In conversation with 5harfliler: Digital feminism in turbulent Turkey
Flowers of solidarity are in the habit of blossoming in the most unlikely terrains and climes. More grey the day, brighter they bloom. In Turkey, 5Harfliler.com is that flower of resistance and solidarity.
Run by five Turkish women inhabiting different parts of the world, the website is a textbook exemplification of feminism. Women reaching out to women. In this comprehensive interview Duygu, Nigar, Suna, Hazal and Kiraz bare their soul for the world.
Duygu. 32. One of the founding editors. Studied law. Loves photographs and movies.
Nigar. 30. Journalist. Strong affinity towards Eurasia and Soviet history.
Suna. 32. Studying history, with a special interest in the holy lettuce, as an agricultural produce as well as a symbol in millennia-old myths and legends. Loves the whites in her hair.
Hazal. 33. Juggler of social science disciplines. Gemini. Struggling with her PhD dissertation in Turkish literature now.
Kiraz. 42. Historian. Experienced in publishing in the Turkish language. (Hurrah!)
And, thus, they talk.
Meeting and Collaborating
Nigar: In 2012, I was approached by one of the three founding editors, who knew me from tumblr.
Suna: The team started out as 9 women, and then over the years, the core editors changed, depending on where life took us. Some left and then came back. Currently, we are 5.
Kiraz: I was approached by one of the founders in 2011. It sounded important and fun and I wanted to be a part of it.
Hazal: Suna and I had met a few years ago. When she approached me for 5Harfliler in 2013, I was thrilled and relieved at the same time because I had had enough of the greyish tune of the printed journals.
The idea of running a website
Suna: When the founding editors approached us, they brought out a shared sentiment, which was that very little in Turkish publications spoke to our wits, worries and wonders.
A responsibility towards society or labour of love?
Duygu: Creating 5Harfliler came from a place of urgent personal need. There was no other platform where we could write the way we wrote and be ourselves. Five years later, do I feel like I’m fulfilling a responsibility towards Turkish society? (Laughs) Maybe in my most self-important moments! I do think a lot about my teenage self, though, and the way I devoured the written Internet for some sort of a relief or a clue on how to navigate life. So the thought that 5Harfliler is now there for others to gorge on is exciting.
Kiraz: Both are correct for me. I love producing original content every day and discussing new ideas, projects for our near future. This gives me a sense of freedom. It makes me very happy to see how we touch some people's lives.
Suna: They go hand in hand for me. There was no publication in Turkish that spoke to me; the wide range of interests I have, my anxieties, how I see my womanhood and relate to society, my sense of humor, etc. In trying to amend that, I think, 5Harfliler became a space where I could meet others who, like me, were in need of some fresh air. So for me, this is where responsibility, love and commitment come together.
Difficulty of being a feminist in today's socio-political milieu in Turkey
Duygu: I think it mostly depends on the family you come from since most of those early fights you have to pick with your own folks. Class, religious background, region, financial independence all come into play. I can’t really say that women in the Turkish political arena are in any rush to call themselves feminists, except for a few. As far as actions and experiences in real life go, you’re usually pretty aware that your sensibilities are not shared by most. That’s why having a space in Turkish that prioritises gender equality (and that people also can join in) is so cool.
Nigar: It’s pretty easy, in the sense that the need for feminist thinking and action is obvious and urgent. We talk a lot amongst ourselves (and on the site) about the fact that feminism is globally “trending,” namely in pop culture, and is commodified in capitalist economies. While I am uneasy about that, the enthusiasm with which the younger generation takes up the word (if not always the movement) is remarkable.
Hazal: In Turkey, nowadays, it’s difficult to simply be. The never-ending political turmoil and violence we are living in, accelerating and intensifying day by day since 2015, leaves no space to breathe. Being a feminist is not maybe harder than usual in terms of everyday life but organising, meeting, demonstrating, policy-making are definitely getting harder every day, for feminists and for everyone who doesn’t support the government. No freedom, no political space, no self-expression, no opposition but a constant pressure to withdraw.
I wanted to be as much knowledgeable as those men, so that I could be in the picture, shortly after, I wanted to be more knowledgeable so that I could kick them out from the picture (Others)
Road to feminism, crossroads, and turning points
Duygu: I remember being about 9 or 10 and telling my dad that I would never get married. It had upset him. My parents were going through a rough patch in their marriage at the time, which might have prompted my sudden announcement. But what I perceived to be an obvious power imbalance between mom and dad was something that bugged me even at that age.
Suna: One of my earlier memories of elementary school is boys pranking girls, pulling their hair, taking away/breaking their possessions etc. (almost never vice versa, unless provoked) and that made me really angry. Despite my timidity, I couldn’t help but intervene. So, I beat a lot of boys. I was always in a silent competition with them anyways, whether it was running, singing or classes. Same with the middle-school but now there was love and sex. I thought love was overrated, and got pissed at girls who only talked about boys. I was a pain in the ass!
