Elif Shafak: ‘Nations don’t always learn from history’

Elif Shafak: ‘Nations don’t always learn from history’


When BBC Radio 4 asked to feature my novel The Bastard of Istanbul in its Reading Europe season this month, I found myself reflecting on the cultural and political journey that my motherland, Turkey, has undergone in the years since the book was published.

The novel came out in Turkey in 2006. It tells the story of a Turkish family and an Armenian-American family, mostly through the eyes of four generations of women. It is a story about buried family secrets, political and sexual taboos, and the need to talk about them, as well as the ongoing clash between memory and amnesia. Turkey, in general, is a society of collective amnesia.

Shortly after publication, I was sued for “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 in the Turkish criminal code, although nobody quite knows what either “Turkishness” or “insulting” means in this context. The ambiguity of its wording allows the article to be interpreted to stifle freedom of speech and the freedom of the press; and for the first time, a novel, a work of fiction, was put on trial under the article. The words of the Armenian characters in The Bastard of Istanbul were plucked out of the text, and used as “evidence” by the prosecutor’s office. As a result, my Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters inside the courtroom. The whole thing was surreal and I was acquitted.

What I remember of those anxiety-ridden days today, however, is neither the trial process nor the ultranationalist groups organising protests on the streets and spitting at my photo and the EU flag, but the amazingly heart-warming, uplifting and inspiring feedback I received from readers. The majority of fiction readers in Turkey are women – Turkish, Kurdish, Alevi, Jewish, Armenian, Greek … women of all ethnicities, cultures and classes . In Turkey, if women like a book, they pass it on to other women. A book is not a personal possession. The same copy is read on average by five or six people, underlining different sentences with different coloured pens. Even though Turkey’s written culture, media and publishing industries, especially as you move up the ladder, remain male-dominated, it is mostly women who are the bearers of memory and it is mostly women who keep multiple traditions of storytelling alive.

Nonetheless, although words were dangerous in Turkey in mid-2000s, the situation for writers and publishers was never as dire or dark as it has become today. Over the past decade Turkey has been sliding backwards, at first gradually and then at a bewildering speed. Authoritarianism, Islamism, nationalism, isolationism, and sexism have all been on the rise, systematically feeding and encouraging one another. It has not helped that the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership was shattered.

The EU suspended talks on Turkish membership in November 2016.

The EU suspended talks on Turkish membership in November 2016. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

As the country became more and more distanced from Europe, the growing gap was exploited by nationalists and Islamists. The ruling elite began to talk about joining the Shanghai Pact instead of the EU. Today Turkey’s relations with the EU are at their lowest point. The AKP government has become increasingly undemocratic, inward-looking, illiberal and intolerant. In April 2017, a controversial referendum and a narrow (51% to 49%) vote means Turkey will change from a parliamentary democracy to a state in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds an absolute monopoly on power.

Turkey has become a shocking example that the ballot box in itself is not enough to sustain a democracy. If there is no rule of law, no separation of powers, no media freedoms, no academic freedoms and no women’s rights in a country, democracy cannot thrive or survive.

Today my motherland is a polarised and bitterly politicised country where thousands of intellectuals have lost their jobs. There is an increasing number of court cases against academics, journalists, writers, thinkers and commentators. One of the country’s most celebrated cartoonists, Musa Kart, has spent five months in prison and even though he was released under judicial supervision, still faces up to 29 years in jail. The Cartoonists Rights Network International has issued a statement describing the trial as “an embarrassing effort on the part of the Turkish government to further disappoint its own people”.

The most difficult profession in Turkey is journalism. Since the bloody coup attempt in 2016, more than 160 media outlets have been shut down and a widespread purge was introduced. With more than 150 journalists in prison, Turkey has surpassed China’s sad record, becoming the world’s leading jailer for journalists. Many more have been blacklisted, sacked, stigmatised, or had passports confiscated.

The cases against academics are equally worrying. Academic freedoms are being destroyed one by one. More than 4,000 academics have been expelled from universities throughout the country. Those who were signatories to a peace declaration in 2016 have lost their jobs, with no chance of finding a job at another Turkish university; many are being prosecuted and prevented from travelling abroad. One of the most disturbing arrests was of Osman Kavala, a leading human rights and peace activist, businessman and philanthropist who is greatly respected by democrats, liberals and minorities in Turkey.

With self-censorship increasingly widespread, there is far less civil public debate. Across social media and mainstream media almost every week someone new is being targeted, attacked, lynched. The International Press Institute (IPI) is looking into more than 2,000 separate cases of online abuse in Turkey directly targeting journalists.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul. Photograph: Alamy

The impact of all this on women’s rights is enormous. When countries go backwards and slide into populism, authoritarianism and nationalism, women have more to lose than men. Today some of Turkey’s biggest fights for democracy are carried out by women.

In 2016 the Turkish government put forward a bill that pardoned child rapists if they agreed to marry their underage victims. The MPs who came up with this abominable idea were clearly more interested in preserving an abstract notion of “family honour” than the lives of millions of women and girls. In the face of widespread reaction from the public, the bill was put on the backburner.

But the same MPs were eventually able to pass another bill that allowed muftis, religious officials, to perform civil marriages. In a country where one out of every three marriages involves a child bride, this is a very dangerous development. It will increase the number of child brides and cases of polygamy. It will enable conservative/religious families to marry off their daughters at a younger age and without any supervision. When multiple women’s organisations expressed their concern about the bill, and women took to the streets to protest, President Erdogan said that it would be passed “whether you like it or not.”

Domestic violence against women is escalating at a frightening rate and there is no investment in women’s shelters. The government’s rhetoric is based on the sanctity of motherhood and the sanctity of marriage. Under the AKP, women’s rights have been melting away. Meanwhile Islamist newspapers are running pieces against women’s shelters and some organisations are launching petitions to make women travel in “female priority” carriages on trains. Women-only pink buses are already running in several cities.

Gender segregation will neither lessen sexual harassment nor provide a solution to the cycle of violence. “When women go to police or the prosecutor for protection, they are either sent back home, they try to reconcile [couples] or they receive a protection order only on paper,” says Gulsum Kav, of the We Will Stop Femicide organisation.

Equally alarming are the changes in the education system: in the new curriculum Darwinism will not be taught. In the early 2000s around 60,000 students attended imam hatip schools, designed to train Muslim preachers. Today that number is 1.2 million. In order to avoid the Islamicisation of the national education system, the families who can afford it send their children to private schools. and the percentage of children in private education has increased from 7% to 20 %. There is also a sad exodus under way, and Turkey is experiencing a brain drain like never before.

Many academics, intellectuals, activists, journalists, liberals and secularists are leaving the country. But many more remain. And they try to keep their spirits up. Turkey’s civil society is far in advance of its government and Turkey’s women are clearly not giving up the fight for their rights.

This is still a country of mesmerising contrasts, brave and beautiful souls. But now, more than a decade after The Bastard of Istanbul was first published, it is heartbreaking to see that nations do not necessarily learn from their mistakes. History does not necessarily move forward. Sometimes it goes backwards. Turkey, once regarded as a glowing bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and a role model for the entire Muslim world, has become an undemocratic and an unhappy country.

Reading Europe – Turkey: The Bastard of Istanbul is on Radio 4 on 21 and 28 January at 3pm.

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