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Marie Curie Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), Universidad de Navarra
"I felt hurt. And I felt alone, as a woman and as a European. Because it's not about the seating arrangement or protocol. This goes to the core of who we are. This is about the values that our Union stands for. And this sample how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals."
This is what Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in the European Parliament about "Sofagate", the incident that occurred during the visit of the European Union leaders to Turkey. It cannot be more clearly expressed how identity, emotions and values are intertwined and constitute an inherent part of international politics.
After this unfortunate event, both Brussels and Ankara exchanged recriminations, while European national politicians, members of the European Parliament and journalists joined the discussion. What makes the "Sofagate" really ironic is that one of the items on the agenda of the visit to Ankara was precisely apply for Turkey's accession to the Istanbul Convention (agreement of committee Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence), having recently withdrawn.
Deterioration of human rights in Turkey
Human rights are deteriorating day by day in Turkey and violence against women is on the rise. The government is not taking effective measures to make amends status. "Sofagate" provoked, as expected, widespread backlash from European political figures, with accusations ranging from bad Education to male chauvinism.
On the other hand, the incident responds to the usual patterns of communication between Turkey and the European Union: a reciprocal and circular blame game without the slightest hint of constructive self-criticism from either side.
In the light of this familiar discursive background, Ursula von der Leyen's words definitely constitute an alternative speech and a counter-manifesto in a feminist sense. It is quite rich in terms of meanings; for example, it refers to two identities at the same time; woman (gender identity) and European (cultural identity).
She felt hurt as a woman by the unequal attention and the discrimination of the two men who occupied the available seats. And she felt alone because she was the only woman in this conference room and no one, not even the president of the committee, helped to resolve the status.
She also felt hurt as a European, as she explained in detail on her speech at the European Parliament's preliminary meeting : "This goes to the core of who we are. This impinges on the values that our Union stands for." Here she recontextualizes the incident on a higher level of common identity.
"I felt hurt as a European."
"I felt hurt as a European" implies that everyone who shares common European values and identity would (and should) feel hurt in a similar status , as one of the fundamental principles was violated: gender equality. Only values and principles draw a dividing line between Europeans and non-Europeans.
However, the other feeling, feeling alone, is even more crucial than feeling hurt. Feeling lonely can be just as accusatory as feeling hurt because it can imply "being left alone" or "ignored," depending on the context.
For Von der Leyen it had a clear meaning: on that conference room there was no one apart from her, not even her European colleague, who took European values seriously. This is a much stronger accusation - although she did not make it explicitly - directed not only at President Erdogan, but at President Michel.
From the outset, it presents a gender perspective and elevates it to an identity topic : it appeals especially to women parliamentarians who are part of the House. It underlines not only common values or principles, but feelings commonly shared by women.
This perspective alone, combined with an appeal to similar experiences of women MEPs, is a substantial break from the usual dichotomy of Turkey being seen as "the other" in Europe and the political blame game that has been the usual tonic for decades in relations between that country and the EU.
Von der Leyen's appeal to female European parliamentarians, who may have had similar painful experiences in European contexts, reframes the problem of gender inequality across national or cultural divides. One can feel hurt as a woman in Turkey as in any other EU member country. Not surprisingly, this gender identity encompasses millions of women who experience painful situations every day in every corner of the globe.
A groundbreaking point of view
Her groundbreaking view goes beyond discursive dichotomies in terms of self-criticism. While she is deeply concerned about Turkey's withdrawal from the Convention, she also shares her concern about the EU's credibility in calling on Ankara to join it. She recalls that several EU member states have not yet ratified it and others are considering leaving. He points out that in order to be credible, it is not only necessary to criticize others, but to set an example at home.
In her alternative approach , Von der Leyen asks why democracies are stronger when women are involved as equals: not because women are better, but because we are different. We have a different view of the world and see other risks and opportunities.
Finally, in his counter-manifesto, by speaking directly about his personal feelings about "Sofagate," he deviates from the traditional political speech that incorporates carefully selected collective emotions into the rhetoric and updates an old slogan: the staff is political.