Silence and Sisterhood: Dr Elif Shafak at The Cambridge Union

Zoe Maple 15 July 2019
Image Credit: The Cambridge Union

Looking around at the audience gathered to watch Dr Elif Shafak’s talk at the Cambridge Union, it is clear that her work has gained her a devoted readership. Many of them have brought well-loved copies of her novels with them and, in the Q&A section of the event, come forward with stories of how they’ve been moved by her writing. I got the opportunity to ask Shafak about her work in both the fields of authorship and political activism, which for her are areas which can sometimes overlap:

“I think of course story tellers chase stories,” she says, “but equally we chase silences. We have to give voice to silences and to people who have been silenced. So for me, literature should be able to ask difficult questions about difficult issues; bring the periphery to the centre; make the invisible a bit more visible; make the unheard a bit more heard. So these things matter to me. But although I care a lot about the subjects we write about, I also care a lot about style – how you say what you’re saying is so important. So what I like is the dance of sadness and humour – the dialectics – because I do deal with heavy subjects, but I like to write about those subjects with humour.”

Boldly writing about such important topics in her works has, at times, put Shafak in a precarious position in her motherland of Turkey, which has witnessed persecutions and imprisonments of writers who have been deemed to be a threat to social order. I asked Shafak about how this has affected her career:

“I think in countries where there is no democracy, it’s of course much harder to be a writer; words are heavy. I was put on trial in 2006 for writing a novel called The Bastard of Istanbul. It’s a book that tells the story of a Turkish family and an Armenian-American family, but basically it’s a book that deals with memory and forgetting. And it also talks about the past – history – and dares to use the words ‘Armenian genocide’, and for that I was put on trail. It went on for a year, there were ultranationalists protesting me, spitting at my pictures next to the EU flags. And at the end I was acquitted, but the whole thing was quite surreal because for the first time a work of fiction was put on trial in this way and sentences had been plucked out of the book and used as ‘evidence’ in the courtroom. As a result, my Turkish lawyer had to defend my Armenian fictional characters in the courtroom. So that was surreal. And it’s difficult to talk about politics or political taboos, but I think it’s equally difficult to talk about sexual taboos. Right now my work is being investigated again by a prosecutor in Turkey, who is checking if I have, again, committed the so-called crime of ‘obscenity’. Because if you write about issues like sexual abuse, child abuse [and] sexual harassment, people again pluck out sentences of the book, and they can accuse you of disrupting – whatever they call it, social morals? – you know, all these weird laws.

“To me this is very sad because I’m a feminist – all my life, I’ve defended women’s rights, minority rights, children’s rights. My motherland has a serious problem with gender-based discrimination and violence towards women and children, but also a large number of child-brides – so we have serious problems that we need to deal with. The laws need to change, the mentality needs to change, there need to be more shelters for abused women and children. But instead of doing this, instead of taking urgent action to deal with the problem, they are targeting novelists, and to me that is very tragic.”

I asked her to expand upon feminist issues in her home country, and how these affect her attitude to writing:

“One third of all marriages in Turkey involve an underage girl. One third. On top of that, we have four million Syrian refugees in Turkey – many of these Syrian girls are being married off at a young age. Also, some Syrian women are married as second wives, even though polygamy is illegal, so there are serious issues that we need to talk about, and of course literature can write about these issues because it’s the reality; we can’t pretend that it’s not happening.”

We then broadened our discussion to global feminist issues and how they are influenced by developments in politics:

“For a long time, people have thought that history could only go forward, that history could only go in a linear progressive way. But that’s not the case – history can sometimes go backwards. And we’ve seen this in countries where there is an increase in nationalism [and] populism. Countries that are losing their pluralistic liberal democracy also experience a rise in sexism, misogyny and homophobia. This is not a coincidence: the more nationalistic the country becomes, the more sexist it will become, because the whole narrative is a very gender-coded narrative of ultra-nationalism. Or if a country loses its democracy, the first rights that will be curbed will be women’s rights and minority rights. That’s why we can’t take it for granted. Even in mature democracies in the western world, we can see a loss of women’s rights. It’s happening in Spain for instance, the populist, nationalistic VOX movement; one of their aims is anti-feminism. They hire buses and ride these buses across the country with a picture of Hitler – and underneath “Hashtag Feminazi” – claiming feminists have gone too far and they’ve destroyed family values, so they want to reclaim family values. So all of that is quite scary because it shows us that we really can go backwards. So an all-embracing but intelligent – emotionally intelligent – women’s movement, and a new narrative are needed at this stage because our rights can be taken away from us very quickly. We’re seeing this happening in Alabama, in Georgia – 33 states in America, the most extreme abortion bans – even in cases of rape and incest and underage girls. This is unacceptable. They have no right to impose that in this way without paying any attention to girls’ and women’s individual stories.”

Finally, we talked about what we can do to combat some of these issues:

“I think as women, we have to be more aware of the dangers, we have to support each other, empower each other. I sincerely believe we need a big, wide, global sisterhood that brings on board women of all backgrounds, all colours, all cultural backgrounds, all class backgrounds. There are important gaps that as feminists we need to honestly talk about. But also we need to bring on board LGBT rights – it needs to go hand-in-hand. We also need to bring on board men – to me this is very important – and we need to talk about masculinity and how it can be a straight-jacket for many young men and make them unhappy as well. We need [men] and they need us as well – it’s mutual. Also, we need to understand, particularly for young men coming from – let’s say disprivileged backgrounds – life for them can be very difficult as well. And we’ve seen increase in cases of mental health among young men. In America, the increase is very scary actually – there’s a lot of pressure on young men. We have seen an increase in cases of suicide among young men. So am I going to say, ‘well I’m a feminist, it’s none of my business, I’m not concerned?’ I am concerned. And we’re all, you know, on this boat together, because patriarchy makes not only women unhappy but also men unhappy, so we need to work together.”