The "Sultans of the Net" - © EvrenKalinbacak/Shutterstock

The "Sultans of the Net" - © EvrenKalinbacak/Shutterstock

The "Sultans of the Net", the Turkish women's national volleyball team, won the European championship at the beginning of September, confirming their leadership at world level. The victory, however, reignited divisions at home over the rights and identities of sexual minorities

14/09/2023 -  Kenan Behzat Sharpe Istanbul

In a fantastic upset, Turkey won the Women’s European Volleyball Championship on September 3. The Turkish national team avenged themselves against the Serbian team who beat them in the previous European championship. After Turkey’s 3-2 victory was declared, the players, known affectionately as the “Sultans of the Net,” danced, cheered, and raised their trophy high in the air as the sounds of Turkish drums and horns filled the volleyball court in Brussels’ Palais 12.

Ebrar Karakurt, one of the team’s star players known for her aggressive serves, had tears streaming down her face as the Turkish national anthem played through the loudspeakers. Under the leadership of coach Daniele Santarelli, the team had previously beat the reigning champion Italy in the Nations League and won their first World title. Now as the European champions, the Sultans of the Net have their sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympics.

While such victory would normally be a source of pride, in Turkey the joy was dampened by political controversy and hate speech. The controversy started over player Karakurt, an outspoken woman who has previously been harassed and insulted by religious extremists in Turkey over her sexual identity. Though she has never explicitly come out as a lesbian, photographs she has shared with a person assumed to be her girlfriend on social media have made her a target.

Before the match in Brussels, an X user with the handle Abdülhamid, the name of one of the Ottoman Empire’s last sultans who has been embraced by Turkish conservatives as an ideal Islamic leader, lashed out at Karakurt. “We, as the Muslim Turkish nation, continue to tolerate you”, the user wrote. Karakurt replied, “Stop talking nonsense”. After her post went viral, the player shared a photograph of herself holding a poster of the same tweet. In response to this perceived slight against the memory of Sultan Abdülhamid, Islamist daily Yeni Akit published an article describing Karakurt as a “national shame ”. Controversial former mayor of Ankara Melih Gökçek made a statement saying that she is “an LGBT unworthy to be on the national team”.

AKP: an anti-LGBTQ+ political agenda

These attacks against a volleyball player assumed to be a lesbian come at a time when the Turkish government is ramping up attacks against the LGBTQ+ community. Though homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been rallying its supporters around an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. In his first speech after his re-election in May 2023, Erdoğan promised to pass a constitutional amendment to “protect the family” from “perverts”. Meanwhile, some of the AKP’s Islamist allies want to criminalise homosexuality. They also attack the principle of co-ed education while calling for changes to current laws on alimony, the legal age limit for marriage, and divorce rights.

Deep-rooted debate and controversy

As the Sultans of the Net prepared for their big match in Brussels, Karakurt became a lightning rod for debates about LGBTQ+ identity. This debate is part of a larger cultural war in Turkey between those who want a Turkey based on religious identity and those who defend the secular identity of the country as enshrined in the constitution. Left-wing graphic designer Mahir Akkoyun shared an illustration of a woman volleyball player in front of a rainbow smacking not a ball but a fez, a hat that symbolises the Ottoman period and was banned by the secularising leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In response, some Turkish social media users expressed their wish that the Serbian team, Turkey’s long-time rival, would win the match over the Turkish national team.

This controversy continued throughout the match and afterward. While the game was screened across Turkey, the AKP governor of Istanbul rejected an application by the opposition-led municipal mayor to screen the match in the city’s iconic Taksim Square, the site of massive anti-government protests in 2013. Faced with the reality of the team’s victory, key figures in the government congratulated the team but did so while sidelining Karakurt. Mehmet Şimşek shared a photograph of the team on social media that left the player out of frame. After the match, neither Karakurt nor Melissa Vargas, the team’s buzz-cut Cuban MVP also widely assumed to be a lesbian, were interviewed by Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT. In response, Karakurt posted a picture of her and Vargas hugging on social media with the caption ‘This is neither the first final we’ve played nor the first psychological war we’ve fought”.

The role of women in sports and public life more generally has long been an issue of contention under AKP rule. Erdoğan has famously said, “Women and men cannot be equal; it’s contrary to nature”. Şimşek has argued that unemployment is high in Turkey because women are seeking employment. Mediatic theologian and former bureaucrat in the Ministry of Religious Affairs İhsan Şenocak attacked the Sultans of the Net in 2021: “Daughter of Islam! You are not the sultan of court but the sultan of faith, virtue, morality, modesty, decency. You’re the child of women who were ashamed even to show their noses”. These views are far from fringe. On her way to the Turkish Handball Championship, then-13-year-old player Merve Akpınar described the challenges girls face in sports. In her village in Şanlıurfalı, she was repeatedly told, “You’re a girl. You can’t wear shorts or play with the boys”.

Women athletes in Turkey – like world record holder free-diver Şahika Ercümen or Aysu Türkoğlu, the first Turkish woman to swim across the North Channel – are celebrated by the Turkish government for their achievements as long as they do not pose a threat to these views of women as meek, self-effacing, and modest. Karakurt has become a target because she is assertive, unapologetic, and at peace with her sexuality. Even outside of Turkey, the Sultans of the Net have become a symbol for women rejecting the rules and boundaries set by religion. When the footage showed the players jumping and embracing after the championship game, X was full of Iranian women saying that they wish they could dance freely like their Turkish sisters.

Erdoğan's ambiguity

Erdoğan, who had congratulated team captain Eda Erdem on the phone after her team’s victory, seemed to weigh in on the controversy over the Sultans of the Net in an ambiguous statement posted on September 6. He wrote that sports and art/culture are areas where people in Turkey should unite with pride. However, “on buses and the metro, in shops, and on the roads we now see those who are so impertinent as to harass our people”. He went on to say that the nation is “not the property of a tiny minority” and promised to fight against “social perversity”.

The president’s statement at first seems to lament that an athletic victory which should be a moment of pride for the whole nation became a narrow political debate. The mention of attacks on public transportation reminded many of an incident in Istanbul a day after the volleyball match when a woman was caught on camera on a city bus harassing another women and shouting, “You cannot make my country lesbian!”.

However, the mention of “perverts” and “lewd minorities” in Erdoğan’s statement shows that his target lies elsewhere. In the president’s speeches, his own supporters always form the righteous majority who symbolises the Turkish nation. According to this view, women like Karakurt are spoiling moments of national pride with their “perversity”.

As long as figures in the Turkish government stoke social polarisation and cultural war over matters of gender and sexuality, it is unlikely that the country will find any sort of unity, even in moments where people of all political backgrounds and identities should be able to come together.

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