True colors of performative Western feminism

A Modern Feminist?

Photo of Merve Ozedmir

Related Posts

content warning: femicide

Last month was International Women’s Day, and as a Turkish woman, I don’t remember ever feeling more alone and hopeless.

Scrolling through the International Women’s Day posts on social media as I sat in my peaceful flat in Berkeley, news from my home country were distressing. Turkey’s plans to depart from the Istanbul Convention — an international treaty aiming to protect women against domestic violence — had gained popularity, and created a lot of social turmoil.

Yet among the cries for help by Turkish women on my feed, were colorful, aesthetic, motivational illustrations by Western feminists, celebrating “the day of women.”

Seeing the discrepancy between Turkish and Western feminist content that day, I couldn’t help but think of the #ChallengeAccepted movement.

In the summer of 2020, women all around the world were bombarding social media with black-and-white pictures of themselves, and “challenging” other women to do the same. Yet the origin of the movement remained unknown to most participants.

On July 21, 2020, Turkey faced a terrible loss; 27-year-old Pınar Gültekin was brutally murdered — her body discovered inside a garbage barrel covered in concrete. The suspect, Pınar’s ex-boyfriend Cemal Metin Avcı, a married man with two children, later confessed to killing Pınar “in a moment of anger.”

Pınar’s death was only one of the many femicide cases reported in Turkey that year, and it was the last straw for many Turkish women, including myself. As the news sent shock waves through the country, Turkish women took to social media. Replicating the colorless, grainy filter of Pınar’s photographs in the newspaper, they started posting black-and-white pictures of themselves with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted.

The challenge was to reflect on one painful truth: As long as femicide remained a threat in Turkish society, we could all be Pınar. As women, we are all at risk; people could wake up one day and see our black-and-white pictures on their feeds, accompanied by a sobering headline.

After Pınar’s death, Instagram, normally one of my favorite apps, became a source of anxiety. But not because of the heartbreaking posts by Turkish women, but of the unawareness of my American friends and celebrities.

None of these Western feminists mentioned Turkey in their posts. In fact, their captions were quite obliviously celebratory. Take American actress Jennifer Anniston, for example. Under her black-and-white photo, she carelessly wrote: “Truth be told, I don’t really understand this #challengeaccepted thing…but who doesn’t love good reason to support women!”

Despite having more than 30 million followers and a huge influence worldwide, Anniston, like many other celebrities, damaged the origin of the movement and drowned out the voices of Turkish women crying out for help.

So many people I know participated in the #ChallengeAccepted movement to “support women,” but how and why this movement supports women, nobody cared to ask.

Staring at my phone screen, I felt trapped between a rock and a hard place. As a Turkish woman living in the United States, I felt too distant to help the feminists protesting year-round in Turkey, but neither could I exist in blissful ignorance like the Western feminists around me, posting cheerful slogans on social media and feeling happy to be a woman in this world.

In a way, I envied their ignorance. I would be much happier doing the same if I didn’t know why we needed these posts in the first place. But thinking of Pınar and the justice she deserves, my envy turned to anger.

When stripped from their original context and westernized, such movements become aimless acts of performative activism, contributing to a culture of ignorance and carelessness on social media platforms where accurate information is already difficult to access.

Without taking the time to reflect on the threats Turkish women are faced with, a black-and-white photo is just a photo, it’s not “challenging” to take nor post, and whether it empowers women is up for debate.

Seeing people treat the #ChallengeAccepted movement as an opportunity to indulge themselves on social media, I felt ashamed, and thought of Pınar. “I’m so sorry,” I wanted to tell her. “I’m so sorry.”

Social media is a great platform for learning, but only if you tailor your feed to be intersectional and diverse. Even then, information, feminist or otherwise, is not always accurately or inclusively curated. Popular feminist accounts, such as @feminist, are run by American men, and as you follow such accounts, the Instagram algorithm suggests similar content to you, creating a bubble in which all the feminist content you see on your feed is produced based on Western feminist ideals.

When people are exposed to feminist content only in colorful and bubbly graphics, they ignore women who aren’t as privileged as themselves. In fact, in some cases, such as the #ChallengeAccepted movement, they even capitalize on their trauma without meaning to.

As feminism becomes increasingly performative, “activism” becomes no more than passively liking or re-sharing a post. People put more value on their reputations than engagement with difficult topics.

But we’re not completely powerless when it comes to the information we’re exposed to.

We have control over the content we share and endorse, as well as what we learn from that content. We can choose to follow a diverse range of feminist accounts, instead of only mainstream ones, and make sure we do further research before re-sharing content. We can ask ourselves the question, “Does this really empower women, and how?” before participating in any movement.

Today, despite all efforts and protests, Turkey has officially left the Istanbul Convention. Worried this would further jeopardize women’s rights in Turkey, where femicide cases such as Pınar’s are already on a rise, Turkish women are still selflessly trying to raise awareness on social platforms. How much of our voice is heard abroad, I do not know. I do not know if change will come soon. But I do know that we must try.

There’s no other option.

Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.