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Monday, September 17, 2007

freedom of speech, Constitution Day, and Turkishness


Sorry, this is a little long.


(When I started writing this post a couple days ago, I had no clue September 17 is Constitution Day in the US. You can see the Bill of Rights (amendments added to the constitution in 1791) here, including the First Amendment involving freedom of speech.)


I’ve written here about Orhan Pamuk, and I’ll write about him again soon, because I’ll hear him speak October 1 when he visits East Lansing.


Pamuk is the Turkish author who won the 2006 Nobel prize for literature. His life is threatened, he feels, after he was arrested last year for breaking Turkish Article 301 , the law against “denigrating Turkishness,” when he publicly criticized the Turks for their part in the WWI-era mass killings of one million Armenians as well as 30,000 Kurds in the 20th c. (which Turkey officially denies). Merely mentioning the “genocide” is against this Turkish law. To not be offensive, you’re supposed to call it the “Armenian question.” Charges were dropped against Pamuk in January last year, and sometime this year he moved to New York in self exile.

He moved partly because of the January 19, 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor, for his frank writing on the same topic. Pamuk felt threatened by the same Turkish nationalist group to which the 17-year-old who killed Dink belonged.

So, the other day I bought a Glamour magazine in line at the grocery store, and after I got home and stared at some revenge dressing and tummy flattening photos, I found an article about Elif Şafak (or Shafak), another Turkish author whose life has been threatened by the same Turkish nationalist group that killed her friend Hrant Dink and threatened Orhan Pamuk. (Look here for some stories about other inspiring women. I’ve also added the Global Diary link to my sidebar.)

Like Dink, Şafak wants Turks and Armenians to reconcile, but she understands it won’t happen until Turkey acknowledges what happened in 1915.

What does it mean to be Turkish anyway? In 1985-88 when we lived in Istanbul our lives straddled Asia and Europe: we lived in Asia and Lesley crossed the Bosphorus bridge every day to her British school on the European side of Istanbul, and Don did much of his export business from the European side. Turkey’s culture straddles Asia and Europe philosophically too, as there is a constant tension between conservative Muslim traditions and modern European trends as Turkey tries to become part of the European Union. I’m currently reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk (still, I know, I know, I started it in July), a novel about Turkish women who are torn between traditional Islam and modern Western womanhood, represented by wearing, or not wearing, head scarves, which have been banned in some public Turkish places.

Şafak’s 2006 novel Bastard of Istanbul is on my list of books to read. It’s about gender and cultural identity of Turkish, Armenian and Turkish-American and Armenian-American women, and the violence of their past. The world is changing fast, and books like this help me understand some of it.

Şafak, Dink and Pamuk risked their lives to tell the truth as they understand it.

My freedoms and lifestyle cost many people a lot. And yes, I know our rights as US citizens have been in question, especially since 9/11. But for the most part, we don’t get arrested for speaking our minds. I think Constitution Day is a good day to remember that.

17 comments:

Ginnie said...

Ruth, this is powerfully written and inspiring to me. I recently spent 24+ hours with a gorgeous Turkish woman (Sinem), born in Istanbul, who now lives outside London with her Nigerian husband. Free. Just Friday in the Amsterdam airport I wanted to cry when I saw a young mother in full Turkish dress with only her eyes and hands visible.

I told Donica that if I ever dedicated myself to a mission before I died, it would be to help free women from the world that denigrates them. One step, one day, one woman at a time. But where do I start? (Do you recommend starting with Parmuk's Snow?

Ruth said...

Oh! Boots, I didn't know Sinem is Turkish! How did you know the woman in the airport was Turkish? I'm curious.

It touches me that you used the word "denigrate" - the same word in the Turkish law for another kind of denigration.

Pamuk is not easy reading. Hence, I still haven't finished "My Name is Red" nor "Snow." (I need to learn how to use the HTML tags for italics.) He writes beautifully. I want to read his latest: "Istanbul: Memories and the City." Critically he is obviously well thought of. I'll keep thinking about where to start on this subject, maybe you can google "head scarves Turkey book" or some such phrase and see what you come up with.

Heather said...

Hi Ruth,

I often forget how much freedom we have in simply talking. Would our blogs be used against us in another country? Possibly. I regularly assist women at the Information Desk at WSU who are covered head to toe, and I can only see their eyes and hands.

Always, if you need research assistance, just e-mail me. I have excellent electronic resources at Wayne that may help if you're thinking of writing further on a subject.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Heather. It's nice to know a librarian now.

I just read this in an Amnesty Int'l message:

"Nguyen Vu Binh was jailed in Vietnam in 2002 for writing and posting articles about democracy on the Internet and campaigning for human rights."

Ruth said...

Heather, I should have said that thankfully he was released from jail in June and is reunited with his family.

Raw Kale said...

I really enjoyed the depth of your writing today.

When I was in Malaysia, a mostly Muslim country, I was at a giant waterpark in Kuala Lampur. The Muslim women were playing in the water, despite the fact that they were covered from head to toe! I was in my little bikini with a skort- ha! What a juxtaposition.

No one seemed to mind that I was in my bikini, nor really paid any attention to me.

In the beginning of my trip, I felt badly for the women, but after talking to some modern women, I left feeling confident that they were making their own choices, and in Malaysia at least, they had the option. They wanted to wear the saris as a symbol of their self-respect.

