In March this year, a video surfaced online showing a group of young women in Ankara, Turkey, surrounding a man. In the film, the women accuse the male student of sexual abuse, shouting at him and physically attacking him. The video was posted on the
of a group calling themselves the ‘Campus Witches’.
‘This was a very special and unique case because our aim is not to meet and organize in order to beat up men,’ Meral Çınar, a 26-year old Chemical Engineering graduate, and founding member of the group, tells The Debrief.
She explains that the incident occurred because the guy in the video was repeatedly harassing his ex-girlfriend, a female student at the university, over social media and in person. He then tried to rape her.
‘When we saw him in the cafeteria of the university, we – knowing that he is a potential rapist – didn’t want to be at the same place as him and told him to move away from there. As he didn’t react to our demands we had to take further measures,’ she adds. ‘We [the Campus Witches] don’t call this kind of action a fight. There’s a big difference between a man’s violence against women and a woman’s violence against men to protect herself.’
The Campus Witches were established in 2012 by a group of female students studying in Istanbul, with the aim of fighting sexual harassment, sexism and other issues which negatively affect women both on and off-campus. Since then they’ve grown nationwide – Çınar says they are now organized in 11 cities at 23 universities, and at time of writing, their Facebook page, Kampüs Cadıları, has over 40,000 likes. ‘Hundreds of women identify as Campus Witches’, Çınar tells me. Their defiant slogan is ‘never rely on a prince! When you need a miracle, pin your hopes on a witch.’
Many women in history who were against the male-dominated systems as well as the pressures of the Church were labelled as “witches”,’ Çınar says. ‘As we are women who disobey strict rules imposed on us, we decided to call ourselves “witches” to claim that we are the descendants of the witches they weren’t able to burn.’ More generally, there’s also been a recent trend of young women reclaiming the word ‘witch’ as a positive force, with many of us turning to spells and mystic books to change our lives for the better.
Life for women in Turkey is extremely difficult. In the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, the country came in 130th place, out of 145 countries. Domestic violence is also common, with a staggering 42% of women saying they have suffered physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a male relative or spouse at least once in their lives.
The Turkish President, Erdoğan, has been accused of slowly reducing women’s civil liberties, for example attitudes towards abortions have hardened under his government. He also has said many offensive things about women, from calling them ‘above all else a mother’ and ‘incomplete’ if they don’t have children to calling those who work ‘half persons’.
‘These policies from the AKP [Erdoğan’s] government reinforce male hegemony and legitimate male violence against women,’ Çınar says. ‘The number of cases where women have been murdered has significantly risen, which is the worst part for me.’
I ask Çınar what sexism occurs on university campuses in Turkey, and it’s clear that as well as the problems they have with sexual harassment and abuse from male students on campus, other negative attitudes towards women are replicated there – albeit on a smaller scale. ‘One example is that female students have to be back at home way earlier than men, which just shows what the general attitude towards women and their virginity is in our society,’ she says. ‘At the student dormitories, women have to clean their rooms themselves, but the men have cleaners. These are some of the things we’ve organised campaigns against.’
She tells me that Turkish female students can see that they are trying to live in a world where ‘men permanently commit violence against them to strengthen male power.’ ‘We try to break that hegemony because we don’t accept that we have to study under such circumstances,’ she adds.
‘Unfortunately the universities permanently reproduce this kind of hegemonic relationship. The point is that we are not equal to men, especially in terms of equality of opportunity. That is why we have no other option but to struggle against this kind of educational – and of course in a broader sense social – system.’
Due to their situation, the various branches of Campus Witches regularly meet at their own universities to discuss feminist politics and read books on the topic. The various groups of Campus Witches also meet together several times a year, similar in style to a conference, to discuss their strategies and campaigns.
The Campus Witches Facebook page shows many photos of women engaging in self-defense lessons, which the groups can now offer for free after speaking to self-defense tutors about their important work. ‘We try to reach as many women as possible for our courses, because we know that women need to learn self-defense,’ Çınar says. ‘If you live in Turkey, you might suffer from abuse and you may even be killed at any time. Therefore, many women show great interest in our courses.’
Alongside this work, the Campus Witches leave boxes in the toilets of their university halls, containing free sanitary pads, tampons and other items for personal hygiene, such as soap. ‘We do this to express solidarity with other women,’ Çınar says.
In general, the work of the Campus Witches has been well received, especially by women. ‘Of course, the negativity we’ve had has been mostly expressed by men, and to be honest we don’t really care about their reactions and comments,’ Çınar admits. ‘You can imagine the kinds of things they write on social media – they say the Campus Witches are just frustrated, lonely, ugly lesbian women.
‘What we understand from this is that men feel very threatened from this kind of emancipatory female action, from women that stand together against them – which is exactly what we are aiming for.’
I ask Çınar what her eventual hopes are for Turkish women – what would she like to see ultimately changed? ‘I dream about the abolishment and overthrow of the patriarchy and want a society where women are equal to men, where women and men can freely live together,’ she tells me. ‘But of course, this does not only hold for Turkey, but for the whole world.’
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.