‘Empowerment’ Selfies Are Burying a Turkish Women’s Rights Campaign

A sea of images from Instagram, filtered through one of this week's most popular hashtags, #womensupportingwomen. (Instagram)

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f you’ve used Instagram even casually in the last 48 hours, you've seen them by now. Black-and-white selfies of women accompanied by the words “Challenge accepted,” along with the hashtags #womenempowerment and #womensupportingwomen.

On initially encountering these images yesterday—especially with zero context—it was hard for me to fathom what the “challenge” was exactly. So I clicked on the hashtags in an attempt to find out, only to have my confusion compounded. I took the time to scroll through hundreds of tagged photos. And the only thing I felt challenged by was the narrowness of representation on display.

Occasionally Instagram's algorithm would permit me to see a woman over a size 8 or the age of 45—but they were few and far between. There were some women of color featured, but overwhelmingly, it was a sea of whiteness. I counted only a few trans women and exactly zero with any visible disabilities. All of which sent a very unfortunate message about what kind of women deserve “support.”

More from the #womensupportingwomen hashtag.
More from the #womensupportingwomen hashtag. (Instagram)

Then this morning it became apparent that it wasn't just diversity that had been buried on my Instagram feed—the more meaningful origins of the black-and-white challenge had been erased too. What is now a light-hearted expression of female solidarity in America was originally, in Turkey, a campaign inspired by both the soaring rates of violence against women and the brutal murder of a 27-year-old student named Pinar Gültekin.

Protests in the country broke out after Gültekin’s ex-boyfriend led police to her strangled and partially burned body, stashed inside an oil drum, five days after her July 16 disappearance. The murder appears to have been the last straw in a nation where women feel increasingly endangered. In 2019, 474 women were killed there—a 200% increase since 237 women were lost in 2013. It is also estimated that, so far in 2020 alone, 146 Turkish women have been murdered.

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After seeing the diluted message that her “international friends” were posting online as part of the #womenempowerment hashtag, one Turkish Twitter user named @imaann_patel attempted to explain the somber origins and meanings of the original challenge:

Turkey is one of the top countries when it comes to femicides. Most often the murderers barely get a slap on a wrist or no charges at all… Our government is trying to abolish certain aspects of [the] Istanbul Convention which is a human rights treaty that protects women against domestic violence… Turkish people wake up every day to see a black and white photo of a woman who has been murdered on their Instagram feed, on their newspapers, on their TV screens. The black and white photo challenge started as a way for women to raise their voice. To stand in solidarity with the women we have lost. To show that one day, it could be their picture that is plastered across news outlets.

New York Times reporter Tariro Mzezewa confirmed this on Twitter, after speaking to women in Turkey directly:

Those original hashtags—#kadınaşiddetehayır and #istanbulsözleşmesiyaşatır—roughly translate to “Say no to violence against women” (kadına şiddete hayır) and “Enforce the Istanbul convention” (Istanbul sözleşmesi yaşatır). They have since been buried under the flood of #womenempowerment and #womensupportingwomen hashtags.

Another New York Times reporter, Taylor Lorenz, insisted on Twitter that the #womenempowerment trend did not originate in Turkey, pointing out the fact that black-and-white photos accompanied by the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted have emerged on social media before.

“In 2016, [they] were meant to spread a message of ‘cancer awareness,’” she wrote. “Over the years the photo trend has also been used to ‘spread positivity.’” One of Lorenz’ interviewees went on to suggest this latest round was born from “Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking out against Representative Ted Yoho’s sexist remarks against her on the floor of Congress last week.”

Still, many in Turkey remain steadfast that this latest round of black-and-white selfies first gathered steam there. Author Dr. Pragya Agarwal posted her own picture to Instagram, accompanied by the message:

This was started by Turkish women to say that they are appalled by the Turkish govt decision to withdraw from the Istanbul convention… This is not just performative, this is hopefully not just tokenistic, this is for PINAR GULTEKIN, a woman of color. Say her name!!

The problem is, the millions of non-Turkish women participating in #womenempowerment selfies are not saying Pınar Gültekin’s name. Hell, they’re barely even saying Breonna Taylor’s. Truthfully, they’re not saying much of anything at all.

Just weeks ago, Black Lives Matter-related information sharing was impeded by a flood of well-meaning black squares that were hashtagged #BLM. This latest black-and-white trend will effectively prevent #womenempowerment and #womensupportingwomen from being used for anything other than black-and-white selfies for months.

Yes, there is certainly value in publicly expressing unity with other women. And yes, the #womenempowerment trend has undoubtedly been a bonding moment for thousands of women. But the vast majority of black-and-white posts currently flooding our Instagram feeds could just as easily have been tagged #feelingmyself, #selfcare or #selflove, and accompanied by an appropriately light-hearted phrase like “Pass it on.” Using serious tags for uninformative posts isn’t just misleading, it can act as a barrier to constructive work.