The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity and Sexuality

By Ayşe Dayı and Hilal Alkan

Hilal Alkan, Ayse Dayi, Sezin Topçu, and Betül Yarar (eds.), The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity, Sexuality, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

The edited volume The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity and Sexuality illustrates and examines the various ways in which neoliberal modes of governing women’s bodies come together with religious, conservative, and authoritarian measures in contemporary Turkey. The idea for the book came out of an international symposium organized at Bremen University in Germany on 5–6 April 2018.

Although all four of the editors currently live outside of Turkey, the subject matter of this book is an open wound for each of us. Not only as scholars, but also as activists and, most importantly, as women, we have been deeply affected by the increasing rights violations against women and LGBTQI+ individuals in Turkey. Away from the streets, court houses, and meeting venues of Turkey, where feminists continue to make history, we decided to transform our anger, pain, and grief into a collection of innovative research.

The writing phase of this book was marked with femicides, transgender murders, arrests of activists and scholars, violence against refugee and migrant women in Turkey, as well as feminist campaigns and demonstrations that took place despite the repression. The last blow came when the book was at the final stage of production, making the issues it covered even more burning: Turkey withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. The convention, famously known as the Istanbul Convention, took its name from where it was signed in 2011. Turkey was the first signatory. Despite the protest of human rights organizations, the women’s movement, and the international community, the withdrawal came into effect on 1 July 2021. The withdrawal was grounded on two features of the convention: First, its prerogative against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identities in the application of legal tools; and second, the presumed threat it posed on the unity of the family in Turkey. These two reasons sum up the trends the contributors of our book analyzed in detail.

The book traces the erosion of sexual and reproductive rights of women that accelerated as a result of the neoliberal, neoconservative policies and implementation of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), particularly after its authoritarian turn. After its initial “reformist” period, which lasted from 2002 to 2008, the AKP shifted from being a neoconservative party with some liberal views, to one of authoritarian conservatism.

This entanglement and cooperation of patriarchy, capitalism, conservatism, and authoritarianism in controlling women’s bodies, reproduction, and sexuality is neither unique to Turkey nor can be attributed only to this period. Examples can be found from the “illiberal democracies” of Eastern Europe to the United States, from India to the United Kingdom. Besides, with the transition to neoliberalism that has eroded social welfare states and increasingly subjugated social and political life to the values of markets, new forms and modalities of surveillance of sexualities and of women’s bodies are emerging. By focusing on Turkey, our book illustrates the concrete effects of this transnational trend and its mechanisms of control at various levels and women’s responses to it.

In Turkey, neoliberalism, conservatism, and authoritarianism led to pronatalist discourses and reaffirmation of family values and religion. Abortion became a matter of debate for the first time since its most recent legalization in 1983. Abortion services, as well as birth control and family planning counseling, were hampered by neoliberal policies and the conservative pressure put directly on providers. Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) and C-sections became more strictly regulated. Surveillance of women’s and LGBTQI+ individuals’ sexualities peaked, as well as sexual crimes and outright violence against women and LGBTQI+ individuals.

Focusing on the fields of reproduction, maternity, and sexuality, we propose a feminist intervention into the increasingly hegemonic and naturalized discourses on the female body, which are reproduced in medical establishments, courtrooms, and public discussions. Through ethnographic inquiry and discourse analysis, our contributors offer a close-up view of how female bodies are targeted by government policies and market forces – a task undertaken by doctors, nurses, midwives, bureaucrats, journalists, lawmakers, and, literally, men on the street. Strategies of governance range from violence to compassionate compelling, from threats of abandonment to celebrations of conformity. The tools used are as varied as possible: Fatwa booklets, lancets, syringes, lit cigarettes, computer screens, databases, journals, and social media clicks accompany better-known surveillance apparatuses of the state. Each chapter presents a different constellation of these actors, techniques, and technologies with detailed accounts from the field. While revealing these mechanisms of surveillance by various actors, the texts also provide women’s responses to desired, attempted, or executed actions on their bodies.

Governing the reproductive body: emerging markets and contested moralities

The book is organized in three parts to explore and illustrate three domains of bodily politics: reproduction, maternity, and sexuality. The chapters in the first part focus on the marketization of reproduction and the questions of morality that accompany this process. The section starts with Ayşe Dayı and Eylem Karakaya’s chapter on the transformation of reproductive health services in Turkey. The authors use focus group data from five cities to investigate sexual and reproductive rights violations in the areas of abortion, birth control, birth, and routine gynecological care. Their findings attest to a decrease in publicly funded services that have been vital to women’s reproductive health.

Burcu Mutlu, Nurhak Polat, and Şafak Kılıçtepe, in their respective chapters, illustrate the workings of gendered moralities at different stages of coming into contact with ARTs. Mutlu looks into the navigational strategies of young, unmarried donors, who travel to Northern Cyprus to “donate” their eggs. Polat talks to middle-class women and men who go through infertility treatments to understand the particular constellation of market, gender, and kinship ideologies that are staged in ART clinics. Kılıçtepe focuses on the same process, however, here the protagonists are Kurdish women from different class backgrounds. She illustrates how nationalism should – and could – never be absent in any discussion on reproduction, but can only be hidden from view. Her intervention reconnects reproduction to gendered nation-making and the violence that stems from this project.

