WOW Istanbul

We apparently are living an era of post truth within the realm of the ‘new normal’ and I feel blessed that my professional life has – as before –  been my sole safe space and my savior securing my sanity and resilience in this ongoing period of darkness. As I started my journey to initiate the first edition of WOW – Women of the World Festival Istanbul 2021[i] first as Head of Arts Turkey at the British Council in 2017 and then as the Turkey curator of the festival as of 2019, I had but little idea of the extent of the change we would be going through. And now, after giving life to this living creative digital content it feels timely to share a few insights and thoughts about this uniquely exhilarating experience.

To provide some background, Women of the World movement was founded by Jude Kelly in 2010, when the first WOW festival took place at Southbank Centre in London, UK. Since then, WOW Festivals ‘celebrating women and girls, and taking a frank look at the obstacles they face, have taken place across the globe, staging over 65 festivals and events across six continents, reaching more than two million people.’ As one of the global partners, British Council has brought together the WOW Foundation and the Sabancı Foundation in Turkey to run the first Women of the World Festival Istanbul on 5-6-7 March 2021, in celebration of International Women’s Day.

Following the Turkey input to WOWGlobal24 that the WOW Foundation has initiated as the first global, open access festival of 24 hours, the first edition of the festival took place on the digital realm of due to the Covid-19, achieving a viewership number surpassing one million in a month reaching out to 81 cities in Turkey and eight other countries including UK, Australia, and Germany. 126 individuals – artists, NGO leaders and creative professionals – and 30 NGOs took part in these 3 days long 14 hours of broadcasting of the festival. Majority being from Istanbul, festival stakeholders joined from Ankara, İzmir, Bursa and Diyarbakir and NGOs from İzmir, İstanbul, Hakkari, Eskişehir, Nevşehir and Afyonkarahisar. WOW Istanbul platform reached out to both Turkish and English speaking audiences and with the supervision of Erişilebilir Herşey initiative, audiences using sign language were also able to join the festival, including women with disabilities to discussions and talks challenging audiences with questions of accessibility.

Another inclusiveness that the WOW Istanbul platform has provided has been the uniqueness of bringing together the arts and culture sector with civil society to create new dialogues and collaborations, relying on the power of the arts to create empathy for reflection and dialogue.  Despite the political tensions on gender equality and the heated discussions around the Istanbul Convention and the growing conservatism, we were able to engage and reflect the diversity in the country by hosting Armenian, Kurdish, Syrian, queer, and feminist Muslim participants and NGOs. Young and ageless women discussed and performed for a gender equal society. WOW Istanbul has simply become our call of action to women to be together and listen to “others” in this fragmented society. Audiences heard and still can hear from both leading and non-celebrity voices on gender equality and watch many inspiring performances of music and dance from Turkey and the UK.

This has been possible with the collective power of some number of amazing women who have committed their professional life to gender equality work and civil rights. Ayşegül Bayar, Sabancı Foundation Programme Coordinator became team’s youngest but most resilient and dynamic voice whereas each member of the advisory board I had the honour to work with – Asena Günal (Anadolu Kültür), Aslı İkizoğlu Erensü (Sabancı University), İpek Bozkurt (We Will Stop Femicide Platform), Özlem Ece (İKSV), Rümeysa Çamdereli (Havle) and Ülker Uncu (BGST) provided network, insight and hope. I must also mention Ayşegül Turfan of Pozitif as our festival’s acclaimed producer pushing us forward with her energetic and young team who committed their time and work as well as faith during the most despairing times of the pandemic.

The Environment

However, pandemic was not the only obstacle ahead of WOW Istanbul. Programming a festival of celebration within a political hot zone with the claim of inclusivity in this chaotic city of 15 million who make nearly twenty percent of Turkey’s population – half being registered as women-  have been the first and perhaps the most critical challenge. According to the 2020 Women’s Labor Report of the Public Services Employees Union of Turkey (Genel-İş), only three of ten women in Turkey is in work force reflecting the lowest percentage among the OECD countries. Sadly, 40 percent of those in employment is unregistered.[1] However, it is a well-known fact that among this unregistered employment is the case of house workers – traditionally phrased as the cleaning ladies  – women who generate livelihood for their families and still not recognized within the workforce. [2]  Likewise, the undocumented domestic labors of what we call as ‘housewives’  taking care of children and elderly care that the government fails to provide. And according to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s data, labor force participation rate of women in Istanbul is 37.6 reflecting a high potential of growth.

