Flipping the Script on Turkey’s Cancel Culture

Alexandra de Cramer

Image courtesy of Ozan Kose / AFP

Despite its negative connotation, “cancel culture” – ostracizing someone for their harmful views – has had a big impact on addressing inequalities in the West, particularly discrimination of women. But in Turkey, it is women themselves who are getting canceled.

In late July, actress Birce Akalay took to social media to lament Turkey’s current economic crisis, expressing disappointment in the declining value of labor and the plummeting value of the lira. “I’m fed up,” she wrote. “Our workers, our people have become miserable.”

Akalay, of course, was right. The lira has been steadily depreciating, and inflation has reached 79 percent, the highest among OECD countries. And yet, because Akalay is a woman, her views were almost immediately discounted as heresy.

Turkiye newspaper columnist Cem Kucuk twice threatened Akalay over her criticism. The first time, Kucuk made her an open target by saying that “those who have spoken like this in the last 20 years have either gone to jail or fled or their careers are over.” In a follow-up piece, Kucuk even compared Akalay to the ex-president of the TUSKON business organization, Rizanur Meral, who was accused of supporting Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher implicated by Ankara of masterminding the 2016 attempted coup.

Sadly, Kucuk is not the only powerful man to scorn outspoken Turkish women. Following the June 2013 anti-government protests in Istanbul, when 14-year-old Berkin Elvan was killed by a gas canister fired by police, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Elvan a terrorist and encouraged thousands to boo his mother.

Since then, condemning women for taking a stand against injustice has become a government-sanctioned epidemic – with many victims.

In August 2020, a suicide note left by an 18-year-old woman from Batman, in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, claimed that she had been kidnapped and raped by a Turkish sergeant, Musa Orhan. Orhan was eventually charged and found guilty of rape, but a judge refused to issue an arrest warrant.

Like thousands of concerned citizens, actress Ezgi Mola expressed outrage on Twitter, writing: “Shame on you for releasing an inglorious rapist.” But when Orhan sued Mola for libel, accusing her of “insulting” him, he won, and Mola was fined nearly 7,000 lira ($390) for her post.

Another egregious example surfaced in October 2021, after Ece Ronay, a 22-year-old Kurdish musician, publicly accused comedian Mehmet Ali Erbil of sexual harassment. On social media, Ronay published some of the messages Erbil had sent her – including a proposition for sex. Yet rather than come to her defense, the public victimized Ronay all over again.

Erbil defended his actions by claiming Ronay had marketed her body via TikTok, and therefore, shouldn’t be coy about sex acts. Not only did he get his followers to shame Ronay using a raunchy hashtag, he also sued her for defamation. That lawsuit is still pending.

While femicide and harassment have been long-standing problems in Turkey, they have become worse during the Justice and Development Party’s two-decades-long reign. Violence against women has risen by 70 percent in the last 15 years, and 246 women have been killed by their partners in 2022. According to a March 2022 report from Turkish polling agency Metropoll, domestic violence is the biggest problem that women in Turkey face.

Turkey did have a flicker of a #MeToo moment after the brutal rape and murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan, in 2015. But it never caught on, and contrary to women’s movements abroad, Turkey’s push against sexual abuse and harassment has arguably backtracked. Erdogan’s decision last year to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention – a decree that aimed to prevent and combat violence against women – only reaffirms the statement of Canan Gullu, the president of the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey, that “government is an explicit ally in hatred against women.”

Journalists, entertainment moguls, and politicians are fueling this violent, hate-filled rhetoric, while the Turkish judiciary system keeps rewarding men who treat women like property. People who have the ear of the public should not target women with their vileness, as doing so will only perpetuate the injustice.

In countries like Turkey, where media censorship is high and transparency is low, social media is the frontline of political debate, the most democratic platform for silenced opinions. But with a new social media law in the pipeline, where “intention” will dictate whether speech is deemed illegal, it is women who have the most to lose. The only solution is to flip the tables and cancel the men who continue to live in the past.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.