On June 1, the day after the brutal police attack to disperse the occupation of Gezi Park, thousands more protesters descended upon Taksim Square in central Istanbul. By the end of the week, demonstrators filled the plaza completely, with those in the park itself behind barricades should the police mount another raid. The atmosphere reminded many of a carnival, with people sharing food and dancing to music as they chanted slogans in the shade of the towering trees. It was an anxious occasion all the same — two protester tents were designated as infirmaries. Everyone wore masks or scarves around their necks to ward off tear gas and many carried first aid items for the volunteer health personnel. The original crowds were drawn to protect the trees in Gezi Park, but the new arrivals were there as part of a nationwide struggle for personal freedoms and in opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In the park, the tents of the Istanbul feminist and LGBTQ organizations were the most colorful and prominent. It was a revolutionary moment in Turkey. The protesters were not only standing up to state authority but also for queer and women’s rights. And for the first time, progressive positions on such questions of gender were central to political debate. No thanks to the mainstream media — most of Turkey’s big newspapers and television channels gave short shrift to the gender dimension just as they neglected to cover the protests themselves. Through social media, however, news of the protests traveled far and wide, as did pictures of the thousands of women participants. One image in particular — “the woman in the red dress” — went viral.

In the photograph, the woman is nicely attired, modest and neat in a red dress. She is carrying a white cloth purse — a sign of environmental sensitivity in a country where leather or “pleather” handbags are more common. Her hair is flying in the blast of the tear gas fired directly in her face by a police officer. She is unarmed, simply turning her head in a measure of self-protection. The officer, however, is in full riot gear, including a military-style gas mask. His facial expression as he gasses her is severe; it was later compared to that of someone killing insects.

The woman, Ceyda Sungur, is a research assistant in the urban planning department at the prestigious Istanbul Technical University, close to Gezi Park in Taksim Square. According to a friend, Sungur had left her office on May 28, the day the photo was taken, in order to support some 50 environmentalists who were peacefully protesting the plans to raze the park in favor of a replica of Ottoman-era barracks that would serve as a shopping mall. Gezi Park is the only green space left in Taksim Square and one of the very few in all of Istanbul. With the approval of Erdoğan, police attacked the small crowd with disproportionate force.

Among the many images of women that circulated, Ceyda Sungur’s is one of very few that was turned into banners and stickers. In a later interview, Sungur acknowledged that she was uncomfortable being thus made “the face” of Occupy Gezi. [1] Many people, she said, were targeted with tear gas and water cannons during the three weeks of protest and it was unfair to single her out for attention, negative or positive. Nevertheless, when asked, many people in the park asserted that they decided to come after they saw the woman in the red dress. In one drawing, Sungur was depicted as a giant facing down a miniature policeman above the caption: “The more gas you spray, the bigger we get.”

The power of Sungur’s image can easily be read as specific to the Gezi events. Here was a defenseless person under violent attack by the cops, proving to the world that the Taksim occupation was an exercise in democracy and the police response an attempt at naked repression. In addition, the woman in the red dress appeared very much in keeping with the protesters’ self-image — middle-class, highly educated, secular and “modern.” She looked nothing like the looters whom the premier claimed were swarming the park. But the popularity of the image speaks to larger questions of female sexuality in Turkey. It is tremendously important that the woman in the red dress is a woman.

It is not surprising, given the course of Turkish history since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to see a woman’s body become such a potent political symbol. [2] Many governments have mapped their ideologies onto women’s bodies for political purposes; the AKP is merely the latest, though the most provocative in some time. The AKP’s policies have caused distress in feminist circles throughout its ten years in power, with the worries growing after the party was reelected with a heavy majority in 2011 and formed a cabinet for the third time. As conservatives, AKP politicians position the woman as the repository of moral values in society, particularly with regard to sexuality and family “honor.” The AKP ridicules and censures those women it perceives to be subverting conventional codes of personal comportment.

Erdoğan, for instance, had nothing but harsh words for the women active in the Gezi protests. It was not the women’s engagement in politics that he objected to — the AKP has its own energetic cadres of women — but the manner of that engagement. Assuming the mien of a concerned father, he addressed himself primarily to the protesters’ parents: What more do these children, these entitled youngsters of Generation Y, want from me? I have given them every personal freedom they demand. And yet they keep pushing, he said, thus subtly suggesting that the interaction of young men and women in the park was sexual in nature. Not surprisingly, after police raided the tents on June 14, the first thing they reported finding was used condoms. [3] Here, the AKP media hastened to imply, was definitive proof that the women protesters were “corrupted.” Their reputations thus sullied, their resistance could be safely ignored.

