Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II)

By Noémi Lévy-Aksu

Since the mid-2010s, the authoritarian turn of the Turkish regime has resulted in multiple violations of human rights and freedoms. Universities have been particularly affected by the process, with mass dismissals of academics, repeated attacks on academic freedom and autonomy, and repression of students’ initiatives and protests. While scholars, who are directly concerned, continue to struggle for their rights, a significant part of those who remain in Turkey have become involved in solidarity networks and alternative organizations. Known as “Solidarity Academies”, new formations emerged in different cities of Turkey, gathering academics and students affected by the repression and their supporters[1]. Since 2016, these formations have emerged as important spaces for critical thinking and knowledge production and transmission. While most of them remain anchored at local level, other have opted for a thematic focus and gather members throughout Turkey. These groups offer workshops and seminars for different audiences, but they have also engaged in civil society projects including research, fieldwork and monitoring activities.


Image Caption: Aramızda Association celebrates Pride 2020, copyright: Aslı Alpar.

The following interviews constitute the second part of our exploration of solidarity academies and networks of Academics for Peace in Turkey. It offers an insight into the activities of three groups: Aramızda, a gender studies association gathering members across Turkey; KODA, a solidarity academy based in Kocaeli; and the School of Human Rights, based in Ankara.

Aramızda Gender Studies Association: 5 questions posed to Burçin Kalkın Kızıldaş

When and why did you decide to establish your organization? What are its aims and how would you define yourself (CSO, solidarity academy, alternative academic network…)?

The process of founding the Aramızda Gender Studies Association started in 2017, when feminist Academics for Peace, most of whom were dismissed by emergency decrees for signing the declaration “We won’t be a party to this crime”, and students, whose right to education was breached by the purge of academics, came together. The Social Feminist Forum and the Meetings against Homophobia organized by KAOS GL were important platforms for discussing the crackdown on Gender Studies in academia and the deterioration of gender relations on campuses. Academics who had been dismissed from eight universities and students participated in sessions at which we shared the impact of the process on different universities, personal experiences, and the shrinking space for discussion at universities and on campuses after the state of emergency and emergency decrees. 

As dismissed academics and students, we needed to find new ways to develop solidarity networks and to continue knowledge production. In this context, we held meetings to discuss the major challenges we faced: continuing academic knowledge production, analysing the state of emergency and emergency decrees from a gender perspective, developing strategies to address possible attacks against Gender Studies departments, and continuing the struggle against harassment, violence, and discrimination. As a result, we decided to constitute a new structure to continue our activities in different ways, with different methods.

The main issues we identified were the decrease in courses on Gender Studies; the interruption of students’ theses and dissertations; the attacks on units and mechanisms to fight sexual harassment in universities; the threats to the daily life and activities of LGBTİ+ and queer students on campus; and the impact of the situation on academic feminism. Founded by a group of feminist academics and researchers working in the area of Gender and Queer Studies, the Aramızda Association for Gender Studies was established in 2017 to defend the spaces for academic and intellectual production and the politics of and action by women and LGBTİ+ persons on campuses, in classrooms, and in the streets, in a time when gender equality and gender studies are under threat.

Aramızda stands for a plural, relational, and creative space. We came together to record our struggles and life experiences, to develop new relations and networks. Our aim is to open an intersectional feminist space outside of academia but connected with academic production, civil society, politics, and art. 

Could you tell us about a particular project or activity conducted by your organization?

