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Elif Shafak: Feminism, Faith and Women’s Rights in Life & Literature

In July 2020 Equality Now Board Member, Patricia Amira, sat down (virtually) with award-winning author, activist, and storyteller, Elif Shafak.

Elif, you are well known for your feminism and activism for women’s rights , but I wanted to ask you who or what informed or shaped your feminism?

Elif: That’s such a brilliant question. There is always continuity and I learn a lot from feminisms and feminist discussions that took place before my time. It started with my childhood because I was raised by two women. I was born in France but shortly after my parents separated, so my father stayed in France and my mother brought me to Turkey where I was raised by my mother and grandmother. They were two very different women, but they supported each other. That solidarity, that sisterhood left a big impact on me. I sincerely believe if women empower each other, the impact of that kind of support goes beyond generations. It changed my life and probably my children’s lives as well. 

In your talks and essays, you often talk about the danger of echo chambers and retreating into tribes. It feels like you consciously build this into your stories, could you talk more about this and why we need to be wary of it?

Elif: I think this is a complicated subject, I am not generalizing or pushing it aside easily. I do think there is a need to find kindred spirits if you are a minority or a person living on the margins. And while I think that should be our starting point, I don’t think it is where we should end.

I spent some time in my life at Mount Holyoke in Boston and because it was so cold, I spent a lot of my time reading African American women’s movement literature, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. And I think there is something they knew that we’ve lost today, an emphasis on pluralism, an emphasis on multiplicity.

Those women are incredibly inspiring to me. Because those women were women of color, they were on the receiving end of racism. Because they were women, they knew how sexism and the patriarchy worked. And at the same time, because many of them were LGBTQ, they knew how homophobia or transphobia worked. And then added on top of that, they came from disempowered backgrounds, they knew how class hierarchy worked.

So when they talk about power, they talk about it in a much more nuanced way than we do today and I don’t want to lose that perspective. So when you listen to people like Audre Lorde, I love it when she says, “I’m a woman, I’m a poet, I’m a mother, I’m Black, I’m lesbian and I’m many more things that you might not see.

This is why I don’t want to stop at identity politics, I want to move beyond that and see those things deeper that Audre Lorde is talking about.

Tell us about your book, 10 minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World. What is the premise behind it and what lies at the heart of this story? 

Elif: The book starts with two ideas. I love reading things that I don’t know anything about, like neuroscience. So I was very inspired by this series of studies that show after that moment of death, after the heart has stopped beating, the human mind can remain active for another few minutes. That to me, was an immense puzzle, what exactly happens inside the brains of the dead people?

And if it is true that the part of the mind that is in charge of long-term memory is the last bit to shut down, then what do the dead remember? In a way that gave me a structure for the book. Right away we know that the main character is dead, right away we know she has been murdered but as her mind is still functioning, we travel into her story. 

I was also inspired greatly by an actual place that exists on the outskirts of Istanbul. It is a graveyard where the marginalized are dumped without a proper burial or funeral. In Turkish the literal translation is the cemetery of the companionless.

I’ve been to this place and I’ve done research about this place. It is very difficult to obtain information about the people who are buried there because there are no tombstones, they have become numbers. It is an actual place where human beings are turned into numbers.

It is pretty much an abandoned place and yet it is expanding because of the large number of refugees that are being buried there. It is filled with people who have been shunned or rejected by society: sex workers, abandoned babies, or LGBTQ people, etc.

According to the law, if your blood family doesn’t give you a proper burial then you end up in the cemetery of the companionless. It doesn’t matter if your friends want to give you a proper burial, because they are not your blood family.

All these unlikely souls are buried together, without names but instead with numbers. And sometimes because of rain or snow, their number disappears and so too, do they. I wanted to reverse the process. I wanted to re-humanize someone who had been dehumanized in that way. I think this is why we need literature, to draw attention to the ways in which so many of us can easily become dehumanized.

In the book, the fate of many of the female characters, and in particular Leila, is determined by “God Given” religious and customary laws that subjugate women. These laws and practices aren’t fiction, they are a reality for millions around the world today and are considered to be the last major barrier to full equality for women and girls. It’s politics and storytelling, and it’s a theme that you’ve touched on in a previous book. What do feminism and faith look like for you now in 2020? 

Elif: I think we cannot take anything for granted in 2020. When I used to live in Istanbul, I heard women say it was very easy for me to be a feminist because I was living in the Middle East and I never really understood why a western woman would say that to me because we need feminism everywhere.

Even in seemingly advanced democracies, we know that the first things that will disappear when countries go backward are women’s rights and minority rights. So to me, that kind of awareness and engagement is very important. I don’t think any of us have the luxury to remain apolitical anymore.

I am not even talking about partisan politics or even party politics, but we have to be engaged and vocal about core issues. And for me, those core issues are human rights, women’s rights, rule of law, and separation of powers. If we lose those things, democracy will crumble. 

The book covers a number of issues that are rooted in gender-based discrimination, is 10 minutes and 38 seconds a book you had always wanted to write or one that you felt was necessary to write, given how so many countries seem to be regressing on women’s rights right now? 

Elif: I think sometimes you get this sense of gloom because we have made progress but then you realize we are still talking about these things in 2020. So one of these issues I explored in this book is a law that was present in Turkey in 1990. And unfortunately, back then, we had this horrific law in our constitution that reduced sentences given to rapists, if they could prove that their victims were prostitutes. The law assumed that rape would not psychologically affect a prostitute. The difference is, however, that there was a relatively strong women’s movement and because of the backlash from civil society, Turkey changed that law. I believe this was the last progress we made, in terms of women’s movements. 

