vol.9, no.2, (July 2003)


The Death of Feminism as an Antisystemic Movement or the Success of Feminism to Change the System from Within?

Omer Caha  


Takis Fotopoulos’ fascinating article “The End of Traditional Antisystemic Movements and the Need for a New Type of Antisytemic Movement Today”[1] draws attention to the shift in traditional (socialism and anarchism) and new social movements (green and feminism) from an antisystemic stance to a reformist position. For Fotopoulos “replacing” the main political and economic institutions and associated values with new ones is the dominant characteristic of the antisystemic movements, while reformist movements are seeking simply to “change” these institutions. The long and very analytical article (indeed, one of the most essential ones I have ever read on social movements) sketches the reasons behind the transition in the role of  the social movements by concentrating on the meaning of the antisystemism, the type of antisystemic movements and the change in the systemic parameters in the era of neoliberal modernity.

One of the movements that Fotopoulos draws attention is feminist movement, which he claims has lived a shift particularly in the aftermath of the 1980s from being an antisystemic movement to be a lobby-seeking movement within the system. Fotopoulos discusses the achievement of the “insider” feminists (i.e. the liberal feminist groups oriented toward gaining position and power within the system ) over the “outsider” feminists (i.e. the autonomous women’s’ movement oriented to revolutionary change) ) starting with the definition of an antisystemic feminism. For him, for a feminist movement to qualify as an antisystemic movement ‘the fundamental condition is that it would see the goal of equality between men and women as only the first step on the way to achieve the goal of human liberation—a goal that could only be realised within an institutional framework and a corresponding set of values that secures the equal distribution of all forms of power between all human beings, irrespective of gender, race, ethnic or cultural identity[2]

The abolition of the conditions that produce the ground for inequality in the distribution of “political power” through representative democracy and of “economic power” through market economy is accepted, by Fotopoulos, as the chief task of an antisystemic feminism rather than to simply equalize the conditions of inequality within the present system. Based upon the observations of the feminists’ lobbying activities in the aftermath of the post-1980 period, he concludes that similar to the green movements (once were antisystemic movement, but now seem as integral part of the system) lobby-seeking feminist groups, have gained victory over the autonomy-seeking feminist groups (the victory of “insiders” over “outsiders” with his term) and this has led to the integration of most of  feminist groups  within the system.

Accepting this argument and observation as in essence true, I would like to make some remarks about this important discussion by drawing attention to the Turkish case. Before going to this case let me have some points about the nature of the antisystemic movements in respect to their impact over the system. When we have a general overview of the last two centuries of the West European societies we perhaps will see that many different antisystemic movements have come to the scene, ranging from radical socialism to the radical currents within the antinuclear  movements and from radical Green groups to the radical feminists, but none of them, indeed, has been successful to create an entirely alternative system. The creation of an alternative system by means of social groups seems almost impossible in so largely inclusive system based on free market economy and participatory democracy (But, a radical social movement—the Russian communist one—has succeeded in creating an alternative system; whether it was successful or not is a different story). Nonetheless to say, this should not be expected from social groups which find chance to emerge already as the internal elements of the system itself. Therefore, more than expecting a revolution against the system or the creation of an alternative system from social groups, we should expect from them to make a contribution to the “humanization” of the system. In fact, this is what West European antisystemic movements like socialism, Marxism, syndicalism have succeeded in doing during the last two hundred years or so. The welfare state and distributive justice may be considered as (indirect)  important contributions of these movements  on behalf of man.

The success of the feminist movements, I think, should be regarded in that respect. Fotopoulos is right when he claims that the lobby-seeking feminist groups are more influential and becoming dominant in Western societies compared to the antisystemic feminist movements. I think the chief reason behind this, among many others, is the humanization process of the system itself. This leaves no further need for the fundamental discourses to be promoted by social movements anymore. Despite this fact we, indeed, still see that feminist groups (particularly those who emphasize autonomy and difference) continue to be one of the leading movements in promoting discussions on identity, on civil society, on post-modernism, on multiculturalism etc.[3] Among these the contribution of feminism to civil society, in particular, in the historically male-oriented public spheres as in the case of Turkey, is noteworthy to be emphasized as an indication of feminism’s ability to change the system from within. 

The Contribution of Feminist Movement to Humanize the System: The Case of Turkey

Feminism in Turkey has developed during the post-1980 period as one of the outcomes of the liberalization of the Turkish economic and political system, clearly as an insider social movement. Although the feminist movement has risen over the shoulders of three different feminist versions, some of which are antisystemic in the case of the European societies (egalitarian, socialist and radicals) its main characteristics unmistakably define it as a “within-the-system movement”. This feature of Turkish feminism is probably stemmed from the historical background, which culturally secluded women from the public domain on the basis of the norms of gender roles. As it is well known, the Islamic interpretation in the Ottoman society divided society basically into two sub-universes: the universe of men and the universe of women. The social division according to gender resulted in the division between those who hold authority and those who do not. This division after the sixteenth century of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the emergence of the harem life which secluded women from social life and leading them to live among themselves, coming to contact only with the male members of their family.