The struggle for gender equality is an important aspect of the struggle against sexual violence. In 2019, the Higher Education Council suspended the Project for Gender Studies, which it had launched in 2015, and the related Position Paper was also removed without being applied. Gender equality policy was thus abandoned and, together with anti-democratic policies towards the universities, the struggle against sexual violence was impeded both in academia and in civil society. In addition, due to the lack of cooperation and organization, the legal and non-legal mechanisms of struggle against sexual violence have remained limited. This year, the priority for the association will be to develop cooperation between universities and CSOs in the field of preventing sexual violence and to design new strategies to strengthen the struggle against sexual violence. In particular:

  • 3 workshops will be organized with 16 universities that have created units to fight sexual violence and CSOs that have conducted research and projects and published reports in the area of the struggle against sexual violence. Reports will be published after these workshops.
  • A social media campaign organized in collaboration with universities and CSOs

In addition, in the framework of the protectdefenders.eu programme “Comprehensive Support to Human Rights Defenders in Turkey Institutional Support Programme”, 4 reports are currently being prepared with the aim of supporting female and LGBTİ+ academics and monitoring and reporting gender equality in academia:

  • Monitoring sexual violence and gender mechanisms at the universities,
  • Situation report on department, unit, and research centres on gender equality at universities,
  • Situation report on LGBTİ+ and queer topics-related courses and LGBTİ+ clubs at universities
  • Hate speech report on women who are purged academicians.

What are the main challenges faced by your organization and its members?

The main challenges faced by our organisation and its members are:

  • The shrinking of the political space
  • The impact on academia of the suspension of the Project for Gender Studies. The project was launched by the Higher Education Council in 2015 and suspended in 2019, without applying the related Position Paper.
  • The media’s and state authorities’ criminalization of peace, human rights, and gender, which constitute our areas of struggle
  • The ban on associations or obstacles to our activities, even after the end of the state of emergency

During and after the state of emergency, the solidarity and cooperation between women and LGBTİ+ academics and researchers became stronger. This network is our strongest protection in our struggle against the aforementioned risks.

Is your organization part of any international network? How could international solidarity and partnerships contribute to support your organization and its members?

Aramızda is in close contact with networks of Academics for Peace in Germany, France, Britain, and North America, as well as the organizations they established abroad, such as the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research and Off University.

What future do you see for your organization? More broadly, do you think that alternative academic structures and networks have a potential to challenge the multiple obstacles faced by knowledge production/transmission in Turkey and at the global level?

Aramızda aims to ensure the sustainability of its activities in the area of Gender Studies by becoming more institutionalized. For instance, it will seek to contribute to knowledge production at the Turkish and global levels by offering on a regular basis the course “Gender and Society”, organized in partnership with Off University. We also hope to publish our works to disseminate our knowledge and experiences. Besides developing partnerships at a global level, as with Off University, we also aim to deepen our relations with local organizations working on gender to successfully address the challenges to knowledge production and sharing in this field.

Thus, Aramızda believes in the importance of collaborations at local and global levels and hopes that its works and networks will help it play an active role in the struggle for gender equality.

KODA (Kocaeli Solidarity and Research Association): 5 questions posed to Ruhi Demiray

When and why did you decide to establish your organization? What are its aims and how would you define yourself (CSO, solidarity academy, alternative academic network…)?

KODA formed as a solidarity organization among the signatories of the declaration titled “We will not be a party to this crime!” (also known as the “Peace Declaration”) from Kocaeli University and the other academics supporting them. I think KODA has spontaneously emerged in the process of the various forms of oppressions that we, the signatories, have suffered after the promulgation of the “Peace Declaration”. So, there was not a definite movement of decision, but a process of coming together and acting together. We define ourselves as an initiative fostering social peace, democratic politics, and academic freedom.

Could you tell us about a particular project or activity conducted by your organization?

Although KODA has had an impact at the national level through its unyielding resistance against the politics of criminalization, stigmatization, isolation, and oppression directed by the Erdogan government against the “Peace Academics”, it is an organization organically embedded within the political and cultural life of Kocaeli. In line with this, Wednesday Seminars can be designated as our exemplary project/activity in that they offered a platform at which we discuss any public issue with the local people.   

What are the main challenges faced by your organization and its members?

Political and social pressures have always been the basic challenge we have faced. Due to the government’s politics of criminalization, stigmatization, isolation, and oppression directed against us, we have observed that many people who would normally like to join our activities kept their distance from us, at least to a certain extent. 

