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Echos de Turquie

Women's Shelters and Municipalities in Turkey : Between Solidarity and Benevolence

Berna Ekal


Les centres d'hébergement pour les femmes ayant subi des violences sont le produit des féminismes de la deuxième vague partout dans le monde. Ils sont un moyen d'être solidaire avec les femmes ayant subi des violences et, en même temps, l'expérience des femmes, basée sur la violence qu'elles ont vécue et sur les relations de solidarité aux centres, donne une base pour faire la politique pour les féministes. Alors, la plupart des études sur les centres d'hébergement s'occupent de ces sujets. Par contre, à partir d'un étude ethnographique dans les centres d'hébergement en Turquie et à partir de la littérature de l'anthropologie de l'État, nous pourrions dire qu'il n'est pas possible d'examiner les centres d'hébergement en Turquie comme des structures féministes mais plutôt comme des institutions bureaucratique, car la majorité des centres en Turquie sont établis dans le cadre administratif des municipalités ou bien des services sociaux assurés par l'État central.

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  • 1  A generic term that covers all forms of male violence, like rape, marital violence and harassment.
  • 2  “With its slogan 'personal is political', first written by Carol Hannisch, it is contemporary femi (...)
  • 3  “Radical feminists see all forms of male violence against women, including the threat and fear of (...)
  • 4  “For the woman, it serves as a physical place where she can temporarily escape from violence, find (...)

1The contemporary recognition of violence against women as a fundamental breach of women's right to life owes a great deal to the feminist struggles throughout the world since the 1970s. In the analyses of “the second wave feminism” of the 70s, male violence against women1 constituted one of the bases of the efforts to explain the inequality of power relations between men and women. Unlike feminists before them (“the first wave feminism” of the late 19th century), second wave feminists believed that although certain changes like the right to vote were important steps, the liberal strategy of legislative reforms was, at best, too optimistic for achieving equality between men and women. Rather, as their assertion “personal is political”2 shows in a very refined way, they aimed to change the subtle forms of male domination in everyday life, beginning from “the domestic sphere”, the very places that are defined as the most relieved from “politics”. In line with this idea, the role of violence in the construction of the distinction between private and public spheres was underlined by feminists. Whereas threat of rape and harassment were strategies to keep women at home by constructing public sphere as “dangerous” for women, marital violence (or domestic violence) was seen in the patriarchal societies as a viable option for men to keep women in a subordinate place3. Hence, by showing that violence was a political strategy that hopes for maintaining male supremacy, they deconstructed the myth of the “naturalness” of men's inclination to violence and the myth of domestic sphere as a place devoid of politics and of violence. The bringing out of violence against women as a problem did not only show that the threat to women's integrity was of great extent, but that also home was not as “safe” as it was illustrated to be. Women's shelters or refuges constituted one of the most strategic places for feminists in this framework. Apart from providing safe places for women who had fled from their abusive partners, they also constituted a political “laboratory” for creating alternative non-hierarchical relationships among women, rethinking the meaning of feminist politics and furthering political goals4.

2The early goals of the shelters (grassroots action, self-help, egalitarian relations within and outside the shelter) as a product of feminist movement, however, came under threat as feminists more and more had to get engaged with public authorities or private institutions to provide the necessary financial resources to be able to make shelters live on (Dobash and Dobash, 1996 ; Fraser, 1989). Funding meant certain obligations, like being able to cope with accounting procedures or hiring “professionals” as workers, so that feminists more often than not had to decide on whether or not to agree on these regulations. Despite all these discussions, even about 20 years after the first shelter was founded (Chiswick Women's Aid, founded in 1972 in the UK), several researchers were already talking about trends like “professionalization” or “psychologism” (understood as the substitution of therapy for politics) involved in dealing with the issue, especially for the US case (among others, we can talk about Dobash and Dobash, 1996 ; Epstein, et al., 1988 ; Fraser, 1989 ; Rodriguez, 1988 ; Srinivasan and Davis, 1991). On the other hand, there are also other recent researches that show that autonomy for feminist organizations that carry out shelter work is not unimaginable (for the cases of UK and Sweden, see McMillan, 2007).

Shelters and states

3As can be seen from these researches (Dobash and Dobash, 1996 ; Epstein, et al., 1988 ; Fraser, 1989 ; McMillan, 2007 ; Rodriguez, 1988 ; Srinivasan and Davis, 1991) that focus on social and political aspects of shelters (I leave aside those work that are concerned with the psychological traits or situations of “abused” women), an important part of the studies on women's shelters throughout the North American and European world focus on the process of professionalization and/or the question of autonomy for the shelters that feminists are in charge of. The merits of these researches lie, on the one hand, in the fact that they assess the current state of the shelters with regards to the feminist values that has come out as a result of feminist movements in these countries, hence acting as important vehicles to rethink the ways in which shelters are organized. On the other hand, by situating the shelters in their political context, they reaffirm the political character of shelters and in that sense they do not fall into the trap of focusing only on the psychological dimension of living through violence.

