HOW DID TURKEY’S VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP BECOME A DOMESTIC DEBATE?
After a soul-crushing election season for many, Turks are finally enjoying some sort of national unity. Rallying behind the women’s volleyball team, known as the “Sultans of the Net”, the country has recently focused on the team’s success and the ensuing backlash. “How can a glorious victory in sports cause a political backlash?” one might rightfully ask. Under Erdogan’s 21-year rule, everything has become political, including the women’s volleyball team.
“We are a volleyball country” has emerged as a motto many Turks have adopted this year. Although football is recognized as the most popular sport in the country, despite the significant investments and vast audience, the success fans yearn for remains elusive. Each year, big football clubs such as Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, and Besiktas compete fiercely to win the national league. Yet, securing a European title in football seems like a distant dream. On the contrary, Turkish volleyball teams have been excelling in international competitions. Given this backdrop, the national team’S success was anticipated.
Earlier in June, The Sultans of the Net won the fifth edition of the FIVB Volleyball Women’s Nations League, an annual international volleyball tournament. By defeating China in four sets, Turkey claimed their first title in the history of the tournament. Later that summer, they won the EuroVolley Women 2023 final against Serbia, marking their first European championship. The team currently holds the title of the world’s best women’s volleyball team. This accolade marks the first instance where the Turkish national volleyball team has been ranked as the top team globally, a feat neither football nor basketball has achieved.
However, the women’s volleyball team’s success was not the only thing that dominated the headlines in Turkey. There was an amazing team behind all these, but two of the players came under the spotlight: Ebrar Karakurt and Melissa Vargas. The fact that these players were openly lesbian was enough to spur a public debate over their sexuality and the state of LGBTQ+ rights in Turkey.
Despite being a secular republic, Turkey ranks among the least LGBTQ+-friendly nations in Europe. Although the country once hosted the biggest pride parade in the region in the 2010s, the fundamental rights of queers have been increasingly infringed upon as Erdogan’s government took a more authoritarian turn after the failed coup attempt in 2016. While marriage equality is a frequent topic of discussion among Turkey’s Eastern European neighbors, queers in Turkey still lack their most fundamental freedoms. Especially during the previous election season, Erdogan and his allies used an anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to consolidate their Islamist base. Even amidst the tournament, ocials from Erdogan’s party targeted Karakurt and Vargas.
“We are tired of this person [Karakurt] casting a shadow over our national achievements. If I had one vote, I would use it to remove this person from the national team,” Mucahit Birinci, a board member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, wrote on X. An Islamist newspaper called her “a national shame.”
Karakurt is not only an ambitious player on the field but she is also great at striking back at the homophobic outcry. During the final week of the tournament, an X user named Abdulhamid responded to one of her posts, saying, “As the Muslim Turkish nation, we continue to put up with you.” After the victory, Ms. Karakurt posted a photograph of herself holding a sign that read, “Cut the crap, Abdulhamid.”
The success of the Sultans of the Net meant more than a title. They were able to unite the majority of the country behind them as their success didn’t only depend on their performance during the tournament but also on to the extent which they could endure homophobia and sexism. Ignorance and hatred of dierent forms have been well-entrenched in Turkish society, which worsened ever since Erdogan came to power, as the government itself targets those who are outside of their norms. What struck me as a Turkish citizen was to see those around me who I thought could have homophobic tendencies defending Karakurt and Vargas. All of a sudden, something we believe to be such a taboo in Turkey has become a daily discussion for a while with mostly anti-Erdogan populations giving up their phobia in exchange for their national pride to be satisfied.
The impact this had on girls and queers was a real victory for those believing in a more just and equal Turkey. No Islamist would like to see two lesbians leading their national team in an international tournament that captures the attention of millions. The visibility they got was quite unmatched considering that there are not many openly queer public figures in the country. Although Turkey and its people have a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, the success that the Sultans of the Net got is powerful enough to point out what the country is missing: a united front against Erdogan’s sexist and homophobic agenda.