Me Too movement rattles Turkey’s literary world

Turkish literary scene becomes a new battlefront in the women’s movement as female writers, editors and translators pour out their stories of abuse and one author commits suicide.

al-monitor Demonstrators wearing protective face masks hold up placards reading "Whore" (L) and "Girl Power" during a demonstration for better implementation of the Istanbul Convention and Turkish Law 6284 for the protection of the family and prevention of violence against women, in Istanbul, Turkey, on Aug. 5, 2020. Thousands of women in Turkey took to the streets to demand that the government does not withdraw from a landmark treaty on preventing domestic violence. Photo by YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 17, 2020

“He sent me a photo of his penis, peeking from green and purple plaid boxers, with the message ‘see how it stiffens at the sound of your voice … you must come … and take care of it,’” an author known as “Franz Kafka of Turkey” sexted a novice writer 12 years ago. This gruesome scene in a detailed account of author Nazli Karabiyikoglu is one of the many testimonies by women who took the pen — and the keyboard — to name and shame sexual predators in Turkey’s literature and publishing sectors.

Ever since Dec. 8, the hashtag uykularinizkacsin (liberally translated as "loseyoursleep") has turned an accusing finger at half a dozen male authors with skeletons in their closets. The disclosures were followed by a flurry of recalled awards, publishing house statements on “parting ways with the men charged” and, tragically, the overnight suicide of one of the men accused. After a week, this belated Me Too movement in Turkey shows no signs of slowing. On the contrary, there are signals that it could spill over into academia and the world of journalism.

In an article aptly titled “We could not even dare admit to ourselves that we were harassed,” Karabiyikoglu explains how she sought the mentorship of Toptas, an award-winning author, when she was in her early 20s. She recalls her confusion, despair and self-blame when the author she considered a "demi-God” started telling her of his marital troubles, his need to “breathe in” her reckless youth and his desire to have sex with her.

“It took me 12 years to realize that what he had done was harassment,” she wrote. “Pelin (Pelin Buzluk, another author who said she had been harassed by Toptas) and I hung ourselves every night [thinking it was somewhat our fault] … because the Master, by definition, was above reproach. … Living with the guilt and the sense that ‘I deserved that,’ we bowed our head whenever a man approached us and dared not speak out, even to friends and family.”

“I could not tell my husband what happened,” Buzluk tweeted last week after a Twitter user by the name of LeylaSalinger wrote of the abuses she faced in the literary world and invited others to speak out. LeylaSalinger and Buzluk then produced an email address — uykularinizkacsin@gmail.com — where women who had been harassed could tell their stories. Hundreds of stories had poured in within a week.

As half a dozen names of alleged predators started to circulate on social media and in newspapers, publishing houses quickly declared their support for the women and announced they were severing ties with the named authors. Everest Publishing House, which has been publishing Toptas’ works, announced they were parting ways with the author.

Saadet Ozen, the publishing house’s female editor-in-chief, said Everest would stand behind the female writers “as long as she stayed in her post.” Writers Syndicate of Turkey urged adding anti-harassment articles to copyright agreements and offered legal support to the victims of harassment who wanted to take their claims to court.

Several literary juries — including the Turkish Journalist Association, which gives out the prestigious Sedat Simavi Award — recalled the awards they have given to Toptas. The author quickly issued an apology, saying he was sorry “if he did cause any pain.” But his apology was considered both insincere and calculated by the victims and other authors.

Then events took an even more dramatic turn as Ibrahim Colak, a 56-year-old author book store owner, hung himself in his house in Ankara on Dec. 10. 

“This is not the ending that I had planned. I had merely wanted to be a good person and it seems I failed in that. I can no longer bring myself to my wife, children, and friends,” he tweeted in his suicide note, adding that he was sorry.

The suicide has fueled a heated debate between those who expressed concern about "character assassination" on Twitter and others who objected to dressing the predators as victims because one of them killed himself. “Let us not lose sight of the fact that this man killed himself not because he was ashamed of harassment, but because what he has done has come out,” wrote LeylaSalinger, with several other journalists voicing support for her. Shortly after this statement, Salinger closed down her Twitter account, possibly due to a flurry of attacks after a former lawmaker from Turkey's ruling party accused her of being a supporter of Gulen movement, which is accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt.

On Dec. 12, 62 women’s groups rallied to the support of LeylaSalinger and the whistleblowers of abuse, saying the campaigns against the women who disclosed their harassment stories showed that the predators had panicked and were trying to silence women. “We will not blame ourselves for exposing the harassment we have been subjected to,” read one statement.

Karabiyikoglu told Al-Monitor she was happy with the solidarity shown but not surprised by the attacks either. "Some of the remarks I have received after my article pained me, as they sought to discredit my experience. This is not the first time I spoke out against harassment and the cover-up. I had done that in 2018 and faced the same ostracization."

Toptas fueled the debate further by “taking back” his apology. Speaking to Milliyet, he said he had not done any of the acts he was accused of and “had a clear conscience.” This angered the women — and men — even further.

“The initial apology and then its withdrawal by author Hasan Ali Toptas is unacceptable,” a spokesman for Yanindayiz (“We Are With You”) — a nongovernmental organization that brings together high-profile male journalists, artists and businessmen to support gender equality — told Al-Monitor. “[The recent disclosures] have created a strong awareness among men on just what is harassment, and we stand with the women.”

The Me Too movement, which was born in the United States and triggered similar disclosures all around the world from Iran to Israel, had been slow in Turkey, where the first women to speak out had been put through the grinder or simply ignored.

In 2015, when Beren Saat, a popular actress, said she had been harassed by the powerful head of a TV chain, other testimonies from the show world poured in. But nearly all refrained from giving specific names, and no legal action was taken.

“Turkey’s women built up to this moment step by step,” Itir Bagdadi, director of the women’s center at the Izmir University of Economics, told Al-Monitor. “The movement of support toward the Istanbul Convention, growing outrage over rapes and domestic violence have all built up, making the women’s movement today one of the strongest voices in Turkey for democracy.”

Indeed, the disclosures come at a time when Turkish women have raised their voices both online and in the streets against the Justice and Development Party’s plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, an international accord against domestic violence. The government appears to have backpedaled from the decision.

Several rape cases — one of which was carried out by an officer in the southeastern town of Batman — have sent Turkish women of all ideologies to the streets.

“All this made the ground fertile for these disclosures, and it happened where we would expect them to be — the world of literature and media, where we knew there was wide harassment and discrimination against women as well as a deeply rooted male culture. The [Me Too movement] finally arrived,” Bagdadi said.

Professor Sengul Hablemitoglu, an academic and activist who gives a Feminism 101 course in a private workshop called School of Life Istanbul, said this was a watershed moment for Turkey’s fight against sexual harassment.

Hablemitoglu said, “From this point on, women will know that they will not be alone if they speak out. And men will learn that they will not be able to hide behind their position of power or their image if they harass women. They will have to face consequences, apologize, lose their posts and even face justice.” The Hablemitoglu Ankara Institute had given an award to Toptas in 2017 for his literary works but has announced that it has removed the author from its list of awardees.

Bagdadi cautioned against short-term gains that would be lost in the long term. “At this moment, the very same publishing houses that are making much-publicized lists of blacklisted predators might be making a behind-the-doors list of ‘female troublemakers’ that they would not employ because they blew the whistle,” she told Al-Monitor. “We need to make sure that we move forward from here rather than be forgotten."

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