4However, the number of cross-cultural studies on shelters (McMillan, 2007 is an exceptional one) is limited and those which exist turn out to be an examination of the situation of shelters in different welfare states. This is, of course, no surprise given the history of women's shelters, as we see the initial examples of shelters mostly in North America and in European states, which were mostly welfare states in the 1970s when the first shelters were founded, even though they were in decline ever since. That is to say, when the questions of professionalization and autonomy are considered in scholarly researches, they mostly base their analyses on shelters founded by feminists which then face the question of funding or on those shelters who had already been born into this dual system (of feminists getting organized and then receiving public funding). Hence, the crucial question in these contexts is whether or not feminists will become a part in the machine of the welfare system.

  • 5  Even though the first feminist activists and groups in 1980s were usually of socialist background, (...)
  • 6 We can talk about two such projects. One was carried out  by the Turkish Republic Prime Ministry D (...)

5When it comes to the women's shelters in Turkey, this question becomes irrelevant in some way : for feminists5 in Turkey, loosing their autonomy in shelters had never been a central problem as they had never had autonomy in a widespread manner. That is to say, apart from two examples in the 1990s (Mor Cati Kadin Siginagi Vakfi in Istanbul and Kadin Dayanisma Vakfi in Ankara) and two or three more recent examples in the 2000s (with Mor Cati deciding to receive funding from local governments and two other examples from other cities) feminists didn't run shelters in cooperation with local or central governments. Given the unwillingness of the state to allocate resources to feminist organisations, feminists had to ask the local and central governments to found shelters within the social services of the central state (Sosyal Hizmetler ve Cocuk Esirgeme Kurumu - SHCEK) or within the frame of municipalities. As a result of feminist campaigning, the Municipality Law, No. 5393 article 19 was issued in July, 3 2005, and stated that it is the duty and the responsibility of municipalities whose populations exceed 50000 to open “protection houses” for women and children. Even then, the number of shelters founded by SHCEK and municipalities remained drastically low despite the obligation in the law to establish shelters (the reasons for this attitude of not implementing the law will be elaborated on in the next section). As Altinay and Arat indicate, in 2007 there were 19 shelters of SHCEK and 4 shelters of municipalities (Altinay and Arat, 2008, p. 25). The more dramatic change occurred, however, after 2007 when the state agencies decided to engage in certain “projects” with international agencies to fulfill their obligations that stemmed from their agreements to international acts on violence against women6. The total number of shelters rose in 2010 to 60 in a tri-partite system : 36 for SHCEK shelters, 19 for municipality shelters and 5 for shelters run by NGOs (only 2 by feminist NGOs among them) (Sallan Gul, 2011).

  • 7  I use the word “use” here in the sense Michel de Certeau uses the term “utilisation”: “La présence (...)

6Even by slightly paying attention to these numbers, we can see that women's shelters in Turkey had never totally been a “feminist work”, but rather it has always been a part of local and central governments. As a consequence, apart from the few examples mentioned above, studying the social and political existence of shelters in Turkey is not about a question of “feminists losing their autonomy vis-à-vis the state funding”, but rather shelters have to be treated as a part of the bureaucratic structure. However, the dominant modes of analyzing the state that sees it as a monolithic and all too powerful macro entity may fall short of explaining the specificities of everyday life in shelters. On the other hand, focusing on everyday life, or the modes of functioning of the shelters and the ways in which they are used7 by women, is a necessary approach if we want to go beyond a discussion on the number of shelters and women accommodated that has so long engaged the attention of feminists and policy makers in Turkey. While a discussion on numbers might be an effective way of policymaking, it tells us nothing about the “meaning” that women's shelters have in contemporary Turkey.

7Whereas focusing on everyday life, or the modes of functioning of the shelters and the ways in which they are used by women constitute the central questions of my thesis, this article is directed more towards how I arrived to that question and only slightly touches upon actual usage processes. In other words, it aims to explain the context that made it possible to ask that question, since the shelters in Turkey do not mainly represent feminist solidarity but stand as bureaucratic institutions and since the meaning that they get in this contemporary context requires an analysis of the social and political aspects of shelters in Turkey.