Yet how can anyone singularly identify all those who identify as women in such a chaotic metropolitan city as Istanbul? Percentage of the total population born in Istanbul being only 15 with rest holding on to their homelands in 80 other cities of Turkey as well as other countries reflect the complex pot of diverse cultures of dwellers. The universally glorified creative hub of the European Capital of Culture for 2010 has suffered through an on-going outbound and inbound migration.  More than five hundred thousand Syrians are the most vulnerable to the chaotic tensions of the city in distress.[3]  Yet, Istanbul can barely be stated to be a melting pot for all these diversities. Just as in the Byzantine and the Ottoman times, city provides shelter to those only in neighborhoods that are safe to their specific communities keeping her legacy of fragmented societies.

On top of this disintegration, much before the pandemic, we had already been living the days of social unrest, economic downturn, and a complete political turmoil, where the civil society has been and is still at stake with the depriving democratic rights and the accelerating intolerance to diversity. The threats on already fragile communities of LGBTI were formally defined with the banning of any public activities of the LGBTI communities starting in 2016 and these sanctions still continue with brutal police attacks on pride walks[4]. Turkey’s gender gap placed it 131st of 144 countries according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum and is now even further down at 134th among 156 in 2021.  The timeline of the Ministry of Women, which was established in 1990 in solidarity with the women NGOs, being first converted to Ministry of Family, Social and Employment in 2011 and then to Ministry of Family and Social Services in 2021 also reflects the change in government’s perception of women rights movement as well as the LGBTI. Steady increase in the annual average of 400 reported women killings according to the database of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform[5] is a proof that women are still fighting for survival and right to live. We in Turkey, as in the other geographies have seen how the progressive rhetoric on women’s rights and gender equality have shifted to conservatism embedded in what Prof. Deniz Kandiyotti defines as restored masculinity.

However, despite the gloomy picturesque, Turkey has a great legacy of strong women NGOs, which have been working so effectively for women rights and empowerment for long years. Though only 100 out of 25,000 registered associations in Istanbul have gender equality activism in their bylaws, we are currently witnessing a new generation of hybrid NGOs and platforms of women –finding all possible means to endeavour for gender equality.  The new breed of voices now feels much more engaged and open to explore ways of dialogue and collaboration despite their political, ethnic or religious differences. In addition, there is an increasing number of art collectives and women from creative sectors that use art as a means of raising awareness on social issues. These initiatives have faith in change and in equality and they nurture hope.

And now with the age of digital has brought forth the success of the digital activism of global suffrage campaigns as #MeToo and Las Tesis extending the impact to all, reaching out to sisterhood beyond borders. Hence, within this severe autocratic climate of our locality, the 2nd generation of feminists in Turkey has been joined by the inspirational resilience of a much more perhaps less defined, fluid and impromptu activists of a new age of cis, non-binary and queer individuals and feminists who were de-localised and vigilant to global movements and dynamics. Two recent incidents have sparked a new approach to much demoralizing discussions on gender equality. The much-talked global black and white challenge last year started in Turkey following the brutal killing of a young woman, Pınar Gültekin[6] showing how a life lost initiated an amazing solidarity among the women of the world.  In June 2020, a woman simply twitted “my husband can work if he wants to” and following this, Gaye Su Akyol, an inspiring musician with high follower numbers and a dedicated fan base created “#menshouldknowtheirplace” thread; both reversing the often-heard misogynistic proverbs, initiating a Twitter flood engaging countless women and men using much clever and humorous statements highlighting the deep rooted sexist rhetoric that women face every day. We are now discussing cyberfeminism and the internet as a new public sphere for women with its benefits as well as limitations. As Gülüm Şener states in her working paper, Digital Feminist Activism in Turkey, “Women are not only combatting patriarchy offline but also online, using various tools and techniques. Digital feminist tactics comprise of hashtag campaigns, disclosure of sexual harassment or abuse on social media, agenda-setting, online feminist call-out culture, video activism, digital archiving, data activism, etc.”[7]

Today and tomorrow               

As I contemplate to my nearly two decades spent as a devoted professional of arts and culture in Istanbul, I see that I have rarely benefited from an environment at ease. I, as many of my peers have spent years working within a weak local infrastructure where the cultural scene functions in a dichotomy of the state’s conservative cultural policy reshaping states’ arts institutions into bespoke showcases of government’s political agenda – a new definition of fierce nationalism that also embeds religion as the sole cultural identity – and increasingly corporatized group of contemporary arts institutions of the philanthropic elites of Turkish Republic’s first conglomerates. I have though witnessed and been blessed with the strength and the resilience of the civil society and the artistic scene to innovate solutions of sustainability in such an unpredictable and fragile surrounding. The new generation of entrepreneur actors today can speak of innovation and strategy thanks to this unreciprocated commitment of many generations before.

