Turkish female cartoonists get political — tackling oppression with humor

The World
Turkish cartoon makes fun of those who comment on women's clothes

Ezgi Aksoy can’t remember when she first knew she wanted to be a writer for Leman, one of Turkey’s most popular satire magazines. But that feeling, she says, grew throughout her high school years.

“I remember that Leman was something very cool to read, very intellectual, and very special back then,” the 35-year-old Istanbul native says.

That dream came true for Aksoy in 2008, when she started writing for Yeni Harman, a monthly magazine focused on politics and culture that is one of many magazines under the Leman umbrella. The self-described alternative and left-leaning writer has since published two books, but her greatest claim to fame came in 2011 when she co-founded a popular satire magazine, Bayan Yanı, which is created almost exclusively by women.

Cover image of the Turkish magazine for women
The cover of Bayan Yani's second issueEzgi Aksoy

In 2011, life as a woman in Turkey was getting worse. Increasing rates of murder of women and growing pressure to live a certain way by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan led Aksoy and two female caricaturists working for Leman to take action.

They decided to create a special issue focused solely on women, and they called it Bayan Yanı, referencing the practice of Turkish private buses refusing to seat together women and men who don’t know one another. What Aksoy and the other founders didn’t expect was how much their publication would resonate with women from all over Turkey.

The one-off special edition, coinciding with International Women’s Day, became its own monthly magazine that is still printed today.

A typical issue of Bayan Yanı has a meditative article by Aksoy on a controversial topic in Turkish society regarding women (one of her latest is on hair and reactions to her decision to stop dyeing her own) and a mix of caricatures satirizing news in Turkey or Turkish society. In the May issue, a cartoon touts research that polarization occurs because people think they know which party people belong to according to their appearance, with two village women judging a new neighbor — based only on her looks.

The magazine has an avowed feminist slant — recurring themes include child brides in Turkey and the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault — though its readers include women as well as men across the country, the founders say.

Turkish cartoon exposes gender discrimination
Cartoon shows a lady wondering: What will she be when she grows up?  and the mother answering "A grandmother!" İpek Özsüslü

Caricaturist İpek Özsüslü, 32, a Mersin native who moved to Istanbul for college and has lived there since, has been with the magazine since its founding. The outspoken caricaturist is known for her urban characters with spidery eyelashes and wild hair.

Turkish cartoon shows women talking and teases women for focusing on their looks
 “If it’s okay, let’s not walk next to each other! You make me look short and fat.”   İpek Özsüslü

She says that the magazine has such a strong following among both genders because of its nonsexist language.

“For most of the media, satire magazines predominantly use ‘male language,’ and this wearies men as well as women, which is why they both love us,” Özsüslü says. Other satire magazines frequently feel like a boy’s locker room, with cursing and crude bathroom humor. While Bayan Yanı often pokes fun at female stereotypes, it does so to break stereotypes, rather than reinforce them.

Another feature of Bayan Yanı is that it regularly criticizes Erdoğan’s government, particularly for its “nonsensical” statements about women. Erdoğan has infamously called birth control “treason,” has regularly told Turkish women to have at least three and, at times, up to five children.

In 2014 he stated, "You cannot make men and women equal. That is against creation. Their natures are different. Their dispositions are different."

Cartoon by women show a prison and indicate Turks who criticize the president end up there
“There’s no such thing as the ending of the State of Emergency. It’ll continue until it reaps results.”-President Erdoğan. Sign on the left: Jail. Sign on the right: Cemetary. “Just you wait, where these walls end, that’s where they’ll get us.”Gülay Batur

Those are the kinds of statements Bayan Yanı directly addresses, drawing both Erdoğan and his ministers, despite the coup attempt in July 2016 making the staff second-guess their work. More than 47,000 Turkish citizens have been imprisoned in the coup's aftermath, according to Amnesty International. Included in that number are more than 120 journalists and 2,500 media workers, including cartoonists and satirists.

Bayan Yanı itself has not faced direct pressure from the government, but its parent satire magazine, Leman, has been charged more than 20 times by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002, according to Leman's editor, Zafer Aknar. Aksoy says after the coup attempt, an unidentified group attacked Leman’s office with gasoline, though none of the staff was present. At other times, police raids have prevented Leman from being distributed. Putting together the magazine today requires courage. Aksoy says she has no illusions about the dangers of her work.

“There’s no use for fear,” Özsüslü adds. “We do double-check our work, but we are afraid.”

Aksoy says any negative reactions against the magazine have come from women. The magazine published a cover in which a burkini-clad woman points at a woman in a bikini and says, “Look at that cellulite!” A few women emailed to say they were offended and said Muslim women didn’t act that way.

Women on a beach commenting on each others' bodies
 “Look at that cellulite!”  Ramize Erer

“‘It’s not about Islam,’” she says she wrote back. “‘It’s a joke.’ This is self-taught conservatism. These kinds of rules are not written anywhere, but women apply them to themselves and to other women. They think that they must live in a certain kind of way, one that isn’t written anywhere.”

Bayan Yanı has the distinction of being one of the few remaining satire magazines in Turkey, which is no small feat when popular magazines like Penguen stopped printing in April, citing financial infeasibility. Another popular magazine, Gırgır, was shut down by the government in February over a cartoon featuring Moses.

Like most satire magazines, Bayan Yanı is distributed at newsstands and bookstores, but it does hope to reach a wider audience digitally on Turkcell Newsstand, a magazine app for subscribers using the country’s major telecommunications company. As of May, Bayan Yanı has been the fifth-most read magazine on the app for two months in a row, according to Hürriyet newspaper and the magazine’s owner, Tuncay Akgün.

Bayan Yanı’s popularity shows no signs of letting up, and it seems for now that it will continue to be a cultural feminist bulwark in an unceasingly hostile environment.

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