Anthropology of the state

8In this sense, the study of shelters in Turkey can be held within the framework of a recent trend in social anthropology, that is “the anthropology of the state”. Ferguson and Gupta (2005) describe the emergence of this type of analysis in the recognition of the role that state plays in forming “local communities” that has been the preferred object of social anthropology since its foundation as a discipline. Therefore, Ferguson et Gupta ask the following questions while thinking about state as an anthropological subject : « How is it that people come to experience the state as an entity with certain special characteristics and properties ? Through what images, metaphors, and representational practices does the state come to be understood as a concrete, overarching, spatially encompassing reality ? » (Ferguson et Gupta, 2005, p. 105). So, the method proposed in this kind of an approach to the state consist of going beyond macro analyses of “the State” and looking at more concrete things like “social and bureaucratic practices and encounters and at public cultural texts. It requires conducting institutional ethnographies of specific state bureaucracies, inquiring into the micropolitics and daily practices of such institutions, and seeking to understand their relation to the public (elite or subaltern) that they serve” (Sharma et Gupta, 2007, p. 27). What Sharma and Gupta (2007) offers is very much in line with the thought of de Certeau (1998), in the sense that both approaches focus on the concrete practices. Hence, we might argue that looking at the encounters in these bureaucratic institutions (an analysis of the everyday) may offer us a rich understanding of the meaning that shelters get in Turkey both for an analysis of bureaucracy and of its use by women.

  • 8  “Evolving under such contradictory concerns, the law brought into being a municipal framework that (...)

9Apart from the fact that shelters in Turkey has a different meaning than feminist solidarity as the number of shelters opened by feminists is dramatically low, the tri-partite system within which shelters are founded in Turkey (SHCEK, municipalities and NGOs) reflects another dimension of the placement of shelters in the bureaucratic mechanisms : that is, the shelters are also subject to the tension between the centre and the local governments in Turkey. In this framework, even though the number of shelters founded by SHCEK outnumber that of the shelters founded by municipalities, the law no. 5393 embodies the tendency to allocate the role of central social services (SHCEK) to municipalities. That is to say, by envisaging the foundation of shelters for municipalities with 50000 population or more, the law represents the international norms about shelters. On the other hand, the tendency of the central state to “subcontract” its duties to municipalities rather than bestowing autonomy to them is not simply a product of neoliberal turn, but may be read as a continuation of a trend since the beginning of the Republic8. In any case, the subcontraction of shelters to municipalities, coupled with the fact that the central state does not allocate financial resources specifically for the purpose of founding shelters (a great part of the financial resources of municipalities come from the state), may lead us to conclude that the law no.5393 might actually be used as a way of not founding shelters where local and central governments put the blame on each other for not establishing shelters (where central state says that it is the duty of municipalities, the municipalities claim that they do not have necessary resources), thus making shelters a subject of center-periphery tension. Under these circumstances, those shelters that have already been founded by municipalities cannot be seen solely as the application of the law, but should be regarded as a conscious political decision on the part of municipalities to “fulfill the duty” of founding shelters.

  • 9  As Nancy Fraser argues, “the social is not exactly equivalent to the traditional public sphere of (...)

10However, even though the allocation of funds for shelters is a political decision for SHCEK too, studying the shelters of SHCEK and the shelters of municipalities do not mean to study the state and/or the bureaucracy in the same manner as far as the question of “social work” is concerned : whereas the former institution (SHCEK) has a legitimacy on its own to deal with social problems as a state institution “specialized” in social work, the latter always has to rework its legitimacy to engage in this area. One of the reasons for this legitimacy question is related to the fact that municipalities are not “specialized” in this area, as the primary role of municipalities in Turkey is not engaging in social work. On the other hand, as the heads of municipalities are elected, rather than being appointed, the moment they get engaged in the “social” area9, they run the risk of being accused for being election-oriented. In this sense, establishing a shelter is a complicated issue at different levels : whereas the social workers in SHCEK accuse the municipalities for not recruiting “professionals” in shelters, the municipalities have to claim that establishing shelters is a “non-interest” project in line with purely legal obligations. Nonetheless, the language of “duty” do not alleviate the fears of municipalities about electorate decisions who may see shelters as a threat for the integrity of the family ; which may partly explain why in municipality shelters (those that do not cooperate closely with feminists) the concept of family is not openly criticized, if not enhanced, as it is the case in feminist shelters.

  • 10  For a news on the subject in a newspaper called Zaman, please see the following link: http://www.z (...)