Is your organization part of any international network? How could international solidarity and partnerships contribute to support your organization and its members?

We belong to a partly formal and partly informal network of solidarity academies in Turkey. Some of our members have strong academic connections and networks at their disposal. However, KODA is currently not a part of any international network in the institutional sense. Having said this, however, it should also be noted that KODA has been the recipient of international research project grants and other grant schemes offered by such prestigious international grand providers as the European Commission. Personally, I think international solidarity and partnership is essential for the survival of our organization and if it is to have a significant and distinctive impact in the academic and cultural life of our country and our city. However, there are also members of our organization who are sensitive or reluctant about international connections because they have the political worry that we might lose our autonomy in the end.   

What future do you see for your organization? More broadly, do you think that alternative academic structures and networks have a potential to challenge the multiple obstacles faced by knowledge production/transmission in Turkey and at the global level?

I think it is very difficult to make a prediction about any issue in Turkey in this period. On the other hand, I am not very optimistic about the potentials of alternative academic structures and networks in Turkey. This is not only because of the political oppression that such academic organizations face. It is also because the vision and the mood of the members of such organizations are, in general, outmoded. Alternative academy needs an egalitarian (non-hierarchical) and civil foundation. Although the members of solidarity academies are political opponents/critics (“muhalif”), this does not necessarily mean they are true egalitarians and people with civil manners. Indeed, unfortunately, they are usually far from it. This is another reason why international collaboration is so important for improving the prospects of solidarity academies. It is not only money they need, but also an enlarged vision and improved civil mood.  

İHO (İnsan Hakları Okulu/School of Human Rights, Ankara): 5 questions posed to Elçin Aktoprak

When and why did you decide to establish your organization? What are its aims and how would you define yourself (CSO, solidarity academy, alternative academic network…)?

The Human Rights Centre (HRC) at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Ankara University has had a significant role in the history of human rights studies in Turkey for nearly 40 years and played a crucial role in filling the gap between the Human Rights Academy and NGOs. However, following the declaration of the state of emergency, the Centre was closed, and scholars working in the Centre were dismissed for signing the Peace Petition. After the closure and dismissals, we decided to continue what we do and would like to continue doing.

Therefore, the School of Human Rights has begun as an EU-funded project that started operations during the state of emergency in Turkey, and the official title of the project was Coping with the State of Emergency: Bringing the Human Rights Academy to Society. The overall objective is to contribute to the promotion and protection of academic freedom for establishing a free, critical, and autonomous academic sphere in Turkey, especially for human rights studies. Our objectives:

  • To create an alternative space for human rights studies
  • To raise awareness amongst human rights NGOs to recognize and accept academic freedom as a separate and autonomous human right
  • To provide academic input to civil society working in the field of human rights to support their capacity to deal with human rights violations

In sum, the School of Human Rights has been established as an alternative academic network, a kind of solidarity academy; but it conducted its project under the Capacity Development Association/Human Rights Joint Platform. Recently we decided to establish The School of Human Rights Association to fulfil these objectives.

Could you tell us about a particular project or activity conducted by your organization?

We have two components: the promotion of academic freedom as a human right and running an online human rights educational program.

We published:

  • a survey report on academic freedom under the state of emergency and a follow-up report on academic freedom after the state of emergency
  • a survey report on being a human rights scholar in Turkey under the state of emergency

We organized:

  • a solidarity academies meeting for collaboration and the promotion of academic freedom.
  • a workshop and an international conference on academic freedom as a human right.

Under the name of the School of Human Rights, we established a virtual and functional space for human rights education. Our first aim in the distance-learning program has been to continue the education program of the HRC by studying the damaged human rights areas under the state of emergency rule. The second aim has been to support human rights scholars purged by the state of emergency decrees. And the third object was to strengthen the human rights knowledge of university students and human rights defenders under the conditions of the state of emergency and its aftermath. 

