Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Relief
Civil Society and Solidarity in Turkey After the Earthquakes
In PerspectiveMore than three months have passed since the massive earthquakes centered in Maraş and then Hatay, which affected a large area hosting 13.5 million people in Southern Turkey. The extent of the ensuing devastation has become clearer in this span of time, which, according to official records, comprises the loss of over 50 thousand human lives, the collapse of 18 thousand buildings, the impairment of almost 200 thousand buildings, and the migration of nearly 3 million people from the disaster-struck areas. In addition to the devastation of human lives and social infrastructure, the UN estimates that the earthquakes will cause financial damage of over 100 billion dollars to the Turkish economy, which has already been emaciated due to the chronic currency crisis in the last few years
The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD) recently announced that more than 2 million people live in temporary settlements in the disaster area. Only 40 thousand people are provided with container housing and the rest have to reside in tents that are not protective against rain and floods, which recently caused the death of 18 people during the heavy rains in mid-March. The residents of tent encampments and activists on the ground report problems with infrastructure and the scarcity of essential goods such as clean water, food, and clothing as well as discrimination and violence against women, sexual minorities, and other disadvantaged social groups such as Syrian migrants and ethnic minorities. As time passes and the earthquake fades into the background of public agenda, citizens’ donations and solidarity efforts have been dwindling. Given this situation and the state authorities’ obstruction of non-government-aligned organizations, the growing needs and afflictions of the survivors are not being attended to properly.
Neoliberal urbanism and authoritarianism behind the catastrophe
In the previous essay, I focused on the state's initial responses after the earthquakes and its incapacity to reach out to disaster areas, which painfully exposed the lack of organization for emergency situations and the mismanagement of resources. I suggested that the absence and failures of public authorities after the earthquakes could potentially reconfigure the affective and practical dimensions of Turkish society’s attachment to the state by deepening the already-present distrust in the state. The harrowing magnitude of the devastation is an explicit consequence of these failures, displaying the political nature of the disaster and its links to the co-option and corruption of state mechanisms under the rule of the AKP government.
Another cardinal cause of the devastation and the loss of so many lives is the unregulated neoliberal urban policies, which the AKP has utilized as a pivotal rent generation strategy and a means of patronage politics to breed a dependent capitalist class in the construction sector. These policies entail expropriating risky areas including agricultural land and riverbeds, and constructing high-rise residential buildings, which are sold with long-term mortgages that are generally above what middle and low-income groups can afford, generating large-scale indebtedness in Turkish society. Shortly after the earthquakes, the government announced its solution to the large-scale housing problem, namely the continuation of the indebtedness regime and urbanization of new areas, which are chosen arbitrarily without any public input, not surprisingly in a manner serving the political and economic interests of the AKP elite. According to this plan, people who lost their houses and means of livelihood due to the government’s mismanagement and dereliction will be sold new housing and burdened with long-term debts, benefiting those construction companies favored by the government.
President Erdoğan announced that construction of new residences would start one month after the earthquakes and complete in a year's time. The state of emergency law declared in the 10 cities affected by the earthquakes has enabled further land expropriation in disaster areas bypassing some of the legal procedures concerning private property rights and the notion of the public good. TMMOB (Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects), which is the umbrella organization of professionals and experts that have a constitutional public role to monitor construction and urban planning practices, raises concerns about the short time frame for rebuilding in disaster areas as they criticize the top-down and non-transparent manner in which urban planning is held. Different branches and local sections of the organization highlight that democratic public participation and consideration for the inputs of specialists in urban planning are vital for the creation of safe, inclusive, and egalitarian urban areas that could stand against possible earthquakes and disasters in the future, which evidently requires more than one year.
The concerns of TMMOB, which has shown active resistance against neoliberal urbanization and megaprojects for decades, are unsurprisingly ignored as the government disdains the organization and seeks to disempower it with a recent proposal to eliminate its constitutional autonomy. Moreover, Mücella Yapıcı and Tayfun Kahraman, two leading urban rights activists who were long-term TMMOB representatives, and Can Atalay, who is a lawyer defending the rights of people affected by disasters and accidents of a political nature, are currently in prison after getting sentenced to 18 years in the Gezi Trial in April 2022 with the accusation of attempting to overthrow the government by force. The Gezi Trial was re-opened in 2019, years after the protests in 2013, accompanied by a media campaign that vilified the defendants as the government deployed the court case to intimidate political opposition and criminalize civil society activism. In that regard, the magnitude of the devastation is also tied to the exclusion of civil society and social movements from public decision-making processes and the heavy pressure on them after the coup attempt in 2016.