11For my dissertation, I chose to study the shelters founded by municipalities for two reasons : first of all, as I tried to explain above, the recent tendency by law no.5393 to allocate the foundation of shelters to municipalities was an interesting trend in itself to understand the contemporary situation of social work, and hence, of shelters in Turkey. Secondly, the shelters of municipalities were more available at the time for research : the scandal about the institutions of SHCEK in November 2008 (the former York duchess, Sarah Ferguson, entering one of the institutions of SHCEK under cover and filming the bad conditions that children are kept under10) made social services more skeptic about academic research, especially for students enrolled in universities abroad, but also my former engagement in feminist networks facilitated for me to make contacts with the shelters of municipalities. Therefore, I studied the everyday life of shelters founded by municipalities particularly in two different municipal shelters in Istanbul for a year (participant observation followed by interviews) from August 2008 to October 2009. In addition, I carried out shorter researches in Mor Cati (where at the time they were receiving funding from the kaymakamlik, or sub-provincial state authority) and in a municipal shelter in the Kurdish region as well, each lasting about one month. I was always in contact with both the workers and inhabitants in the shelters, and with some of them I had become more close throughout the research (became a trustable person that they can share their secrets with) whereas with some others I had more distant relationships. Researchers, in general, did not constitute an unknown category for both workers and inhabitants, as the municipality shelters were usually frequented by psychology students who did their own researches on issues like trauma and violence against women. Therefore my position as a researcher was known and accepted.

12At the beginning, I was more inclined to ask the question of how women used shelters to reconstruct their lives which has been deteriorated by living under constant violence. However, throughout the end of the research, I slowly came to the conclusion that what I did was to look at the encounters between different municipal agents and different women who applied to the shelters, and the issue of violence was not the only dimension of shelter work. Rather, as I will explain below, based on my participant observations, along with the municipalities' claim to “duty”, the shelters also represented for women who stayed there a place where they were “protected” from the ills of the outside world by the municipality whom they either saw as the representative of “the state” or as “the party”. In other words, shelters became a means through which different a priori authorities (like “the state” and “the party”) become “materialized” for the inhabitants through everyday encounters.

Shelters and municipalities

  • 11  In a booklet of the campaign against battering (Dayaga Karsi Kampanya) we can see the account of t (...)
  • 12 The Kariye festival in 1987 was, for instance, specifically designed to raise funding for a women' (...)

13The willingness of municipalities to establish shelters, if we can talk about such a thing, did not of course come out of blue. Like their counterparts in different countries, it was feminists in Turkey who brought the issue of violence against women in the public agenda in the late 1980s and the topic, indeed, become one of the fundamental components of feminism in Turkey (Sirman, 2007). The first demonstration against violence in 1987 (in Yoğurtçu Parkı in Istanbul) was, at the same time, the first legal public demonstration after the Coup d'Etat in 1980 which suspended by extreme military measures the political opposition that arose in the 1970s. The first feminist groups were formed mostly by former militants of leftists political opposition of the 70s, who discovered feminism while they were trying to cope with the disappointment that arose from the inequalities they faced as women even in revolutionary politics. Soon after they gathered in consciousness-raising groups, they have discovered violence against women as one of the central problems that they faced in the society because of their gender ; a problem that was not expressed aloud until then. In contact with other contemporary feminist movements, they have also decided to establish shelters as a way of building up solidarity with women11. However, the poignant question of funding was there and feminists, first of all, were engaged in fund-raising activities like organizing festivals12 and building up cooperation with funding agencies and/or charities from other countries. The establishment of Mor Cati (Purple Roof) in 1990 as a vakif (foundation) in Istanbul was a result of such activities, yet they could not start operating a shelter until 1995. In the meantime, feminists tried other options : (1) demanding funding from local and/or central authorities for shelters run by feminists and (2) demanding local and/or central authorities to establish shelters.

14Kadin Dayanisma Vakfi in Ankara was an example to this first choice, who founded a shelter in 1993 with the financial aid from Altindag municipality in Ankara. Yet, with the change in the board of municipality after the March 1994 elections, Kadin Dayanisma Vakfi lost the funding and had to operate the shelter with its own means by becoming a foundation too (Sahinoglu, 1998). In the meantime, in Istanbul, the metropolitan municipality agreed to establish a shelter provided that it be in its own institutional framework (but it did not even realize this promise), thus not agreeing on providing funding for autonomous feminist organizations. Bakirkoy municipality in Istanbul also agreed to establish a shelter in its own organizational scheme, yet the shelter that was established within this framework was closed down soon after the change of the municipal board after local elections (Arat, 1994). A similar course of events took place for the shelter of Sisli Municipality in Istanbul, the shelter of which operated between 1990-1994 and was closed down with the new municipal board (Sahinoglu, 1998). These examples, hence, showed the precariousness of such initiatives that depended on the will of certain elected politicians in the municipalities and hence drived feminists to campaign for securing such a framework, in the light of the fact that public authorities were not willing to provide funding for autonomous feminist groups. Yet, there was also a tendency that developed among feminists in the meantime, arguing that it was actually “state's work”, not feminists', to provide services to women who had faced violence, as can be seen in the declarations by Siginaklar ve Da(ya)nisma Merkezleri Kurultayi13, the most extended network of women's and feminist organisations that gathers together once in a year since 1998, together with representatives from SHCEK and municipalities, to discuss issues related to the campaign against violence against women.

