The iconic photo of a woman being tear-gassed in Istanbul has gone viral and become a symbol of the ongoing protests in Turkey. Wearing a simple red dress, the woman is seen being sprayed in the face and standing her ground in a series of photographs taken by Osman Orsal of Reuters. The image is still being shared on social media sites as a symbol of the entire Turkish protest movement.
"That photo encapsulates the essence of this protest," Esra, a math student, told Reuters. "The violence of the police against peaceful protesters, people just trying to protect themselves and what they value."
What started out as a peaceful protest against the demolition of Taksim Gezi Park, one of the last few green spaces left in Istanbul, became all-out chaos four days in when police attacked a group of protesters with tear gas and water cannons.
Over the last two weeks, the protests — through a rebirth of grassroots politics — have touched on a number of other issues, such as the ongoing development of Istanbul, tensions between secularists and Islamists, and the political actions recently being taken by the ruling Justice and Development Party, including plans to cut down on abortion.
Through it all, the police’s use of tear gas has played a huge role in the protests. In fact, pepper spray and tear gas earned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the nickname "Chemical Tayyip" back in 2008.
Despite the agonizing chemicals infiltrating eyes and lungs, women continue to take a stand just like their now-iconic woman in red, making up about half of the demonstrators. Protesting alongside men for free expression, they also speak against a government that has encouraged women to have at least three children and provides little to no support for working mothers, as well as a prime minister who has made numerous remarks on curbing abortion, even within the last month.
In a country that has been secularized since the early 20th century, many of the women feel that Erdogan’s more traditional, Islamist — or illiberal — government is now threatening their personal lifestyles.
"Perhaps we are unconsciously afraid of the government, thinking that our rights will be next in line. Maybe that’s why there are so many of us," Begum, a protester in Taksim Gezi Park, told the Wall Street Journal. "They want women to stay home and not be too visible in public life."
These women’s loud and captivating voices have rarely been heard, especially in such public displays on the streets of Turkey. Earlier this week, shopkeepers watched as a teenage girl led a group of about 500 protesters.
"She was so full of confidence, this girl. She must have been only 15, but she was ordering them to sit down and to stand,” Sukru Aktunc, a bystander, said. “This wouldn’t have been possible before."
Even after Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized for the excessive police brutality, the tear gas is still being used and the demonstrations carry on, with the woman in red as a rallying cry.