Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Women nervously breaking down at the edge

Orhan Pamuk's Snow is an incredible novel. The story is told as an investigation of a trip that a poet Ka took to the remote town of Kars. He went to this forsaken place to report on a spate of suicides among Muslim school girls and to convince a woman whom he knew in his youth to return to Germany with him.

While there he meets with an underground movement of radical Islamists who may or may not be connected to the suicides. Filled with desire, religious thoughts, and exposed to the old cityscape, Ka started writing poetry with great fervor. Political events, however, took over: the city's secularists staged a coup in order to eliminate the Islamists.

The narrative style can be dense at times, with complex discussion about politics and religion. There are also discussion about literature and poetry. However, they are all appropriate to the story.

One thing for which I must thank Pamuk (if I ever meet him) is his attention to the relationship between gender and geography. Recently I have been “depressed” because women (real women) don’t often show up in regional history. They are often written off, theoretically, because they carry the burden of national ideals of motherhood.

Pamuk makes the setting, the city of Kars on the eastern frontier, and women central to the conflicts between secularism, Islamic fundamentalism and Kurdish liberation.

Kars has an interesting history. A frontier city in Tsarist Russia, it was built by the Armenian elites who made their fortunes from commerce with Central Asia. In modern Turkey, Kars has wasted away. Opportunities and wealth drain away towards the west, taking the youth of the city to Istanbul to live westernized lives. The people who are left live in cultural impoverishment.

Into the vacuum have come Islamists, who are critical of Turkey’s secularism and the oppressive measures used by the government to stifle them. They also complain of the loss of religious fervor in public life and the decline of spirituality. The decline of Kars, as depicted in the book, is probably an attempt to critique of Turkey's attitude towards the history of the Armenian genocide.

Unfortunately, the outward sign of their struggle is the veil, and they turn the city into a battleground over the use of the veil by women. Kars is overcome by a spate of suicides of girls. From the outside it appears that the suicides all confronted the choice between baring their heads in public and expulsion from school.

Denials come from all corners. The municipality and government say that the suicides are not the result of totalitarianism and religious oppression. The fundamentalists claim that good Muslim girls would not commit suicide. The citizens deny the existence of a problem.

The depths of the problem are more subtle: the process of backwardness on the border treats men and women unequally. Islam politicizes the men, allowing them leeway in attacking oppression of the state, but women are forced to perform.
The men give themselves to religion, and the women kill themselves.”

What few choices women have are understood by the dichotomy of Istanbul/Kars. In Istanbul women can free themselves of the gaze of religious zealotry, but they live in a consumer society that offers no political outlet and is bereft of spirituality. The periphery, with its lax government controls, allows for greater political freedom, but at other costs.

The women of Kars realize that they must behave differently, must at least present themselves more modestly. To become more worldly -- more westernized -- means to depoliticize oneself. Once the women took on political roles by putting on veils, they found that they could not go back: not to secular lives, not to the westernized world. Both the state and the Islamists turned them into objects of their conflict.
I put on a head scarf one day to make a political statement. I just did it for a laugh, but it also felt frightening. I'm very sure I intended to wear it for only one day; it was one of those revolutionary gestures that you laugh about years later, when you are remembering the good old days when you were political. But the state, the police and the local press came down on me so hard I could hardly think of it as a joke anymore.


At 9:29 AM, Blogger tappedfull said...

Interesting blog, made me think, I'll have to check out the book.

At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Martin said...

Orhan Pamuk is an author of incredible knowledge. I have been very impressed by My Name is Red, and i am looking forward for Snow.


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