  • 14 “Pour devenir un problème appelant l'intervention d'un acteur public, les phénomènes sociaux passe (...)
  • 15  Article 14 of the law no. 5393: “The municipality can undertake the following works to serve a com (...)
  • 16  Here, I use the word “totalizing” in the sense Erving Goffman uses it in his description of “total (...)

15Thus, we cannot interpret the passing of the law no.5393 in 2005 neither only as a result of international pressure nor as the pure willingness of municipalities to oppose domestic violence, but as a result of constant negotiations between feminist demands and the possibilities of politics, a process that is called as the definition of “social problems”14. However, even though the feminist movement in Turkey has achieved to insert its goal to the law to make municipalities establish shelters, the way in which it is worded in the law gives us initial clues about how mainstreaming leaves feminist demands out. Indeed, the law no.5393 article.14 lists shelters as “koruma evi” (protection houses) among other “infrastructural” and “social service” duties of the municipalities15. While the law in itself does not give us a clue about the concrete meanings and practices with regards to shelters, we may nonetheless argue that it places the practice of establishing shelters within the dominant gender order where women are “protected” by their guardians (be they men or institutions). This point of view goes against the very idea of feminist shelters to provide non-hierarchical networks of solidarity for women to realize themselves, whereas the relation of “protection” is non-arguably a male-dominant hierarchical way of building an institution. Yet, as my research also shows, it would be a mistake to attribute this approach to all actors in the field : a structural analysis like that would lead us to (wrongly) assume that the actors consciously serve the ill-intentions of male order or would lead us to render unseen those practices that remain outside of this dominant gender framework (like cooperating with feminists in different occasions and joining with them in meetings related to violence against women and/or recruiting feminists in the shelters). Therefore, as the number of shelters established by municipalities is on the rise (20 shelters in 2010), I aimed to show the results of the mainstreaming of feminist demands with regards to shelters without over-emphasizing the totalizing16 aspects of shelters. In other words, although these totalizing tendencies are there, I tried to see how these tendencies are negotiated and the possibilities that these shelters open up for women who stay in those places.

Being needy, honorable and gender-correct

16Depending of my observations in the field and the stories that has been told to me by both workers and the inhabitants, I can say that the path to shelters is not an easy one : not only the experience of violence is intimidating and prevent women from seeking assistance (according to a 2008 research by KSGM which was published in 2009, only 8 % of women seek assistance), but also so long as shelters are a part of bureaucratic structure, being admitted to the shelters requires dealing with bureaucracy. That is to say, not like when women directly contact feminist organizations to go to their shelters, getting in touch with the shelters of municipalities and/or SHCEK requires that either women get in touch with the police, with the healthcare and the legal practitioners, or with the officers of municipalities, all of which represent the state in one way or another (I leave aside here the shelter of the municipality in the Kurdish region as it represents a different manner of engaging with the municipality, which is not perceived as the representative of the central state). Therefore, reporting about your situation to go to the shelters is a more difficult situation than it seems, as besides coming over the difficulties of talking to someone strange about such an intimate experience, you should have the courage to speak to the officials as well. Given the fact that bureaucratic mechanisms are not historically “woman-friendly”, it is no surprise that not only courage to escape from a violent situation, but also courage to engage with public authorities is needed.

17While a certain amount of courage is needed, being assertive might turn things upside down by not making your story “credible”, as it may lead workers to assume that the woman is interested in going to shelters only for material gains. This is because the shelters of municipalities are seen by some of the officials as just another way of providing financial assistance to those who are needy, and therefore just like in those instances where people have to prove their need to receive financial assistance, women have to prove that they need to go into the shelter in some way : either by having a coherent way of putting forward their situation or by the embodying certain manners that would show that they are in need. This need, on the other hand, is as much related to financial matters as it is to the experience of violence and the threat to women's lives. In addition, this “check” is not limited to the situation of admittance to the shelter, but also is a constant dimension of shelter life. This attitude of “checking” was quickly discernible from the account of a worker in one of the shelters, who told me, with a gesture of revealing a secret, that most of the time the women who stayed in the shelters were not exposed to violence, but they were women without husbands or women who didn’t want to spend money on renting apartments. If there were some who faced violence, she said, that was small in number and she told me that they tried every way to help them. Consequently, in cases where “liars” passed the admittance process by looking credible, the workers were there to ensure that they do not misuse the shelter. The fear of misuse is not, however, limited to financial concerns but also covers the cases where women do not appreciate the protection offered to them in the shelters. That is, since shelter is representative of the protection of honor as well (both for the workers and for the inhabitants) by not leaving women on the streets (sokakta birakmamak), any breach of the protective measures (like not leaving your cell phone to the workers while entering the building of the shelter or not obeying the curfew hours) is interpreted as the misuse of shelters as well, though in a different sense.

