Global Perspectives Column News

A Culture of Selfie-Centered Activism

Is an appeal to vanity really the best we can do? Questioning the global social media response to femicide following the death of Turkish national, Pinar Gultekin.

By Nadine Morcos of the Middle East and North Africa Initiative (MENA)

I will admit that if it were not for Instagram posts and the viral hashtag #ChallengeAccepted, I would likely have not paid attention to the issue of Turkish femicide. I have to wonder though: as far as social activism goes, is an appeal to vanity really the best we can do?  If so, what does that say about us? 

On the 21st of July, the body of Pinar Gultekin, a 27-year-old Turkish woman was found in a forest in the Muğla Province. She had been strangled, burnt in a garbage bin, and then covered in concrete in her murderer’s attempt to hide the evidence. Her former romantic partner confessed to these crimes, claiming that he had reacted in a fit of rage after Gultekin  rejected his attempt to revive their ended relationship. Her murder was labeled as a femicide, which is defined as the killing of a woman, but more specifically can indicate that a girl or woman was killed because she is female. 

Turkish women took to the streets to protest the government’s negligence in upholding laws that protect women from domestic violence and “honour” killings, which are still prevalent in Turkey. News agencies claimed that Turkey’s femicide rates were “shockingly high” with estimates ranging from 416 to 474 women who were reportedly murdered in Turkey in 2019, mostly by partners and relatives. This means that Turkish media reported at least one woman killed every day in 2019.  

How do these numbers compare to other countries in the Middle East? How about elsewhere in the world? In 2019 Turkey had a rate of about 3.6 femicides per 100,000 women. Accurate reporting from other MENA countries is difficult to come by with governments like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Algeria claiming extremely low femicide rates, if any at all. The most egregious official numbers on a global scale are reported in Latin America and the Carribean, with Jamaica, El Salvador, and Honduras sitting at rates between 5.1 and 13.9 according to ECLAC and World Bank estimates. South Africa lies at 12.1, with the Central African Republic coming in second at 10.4. 

Sometime towards the end of July, in what felt like a parallel reality, I woke up to a social media screenshot from a friend of mine. She’d been tagged and nominated by her friend with a caption that read: “I was careful to choose people whom I think will be up to the challenge. Women often criticise one another, but we should take care of one another. We are beautiful the way we are. Post a photo in black and white, comment “Challenge Accepted” and mention my name. Nominate 50 women to do the same in private. I chose you because you are beautiful, strong, and incredible! Let’s love one another!” Below the photo my friend had added a note of her own: “I hate this sort of thing. How is posting a photo of myself going to accomplish anything?” 

Several days later, many of the same women who had posted their challenges modified their selfie captions or shared additional Instagram stories to clarify that the challenge was supposed to show support for Pinar Gultekin and the women of Turkey.  

Hashtags like #womenempoweringwomen and #istandwithwomen became widespread as women, the world-over, claimed that they were bringing awareness to the issue of femicide in Turkey. Days later, articles started popping up. Women had split into two camps, the first claiming that their black and white selfies were not a show of self-love but actually acts of selfless solidarity with the victims, reflecting the daily black and white photos of murdered women in Turkish newspapers. The opposing camp critiqued these women for drawing attention to themselves, mocked the idea that there was anything “challenging” about posting a selfie, and criticized the women for thoughtlessly posting black and white selfies, many of whom did so without even knowing the trend’s backstory. 

While I am not impartial to the #ChallengeAccepted trend, it’s important to assess both sides of the debate. Even if I’m not convinced that the end justifies the means, those who took part in the trend certainly managed to bring attention, both positive and negative, to the issue. Their argument is based on the premise that social media visibility leads to political power. I cannot deny that these selfies may have promoted a sense of empowerment, unity, or connectedness among marginalised social groups. I do not intend to detract from the social or political implications of posting on social media; selfies notwithstanding. There are many examples of social media movements that have motivated or aided sociopolitical change: the #ArabSpring hashtag, #TrashSelfies (#Selfipubella) that were used to shame the Tunisian government into taking action towards solving their waste management problems, or Egypt’s #AssaultPolice, a platform for holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.   

It’s not enough though to end the conversation there. Let’s go ahead and generously assume that spreading awareness leads to tangible change– in other words, action taken beyond symbolic posting on social media. In our attempts to bring about social reform and political revolution, we may be overlooking a key architectural problem. When women’s reflex response to an issue as serious as femicide is to post selfies, it trivializes an issue that is literally a matter of life and death. The #ChallengeAccepted case came off as cheap and lacking in reverence for Gultekin’s life and death. As a friend of mine innocently put it, ‘how is the black and white challenge any different than everyone’s usual selfies?’ 

Our generation is buying into this new genre of “slacktivism” (social activism involving very little effort or commitment) that says that posting a selfie with a hashtag is the equivalent of standing up for what we believe in. As far as women’s issues go, I often ask myself how these trends are so successful at targeting women’s narcissism and/or their need to be admired and validated (See #NoMakeupSelfie or #CheckYourSelfie for more examples). We should be seriously concerned about the implications of using a naturally self-serving concept to bring attention to a cause— regardless of the movement’s “success” in raising awareness. I’m particularly addressing women here because the consensus is that women take more selfies than men, thereby making women the main target audience for sparking a social media movement.  

It’s important to consider whether photos of women looking beautiful, sexually alluring, or grim as they stare off into the distance, really are the tool that women want to use to convey that they care or that they are invested in bringing about change. In a time and age when women are insisting more than ever that their value is not in their looks, it is ironic that they are doing an excellent job at self-objectifying under the pretext of “doing it for a cause.” I am not suggesting that women post photos of themselves looking ugly either, as that would equally fall into the trap that says that the way women look should have anything to do with their socio-political stances.  

I propose that selfies should not be a part of the activism equation at all, in the hopes that it isn’t old-school to think that people’s offline actions and beliefs should speak for themselves rather than their hashtags or poses. While women all over the world were posting their selfies, in Turkey, the attention was instead placed on street protests and pushing for the enforcement of the Istanbul Convention; a legal framework and approach to combat violence against women. If people feel so deeply inclined to use selfies as their primary medium of activism, then they need to examine the design behind the message: Does it employ creativity? Does it perpetuate self-objectification? Is it about honouring others or bringing attention to ourselves?    

If we care to hold on to our integrity in today’s world of quick clicks and instant “fixes,” then we need to start owning the implications of our thought processes and actions, and assuming that they actually stand for something beyond literal or symbolic face-value.

Feature photo by Nadine Morcos

Nadine Morcos is a second year masters student in Development Studies. She is currently co-leading the MENA Initiative with Catherine Gagnon this year. Her interests lie primarily in the areas of poverty reduction, business in conflict-affected and fragile environments, and post-conflict reconstruction.

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