The morality and sexual status of female opposition protesters was a constant theme of Erdoğan’s speeches before the Gezi resistance as well. In one striking instance, he attempted to deride a woman who broke her hip in a clash with police during a protest against hydroelectric plants in Hopa in 2011. “I can’t know if she is a girl or a woman,” he said. In Turkish, “a girl” used this way means “a virgin.” A sexually active and unmarried young woman, he wanted Turks to infer, could not possibly have political beliefs that should be taken seriously. What is more, she deserved her violent treatment at the hands of the authorities.

These discriminatory attitudes show up in many places other than Erdoğan’s verbal abuse. The rates of rape and sexual harassment have spiked. And according to Ministry of Justice statistics, the number of murders of women has jumped from 62 to 953 — a 1,400 percent increase — over the period 2002-2009. Almost all of these murders are so-called honor killings, conducted by the husband, father or brother of a woman accused of improper sexual behavior. The number is so high that some feminists claim this phenomenon should be called femicide, a deliberate and systematic campaign to kill women who are considered to be outside the accepted norms. Despite the rash of murders in the name of honor, with women killed nearly every day, no countermeasure has been taken. To the contrary, the courts mete out light punishments that lend credence to the moral logic of the crimes. [4]

Court decisions on sexual harassment, particularly with regard to minors, are likewise unsatisfactory. The most infamous case is that of N. C., 13, who was sold into captivity by two women in 2002 and then repeatedly raped over a period of seven months by 26 men who included soldiers, civil servants and schoolteachers. Ten years later, the court ruled that she had consented to every assault and gave all of the men the minimum penalty. [5] Several women involved in the Gezi protests tell of enduring sexual harassment in jail as a little extra punishment from the police. The big picture shows that the state is more likely to perpetrate crimes against women’s bodies than to prevent them. Murder, rape and harassment are used as a means of sanctioning the nation’s wayward women.

Apart from violence, women’s bodies have figured centrally in the discourse on reproduction. In one famous address, Erdoğan announced that he was against abortion. Feminists found this fact disquieting enough. Abortion is legal in Turkey. It was last an issue in 1983, and even the terms framing today’s debate — pro-life and pro-choice — are imported from the United States. But the prime minister caused real turmoil with the rhetoric he chose. He mentioned his opposition to abortion in reference to an army scandal involving the killing of 46 citizens at the southeastern border locale of Uludere. He claimed not to understand why people were so upset over 46 dead bodies — women kill at least as many unborn babies every day. At this statement, both men and women took to the streets in anger, bringing a swift counterattack from AKP ministers and their supporters in the media. The validity of the protests was again thrown into question because the women were said to have loose morals. The law in Turkey has not changed, but doctors speak of intense peer pressure, especially in public hospitals, not to perform the procedure. It is almost impossible today for a woman to get an abortion on demand in a public hospital if there is no health complication. The situation is different in private hospitals, at least in those unknown for support of the AKP government’s policies.

Ceyda Sungur, the woman in the red dress, is an icon for all the women who have suffered from these maneuvers by the state. Barraged by tear gas wielded by the cops, she represents all the women who are subject to the AKP government’s relentless innuendo and insults. She stands in for the women who have been harassed, raped and killed in the name of the sexual mores supposedly held by the Turkish majority. Sungur is every woman, regardless of age, education or social stratum, who opposes the increasingly authoritarian AKP government and the concomitant surge of violence against women.

The sentence, “Don’t mess with my red lipstick,” shone in bright paint on the wall of an abandoned luncheonette not far from Gezi Park. The slogan referred to proposed new regulations at the state-owned Turkish Airlines that would have forbidden flight attendants to wear red lipstick on duty. The public was outraged at this extreme interference with women’s bodies and the proposal was withdrawn. Women were there in Gezi Park and in the surrounding streets. They were loud and proud, with headscarves and without, in jeans, slacks and dresses — red, blue, black — and in all manner of makeup, from none to the reddest lipstick. Carrying purses, satchels and backpacks, they chanted as part of the crowd.


[1] Telegraph, June 8, 2013.
[2] See, for instance, Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Nilüfer Göle, Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993).
[3] Hürriyet, June 17, 2013.
[4] Dicle Koğacıoğlu, “The Tradition Effect: Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey,” Differences 15/2 (Summer 2004).
[5] Milliyet, October 3, 2011.

How to cite this article:

Neslihan Sen "Turkey’s Woman in the Red Dress," Middle East Report 268 (Fall 2013).

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