18So we see that the shelters of municipalities are based on two types of checking mechanisms : one for the check of “financial need” (whether you are truly needy or only looking for your interest, a category clearly not about “objective” need but about having the manners that is expected of a person receiving financial aid) and one for the check of “honor need” (in the sense that those women who do not feel the need to be honorable are not deemed worthy of staying in the shelter). As it is for sure that shelters of municipalities do not question the meanings of honor and family as feminists do and given the long and hard road to admittance, the question in this context then becomes how women maintain their position and their stay in the shelters ; in other words how they manage their relationships with the bureaucracy. Given the scope of this article, I will now briefly talk about some of these patterns.

19Regarding both dimensions (that concern financial needs and the protection of honor), we may argue that among the women who stay in the shelters, gratitude is the most commonly shown attitude towards the workers of both lower and higher ranks. That is, women are thankful to the municipality itself for establishing shelters, so that they are not left without accommodation, they are not left on the streets which represents a dishonorable position for women. Whereas in daily conversations they usually refer to material aid that they get (like the clothes or food for their daily needs) with the expression “Allah razi olsun” (may God be pleased with you), the conversations that concern honor mostly come out in situations of conflict. In such cases, the phrase “biz buraya namusumuz icin geldik” (we came here for our honor) is used by women as a way of affirming that they are honorable women and that they share the notion that shelter is an honorable place. They even go as further as affirming that the measures like the curfew or the restriction of communication are in fact necessary for keeping the place safe (not only for keeping the shelter far from the eyes of the perpetrators of violence but also keeping it as an honorable place) and do not see these as mechanisms that restrict their freedom. Apart from expressing their gratitude to the municipality verbally, they also get engaged in an attitude of servitude to the workers whom they see as a part of the benevolence of the municipality : they show that they willfully obey the instructions of workers, sometimes by immediately following their orders about housework or sometimes by serving them tea or food. In this sense, it is not possible to talk about a non-hierarchical relationship between workers and inhabitants as far as the issues of material aid and protection of honor are concerned.

20Another more common pattern is to prove your “womanhood” in certain domains like housework and motherhood so as to be among those inhabitants who are deemed by workers as those that deserve to be in the shelter. Keeping your room and common rooms clean, regularly having a shower and hence not stinking, doing good needlework, or not leaving your children on their own and taking care of them are all among the positive values that women share with the workers. Those who fail to do these are either left on their own by their co-habitants or else women regularly blame each other for failing to conform to these norms. In either case, as characteristic of most total institutions, we can see that every component of the daily routine is subject to regular surveillance and, in turn, failing to fulfill these may result in severe conflicts that women may end up leaving the shelter. However, when the positive side of power is also considered, it would be inadequate to say that women are only motivated by the negative, punishing side of failing to conform to the norms of womanhood. Rather, given their marginal position in the society in terms of being left without a family – a real marginal position given the emphasis on family in the social order in Turkey – women also see being a good mother and proper housewives as a viable option to ensure their integrity as a person. Here, we again see that the uncritical approach in the shelters to womanhood and motherhood result in the perpetuation of differences and hierarchies among inhabitants and between inhabitants and workers.

21However, even though my fieldwork in two shelters opened by municipalities show that both the workers in the shelters and the officials in the municipalities do not aim to build up alternative ways of solidarity with women who face violence and hence reproduce the gender norms in the society, we may nonetheless argue that the workers are there not to consciously oppress women but to “help” them in one way or another : like in helping them in finding jobs or necessary equipment for the houses that they rent after leaving shelters. These are, in itself, valuable efforts in a society where women find it difficult to survive economically independent of their families. What I argue here is, instead, that the unquestioned manner of aiming “help” and hence of “benevolence”, in opposition to aiming “solidarity” is what leads to the reproduction of hierarchies and serving the overall integrity of “being a family” as a dominant discourse in the society.