I now see that this ongoing effort of survival in a way had drained my energy and focus to sustainability not leaving a space to focus on the gender equality discussions in the arts except LGBTI activism. My awareness fully occurred with the results of British Council’s commissioned research Women Power in Culture, which examined the profile, current roles, and influence of women leaders in the creative sectors in Turkey.[ii] The research, though confined with a limited number of  in depth interviews, a focus group study and online survey done with a selected number of arts and culture professionals (excluding artists), supported the unofficial truth that those who identify themselves as women form as high as 70 percent of the work force in the creative sectors in Turkey. Furthermore, the findings also revealed that 80 to 90 percent of these are satisfied with their professions even though income is insufficient for a 66 percent, necessitating a 53 percent to rely on their parents and a 39 percent on their spouses/partners for livelihood[8]. I was truly amazed to see our resilience despite the failings of the arts and culture sector in Turkey and at the same time felt very troubled with the ongoing silence to speak forth with our gender identity.

Turkey is blessed with the strength of its much-appreciated women artists, writers, actors, simply creatives who have inspired and given voice to new generations. Turkey’s pioneering contemporary female artists produced work commenting on gender inequality, women’s objectification, and their struggle in society since the late 1960s.[9] There have been ground-breaking film festivals carrying the torch of feminism and gender equality. Yet, what about the voices of those professionals who programmed, produced, and communicated these artistic events? Can we claim that the high level of professional satisfaction has become a barrier for these professionals to embed their voices and visibility within the work itself and cause them to stay behind the curtains? Perhaps they thought that their nameless commitment and strength making the show go on was enough but what if it was not ?  Or even worse, what if our much beloved creative bubble itself was also suffering from the effects of gender inequality and we, as others were also hesitant to speak up? To get some insights on this, I would urge you to listen to the very first episode of the Festival Arena, the radio show on Açık Radio, which I had the pleasure to programme and present for six months as the pre-programme of the WOW Istanbul.

As UNESCO’s 2021 special edition report on the state of gender equality in the cultural and creative sectors, Gender and Creativity: Progress on the precipice state, “the transformative power of cultural and creative expressions, …, at their best, cultural and creative industries produce and present narratives, perspectives and visions of the world that demonstrate and embody freedom, collective action, equality, development and justice.”[10] I follow the words of Ernesto Ottone R. Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO in the foreword:

“Despite recent progress in promoting gender equality in the cultural and creative industries, as well as the renewed attention generated by the both the pandemic and the #MeToo movement, much work remains if we are to achieve gender equality in this sector. Impediments to gender equality in the cultural and creative sectors are numerous, and include unequal access to decent employment, fair remuneration, and leadership positions, as well as barriers to seniority. Opportunities for women to participate fully in the cultural sectors and benefit from the creative economy, notably in the digital environment, require increased support. Gender equality is fundamental to ensuring a genuine diversity of cultural content and equal opportunities in artistic work and cultural employment. It is high time that the culture sector grasps the extent of these inequalities and the structural issues that remain to be addressed. Culture and creativity are unfortunately not immune to gender inequality.”

As 2021 is celebrated as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, it is now alarming that achievement of gender equality, which is a major set stone for a truly inclusive and prosperous creative economy, lags. This should be an alarming act for us all and therefore I feel compelled to continue my work for gender equality rights. I’m grateful that WOW festivals do provide this creative platform to all inviting us all to share our stories to heal and create together.

Do visit the festival’s playlist at the British Council Turkey‘s You Tube channel. Please trust me when I say that you will be inspired hearing the stories of so many voices. To name but few, as Mandu Reid, leader of the UK Women’s Equality Party and Candidate for Mayor of London for 2021 speaks about her utopia of a feminist London, you will also be hearing from our acclaimed women’s rights activist Canan Güllü, remind us of all that Nezihe Muhiddin one of our most acclaimed Ottoman suffragettes petitioned to establish  “Women’s People Party” in the early Republic days. On the Big Ideas section each day, you’ll witness the journeys of some remarkably courageous women sharing their ground-breaking work. One of my favorites is Melis Cankara who started a design campaign for cancer survivors to have the right to access designs suitable for one breast only. Nor would I miss comedian and creator of The Guilty Feminist, Deborah Frances looking at the feminism of popular icons or watch celebrity chef’s Refika give us a recipe for a fusion desert while sharing her intimate story of growing up as a younger sister of an older brother.  You will also see that performances are a vital part of the festival, one not to miss is the talented kemane (kamancha) folk fiddle player Melisa Yıldırım playing  with the British-Bahraini trumpet player, Yazz Ahmed for a special concert. Are you overwhelmed? Just take ‘a deep breath with Ebru Atilla’ and let your body into the realms of her feminist yoga to keep enjoying the voices of the women of the world!


[2] Please see the recent report of the House Workers’ Solidarity Association:







[9] How Artists in Turkey Are Responding to Violence against Women – Artsy


[i] Please read the story of WOW Istanbul in detail at

[ii] For the summary of the research findings please see

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