Governing the maternal body between biomedical power and neoliberal healthcare

The second part of the book considers how the neoliberal and neoconservative transformation of the healthcare sector interacts with biomedical power to impact women’s maternal experiences. In the first chapter of this section, Sezin Topçu explores the diverse and sometimes unexpected fallouts of recent regulatory measures targeting C-section “abuse” in the public and private sectors. Her analysis illustrates how the fight against the overuse of caesareans, which was already addressed as a public health problem and a possible violation of women’s bodily integrity by international agencies and feminist health practitioners, moralized the debate and benefited private hospitals while straining public healthcare provision.

Seda Saluk takes the readers a step away from the operating theater to a software that is used nationally to track and control women during their pregnancies. Saluk argues that these new technologies of surveillance are predicated upon not only regulating women’s bodies and sexualities but also reshaping their labor and care practices. Azer Kılıç’s chapter is about maternities yet to be realized. She focuses on egg-freezing women and their narratives, in order to understand the factors that shape their decisions. With the introduction of the concepts of individualization of risk and responsibility, and emphasizing medicalization and market forces, Kılıç’s chapter continues the debate introduced by the first section of the book on the negotiation of morality, gender, and sexuality in ART sites. Finally, Selen Göbelez returns the discussion to the delivery room and looks into obstetrical violence that has been naturalized and became ever more prevalent with the over-medicalization of childbirth.

Governing the sexualized body: neo-conservatism, authoritarianism, and counter strategies

In the final part of the book, our contributors explore how women’s bodies and sexualities are governed and controlled through moralizing as well as religious discourses and the use of symbolic and physical violence. Esra Sarıoğlu looks into recent public vigilante violence against women and ties these acts to hegemonic discourses on proper womanhood. She illustrates that these attacks are not singular violent acts but off-shoots of a governmental logic that targets female bodies by sexualizing them, only to then humiliate and punish them. The next three chapters of this final section look into the heterogeneous practices, discourses, and dilemmas of pious women under the circumstances that were depicted and analyzed throughout the book.

Betül Yarar’s chapter explores the symbolic violence directed by religious authorities towards the women who identify as pious Muslims. Focusing on a particular debate on young Muslim women’s fashion in media and on social media, Yarar argues that the tense and conflicting gender dynamics, which have risen under the impact of neoliberalism, might lead to new social cracks within the social basis of the new power block. With an elaborate ethnography, Burcu Kalpaklıoğlu looks into the discursive strategies of women preachers, who work a religious advice hotline, in their encounters with women’s reproductive, sexual, and marital problems. The chapter sheds light on the ways preachers negotiate their clients’ needs, religious norms, and the government’s stance on the subject of female sexuality.

Finally, in the last chapter of this section and the book, Didem Ünal applies frame analysis to narratives of pro-feminist pious newspaper columnists to dissect the factors that lead to a cleavage between them and feminist political agents. Her analysis emphasizes the borderland position of these writers, particularly on issues that relate to reproduction and sexuality. Hence, what they debate is, once again, the politics of the body. These three chapters in particular, but also the book in general, elaborate on the ways religion appears in the changing governmental technologies of Turkey as a potent source of legitimization, while resisting the popular urge to discuss these issues as matters of Islamization. The volume does not frame its subject matter as religion, but instead as a particular cocktail of conservatism, neoliberalism, and authoritarianism as it unfolds at the moment in Turkey.


Ayşe Dayı is a feminist activist scholar and meditation teacher. Her areas of expertise are women’s sexual and reproductive health care and rights, the medicalization of reproductive health, transnational feminism, neoliberal globalization, and health policy. She has published on the legacy of the U.S. women’s health movement and autonomous feminist clinics, fetal personhood and women’s bodily integrity, and on neoliberal health restructuring and conservativism eroding women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Turkey. At the time of the preparation of this manuscript, she was an Academy in Exile Fellow at the Margherita von Brentano Center at Freie Universität Berlin. Currently, she is the Founder and Director of Orca Dreams: A Platform for Mindful Living.

Hilal Alkan is a research fellow at Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient, in Berlin. She was a EUME Fellow of the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2016/17. She works on migration, care ethics, and informal welfare provision, with a particular focus on gender. Her current project extends these interests to interspecies relations. Her most recent publications include “The gift of hospitality: (un)welcoming Syrian migrants in Turkey” (2021) and “Syrian Migration and Logics of Alterity in an Istanbul Neighbourhood” (2020). She co-edited, with Nazan Maksudyan, the volume Urban Neighbourhood Formations: Boundaries, Narrations, Intimacies (Routledge, 2020).


Citation: Ayşe Dayı and Hilal Alkan, The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity and Sexuality, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.09.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30877.


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