We have 20 online courses on human rights. Although we do not give credits or a diploma, but a certificate, there are more than 350 participants. Nearly 2000 people applied to take part in the program. We are also continuing to publish working papers. We began to broadcast at the beginning of April 2020 and broadcasted 11 programs on vital human rights issues during the pandemic with experts on the issues since then. These programs gained significant public attention in an atmosphere in which the mainstream media and nearly all universities are far from addressing and discussing these problems. We organized one Summer School on Academic Freedom and a Winter School on the Crisis that We are Getting Through.

What are the main challenges faced by your organization and its members?

Long before the pandemic, we decided to practice distance learning. It was a whole new thing for all of us and we educated ourselves about it. We are still learning and trying to improve our knowledge and skills. The political atmosphere has always been challenging.

Is your organization part of any international network? How could international solidarity and partnerships contribute to support your organization and its members?

We have been in collaboration with international networks like Democracy Seminar 2.0 (the New School-based international network focusing on authoritarian regimes and democracy), Research Worldwide Istanbul.

The UN Rapporteur on Academic Freedom specifically called our colleagues who wrote the report to an international event. Our events, like the academic freedom workshop and international conference, have improved our international relations with international networks and scholars.

What future do you see for your organization? More broadly, do you think that alternative academic structures and networks have a potential to challenge the multiple obstacles faced by knowledge production/transmission in Turkey and at the global level?

We only recently have begun establishing our association. We would like to improve what we have done in the last three years. It is clear that there is a need for human rights education in Turkey, and we would like to fill this gap as an alternative and critical sphere, as part of civil society. We believe that distance learning, in particular, opens a path for alternative knowledge production and transmission.

Part I of this contribution can be found here and part III here.


[1] A number of articles and studies have been devoted to solidarity academies in Turkey. See for instance Esra Erdem, Kamuran Akın, “Emergent Repertoires of Resistance and Commoning in Higher Education: The Solidarity Academies Movement in Turkey”, South Atlantic Quarterly (2019) 118 (1): 145–163, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-7281660 ; Aslı Odman, “Solidarity Academies : Make a virtue of necessity? ”, Jadaliyya, 14 September 2020,  https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/41682


Noémi Lévy-Aksu is a member of the “Memory and Peace Studies” team at Hafıza Merkezi in Istanbul. She was an assistant professor in history at Boğaziçi University (Istanbul) until 2017, when she was dismissed for signing the Declaration for Peace. In 2019-20, she was the coordinator of “Academia”, a project funded by the European Endowment for Democracy and led by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Research (CDPR), which aimed to strengthen the capacity of eight solidarity academies in Turkey. Noémi was a re:constitution Fellow 2019/20 at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Burçin Kalkın Kızıldaş (ARAMIZDA) was, while working as a research assistant at Ankara University Faculty of Communication, dismissed from the university for signing the statement “We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime”. She works at Kaos GL and is a board member of the Aramızda Gender Studies Association.

Ruhi Demiray (KODA) is a scholar of political philosophy. He obtained his PhD in Political Science from Middle East Technical University (TR) and was previously affiliated to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (USA), Kocaeli University (TR), Keele University (UK), University of Siegen (GER) and Free University of Berlin (GER). He is also a founding member of Kocaeli Academy for Solidarity, and he currently works as one of its two project coordinators.

Elçin Aktoprak (İHO) had been an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Ankara University until she was dismissed as per an emergency decree in February 2017. Her research interests are theories of nationalism, minority issues in Europe, the Kurdish question, conflict resolution and peace studies. She is currently working as a project coordinator at the School of Human Rights. 


Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021.

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021.

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021.

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021.

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021.

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021.

Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, 07.04.2021

Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (I), 14.04.2021


Citation: Noémi Lévy-Aksu, Alternative Knowledge Production and Transmission in Turkey: Solidarity Academies (II), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28215


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