Then, at the age of 13-14, my very good friend was sexually harassed by some other close friends in class. She felt that she had to go back to being friends with them. That’s when I learned that men can not only get away with anything but also get credit and praise on top of all the filth they spread into the world. We start to figure out how the world functions, and the injustices that fuel its operations and position ourselves accordingly from a very young age.
There is a lot of self-righteousness in this story, which I am happily off-loading in the recent years. I came to understand that people come from distinct walks of life. The ability to remain flexible while defending a particular political stance is crucial to creating anything that’s constructive and inclusive.
Kiraz: I was born and grew up in a female dominant house. I always thought that the world was led and shaped by women, and the main responsibility of men was helping women. You know, they are physically stronger, they are able to lift heavy things, in general, they are taller, so they can easily hang the curtains. When I was 9, Duygu Asena’s book "The Woman Has No Name," was published and this was a turning point in my life. I realised the women in my family, my beloved girlfriends, and their mothers---none of us shaped the world at large. We were just a part of a world built by men. It was a big frustration for me to see this, and I think I made a decision at that point. I never identified myself with feminism until I reached my 30s, by the way. Feminism is one of the essential, inner parts of my existence. I guess I did not even think about it.
Our house was crowded with men, smoking endlessly, drinking tons of tea and getting into passionate discussions about the “big picture,” while my mother and some other women were only entering the picture in between their daily chores, serving tea and food
Hazal: When I was growing up, there were lots of socialist men around, due to my parents’ involvement in the leftist movement. Our house was crowded with men, smoking endlessly, drinking tons of tea and getting into passionate discussions about the “big picture,” while my mother and some other women were only entering the picture in between their daily chores, serving tea and food.
I developed an admiration and grudge one after the other. First, I wanted to be as much knowledgeable as those men, so that I could be in the picture, shortly after, I wanted to be more knowledgeable so that I could kick them out from the picture. This resentment, mostly on behalf of my mother, made me read a lot, search a lot, pushed me to learn a lot as a child and teenager.
When I met feminists and started to go to meetings, demonstrations and take part in organisations in my early 20s, the greatest joy was being able to claim my resentments. Then, another phase started involving a constant search for a true self, true womanhood, true feminism. That’s why I love the 30s. Nothing has to be so true, so perfect about your identity anymore. It took some time for me to get here. Now, the most important, and enjoyable, thing for me is collaborating with different women for different projects. One collaboration here, another small group there, a beautiful circle on the corner.
Challenges personal and political
Nigar: The biggest challenge for me is definitely finding the time. Time can be a luxury that some (people) possess and others lack. It is often political. Running the website while working other jobs and finishing degrees can be hard. Additionally, I’m a journalist trained in the classic newsroom setting, where dry objectivity is aspired to. Our website is a blend of opinion, commentary, personal testimony and satire. We take sides. I have been warned so many times to be careful about what words I “put out there,” I definitely have to think several times before publishing something under my real name.
Suna: For me, it is the overwhelming amount of events and injustices that connect to some issues we touch upon in 5Harfliler. To find the connections between various issues and finding the language to express them is quite difficult. How catcalling on the street (rape culture at large) is related to the fact that between 1901 - 2015, across many disciplines, there have been 825 male winners of the Nobel Prize, but just 47 female winners. Or, the connection between health and sexual minority rights. From war to water sports, everything is gendered: to squeeze women and LGBTQ rights into their ‘respective’ boxes and treat them independent of other areas is sheer manipulation. Hence, to find the language to take our rights out of these boxes is quite challenging.
Self-censorship and its extent
Hazal: No, I don’t.
Suna: Not that I know of. Some issues require more time and reflection to write on. I have a few texts half-written, slowly cooking. I don’t think this is due to self-censorship though.
The first marker of identity
Duygu: I’m a Libra.
Nigar: I am in New York now, the fifth city I’ve lived in for an extended period. When you change settings pretty often, and this doesn’t necessarily have to be spatial change, the markers of your identity can shift as well. Identity certainly shifts depending on whether I’m in the majority or minority, such as being Muslim in Turkey versus the US. My self-identification as a woman is perhaps the most constant. But you can be a different kind of woman in different contexts.
Suna: My identity keeps changing, and I intend to keep it that way.
The road ahead
Nigar: We always want more writers, more diversity in the point of origin for our content as well as the medium. And we have been forever dreaming about having access to physical spaces where we can get together with our community.
Hazal: We want to make our website bilingual. We want to simultaneously produce our pieces into English so that we can connect with a much wider audience all around the world. It’s a long shot but we are working on it.