Geopolitics is not just about territory, resources and the international system. It is very much part of our everyday lives, and sometimes in the most intimate and unsettling ways. Thanks to the scholarship and praxis of feminist geographers, ‘we’ are far more attentive to how gender, sexuality and the body are geopolitical matters. A recent and tragic story involving a Turkish woman, public transport and murderous violence brought all of this to the fore again. The use of the word ‘again’ is deliberate given other incidents in places like India, where in 2012 a horrific mass rape and murder of another young woman in New Delhi made national and global headlines.
In February, the burnt body of a young woman, Özgecan Aslan, was discovered after she disappeared in the southern Turkish city of Mersin. According to local newspaper reports, she had been travelling in a bus and was assaulted by the bus driver. As she resisted the sexually motivated assault, she was stabbed and beaten resulting in her death. Her body was later burnt and three people were arrested, including the bus driver.
In the aftermath of this heinous crime, Turkish women took to the streets in Mersin and Istanbul and employed social media to detail their everyday experiences of gendered intimidation and violence. Their account ranged from sexual harassment on public transport to rape. Using the hashtag ‘You tell it too’ and the banner ‘Enough, we will stop the murder of women!’, the protestors brought into sharp relief the manner in which ‘the state’, ‘security’ and ‘public space’ might be understood.
For these protesting women, and many other women in Turkey and elsewhere in the world, gendered violence is an issue of immense concern as high profile figures such as Angelina Jolie recognise. Important though celebrity endorsement might be, women’s groups in Turkey have been active in highlighting the rape and murder of hundreds of Turkish women each year. The Women for Peace Initiative, for example, highlights how the Turkish state is a ‘men’s state’; a gendered institution which worries more about ‘national security’ and the possible threats posed by Kurdish separatism and ISIS in Syria, than the everyday realities of insecurity for Turkish women in their homes and in public spaces such as buses and trains. While some women might have been too scared to protest, let alone voice their anger over the murder of Özgecan Aslan, an ‘Islamic atmosphere’ was cited as a threat to Turkish women in policing and disciplining women and their bodies, dress and behaviour.
As civil rights activists recognised in 1950s America, what happens on the bus does not just stay on the bus. Rather the bus, by its very nature, is an intensely social space, where citizens agree to abide to a set of formal and informal rules of behaviour. Women should be able to sit on the bus without having to run the gauntlet of assault, groping, and verbal harassment. For too many women, however, this is not the case. In India, there have been new initiatives regarding women-only public transport and taxi services because of a persistent problem of harassment and violence.
All of which puts into context the claims made by male political leaders to be defending the state, national territory and international borders. For many women, the border they might wish to be respected is a more intimate one – the border between their bodies and that of others. All other kinds of societal borders – which facilitate their bodies, dress and behaviour – need to be cross-examined, evaluated and even condemned.
I leave you with a tweet released shortly after the sad death of Özgecan Aslan. It simply said the following: ‘Being a woman in Turkey is telling the plate number of the taxi you get in to your friend as you are afraid of being raped.’