While men’s football – as in many countries – is the most popular sport in Turkey, women’s volleyball has recently been turning heads with the growing success of the national team.
A second-place win in the 2019 European championship was followed with a trip to this year’s Olympics, where the team reached the quarter finals for the first time in history. Another strong showing in the 2021 European championship – Turkey finished third – helped fix the team in the public mind.
Women’s sport more generally has been attracting increasing attention in Turkey due to a string of successes for female athletes. At the Tokyo Olympics this year, boxer Busenaz Sürmeneli became the first woman to win a gold medal for Turkey, while freestyle wrestler Yasemin Adar won a bronze medal. Women’s sports have become more visible even in rural areas, while billboards around the country celebrating sporting heroes no longer only feature men.
Viewing figures show that almost half of Turkish television viewers watched the women’s national team play in the 2021 European volleyball championship; by contrast, the Turkish men’s football team was watched by only a quarter of viewers during their recent qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup.
The women’s volleyball team has also received attention for the secular, non-jingoistic image they present at a time when conservative and chauvinistic attitudes are increasingly encouraged. When the team reached the European championship semi-finals, Dilek Kaya, wife of the mayor of Istanbul, congratulated the team on social media for having “shown the world the power of the modern Turkish woman”.
Sports podcaster Barış Arıkan told Inside Turkey that the women’s team had played a key role in dispelling divisive rhetoric.
“I think a sense of unity, without regard for the outcome, was formed around the national women’s volleyball team at a time when sports is polarised like many other areas of social life,” Arıkan said.
The women’s team has also brought in a lighter tone to the grim atmosphere surrounding sports that becomes exacerbated by men’s football, he added.
“The ugly environment around football and the unnecessary quarrels outside of the game have tired viewers and pushed people away from the game, but the women’s national volleyball team has made people feel like they’re part of the team. They’ve emerged as a proud fan favourite regardless of their scores, I hope they can keep this momentum going,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. İhsan Şenocak, an imam employed by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, posted on Twitter recently that women who played volleyball were out of step with Islamic principles.
“DAUGHTER OF ISLAM!” he wrote. “You are the SULTAN not of THE PITCH but of faith, chastity, modesty and decency. YOU ARE THE DAUGHTER of ‘mothers who would be ashamed to even show their nose.’ Don’t you be fooled … by being called ‘sultan’ by the victims of popular culture! YOU ARE both our hope and our prayer!”
Another Muslim commentator, Ahmet Ünlü, made homophobic comments – also on Twitter – after volleyball player Ebrar Karakurt shared a photo of her female partner.
“If a human exposes a sin and nobody speaks up, pain will encircle all,” Ünlü wrote.
Both of these discriminatory statements were widely criticised by the team’s supporters. Senem Timuroğlu, a specialist in gender studies at Istanbul’s Özyeğin University, told Inside Turkey that the team itself provided a riposte to the divisive comments, as well as to Turkey’s conservative government.
“Speeches by officials have said that the primary duty of a woman is motherhood, but our women’s success in all categories from boxing to volleyball at the Tokyo Olympics was the best answer to the government. Women in this country don’t intend on getting boxed into any roles assigned to them, and we see increasingly more women set out to realise their goals,” Timuroğlu said.
“Soccer has a male-dominant culture, includes sexist chants and cursing, and is intertwined with militaristic and nationalistic rhetoric. But women’s volleyball allows us to see the sport that’s often lost behind the culture of violence in soccer,” Timuroğlu added.
Women volleyball players present a good example to young girls and women, alongside their encouragement of sports, Timuroğlu added. In mid-August, Turkish media reported that a group of women in Kirazlık, a village in north-eastern Turkey, had set up a net in their neighbourhood to play volleyball.
“I wish we lived in a world where athletes didn’t have to be involved with anything other than their sport, and didn’t have to be role models about anything else. I’m really glad to see them present themselves as a response to conservatives. They’re setting a historic challenge for the girls and women in this country,” Timuroğlu said.