Social mobilization after the disaster
Despite the purge of civil society and social movements in the last decade that handicapped citizens’ self-organization environment, there has been an outstanding social mobilization after the earthquakes, especially in the first two months. Many citizens turned to non-state and non-government-aligned organizations for donations and volunteering given the inadequacy and corruption of state mechanisms. As I mentioned in my earlier essay, AHBAB, which is a civil organization for humanitarian causes, got ahead of the state’s Disaster and Emergency Management Department (AFAD) in terms of reaching out to the disaster zone and providing aid and services for the survivors. Moreover, the rampant political polarization in Turkish society translated into a bifurcation of citizens’ donation choices while many opted for supporting AHBAP and other civil organizations instead of the state’s AFAD and Kızılay (The Turkish Red Crescent) and government-aligned CSOs.
Numerous civil initiatives and individual volunteers rushed to disaster areas, carrying out search and rescue operations and then relief efforts and provision for survivors in the encampment areas. Feminists, labor activists, leftist political parties, and socialist organizations have been prominently effective owing to their organizational networks and experiences. However, the scope of the disaster and resulting social needs and complications are multifaceted and long-term, necessitating a significant amount of resources, human power, time, and specialized knowledge. Citizens’ donations and volunteering in the encampment areas have decreased significantly, though not completely. This is expected and understandable by all means, considering the economic crisis, the growing rate of impoverishment, and the demanding work conditions that most of the society has to endure in Turkey.
While public authorities have failed to provide even an adequate number of tents for the survivors, let alone a safe and sanitary living environment, professional humanitarian organizations manage the provision of aid and services in the main encampment sites. Yet, the survivors clearly need more than clean water, food, clothes, shelter, and sanitation. The disaster emanates from authoritarian and neoliberal governance and has deepened the effects of inequality and discrimination regimes for the survivors. Hence, the social mobilization and solidarity efforts need to have a political character in calling for justice, impeaching the responsible parties, and encountering the multiple regimes of inequality at play along with healing the wounds of the survivors and empowering them.
The complexity of solidarity and hope
Volunteers on the ground report an alarming rate of spatial and social fragmentation and tension in disaster areas based on class and ethnicity. This results in the further marginalization of low-income groups, religious minorities, and Syrian migrants who are apparently the most abjected social group in the region and subjected to severe cases of discrimination and violence. Furthermore, the government supports fundamentalist religious organizations in disaster areas as a way of social control and blocking the influence of autonomous civil society and social movements. Independent media sources recently reported that public authorities handed over hundreds of children who survived the earthquake to these organizations, some of which are infamous for the sexual abuse of children by their members.
In addition, gender-based and sexual forms of violence are on the rise in encampment sites given the religious conservatism and patriarchal organization of the society. In this environment, the safety of women and LGBTQ+ are neglected, their access to protective mechanisms is critically reduced, and they are excluded from the public sphere. Women in encampment sites carry the burden of social reproduction such as cleaning, cooking, and care work while they are mostly confined to tents and even have a hard time using the toilets and bathroom stalls which are located at a far distance from the tents. All these complicated issues necessitate large-scale, comprehensive, and sustainable efforts by recognizing the intersecting regimes of domination, inequality, and exploitation underlying and exacerbating the catastrophic consequences of the disaster. In this regard, a holistic strategy that takes on its center the protection and production of life is critical.
Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Relief (Afet İçin Feminist Dayanışma)* is one of the organizations which adopts a feminist perspective to encounter these issues and produces dedicated and organic forms of activism to empower women in disaster areas. They reject the notions of charity and social aid which assume and reproduce a hierarchical relationship of indebtedness between the activists and survivors. Instead, they aim to generate egalitarian and mutually transformative connections among women. The organization, which was founded shortly after the first earthquakes, sends volunteers to campsites and works in cooperation with labor unions and local feminist and left-wing political initiatives. It is a horizontal organization that does not receive any civil society grants and finances its operations through individual contributions and solidarity events. Their work comprises a vast array of undertakings that began with providing menstrual products and other essential goods for women and now spans from establishing women’s tents and safe spaces, assisting women who are subjected to or at risk of violence, installing solar energy panels and bathroom stalls, and supporting female producers in disaster areas.
