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Iconic image of pepper sprayed woman becomes icon of resistance, feminism

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
June 6th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

An unwitting woman has become the symbol of resistance in Turkey and an icon for women across the Middle East. Dubbed the "Woman in Red," a photographer captured her standing, apparently calmly, as she is violently pepper sprayed.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The world knows her as "The Woman in Red" but her real name is Ceyda Sungur. Walking amongst protesters in Istanbul's Taksim Square, the last green space in the city, she found herself near the police line.

Wearing a red dress and necklace, Sungur was suddenly and violently pepper sprayed by a police officer. The jet of spray was so intense it blew her hair upwards. Unable to do anything but turn away, she took the blast to her head and neck.

Several photos captured the moment of her spraying, but one in particular has gone viral, depicting her standing, calmly and peacefully just taking the force of the blast. She is unarmed and doing nothing to protect herself as the blast to her face blows her hair upwards.

The image is so compelling it has been adopted as an icon of the movement. Sungur objects to being used as such, and has told reporters the movement isn't about her. However, the image is so powerful that it is resonating with women around the world.

A student named Esra told Reuters, "That photo encapsulates the essence of this protest. The violence of the police against peaceful protesters, people just trying to protect themselves and what they value."

Egyptian blogger, "Zeinobia" tweeted ""The woman in red in Turkey, I wish to wear such dress in downtown Cairo without fear, without protests, without sexual harassment."

Although Sungur is uncomfortable with her surprising fame, her image of standing calmly while being attacked by police, is powerful on many levels. It serves naturally, as an icon of the protests. Turkish youth are protesting plans to develop the last green space in Istanbul.

Police have been sent to clear the park, but students have refused to leave and clashes have erupted between them and police. Students are also calling on Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to resign.

Erdogan has apologized for what he calls "excessive force" used by the police.

However, the image has more resonance across the Middle East where woman are treated as second class citizens. Sungur isn't provocatively dressed or posed, as some radical women have been across the Middle East in recent months. Bare-chested women have been appearing on social media in the Middle East with feminist messages written across their chests, protesting the dominant culture of Islamic misogyny.

However, Sungur isn't posing as a radical feminist. Instead, her modesty and calmness stands in profound contrast to that of radical women across the Middle East. As such, her image is likely more powerful. Modest and calm, the image is a far better icon of the struggle women face across the Middle East.

Islamic women in the Middle East daily contend with living in a male-dominated society, where they can be treated as property, are denied advanced education, and can face violence including assaults, rapes, and murder for minor infractions.

These problems are not uniform across the Islamic world, and Turkey is remarkably progressive. However, in more conservative Islamic states, her image is one of courage, moderation, and inspires hope.

Sungur told Turkey's TV 24, "There are a lot of people who were at the park and they were also tear-gassed," she said. "There is not (a) difference between them and I," buts he is wrong. There is a difference, her struggle was captured at the right instant.

She may reject becoming an icon of the movement, but movements are propelled by unscripted moments of profundity captured in images and lore. Those involved often have as much chance to dodge the bullet of fame as they are the pepper spray.

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