2015 Summit

Elif Shafak talks “Turkishness”—and staying out of jail

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While expecting the birth of her first child in 2006, Elif Shafak anxiously awaited her fate as a Turkish court debated whether she should spend the next three years of her life behind bars. Her crime? Writing the novel Bastard of Istanbul, which depicts the Armenian genocide. The author was accused of wide-ranging faults, with the dubious “insulting Turkishness” at the top of the list.

“It was a very surreal experience—my lawyer had to defend Armenian fictional characters in the court,” Shafak said, drawing laughter from the Women Of The World Summit audience on Friday. Shafak was acquitted of all charges, and she continued to use her writing to chisel through the walls built by religion, tradition, and the status-quo. Today, she’s Turkey’s leading female literary voice.

In a session entitled “Does Islam Have Room For Women?,” Shafak fielded questions from Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian heart-surgeon–turned–comedian who has been dubbed the “Jon Stewart of the Middle East.” She delved into the power of stories—comedic, compelling, provoking stories—and their ability to break the boundaries that separate us. “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,“ she said. “I think all modern-day religions are based on the mentality of us-versus-them. I don’t like that framework. I’m interested in that core that unites us.”

Shafak was raised by a single mother—a rare circumstance in 98-percent-Muslim Turkey in the mid-1970s. These days, the Turkish government is enforcing gender-specific laws, including how many children women can have and how loudly women can laugh in public spaces; it seems that, as Shafak puts it, the country is moving backward, not toward democracy or gender equality.

When the conversation shifted to politics, Youssef highlighted a common dilemma shared by the citizens of Turkey, Egypt, and much of the Muslim world: between the evils of military control and religious leadership.

“We don’t have to choose between two bad alternatives, between extremist fundamentalism and authoritarianism,” Shafak answered. “I’m not happy with either of them. I want democracy. We don’t have to confine ourselves to this duality.”

The writer sees her work, and that of other authors, poets and journalists, as essential to Turkey’s future, which she believes will reverberate throughout the Muslim world. She said there are new voices, including women’s voices, rising in Turkey and elsewhere, and that they deserve to be heard.

“There’s a plurality of voices throughout the Middle East,” she said. “We have many people working for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and very important networks that should be supported.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.