Two activists from the Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Relief kindly accepted to share with me their valuable experiences and insights. Here, I would like to cite some of their views regarding the difficulties and potentials of solidarity, the complex feelings and emotional labor involved with their activism and solidarity work, and matters of hope and hopelessness. One crucial point that both activists raised is that encounters among volunteer and survivor women stand at the center of their solidarity work which is a means to reclaiming our sense of agency, nurturing our emotional energies, and contributing to social and political change.
H.: First, we run the campaign for menstrual pads which set an example to other solidarity initiatives and then we got organized to send tents. Those were things that seemed doable. But then we continued with bathroom stalls… I am amazed at how we succeeded in buying, shipping, and installing them in tent areas. Once you begin, these efforts turn out to be not as hard as you imagine. Somehow you make them happen, one act makes you jump to the next one. Sometimes even going to the market feels incredibly difficult. But when you go out, you walk the way.
When we are together and we produce activism collectively, we are responsible toward one another. This feeling of mutual responsibility is difficult to carry at times but also an advantage. It is very important to collectively produce these efforts. When you are on your own, everything seems so impossible, especially given the huge scope of needs and complications. But when we are together, someone proposes an idea and then you move from that and solve the problem collectively. You move from your isolated personal position and realize that you can achieve things together.
It is very precious that through our activism we include people who didn’t participate in solidarity efforts before. Then we experience together that we can achieve things and create change as civilians through solidarity. This empowers us and reinforces our sense of agency. Hearing the appreciation and kind words of women on the ground feels incredibly good but at the same time, I don’t want them to show us gratitude as if they owe us something. This feeling is overbearing because I know that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean considering the huge devastation and suffering. We are trying to encounter this massive devastation and do things at a large scale, which is actually the responsibility of the state and public authorities. We don’t receive any grants, we carry out all these solidarity efforts through our own budget and voluntary work. Besides, we prioritize establishing an egalitarian solidarity relationship with women in line with our feminist perspective. We consciously refrain from using the words help or donation.
I am from Yalova [a town that was devastated during the huge earthquake in 1999], my family was there when the earthquake happened. The recent disaster could have been very challenging for me if I had kept myself alone and not taken part in solidarity work. I tried to survive this period by shelving my feelings as much as possible. That is how I managed to continue. But these recent months have been very exhausting, now I feel that I need to give some space for myself and a little time off.
D.: We are very much accustomed to living with unpredictability and uneasiness in Turkey. But as the idiom says, “Hope is the bread of the poor”, so we are all hopeful to some extent. Yet this emotion by itself does not bring us to a state of well-being. Well-being depends on solidarity and self-organization. Because the political and social problems we face today are so massive and structural, so difficult to change. I think even the minimum reforms to bring Turkey back to some level of democracy will take at least 15 years. What will you do in order not to collapse under these circumstances? You have to get organized and build collectives. However, getting politically organized entails plenty of risks in today’s Turkey. But still, it is possible to stand together in some capacity and Feminist Solidarity for Disaster Relief is an example of that.
We are all left with a great deal of rage and sadness after the disaster, there are people within our group who lost their relatives. All of us, both the immediate survivors and volunteers, lost the sense of time and space. The first six weeks felt like a day. The most healing thing for me in our solidarity work has been the sense of reclaiming our agency and knowing that I have my friends’ shoulder if I feel tired. I know that there is someone who will carry the goods to the truck when the other person does not have the energy.
Society in Turkey has fallen into a state of anesthesia in the last several years, which is understandable given the widespread persecution and oppression. But when you get into a particular moment like the disaster we encounter now, people still mobilize to heal the wounds. The advantage of the society in Turkey is that people can come together very quickly in the moment of a crisis despite all the disenfranchisement and pressures. Society has the collective experience and capacity for that. I think this is a point of hope.
Hope is an emotion that recognizes the multiplicity of possibilities, it is a positive feeling in that regard. If we lived in the 1st world, then hope would be a very positive thing as it would be more likely that our efforts will change things. But in our society, everything is so unpredictable, life is very difficult, and everyone has to work a lot unless they are super rich. One hundred crises can erupt within the same day. Hence many of us are pessimistic. In this environment, the possibilities that hope bears shift more toward negative outcomes. Hope is a feeling that calls for hopelessness. It can turn into disappointment or joy, it is a feeling that stands in the midpoint of a spectrum. I think it is a feeling that characterizes us in this society.
* To learn more about Afet İçin Feminist Dayanışma and follow its social media accounts, you can visit: https://bio.biolinktr.com/afeticinfeministler You can get in touch with the organization via email@example.com.