Further remarks

22Given the limited number and scope of studies on shelters in Turkey, an anthropological point of view to the shelters had been necessary : as the politics of feminists has been mostly, though rightly, based on the insufficiency of the number of shelters throughout the country, and the cooperation between the state and non-governmental organizations is inevitable, the manner in which “shelter work” is carried out in municipalities and social services of the central state mostly remains unseen. And when feminist women criticize these shelters based on what they hear from the women who have formerly stayed in the shelters owned by central and local governments, it is not received as serious criticism. Therefore, the literature of the anthropology of the state not only offers us a way of analyzing the power relations within the institutions that would be fruitful for feminist criticism in Turkey in an overall way, but also makes it possible for us to relate these hierarchies to the dominant forms of power relations in the society as well. In this sense, it opens us a way out of research on institutions à la Goffman.

  • 17  “By the late 1970s, an interest in production and social class dynamics led a few anthropologists (...)

23On the other hand, the literature of anthropology of the state is another representative of the profound change that took place in the discipline, that of the criticism of the concern with the “non-complex” societies and the interest in questions related to urban contexts as the subject of anthropology as well. The anthropological works on Turkey clearly represent this tendency, passing from works that are based in the examination of villages (from the 40s to 60s) to urban questions (since the 70s), with questions as diverse as those related to urban cultures to identity formation and/or citizenship17. In this sense, even though the study of shelters and violence against women is intrinsic to questions of kinship and family, the way in which these questions are treated in this research do not follow the “traditional” ways of examining kinship in anthropology (that is, as a treat of simplistic societies) but it is inscribed, in parallel with the recent trends in anthropology in the world and in Turkey, in an attempt to see these concepts in their political context. The shelters and how women engage with bureaucracy through them, in other words, is not only to study “the state” but to study the state to understand how the notions of state, family, and kinship are enmeshed in everyday life of women and institutions.

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Altinay, Gul A. and Arat Y, 2008. Turkiye’de Kadina Yonelik Siddet (Violence Against Women in Turkey). İstanbul : Metis Yayinlari.

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1  A generic term that covers all forms of male violence, like rape, marital violence and harassment.

2  “With its slogan 'personal is political', first written by Carol Hannisch, it is contemporary feminism which recognizes that politics is too diverse to be contained in the tightly boundaried categories of political parties” (Humm, 1992, p. 1).

3  “Radical feminists see all forms of male violence against women, including the threat and fear of violence, as functioning as a social control mechanism forcing women to modify their behavior by, for instance, not going out at night alone for fear of being attacked. In doing this men are able to control women's activities and, therefore, to oppress them: male violence serves to keep women in their place” (Mooney, 2000, p. 90).

4  “For the woman, it serves as a physical place where she can temporarily escape from violence, find safety and make decisions about her own life. Contact with other women helps to overcome isolation and a sense of being the only one with a violent partner. For the movement, it provides the physical location from which to organise, and serves as a base for practical and political thought and action” (Dobash and Dobash, 1996, p. 60).

5  Even though the first feminist activists and groups in 1980s were usually of socialist background,  the scene has changed to include different perspectives since then. As in other countries, we can not talk about “a feminism” in Turkey, but “feminisms”, which include groups of socialist feminists, islamist feminists, kemalist feminists, kurdish feminists, radical feminists and so on. Whereas in the beginning of the rise of feminism in Turkey in the 1980s, the groups who have been specifically engaged in dealing with violence against women in Turkey mostly consisted of socialist and radical feminists, nowadays we can see that feminists from all political backgrounds engage in the issue in one way or another, even though they do not share the socialist and the radical feminist views on family or on other issues related to sexuality. In any case, socialist and radical views continue to dominate the scene of feminism in Turkey as far as violence against women is concerned – at the level of discourse, at least. Therefore, here I use the word “feminist” to refer to those women who share radical and socialist feminist views.

6 We can talk about two such projects. One was carried out  by the Turkish Republic Prime Ministry Directorate General on the Status of Women in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), called “Combating Domestic Violence Against Women Project” (for further information please see The other project was carried out by the General Directorate For Local Authorities of the Ministry of Interior and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (for further information please see ( Both projects are also funded by the European Union.

7  I use the word “use” here in the sense Michel de Certeau uses the term “utilisation”: “La présence et la circulation d'une représentation (enseignée comme le code de la promotion socio-économique par des prédicateurs, par des éducateurs ou par des vulgarisateurs) n'indiquent nullement ce qu'elle est pour ses utilisateurs. Il faut encore analyser sa manipulation par les pratiquants qui n'en sont pas les fabricateurs. Alors seulement on peut apprécier l'écart ou la similitude entre la production de l'image et la production secondaire qui se cache dans les procès de son utilisation” (de Certeau, 1998, p. xxxviii).

