Cooperatives as “topographies” of women’s empowerment

As politics, especially at the local level, have spatialized in male dominated spaces, this has reproduced the private/woman and public/man dichotomy. This process has also led women to make spatial tactics to maneuver for masculinized networks and institutions. For not only attempting to position themselves to utilize resources but also for creating a “we” of effective agency, women formed groups that exclude some others.

We have first accepted those from Meram (a town of Konya). Now we are also accepting those coming from out of Meram. We are accepting newcomers from towns of Konya. But we still want that our villagers produce the jam.

(Filiz, Konya)

This is our home. We have learnt cooperation, unification and act together here, in this place. We have learnt to say “we” not “me”.

(Selma, Eski$ehir)

I am the president of the cooperative. The members are all locals. They are all living here. My network is my biggest support mechanism. I just give a call and ask help or support. It happens. We are like a family but I am their elder sister [abla. They say me that without me they would fall apart.

(Iclal, Izmir)

Creating a space for certain groups of women as a strategy to protect group identity is very apparent in the narratives given above. Most of the participants of the research positioned the cooperative as a place to constitute a “we” for women, especially those who are with them, are involved in activities or are living in the same city, village, or neighborhood. This is a supportive mechanism as Iclal mentioned, especially when they engage with political actors.

There are women who work under the counter as opponents. Our work is harder, we have more expenses than them.

(Hulya, Artvin)

On the other hand, the other dimension of creating a form of us identity has the risk to bring agonism and, implicitly, to promote hierarchical power relations among the members of the cooperative.

Friends who are working here all already inclined to define themselves as someone. They are telling I have this responsibility in this cooperative or I am the president of it and this and that... When one becomes the president, she is bragging about being the president...

(Nilgun, Ankara)

There is no class difference in cooperatives. There shall be no boss.

(Alev, Ankara)

That spirit of togetherness has lost when she had joined our group. The interests were on the table. It was about sharing the cake. The fights began. (...) There were sides and polarizations. I have felt myself as hypocrite. It was like a boss who was shouting slogans on Labor Day. We were asked to leave. They started to foist. It was like a divorce between partners, two different camps. The name of the cooperative was like our child that we did not want to give up. It was like the fight over joint child custody. We failed.

(Emek, Ankara)

While women are aspiring to increase their share, they create relations based on patronage. The vertical networks of patronage relations, as a “political site”, trigger unequal distribution of power among women in the cooperative.

Especially the case of the cooperative in Ankara well exemplifies this. The distribution of power triggers agonism and antagonistic relations in return.

I asked them not to use the title of president. It was against the feminist spirit, movement. But when woman gains such status, she wants to use all those powerful titles. They do not want to lose the chance to be called as such. I am the president, 1 am a board member... They are using them.

(Seval, Trabzon)

All of a sudden, they started to call me president.

(Figen, Adiyaman)

The last two quotes by the representatives of women’s cooperatives mark how a cooperative creates a space for widening woman’s engagement while it becomes a site for contestation. Women may (un)consciously reproduce the traditional masculinist hierarchies that have historically excluded them. This also marks a reproduction of an unconventional form of presence for women in a cooperative. In addition, while some participants placed women’s cooperatives as opposed to masculine groups and masculinized spatial political engagement, such examples allow us to re-conceptualize cooperatives as configurations of different social practices.

As opposed to these quotes, the narratives shared below mark another angle of the forms of political interaction. They highlight multivocality as a way of doing politics. This constitutes another form of presence for women and also a way to cope with hierarchical overarching structures.

There must be common consciousness. There must be collective consciousness. We have attempted to internalize horizontal institutionalization. We are also experiencing some problems as all the other organizations are facing with, but we always find a way to solve them.

(Nilay, Izmir)

There is no competition, the aim is same. You are not the target of this, all of the women are.

(Gunay, Izmir)

We have multivocality. We are not multi-headed. There is no hierarchy. We have already created harmony among each other.

(Kevser, izmir)

Borrowing Sharp’s (2007) evocative notion on understanding the importance of connecting differences, “topographies”, at this point, it is important to evaluate a form of feminist politics that transgresses place-based macropolitics. The micro-politics of everyday life is also very important as “the webs of power and social relationships that are the basis of connection” are constructive for women’s political engagement, which triggers empowerment (Staeheli & Kofman, 2004, p. 6). Beyond place-based politics and the conventional understanding of doing politics, women who are mobilizing networks and connections with varying forms encourage bonding and, in return, point to the need to develop a kind of “feminist politics that celebrates jumping scales” (Sharp, 2007, p. 382).

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