Prominent writer unleashes controversy around sexuality in Turkey

In a recent Ted Talks presentation, Turkish writer Elif Shafak admitted being bisexual, spurring a backlash on social media.

al-monitor Elif Shafak is seen during the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Aug. 17, 2017.  Photo by Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images.
Nazlan Ertan

Nazlan Ertan

@NazlanErtan_ALM

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Oct 25, 2017

Elif Shafak, a Turkish international award-winning writer, has a steady record of courting controversy. Her novel “The Bastard of Istanbul,” in which she tackled the Armenian genocide and the deep scars it left on Turkey’s Armenians, led a public prosecutor a decade ago to launch a Kafkaesque trial against one of the characters in the novel for insulting Turks under the infamous Article 301 of the Penal Code. In “Honor,” she focused on femicide. In “The Forty Rules of Love,” arguably the most famous of the 10 novels she has written so far, she wrote about the relationship between Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi preacher/poet, and Shams of Tabriz, leaving open the question of the physical aspect of their relationship. In her latest book, “Three Daughters of Eve,” Shafak explored faith, friendship, bourgeoisie, the economic gap between the haves and have-nots, and seduction on Oxford University's campus.

Despite Shafak’s international acclaim, her relationship with the Turkish literati is one of love and hate. Although she is the undisputed queen of best-sellers, she often comes under attack because of her politics, her lifestyle, her book covers, which are alleged to be copycats of other books, and even the way she altered the spelling of her last name by changing it from Safak to Shafak so that her non-Turkish audience could pronounce it correctly.

The most recent attack against Shafak, which turned into a social media hate campaign, came following a 20-second admission during a TED Talks presentation in New York, filmed in September but released Oct. 16. Shafak started her talk, titled “The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought,” with the question “Can you taste words?” She proceeds talking about her favorite topics: her bittersweet feelings toward Turkey, diversity, the rejection of a “single truth” and plucking up the courage to speak up about who you are and what you believe in.

What the Turkish press and social media quote her on comes toward the end of the talk: “I have always been very vocal and written extensively about minority rights, women's rights, LGBT rights. … I have never had the courage to say in a public space that I was bisexual myself, because I so feared the slander and the stigma and the ridicule and the hatred that was sure to follow.”

All those reactions she feared quickly came. Various Turkish papers put her revelation on the front page, saying that Shafak had “announced” that she is bisexual — hardly acknowledging that the reference to her sexuality was a passing reference toward the end of the 20-minute talk. Conservative and mainstream columnists picked up the debate, either to air their criticism of the controversial author, who left Turkey to live in London, or to deplore the whole statement as a publicity stunt.

“A champ of self-promotion and grabbing attention,” wrote Ahmet Hakan, one of Turkey's most-read columnists, in daily Hurriyet, claiming that Shafak has habitually donned different identities that would keep her in the headlines — as a liberal, a feminist, a believer and now a bisexual. “My concern now is that Orhan Pamuk will also come out,” he wrote, referring to Turkey’s only Nobel Literature Prize laureate who is as critical of Turkey’s current policy as Shafak.

Haberturk columnist Oray Egin wrote that Shafak's remarks were nothing but “a bit of public relations." Egin, who is openly gay, said, “Being gay is a political identity, which requires commitment and taking responsibility. When a writer who has never expressed the least support to LGBT causes comes out in TED Talks, this can be nothing but a deplorable PR attempt.”

Social media reactions followed with a steady stream of sexual insults and accusations that she was “a traitor" who would stop at nothing to insult Turkey in front of an international audience, or “the bride of Fethullah Gulen” — a reference to Shafak’s marriage to Eyup Can, a journalist for whom an arrest warrant was issued after the July 15 coup for support of Gulen, a US-based cleric and the alleged mastermind of the coup.

“The reactions on social media accuse Shafak of ignoring Turkish traditions, codes of conduct, honor and family values — of exhibitionism and even of perversity,” Itir Bagdadi, the chair of Gender and Women’s Studies Research and Application Center at the Economy University of Izmir, told Al-Monitor. “It is a clear case of homophobia and misogyny combined. The striking thing is that it is clear that very few of the people who crucified her on social media have listened to the whole speech. This is a dangerous case of a snowball effect of hate speech toward LGBT and other vulnerable groups.”

She said, "It is no easy thing to admit that you are bisexual, which is a group that is the least understood and most ignored, even within the LGBT movement itself. Once such a declaration is made, it is irrevocable. No one has the right to question its sincerity — this in itself is patronizing and oppressive."

Zehra Celenk, a columnist for Duvar, wrote in her column titled "Elif Shafak, bisexuality and our great homophobia," that the debate has shown that many people in Turkey do not know what bisexuality means, although they hate it anyway. “What has been written since her announcement precisely confirms what she has said — once you come out, you face disdain, insults and hatred.”

"Some of the criticism is indeed misogynistic and homophobic," Egin, who questioned Shafak's sincerity in his column, told Al-Monitor. "Most of social media users seem not to have heard of bisexuality until Elif Shafak, so she did raise the profile of LGBT in Turkey after all. But Elif Shafak, coming out in New York, does not make it any easier coming out in Turkey."

Another group that has supported Shafak is Lezbiyen, a lesbian, bisexual and feminist movement in Turkey. “Why should declaring your sexual preferences be a way to attract attention?” asked Gizem T., a member of the group, at a roundtable debate organized by Bianet, an independent Turkish news agency that specializes in human rights. “The coming out of a public figure normally would encourage others to come out, but the reaction that [Shafak] faced may well show them that the best thing to do is remain quiet.”

Unlike in many Muslim countries, homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but homophobia remains widespread. According to a 2014 report published by Kaos GL Association, homophobic speech is common among members of the government as well as the public.

“Some media outlets promote hate speech against LGBTI persons. The law suits filed by LGBTI persons … usually do not result in effective investigations or sanctions by the judiciary. Discrimination over the right to employment on the basis of sexual orientation remains widespread,” said the European Commission’s 2016 report on Turkey.

Correction: Oct. 29, 2017. An earlier version of this article stated that Eyup Can was arrested following the July 15 coup attempt. A warrant for his arrest was issued, yet he was not arrested.

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