In this striking essay, Selin Genc reviews Ewa Majewska’s ‘Feminist Antifascism’, and considers Majewska’s inspirational arguments for a “flexible, inclusive and inventive” feminism in the context of recent events in Turkey.
Last July we watched with horror as our government in Turkey issued the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, an agreement otherwise known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. We were, and still are, both in shock at how the government could so blatantly undermine its considerations for the safety of women, girls and the LGBTQ+ community (in an official statement, the government announces that it has disavowed the convention for the reason that it is ‘hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Türkiye’s social and family values’), and also unsurprised by the extents to which the regime is willing to go to relentlessly legitimise bigotry and misogyny in a society where sexual and gender-based violence is encouraged, and femicide is a daily occurrence. The state of emergency officially ended in 2019, however the right to peaceful protest and other freedoms are still often violently intercepted. Though it is easy to fall into despair in the face of such shameless evil, those who navigate through the dangers of living under these conditions of state of exception on a daily basis know that resignation is not an option.
It is timely that Ewa Majewska’s book Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common, published by Verso Books, was released in the same month that Turkey retreated from the convention. Majewska’s point of departure is Polish politics, where her activism is chiefly based, and from which she pivots her feminist paradigm away from a Western-centric footing while also acknowledging the internationalism of the movement. From my Turkish context, much seemed relevant and relatable; out of our respective culturally situated histories, there appeared many parallels. Currently we are seeing far-right movements take power, and working-class politics transform in a neoliberal capitalist system (and for further reading on this particular topic I highly recommend Didier Eribon’s book Returning to Reims). In this context, Majewska suggests that a shift of focus in the political imagination by adopting a feminist incentive, far from being a peripheral impetus, can offer a central political force to resist fascism. The feminist lens cracks open the binary assumptions that dominant politics have been shaped by, such as the private vs public, and encourages a transversal and horizontal politics. Importantly, the resistance envisioned by Majewska, though for the marginalised and the dissident, is a popular one; popular in the sense that it is for and by the people, though who these ‘people’ are is a crucial point, which must be properly addressed by considering not the ‘masses’ but the ‘many’, who are ‘heterogenous, embodied, and contextualised’.
For this reason, Majewska sets out to explore relevant theories and concepts such as Kluge and Negt’s ‘counterpublics’ and Hardt and Negri’s ‘the commons’, to unlock ways to recognise, give visibility and offer solidarity to political agencies that usually remain under the radar. Her’s is a project to give due to everyday forms of resistance and alternative political imaginaries.
Along the lines of Sarah Ahmed’s remark that ‘(c)itation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow,’ Majewska is rigorous in her citation practices. She draws on complicated theoretical lineages, and elucidates on some very intricate notions before setting forth to converse with – and put into conversation – theorists who have been discussing, since the time of Aristotle, seemingly obvious but troublesome concepts such as the public sphere. She does not merely propose counter arguments to what she disagrees with, but prompts us to embrace the failures of the emancipatory struggle. She thus avoids collapsing into the melancholy of the left. Since resistance and revolution are historically situated, she says, the endeavour is bound to be riddled with mistakes. In a Luxemburgian vein, Majewska embraces failure as a necessary component for a deeper understanding and a stronger commitment to the struggle. Poignantly, she states: ‘resistance is something wider than just the sum of intended acts.’ Her faith in something akin to Walter Benjamin’s ‘weak-messianism’ is a crucial sensibility that courses through the book; resistance can be a slow-burning thing, not necessarily pushed forth by a sanguine revolution launched at the dead of night, but can involve intergenerational solidarity and participation by counterpublics who are often rendered invisible. She calls this ‘weak resistance’.
While at times Majewska delves in depth into theoretical discussion, she does not forget that theory is only as interesting or important as it corresponds to practice. Alongside theorists, she also cites historical and contemporary occurrences, to show that the emancipation efforts, however messy and imperfect, have a lineage. The past is a rich reservoir from which we can learn not only how to develop strategies, but also gain insight on what to avoid. In the historical materialist fashion, she focuses on two events in Polish history: the pivotal presence of women actors in the early days of Solidarność in the 1980s, a workers’ trade-union that came to represent a majority in the country; and the recent ‘Black Protests’ against abortion bans. She also discusses more globalised initiatives, such as the #MeToo movement, adopting a less fatalistic stance towards media activism than many of her associates on the left. In recognising the complexity of public spheres, such as the internet, Majewska adopts a nuanced view on the possibility of revolution and emancipation, offering a breath of fresh air amidst an increasingly pessimistic leftist literature.