This historical background has led Turkish feminist women to stand as a  “within-the-system movement”. As such, even the socialist and radical feminists in Turkey declare themselves as “pro-secular/Republican” and in favour of all other aspects of this system, particularly when the Islam and tradition are at issue. This could explain the vigorous attempt of the Turkish feminist groups to represent themselves as an element of public life, as they stress that the relegation of them to the private realm has created a place of assault and battery, marital rape and women’s exploited domestic labor. Emphasizing on the importance of the public realm, they argue that the relegation of women into the private realm (as for instance Islamic fundamentalists suggest) will result in the general withdrawal of women once again from the public sphere and their casting out of political and economic life. So the “system” is generally accepted by Turkish feminist groups as the alternative of the traditional Islamic public sphere and as a positive and open domain for women.            

Starting with this definition of the system, Turkish feminists gave a great credit to the equality of women with men in the public realm. Participating in public life means mainly two things for them: preserving their liberty and achieving an equal status with men. They attempt mainly to develop a democratic theory based on civil equality that undermines the differences between the sexes so that full citizenship for women can be secured. The realization of its aim means the transformation of sexual division of labor and norms of femininity and masculinity. Although this seems a unique characteristic of liberal feminists, radical and socialist feminists also articulate this view as the base of “rights” for women.

This discourse of Turkish feminism is seen as a fundamental challenge to  the sharp opposition between the public and private spheres in Turkish culture (patriarchal in nature as elsewhere), which can be taken as the fundamental historical code behind the system. This culture is clearly based on the perception  of the public sphere as the world of universalism, independence, equality, reason, rationality and impartiality, which are characteristics attributable only to men and of the private sphere as the world of particularism, natural emotions, love and partiality, which, in turn, are considered  as the natural characteristics of women.[4]

Staying within the system, Turkish feminists have created a new set of politics in Turkey through the success of changing many women’s and men’s way of thinking about gender roles. Through their focus on consciousness-raising, on non-oppressive relations between man and woman in the family and in social life, on creating a counter-culture and on alternative institutions, Turkish feminists have undermined the traditional values of the femininity and masculinity institutionalized in the Turkish culture. Feminism in Turkey, has raised important questions about the distributions and legitimacy of macro power relations and has challenged the deep-rooted codes of social interactions. Through the collective action of feminist women in the 1980s issues such as gender, right, inequality, seclusion and liberation have taken a large part of the public debate in Turkey. What they have briefly achieved is the meaning and definition of identity, which contrasts the “man-like” Republican women.[5]

In Turkish politics the  need for “homogeneity” of citizens, is always emphasised because of the fear that any differences would tend to undermine the commitment to the general interest. Therefore, the existence of groups that highlight class, religion, gender, and ethnic differences are always taken as a threat to the common interest, with the Turkish state strictly enforcing a politics of assimilation . The public recognition of these groups  with their own cultures, values and norms has never been an option. During this period of the gradual development of republican political system, the  Turkish state has implemented a politics stressing the idea of a  public ‘unified’ under the goal of  modernisation , i.e. reaching the level of modern civilization.

This picture in the politics of the Turkish state has actually been reversed by feminist groups in the aftermath of the 1980s. Feminist groups have created a pressure over the politics assuming a homogeneous society by articulating  post-modern discourses developed mainly against universal categories of the Enlightenment.[6] Moreover, they have opposed the kind of public life promoted by this politics, which is blind to the specificities of  their own life. As a part of this struggle feminists support the ‘identity’  groups that promote  various identities in the public realm. Thus, the feminists’ have supported female religious students in their struggle concerning school uniforms,  leftist prisoners in their struggle against prison conditions, as well as homosexuals and  transsexuals groups in their struggle for the public recognitgion of their identity. All these struggles are clearly serving the creation of a “heterogeneous” public.

The feminist women’s emphasis on difference creates an area of heterogeneity and multiplicity enhanced by women’s special experience and value. It could be argued that feminism, by appealing to the notion of ‘difference’,  creates a new era in the public life and at the same time challenges the “unified” characteristics of the Turkish state. Moreover, feminism, by embracing the concept of difference, creates the need for a justice sensitive to variations of gender, race, class, religion, and other sociological categories. Such a justice will clearly foster a public that will be excluding no person, no aspect of person’s lives, or issue for discussion. This feature of any social movement is important with respect to the issue under question since it also gives rise to the public representation of other social groups having different needs, cultures, histories, experiences and discourses in public life.

Apart from this contribution of the feminist movement in the transition of the homogeneous Turkish public sphere, (in other words in humanizing this political cultural system) it has also contributed to the development of civil society as an insider movement. Feminists’ contribution to the development of civil society in Turkey can be seen at least in three different and interrelated ways. First, feminism brings some important issues from the back streets into the open and raises them to public discussion. Issues such as abortion, wife-battering, marital rape and molestation are examples of this kind. Second, Turkish feminism redefines the deep-rooted codes of social institutions as in the case of gender analysis, women’s sexuality, etc. and replace them with new meanings. The feminists’ great impact is, in that respect, observed on the grass-root structures on socio-cultural fields. The increasing tendency that has been observed, in Turkey, in the emergence of “feminine men” and “masculine women”, in the sense of their roles in the familial life and social relations, is the general outcome of this politics prevailed in grass-roots in the post-1980[7]. Finally, Turkish feminism has put pressure on political parties and the government to take a stand on women’s issues and forcing them to create new institutions with that respect. The amendment of the Civil Law during the last months of the 2001 is, indeed, the success of lobby-seeking (insiders with Fotopoulos’ term) feminist groups.