Fast forward to 2020, I wish we could say we were done talking about those terrible laws but even today, Turkey is trying to abandon the Istanbul Convention, which is interesting because Turkey was the first signatory to this convention which protects the rights of women, children and sexual minorities. This would be a huge mistake and backtracking. And then throughout the Middle East we are discussing these laws that suggest reducing sentences for rapists who marry their victims. As if they are doing them a favor. Why do they come up with these horrific ideas? Because they are obsessed with this abstract idea of honor, that the family honor must be saved. It doesn’t matter if the woman’s life is wasted or if she is raped her entire life. That is the mentality we have to fight against and it is still out there and powerful.

You’ve spoken on this idea of “remembering” in the context of human beings, the way we live, the choices we make, as individuals and collectively, especially in a world experiencing great upheaval and protest, but also a time when there’s so much growing awareness on important issues. What would you like us all to remember about ourselves at this moment in time?

Elif: I think memory is a responsibility. We have to remember, we have to have historical awareness. By that, I mean, not the history we learn at school, but what that kind of narrative omits or erases. I should be able to learn all about erased voices and silenced voices. I think we should never lose that kind of curiosity.

At the end of the day, every nation-state has its own official version of history but there is a difference between a democracy and a non-democracy. In a democracy, we can walk into a bookstore and find lots of books that also tell us about the forgotten voices in history. In a non-democracy, one single narrative is more dominant.

When we understand history, we should also understand who is telling the story and who is not allowed to tell the story. We have to bring diversity into the ways we talk about the past. As a storyteller, I care about that, not in order to get stuck in the past but to learn and not make the mistakes of the past.

It helps us to understand where other people’s pain and anger come from, not to be numb. I think that numbness, indifference, is the most dangerous wall that is keeping us apart as human beings. 

It feels like you have a complex relationship with Turkey. I wanted to understand how your relationship is with Turkey at the moment? Especially in the context of women’s rights? 

Elif: Of course it is a complicated relationship because it is a complicated country. But I think more and more of us feel the same way, we love our motherlands.

We love the places we come from, the people, the culture, the history, the food, the music, so there is no way I can forget any of that. I have an incredibly deep and emotional attachment, especially to Istanbul, even when I am not there, it is with me.

And yet, when I look at its politics, power structure, politicians, then I feel more pessimistic. I think there is this idea that if you criticize your country, you don’t like your country. But that is not it, we are criticizing our governments, we are criticizing what is wrong.

We criticize because we care about it. So I do make a distinction between loving a country but criticizing a government or those in a position of power. 

Your writing seems to be rooted deeply in love. It seems you know a deeper truth than others. What kind of encounters have you had personally to evoke such stories that are larger than life and magical?

Elif: All I can say is that I am a curious human being and every book I have written has changed me. You earlier asked me about faith and I like to be able to talk about faith in a more nuanced way. I don’t like certainty.

To me, I want faith and doubt to talk to each other. I think they should be talking to each other constantly. And doubt is very healthy because faith, without doubt, is dogma and dogmas are very dangerous. Personally, I feel closer to agnostics or mystics who are asking all these questions. And we don’t really pay attention to those people but they are always there.

So I do make a distinction between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is much more inward-looking and more universal and everyone’s journey is unique, like our fingerprints. I don’t like collectivistic identities. So as long as it is a personal and honest quest in which there is room for doubt, I like those kinds of journeys, the literary versions as well.

I am just a storyteller who takes faith and doubt seriously. For me, what is much more important is what we have in common as human beings, rather than the differences that are being emphasized over and over. I don’t want to see that, I want to see the core. And the way to do that is via storytelling.

When we read we are alone and not affected by other people’s energies. We go into our inner garden and that is when we become a little bit more open-minded. Then we become ready to connect with people who we have maybe seen as our other. To me, I think that special connection is what literature can do for us. 

How do you feel about the apparent progress in Turkey with the election results? Are you hopeful for the future and where are women in this equation?

Elif: I actually think women are at the forefront because if you follow the news in Turkey today, the ones on the street are mostly women trying to fight for their rights. And that is not a coincidence because whenever countries fall back into ultranationalism, religious fundamentalism, or populist authoritarianism, we will also see an increase in misogyny, an increase in homophobia, and in patriarchal codes.

But of course, I am hopeful because even though I feel depressed when I look at politics in Turkey, I feel hopeful when I listen to people, especially a diverse background of people. It is amazing to see their resilience and how many beautiful souls are there, even if we don’t always hear their voices in the headlines. 

Which is your favorite book of your own?

Elif: It is very hard for me to choose a favorite book. I think I change so much with every book. I do believe books change us, they change the readers and the writers. I think it is always the book I have yet to write that is my favorite.

How do you think we can bring people back to seeing what brings us together rather than what separates us in an increasingly divisive world?

Elif: I honestly think this is one of our most fundamental questions right now. It is very difficult to have conversations with people who think differently or view the world in a completely different way from ourselves. But we need to try.

We need to try because not all of us are born into the same settings. Life is a learning experience. We learn at different stages in our lives and we learn from each other. If the conversations are cut off, we’re not learning, they’re not learning. That is a dangerous setting.

There is a reason why authoritarian demagogues all around the world love to divide societies into us vs. them. The reason is that they thrive on that duality. If we become divided into us vs. them, someone will benefit from that division.

I make a distinction between hate speech and freedom of speech. The kind of hate speech that involves violence is something else, that’s very dangerous. But other than that we need to be open, ready, willing to engage in conversations and to learn from each other.