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Ursula von der Leyen: sofagate and the theory of equality

A (sad) demonstration of how the road to achieving gender equality is still very long, at every level (but we are not stopping for this)

By Francesca Parravicini

It looks like a scene from a bizzarre art film, like the one broadcasted on school cineforums, with an additional meaning hidden behind every surreal scene. The context, however, is quite serious: we are in Ankara, Turkey, during an official meeting between the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Council Charles Michel and the Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The two EU delegates enter in a richly decorated room in the presidential palace and pose for the usual photos, everything seems normal, but then the bizarre situation happens. The protagonists of the scene are three, but there are only two chairs, where Ergogan and Michel sit, leaving out a decidedly perplexed von der Leyen, who does not know how to behave and seems to hide an ‘ahem’ of disappointment behind her facemask.

Then she sits on a sofa about three meters from the two men. If this was really a scene from a movie and we had to analyze it, what would the message be? It seems to be an almost literal translation of the idea of an established power that sets women aside, so literal that it almost makes you laugh. And in fact, the media promptly renamed the story #sofagate. Quite funny.

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Un post condiviso da BBC NEWS TÜRKÇE (@bbcturkce)

Eric Mamer, the spokesman for the European Commission, commented on von der Leyen's reaction like this: “She was clearly surprised, but she chose to prioritize substance over questions of form or protocol”. But really, are we just talking about protocol and form?

It is not necessary to have a deep knowledge of the world of institutions and politics to know that every public action can be loaded with meaning.

This was not an informal meeting between friends but an official occasion with a diplomatic significance, where everything, from clothing to gestures, is focused on "being photographed" and communicate something.

Following the rules and the etiquette is essential and if Michel's team maintains that the protocol was respected anyway, since the official meeting was between the President of the European Council and Erdogan, Yet, as several sources point out, this episode is decidedly anomalous and in the past all the presidents have been given equivalent seats.

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Un post condiviso da Ursula von der Leyen (@ursulavonderleyen)

So the form is so important, because it’s so visible and tangible that this story appears even more evident. It’s not enough to reach positions of power and prestige like Ursula von der Leyen: if you are a woman at some point someone will try to put you aside. Why Simply because you are a woman. Very logical.

And this is a problem that transcends contexts: we could spend pages talking about how the women’s condition is still highly problematic in some countries, how Turkey is in many ways projected into the future and with a rich history of feminist movements but at the same time anchored to a strongly patriarchal vision of society, where Erdogan praises women as mothers but at the same time explicitly admits that he does not consider them equal to men; at the same time, the reactions of the European community and Charles Michel, who said he was “sorry” for what happened, appear clumsy and lukewarm.

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020, it could take another 100 years to close the gender gap. This is obviously from an economic point of view, but we have understood that the gender gap is a much complex problem, with deep social and cultural roots.

The road is therefore still long, but the resonance of this #sofagate makes us reflect on how the mentality is changing and we begin to require an idea of equality that transcends different aspects, all important, in substance and form. Hoping that it will take less than 100 years to get there.

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Un post condiviso da Ursula von der Leyen (@ursulavonderleyen)