.

"In this climate it is more important than ever that women are vigilant and protect their rights, raise their voice against the masculinist restoration attempt and against gender violence."