I’d like to make use of the frames and vocabulary Majewska proposes to discuss the relevance of feminism for the antifascist struggle in Turkey. A slogan that has been circulating on the streets of Istanbul, and elsewhere in the country, for many years is ‘Susma, sustukça sıra sana gelecek! (Do not be silent, because if you are, you will be next!),’ which is evocative of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem against the Nazi regime: ‘[…] Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew // When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.’ Forms of oppression and various exclusions from the public sphere are interrelated, as socialist feminism champions and Majewska illustrates, and thus women’s rights are correlated to worker’s rights as well as to other struggles. Various counterpublics should not refrain from joining nebulously, without losing their hybrid qualities, to establish a common revolt against the threat of fascism. The coming together of plural spheres – feminist, proletariat and LGBTQ+ counterpublics, amongst others- can even have the power to build structures, movements and institutions, says Majewska, following Hardt and Negri’s theory of the commons. Recent student protests in Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University were ignited when the country’s president undemocratically appointed Melih Bulu to the rectoral seat. During the protests, students were arrested for displaying a rainbow flag alongside religious imagery, which also led to Bulu ordering the LGBTQ+ Studies Club shut. Ensuring LGBTQ+ safety on campus and the right to have a democratically chosen rectorate became concomitant struggles as students and faculty stood in solidarity with targeted peers and colleagues.
As Majewska proposes, counterpublics need not toil on a completely clean slate, but can work on existing institutions, such as the university, without necessarily always striving to abolish them. Her call aims to reconcile the distinction between revolutionary and reformist strategies. I am reminded of Andrea Fraser’s great essay ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’: ‘Every time we speak of the “institution” as other than “us,” we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its conditions. We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship […] It’s not a question of inside or outside,’ she proclaims, ‘It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.’ Majewska too highlights the importance of recognising the more subconscious institutions we inhabit, as we all necessarily do, and this can only happen if we notice how deeply embroiled we are within them. Protestors at Boğaziçi University may be trying to cling onto the most basic human rights at this moment, but I also believe that the urgency with which students and staff have acted to protect their institution demonstrates a great desire overall to occupy better, more democratic institutions, ones in which counterpublics are safe and have a say.
LGBTQ+ activists in Turkey are resisting, transforming, opposing, and criticising hegemonic structures and offering non-elitist, transversal and horizontal counterpowers beyond the individualism pushed by liberal politics; they comprise a counterpublic par excellence. The value of this counterpublic is indispensable to all other counterpublics that seek to berate totalitarian rule. A protest chant against police violence during the student protests asserts, ‘Aşağıya bakmayacağız! (We will not look down!)’. In this period when averting your eyes and bowing your head in submission seems to be the only option, feminist and LGBTQ+ activists have been some of the only remaining voices of dissent in the country. In an instagram story, as queer performance artist Florence K. Delight parades the streets of Istanbul, running daily chores in lush false eyelashes, a drawn-on whimsical Dali-esque mustache, and blood-red lips, they attract hostile looks, yet respond to menacing eyes with a smile, head held high. As Majewska conjures Judith Butler’s warning that every act of constituting the public sphere entails vulnerability and the possibility of life threatening risk, I can’t help but think that Florence K. Delight is incredibly brave – in a seemingly small act, they lay a claim to the streets and assert their public agency.
After all, as queer icon and activist Jilet Sebahat relates, the LGBTQ+ community in Turkey and its individuals live with the constant danger of violent encounters because they are thought to represent an unruly and headless risk to the state’s despotic hegemony and integrity. For this reason, I believe that the drag scene in Turkey, for instance, is one of the communities with some of the punchiest political impetuses in the country. Some of my favourite queer performance artists, including Florence K. Delight, and Akış Ka who runs the fabulously joyful Youtube channel [alt]cut, not only challenge and encroach binary gender roles, but also threaten classicist, moralist and ethnocentric positions through stylish, comedic, at times grotesque and strange attires and performances.
In fact, though their nonconformism is ever so relevant in the face of rampant despotism, LGBTQ+ counterpublics have a long-lasting history in the country, which Kübra Uzun’s musical piece Koli Kanonu references. Akış Ka and Kübra Uzun wrote the lyrics entirely in a slang used by (mostly trans) sex workers since the late Ottoman era, developed to ensure a secretive and safe means of communication between the labourers. By being introduced to this rich history, we see that alternative and out-of-sight ways of inhabiting the public realm is not a new feat. Counterpublics, rarely officially acknowledged, have always existed and left their mark on the cities and countries they have inhabited, and the public sphere has always been heterogeneous. The struggle is not new.
To come back to the book that has prompted these reflections… Feminist Antifascism is a meticulously researched and structured work. It is remarkable how Majewska navigates through multiple registers, switching from historiography to personal reflections on activism, from theory to recent events. Though at times it is a dense read, Majewska takes the time to introduce and explain some challenging philosophical notions and shows their relevance in practice, so that her writing can have an appeal both to those who are new to such discourses, but also to those who are already well acquainted and want to delve deeper. Her optimism is contagious – even more so because she herself is an activist who recognises that burn-out is not an option, especially when one lives under oppression on a daily basis. Majewska reminds us that change comes in little, at times even gentle doses: resistance can only be effective, she necessitates, if it is systematic, assertive and disciplined, alongside being flexible, inclusive and inventive. In Turkey, the darkest hour seems to be upon us; when the future is murky and spirits are low, we need to carry Majewska’s message in our hearts so we can muster the power to collaboratively weave intricate cat’s cradles whose net can trap the tanks and bulldozers that are set out to annihilate us.
Feature image: detail from book jacket, courtesy of Verso Books