Elif Shafak and Nus Ghani discuss women, identity and politics

Elif Shafak / Asia House

Elif Shafak and Nus Ghani discuss women, identity and politics

27 September 2018

Priyanka Mogul, Communications Officer

“Books change us. They change the readers, but they also change the writers. You’re a different person by the time it finishes. And in my books, there’s always an attempt to give more voice to minorities.”

Elif Shafak appeared at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2018 to discuss some of the main themes of her books – religion, women, identity and politics – that has made her the most widely read female writer in Turkey. The award-winning novelist told an admiring Asia House audience that writers have a responsibility to tackle taboo topics in society and ask questions that prompt the reader to think about an issue in a different light.

Shafak was in conversation with Nus Ghani, MP for Wealden and the first Muslim female minister to speak from the House of Commons dispatch box. During the discussion, the pair shared personal stories from their own lives as Muslim women in the West, and exchanged views on how artists and politicians can work to create change on the ground.

The role of women in society

“How are we going to get more women engaged in a space that they already feel is quite hostile, is managed by men or has power structures they cannot access?” This was the question Ghani posed to Shafak, in regards to getting more women into politics.

Shafak responded that the world of politics isn’t the only sphere with problems. She noted that while the literary world – at first glance – looks liberal, it still has a long way to go.

“When you scratch the surface, underneath it’s the same patriarchy, it’s the same sexism, it’s the same homophobia that you see elsewhere in the society.”

Shafak added that, in the Middle East, things get slightly easier for women as they age – and they begin to be taken more seriously. Echoing Shafak’s comments, Ghani said that despite being an MP in a modern, democratic country where anyone can stand for office, “there is still an old school mentality about who should have power and who has the right to voice their opinions.”

Both believe that there is a need for women to support each other in the fight for true equality. Shafak recounted her interactions with young women in schools, saying that she has witnessed how girls are being conditioned by society to hold back. The girls she interacts with in primary schools tend to be full of courage and creativity – with many of them wanting to be artists and writers. However, by the time they reach high school, Shafak notices a drastic change in their demeanour.

“We’ve taught these girls to be timid, to worry about what people are going to say. This is a huge pressure on so many young women; how you’re going to be judged by others. We need to break that, we need to be more supportive of each other. The support system, the awareness is very important.”

Watch our interview with Elif Shafak below

Questioning identity

The event drew in a primarily young, female audience, who were eager to learn more about Shafak’s writing process (she admitted she likes to write while listening to heavy metal music on repeat), as well as how both speakers tackle being from two very different cultures.

Through her books, Shafak focuses on giving a voice to those who have “been forgotten” or “whose stories have been silenced”. She says that this is partly because she knows what it feels like to be “the other”.

“I have felt like that growing up; always at the very edge of society. Somehow you’re tolerated but not fully accepted, and you’re very much aware of that thin line. It can easily cross that boundary.”

The writer told the audience that, even in her motherland of Turkey, she isn’t fully accepted and that she is constantly being accused of “not being Turkish enough” or “stabbing the nation in the back”. It’s these sentiments that make her want to question the notion of identity politics and the idea that people have “monolithic, stable identities”.

On the topic of identity and multi-identities, Ghani said that while her generation was lucky enough to grow up in a time when embracing multiple cultures was accepted, today’s generation doesn’t have it as easy.

“Unfortunately for young people now they are being forced to identify who they are quite early on,” the MP said.

Shafak emphasised the need for multiple identities, saying that she herself feels as though she has a mix of Istanbul, the Balkans, the Middle East, and London in her – and asks why a person can’t be many things at the same time.

She added: “We are all a mixture and we should celebrate that.”

Engaging in politics

Shafak emphasised the need to engage with those who are “the other”, including those who you would otherwise be critical of. She said that although she disagrees with people who voted for Trump and Brexit, she believes it is dangerous to paint them all in the same light. Instead, she encourages discussion between those with differing views and an attempt to engage and understand where the other comes from.

“This is where we need stories, this is where we need emotional intelligence, and this is where we need empathy. It is our responsibility to go beyond our own echo-chambers, our own comfort zones. And it is through a novel that you realise, wait a minute, the same history can be told in two different ways. Actually it can be told in 60 different ways, depending on who is telling the story.”

Meanwhile, Ghani pointed out that while writers have the space to tell these stories, “politics is often played out in 140 characters or less”. She continued: “My concern is that we don’t have the opportunity to tell stories, to have a debate, to win over an argument.”

Shafak believes that what the world now needs is a kind of politics that goes beyond the two-party politics; a kind of political activism “that cares about the loss of core values and brings us together.

“It’s the readers who keep the art of storytelling alive and who show us that words matter, even when stories and words are regarded as dangerous because of the political situation.”

Watch event in full

There’s lots more coming up at this year’s Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival – check out the full programme