8  “Evolving under such contradictory concerns, the law brought into being a municipal framework that was perceived mainly as an extension of the central government’’s responsibility for carrying out local public services. The ban on deciding political issues in the municipal council would be the best evidence of the emphasis on the public service delivery function of municipalities (Mumcu, Ünlü 1990: 116). This service-based nature of Turkish municipalism can be better seen by referring to the functions allocated to the municipalities. As a matter of fact, article 15 of the law allocates 76 different duties to the municipalities in areas such as urban infrastructure, basic urban services, town planning and controls, the provision and the control of clean food, health and some religious services, cultural activities, housing and social aid facilities etc.The depoliticisation of local governments was also related to two of the major political principles of the Kemalist regime, namely populism and statism” (Bayraktar, 2007, §17-18).

9  As Nancy Fraser argues, “the social is not exactly equivalent to the traditional public sphere of political discourse defined by Habermas, nor is it coextensive with the state. Rather, the social is a site of discourse about people’s needs, specifically about those needs that have been broken out of the domestic and/or official economic spheres that earlier contained them as ‘private matters’” (Fraser, 1989, p. 156).

10  For a news on the subject in a newspaper called Zaman, please see the following link: – retrieved February 6, 2011.

11  In a booklet of the campaign against battering (Dayaga Karsi Kampanya) we can see the account of the emergence of the idea of a women's shelter among feminists in Turkey (Bagir Herkes Duysun, Collective, 1989).

12 The Kariye festival in 1987 was, for instance, specifically designed to raise funding for a women's shelter “In October of the same year, a one-day festival in Istanbul was to organise to rally support and raise funds towards setting up refuges for battered women. Through songs, informal 'street-corner' discussion groups, and addresses delivered by various women, including battered women, the organizers of the festival hoped to draw attention to the conditions under which the majority of women in Turkey lived” (Sirman, 1989, 17).

13  For more information on the network, please see:

14 “Pour devenir un problème appelant l'intervention d'un acteur public, les phénomènes sociaux passent par une série de prismes, agissant comme autant de processus de sélection, qui modifient la nature, l'audience, les sens des phénomènes perçus et contribuent à en faire des objets légitimes de l'action publique. L'ensemble de ces prismes correspond à une phase de problématisation, au cours de laquelle un certain nombre d'acteurs vont être amenés à percevoir une situation comme 'anormale' et vont la qualifier d'une manière particulière, qui peut être susceptible d'appeler l'attention d'un acteur public” (Muller and Surel, 1998, p. 57).

15  Article 14 of the law no. 5393: “The municipality can undertake the following works to serve a common purpose: Providing services of urban infrastructure such as development of the region, water and sewage system and transportation; geographical and urban data systems; environment and environmental health, cleaning and solid waste; security forces, fire brigades, emergency aid, relief services and ambulance; city traffic; funeral and cemetery services; forestry, parks and   green areas; housing, cultural and artworks, tourism and presentation, youth and sporting activities; social and aid services; marriage ceremonies, professional trainings; and services aimed at development of economy and commerce. The Greater City Municipalities and the municipalities having population more than 50.000 shall open protection houses for women and children.”

16  Here, I use the word “totalizing” in the sense Erving Goffman uses it in his description of “total institutions”: “A basic social arrangement in modern society is that the individual tends to sleep, play, and work in different places, with different co-participants, under different authorities, and without an overall rational plan. The central feature of total institutions can be described as a breakdown of the barriers ordinarily separating these three spheres of life” (Goffman, 1991, p. 17).

17  “By the late 1970s, an interest in production and social class dynamics led a few anthropologists to take a closer look at Turkish cities, especially the squatter areas that grew up around urban industries, focusing on the intersection of social class and forms of production with family and community life. More recent attempts to analyze urban life have focused on popular culture, media, the market, and globalization, and on how national and identity politics is played out on the urban canvas. The decline in scholarly interest in rural and village life was due not simply to the massive urbanization that occurred during this period, an acceleration of trends noted by Lerner in the 1950s, but also to the developments in the discipline of anthropology itself” (White, 2003, p. 77). For an overall view on anthropological works on Turkey please see White (2003) and Birkalan-Gedik (2005).

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Berna Ekal, « Women's Shelters and Municipalities in Turkey : Between Solidarity and Benevolence »EchoGéo [En ligne], 16 | 2011, mis en ligne le 04 juillet 2011, consulté le 09 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Berna Ekal

Berna Ekal ( est Doctorante en Anthropologie Sociale et Ethnologie à l'EHESS - Paris. Le titre provisoire de la thèse est “Anthropologie des discours sur la violence contre les femmes et des centres d’accueil pour femmes violentées en Turquie”. Ce travail a bénéficié d'une aide de l'Agence Nationale de la Recherche portant la référence ANR-08-GOUV-045 « Ordonner et transiger : modalités de gouvernement et d'administration en Turquie et dans l’Empire ottoman, du XIXe siècle à nos jours ».

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