How do Intensified State Security Measures during States of Exception Reproduce Community Insecurities?

Basak Gemici, University of Pittsburgh

Published on: May 28, 2021

Photo: Special forces in Istanbul, Turkey

Natural disasters, terror attacks, military coups, wars, and epidemics can serve as pretexts to rule by decree. Contemporary governing bodies can easily frame suspension of the law and abridgment of rights as necessary for national security. For instance, currently, there are 107 countries with emergency declarations excusing the COVID-19 outbreak. These measures can deteriorate core civil, cultural, and political rights. However, the fundamental reasoning behind a state of exception—“necessity,” according to Giorgio Agamben—obscures public questioning of processes related to state security measures. It is therefore increasingly important to pursue a feminist and intersectional human security approach and to focus on how ordinary people, rather than states, cope with security threats.

First defined by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the human security framework in the policy agenda argues that famines, environmental or health crises, political threats, and human rights violations cause community insecurities. Thus, these should be covered under the “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” principles. Despite heavy mainstreaming of this approach over the years by both Global North and South actors, it still provides relevant tools to see the gaps between the state and community insecurities. For instance, under any intensified state security act, violence against women increases, as reports from China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries also suggest an increase in domestic violence cases since the COVID-19 outbreak. Especially in already authoritarian contexts, the convenience of rule by decree under an emergency rule can persist and even permanently disrupt civilian lives.

In my recently published book chapter, I examine the period before, during, and after the coup attempt and the most recent emergency rule in Turkey (2016-2018). I show how subverting the rule of law and intensifying state security practices produced and deepened ethnic and gendered community insecurities. Ethnic police profiling of the Kurdish men increased, and women were alienated from socializing in previously familiar public spaces as their urban map of fear has expanded. Turkey declared a two-year-long emergency period following the 2016 coup attempt. In 2017, a major constitutional referendum neutralized the parliament and state accountability structures and further concentrated power into an executive presidency. International organizations have documented various human rights violations and extra-juridical state practices during this era.

Public policing at any given time in Turkey is experienced differently in Turkish and Kurdish people’s lives and between men and women. Especially in the Kurdish region (southeast Turkey), the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)’s armed insurgency since the 1980s legitimated the state’s violating human rights under prolonged curfews. The most recent intense use of militarized policing included the arbitrary use and display of violence, reliance on paramilitary equipment, and tactics mostly on protest sites and conflict zones. The interlacing and enduring effects of the urban warfare in major Kurdish towns in 2015 and public explosions by the Islamic State in major cities have further compounded women’s precarity by obscuring the distinctions between the perceived safety of the day (in crowds) versus the night (in isolation).

The spillover of warzone practices into civilian life further increased the tension in Kurdish towns. As Sjoberg and Via argue, militarization does not only mean extending military practices into daily life. It also means “blurring the distinctions between war and peace, military and civilian.” Moving in public spaces became increasingly insecure for ordinary people, and their feelings of “safety” deteriorated along regional and social hierarchies.

Ambiguity is essential to a state of emergency. Not only does it reconcile law and lawlessness, but it also disrupts the routine temporality of daily life. Not knowing when life will return to “normal,” people in Turkey during this time could not pursue their regular future plans—a similar phase to the current pandemic. Temporal disruption occurs at different levels in Turkish and Kurdish lives, creating an ambivalence in pursuing daily routines. Kurdish women experience changes in the meaning of present and future as they frame their ordinary lives—a condition of “waiting.” In my research, I found that this emphasis on “waiting” is also a means of coping and focusing on what’s happening in the present to protect oneself from an increasingly volatile future. This often looked like stalling any long-term planning activity such as buying a house or planning a pregnancy and keeping their assets as liquid as possible, mostly in cash or gold, to be able to leave the city, especially in the Kurdish women’s experiences.

Despite the varying levels and practices of militarized policing and emergency rule sanctions in Istanbul and Diyarbakır—a major Kurdish town where the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) documented human rights violations and war crimes such as killing and displacing hundreds of civilians and damaging historic sites—women in both of these places reported similar feelings of increased fear and anxiety in public spaces. There is a scholarly need to approach the concept of the state of emergency beyond the theoretical level and accentuate its relation to ordinary people and public spheres.

Basak Gemici is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Considering the salience of ethnicity and gender in organizing both populism and daily life, she studies how populist authoritarianism is reproduced and challenged in ordinary people's social interactions over the case of Turkey.