Of course, some of the younger girls said they were torn between trying to please their family and letting go of the custom, embracing modern ways.

I am brought to Walker again in her thoughts on the natives of the Amazon. The men are to cut trees, hunt & make war. The women nurture and conserve, but "perhaps her most important duty is to tell the men when to stop... [when is] the Feminine within women and men, going to say Stop?"

I thank you for reminding me of Constitution day. I'll pull mine out and give it a read:)

I think it's also my Dad's birthday.

Loring Wirbel said...

The real problem stems from Kemal Ataturk, who mandated modernization by force when the Turkish Republic was founded, and put the military in charge of such a project. Turkey was left with a legacy of constant military intervention, and military thuggishness to try and stem the tide of "creeping Islamization."

My daughter was writing an essay on what tolerance means, and we were really having a struggle with Turkey and the 1992 Algeria case. What do you do if a religious party announces that its entire purpose in staging elections is to halt further elections? If you're the government of Algeria, you declare martial law. (And indeed, this is what Turkey did in the past.) The Turkish generals made a lot of noise in the two times that Gul was nominated to be president, but they quickly realized that (A) Islamic forces are far too strong in Turkey now to be put down by military posturing, and (B) Islam in Turkey today serves as a force for modernization.

I'm not sure at all what this means for Turkey's chances to get into the EU, but I do know that when a state tries to enforce secularization (France with the burqa), it's a losing game. And when the state tries to idolize the role of a founder like Ataturk and make him immune from criticism, democracy suffers. Look at the way Turkish citizens try to crush criticism of Ataturk on YouTube. Can you imagine U.S. citizens being that rabid about Jefferson or Paine? You can say that makes us more superficial, but I say that makes our democracy more healthy than Turkey's. The only good use for an idol is to paint a moustache on.

Loring Wirbel said...

Sorry for being so verbose on a Monday morning, Ruth, but something else just struck me in your excellent essay - the role of women in leadership positions in Islamic society, particularly Westernized women. U.S. politicians got all excited when people like Tansu Ciler in Turkey and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan moved into power in the 80s and 90s, but a little voice inside me kept saying, "Yeah, yeah, Harvard-Georgetown-CIA clique." And sure enough, Ciler couldn't stop the secret military government, and Bhutto fell victim to Pakistan's corruption. My mom always wants to talk about "strong women leaders" like Maggie Thatcher. I tell her if the woman leader, whether western or Islamic, is the source of the problem or becomes part of the problem, there's not that much progress being made.

Ruth said...

Loring, when we lived in Istanbul (can't say what it's like now) there were soldiers with rifles on our street corners. A friend of ours was arrested getting off a plane when a Turkish lira bill blew out of his hand and he stopped it from blowing away on the tarmac with the sole of his shoe. Of course Ataturk's picture is on the currency. Nationalism is one of Turkey's religions, as you've implied.

And you're right, women aren't the answer. Open-minded, intelligent, thinking leaders are the answer, male and female.

Go verbose any time.

Ruth said...

RK, what an image, you in a bikini and the others covered. Pamuk's "Snow" is about just what you've written: women's choices. They resent that men tell them what to choose and enforce it. Although, as rauf has talked about at daylight again, even many abused women in India don't want to be rescued from their situations. It is as complex as every person is.

I had a student come to me in tears, from Taiwan. She wants to go into culinary arts. But her parents want her to have a degree from MSU, and we don't have one in culinary arts. MSU is highly esteemed in Taiwan. So she will be forced by them to get a BA in English and also a master's here. I asked what would happen if she chose to go to culinary school. She just wept and shook her head. She would be disowned, and so she will do as they wish.

Have you heard about the women in Africa who refused sex with their husbands until they stopped their warring? It worked apparently.

And no, your dad's birthday is Sept. 19, sweetie. He'll be 55!

Theresa said...

Such a powerful blog- reading personal stories like this one always is a humbling experience and makes me question my inner strength- and I feel fortunate that I was born in the US.

Ruth said...

I know, Theresa, me too.

Rauf said...

Freeing women of the world is a good idea, but do they want to be free ?
no Ruth, its women who want it. i thought about it, spoke to many Muslim Hindu and Christian women. They are more religious than men, though their religion gives them a raw deal. Christian women accept the punishment given by God to Eve and other women for committing the eternal sin.

Western idea of freedom is completely different Ruth.

Ruth said...

rauf, I don't know if you saw my comment to Rachel where I mentioned what you've written in your blog about women in India not wanting to be released from their bondage.

I also know many Christian women who find submission to men beautiful, as symbolic of submission to Christ. They take joy in it, because it makes them feel part of something bigger, I guess.

There is something safe about confinement sometimes.

Raw Kale said...

No, I did not know this about those women in Africa! Good thing it worked- there are power in numbers.

I always thought I would be one of those submissive women cooking dinner for a family of six. It just wasn't me, I guess all these years have proven! I mean no disrespect to those women... I have tried, and there is some trick to it that I do not get.

A part of me has always felt inadequate because I am not capable of it. But, now I am starting to realize that I give birth in a completely different way, and nurture a much larger family.

Ruth said...

Good, RK. I think much of my life story up until just a couple of years ago was to do with submission vs non-submission. Now I think life is just a dance about that, submitting to the moment, not to a particular role or gender. We submit to each other all the time in our lives I think. And sometimes we should and sometimes we shouldn't. But we know, I suppose when to do each.

I think I'm talking in circles.

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