Are Systemic Movements Necessarily Negative?

What the case of the Turkish feminism tells us is twofold: It firstly proves the claims advanced by Fotopoulos that the reformist character of the feminist movement became dominant in post-1980 period. {Two antisystemic feminist discourses (socialist and radical) are taking place in the system as the Turkish example clearly indicates} (What is the meaning of this?). The case of Turkish feminism secondly and importantly indicates that reformist social movements  might play a more successful role in humanizing the system than  antisystemic ones.  

Moving from the case of  Turkish feminism Fotopoulos’ thesis might also be criticized upon some other points. First, being an insider movement is assessed negatively by Fotopoulos, therefore the positive character of a social movement depends on its potential to challenge the system. But, as the case of the socialist movement indicated in the case of the former Eastern socialist regimes, an alternative system established as a result of the activities of an antisystemic movement is not aleays  a positive development. The  fundamentalist Islamic regime in Iran is another indication of the same point.

Second, the replacement of the system seems not possible by means of social groups, which emerge and grow within the system itself. Particularly the new social movements mentioned by Fotopoulos (green,  feminist as well as human rights, ethnic, religious, gays etc.) are indebted to the liberal political system since in a non-democratic system such movements may not even  develop in the first place. However, as the social movements which are grown within democratic systems are indebted to the system they are necessarily limited within  the systemic parameters.

Third, the antisystemic character of social movements sometimes gives rise to the rigidization of the system against social movements and their demands. In that respect we face with the problem of legitimacy. Once social movements go beyond the boundaries of the system their demands are treated as illegitimate by the system and it seeks to protect itself against these demands. The case of Turkish system against Islamic groups as antisystemic movement is noteworthy to mention. Since the establishment perceives Islamic groups as antisystemic it narrows the boundaries of the public sphere and develops very rigid policies against these groups. While Islamic women’s movement has been excluded from public sphere feminist groups have succeeded to make a change in the very foundation of the system, thus humanizing the system, by means of stepping within its corridors. This tells us that the result of antisystemism generally becomes the exclusion of these groups from the public sphere. This means that the antisystemic character of social movements sometimes brings about their end.

Fourth, there is a need for making a pragmatic-rational calculation between the “humanization” of the system and “replacing” it to decide which one is more beneficiary. To my mind, the modern system as a paradigm with its representative democracy and free market economy is the historical accumulation of human experience, at least is so for some certain societies. It might be questionable whether the experience of some societies goes for others too, but we should consider that the humanization of the system is more important than its replacement with unknown, empirically untested systems.

Finally, the humanization of the system seems possible, as the example of the Turkish feminism indicates, by means of systemic movements more than antisystemic ones. In addition to the case of Turkish feminism mentioned above the contribution of social democratic movements in Western Europe became possible when they began to come to power in the aftermath of the 1960s as the partner of the coalitional governments.



[1] Takis Fotopoulos, "The End of Traditional Antisystemic Movements and the Need for A New Type of Antisystemic Movement Today", Democracy & Nature, Vol. 7,  No. 3 (November  2001). pp. 415-456

[2] Ibıd, p. 447

[3] Among  many others the arguments of I. Morion Young on identity, Nancy Fraser on multi-public sphere, Jane Flax on postmodernism and Carole Pateman on civil society are worth getting to mention. (Please provide book references) 

[4] Fatıma Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society (London: Al Saqi Books, 1985), p.138.

[5] For the an original debate on the production of the man-like women during the first years of the Republican Turkey see Nilüfer Göle, Moden Mahrem: Medeniyet ve Örtünme (İstanbul: Metis Yayınları, 1982).

[6] As feminists stress,  the universal  categories of the Enlightenment  are being constructed as duality categories (man/woman, light/dark, sun/moon etc), which assume the existence of dialectical and oppositional components, a part of which is generally defined as positive while the other part is defined as negative. See for instance Sandra Harding, “Feminism, Science and Anti-Enlightenment Critique”, in Feminism/Postmodernism. ed. by Linda J. Nicholson and Nancy Chodorow  (New York and London: Routledge, 1990). 

[7] In  the post-1980’s Turkey two concepts have come under discussion, those of  “kilibik” and “kazak” man. The first one in the traditional Turkish culture is used pejoratively for those men who share their authority with their wives, while the second one is used positively for those who do not share their authority with their wives. Kadınca, a prominent feminist journal during the 1980s drew attention on changes with respect to this traditional role, as indicated by the interviews with some men who declared proud of being “kilibik”, in other words  proud of  having equal role in the familial life. See Kadınca, “Kılıbıklık-Kazaklık”, (June 1986).