Digital echoes of International Women’s Day

International Women's Day was celebrated under the shadow of the pandemic, but this didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from gathering in Istanbul and elsewhere. At the same time, with many hesitant or unwilling to join the crowds, digital activism gained particular importance.

Another March 8 has come and gone. International Women’s Day is celebrated fiercely and joyfully in Turkey. The bottled-up rage caused by sexism, inequality, harassment, rape, and femicide is channeled into massive marches like the one organized annually in Istanbul’s Feminist Night March around Taksim Square. Last year’s march brought together thousands of feminists in an inspiring display of collective power. One handmade poster that went viral after the march presciently declared: “When you fall into hopelessness, remember this crowd.”

2020’s March 8 was the last major gathering that occurred before COVID-19 hit Turkey in earnest, launching the cycle of lock-downs and restrictions that we are still living through. This year, 2021 was celebrated under the shadow of the pandemic, but this didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from gathering in Istanbul and elsewhere.

At the same time, with many hesitant or unwilling to join the crowds, digital activism gained particular importance. Videos, commercials, and music clips have long been a significant part of International Women’s Day in Turkey. This year, the digital manifestations of March 8 are particularly valuable for showing the various currents that shape the feminist movement in Turkey, from the more corporate type of feminism to a more revolutionary (and musical) strain.

Every March 8, corporations line up to make commercials that show how progressive and aware they are. The website Zaytung, Turkey’s answer to The Onion, used its famous satirical style to show just how meaningless these gestures can be: “While many companies from banks to tuna fish producers have prepared videos for International Women’s Day that appear on social media and television, March 8 gained a new meaning for Gizem Saydur when she learned that her old boss, who harassed her constantly at work, and her ex-boyfriend, who ruined her life for 2 years after she left him, have also shared this same ‘woke’ video.”

The mention of a tuna fish company is no accident. It refers to an incredibly insensitive video by Dardanel that features the mostly women factory workers that the company employs. While the commercial ostensibly critiques sexism, it is entirely unaware that what it is celebrating is the use of women as a cheap labor force.

Other videos showed greater political awareness while still existing under the shadow of corporate sponsorship. Cracker and biscuit company Eti released a commercial critiquing the way society comments on women’s bodies and the way they eat. However, the subtext is that women should eat the company’s whole-wheat products if they want to stay fit. A short musical piece by singer-songwriter Kalben was released by the NN Group, an international financial services company providing retirement services, pensions, insurance, investments, and banking. Kalben’s “Çünkü Başka Sen Yok” (Because There Is No Other You) tells listeners to ignore those who criticize or belittle them and instead realize how precious they are. Perhaps so precious that they deserve a good life insurance plan, one is forced to think…

Then there is YouTuber-turned-pop star Zeynep Bastık, who released a music video of her new song “Kendi Yolumuzda” (On Our Own Path) with the sponsorship of the hair care brand Elidor (a product of British multinational consumer goods company Unilever). Elidor is doing charity work supporting girls’ education in Turkey and teamed up with Bastık to advertise their efforts. Even so, the song has a good—if simplistic—message. The music video begins with a statistic that “62% of young women say that there are barriers to realizing their dreams” and that “limiting expectations of women is one of the most significant barriers.”

The song goes on to tell young girls to “Push your boundaries / Don’t listen to anyone / We’re on our own path.” Featuring a young law student and a world surf champion, the moral of the song is that women can be whatever they want. It is hard to find anything of fault in Bastık’s description of the song on Instagram: “You cannot intimidate women with violence, injustice, or social pressure. We are here and have each other’s backs.” She then included a hashtag in support of the Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence), a critically important agreement from which certain conservative politicians in Turkey want to exit. “Kendi Yolumuzda” may be a corporate project, but these are messages that should be mainstreamed as much as possible—whatever the means.

Another example that is both corporate and inspiring is from the website meyhanedeyiz.biz, a rakı-themed news portal that was created by Mey İçki as a way of getting past Turkey’s laws restricting alcohol advertising. The video uploaded on YouTube to celebrate March 8 is titled “Yüzleşme” (Confrontation) and features actress Demet Evgar and friends sitting at a meyhane. As the group raises their glasses to the women of the world, Evgar begins a toast that asks each of them to confront their demons. She says, “Let’s raise a glass alongside those who do not comment negatively on women’s clothes or appearance.” Some of the men in the party begin to slowly lower their glasses, knowing that they have done this before. Evgar then declares, “Let’s raise a glass with those who don’t discriminate against women in the workplace or pay them less than men.” Some more glasses come down. “Let’s raise a glass with those who share the housework equally. Let’s raise a glass with those who don’t remain silent when the world is unjust to women, or who do not fear raising their voices.” At this point, even some of the women begin lowering their glasses. “Come on, let’s confront ourselves,” Evgar finally declares. Then everyone toasts to the day when all glasses can be confidently raised together.

Though some good messages are put out into the world through these means, the most impactful campaigns are those created by the movement itself. For example, the organizing group behind the “Feminist Night March” released a new video this year ahead of the march. To a rousing soundtrack of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” it features clips of women walking from a number of powerful films, documentaries, and series created by and/or about women. These include the British show “Sex Education,” the award-winning film about trans sex workers in LA “Tangerine,” legendary director Agnès Varda’s 1977 film “One Sings, the Other Doesn't,” and documentaries about feminist movements in Iran, India, and among the Black Panthers in the US.

Another powerful video, created by RitimKolektif (RhythmCollective), shows that it is not even necessary for a song to have words to inspire revolutionary sentiments. Since 2009, the group has brought women together to give a voice to the feminist struggle. Among their many activities, the group is legendary for the rowdy March 8th concerts that occur after the Night March each year. This year, RitimKolektif treats us to an online performance featuring the darbuka, bendir, and many more percussion instruments.

Another group, Kadınlarla Jam (Jamming with Women), released an inspiring video of their members collaborating on a jam session with each recording from home. They covered the Spanish singer Lidia Damunt’s defiant feminist anthem “La Caja.” Hearing the lyrics about owning one’s own body and not submitting to the patriarchy accompanied by women playing the keyboard, drums, guitar, and more from across different points in the city cannot help but give one hope about the day when these groups can once more come together and fill the country’s streets and concert halls.

April 02, 2021 Aegean off-season