Religious cleric criticizes Turkey's women's volleyball team for their appearance in Tokyo Olympics

A screenshot from a video stream of the Turkey vs. China women's volleyball game, Tokyo Olympics, July 25, 2021.

Turkey's women's volleyball team, known as the “Sultans of the Net,” beat China 3–0 during a Tokyo Olympic match on July 25. It was a win worth celebrating — China has previously won six Olympic medals in women's volleyball including three gold. But as many praised the Turkish team whose next game will be against Italy, others are facing backlash for criticizing the players over their so-called decency.

İhsan Şenocak, the founder of Scientific and Intellectual Research Center (IFAM), a religious association in Turkey, has gone viral after criticizing the players’ modesty. His tweet criticizing the team and discussing a woman's place in Islam spurred backlash online and re-energized discussions about women's rights and secularism in Turkey.

The daughters of Islam! You are not the Sultan of the playing courts. You are the Sultan of faith, chastity, morality, modesty, and decency. You are the daughter who is ashamed of showing your nose. Don't be fooled and become prey to the screens and the bearded brothers’ popular culture calling you a Sultan. You are our hope and our prayer.

The response to this tweet among Turkish Twitter users was overwhelming.

They think that open ignorance and bigotry is about having a different view. But it isn't.

I am leaving here the cultural difference between these two pictures.

Our women's volleyball team! Why don't you ask yourself Ihsan Senocak about daughters of Islam. Let's see how many dunks you will get on your head? Also, who do you think you are? That is a whole other question.

The reactions to Şenocak's tweet prompted the user to share another tweet in which he claimed “there was nothing offensive” in his earlier tweet and that it was “simply a call about what a woman should and should not be in Islam.” 

In 2019, Şenocak delivered a sermon in which he reportedly said, “daughters, wives, wearing pants, going to universities, and getting their eyebrows done, will end up in hell.”

This is not the first time, the Sultans were under the scrutiny of predominantly male conservatives. In January 2020, a member of the National People's Party (MHP) Birol Şahin was removed from the party ranks, after accusing the team of being immodest. Following a victory against Germany that secured the team the right to attend the Tokyo Olympics, Şahin said, “By defying the order of God to cover your body lines, you are dressing immodestly, you are exposing yourselves and you are glad about it because you are going to Tokyo.”

The division between Turkey's staunch conservatives and secularists is an ongoing point of tension. In 2014, President Erdogan accused feminists of not understanding motherhood. Speaking at a summit in Istanbul, the president reportedly said, “Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”

In June 2021, the government under the ruling Justice and Development Party withdrew from the Istanbul Convention — a doctrine protecting women from domestic abuse and sexual assault. In an article for Al-Monitor, Journalist Pinar Tremblay accused conservatives of claiming to defend womanhood, but also turning women into trophies.

The state’s patriarchal Islamist ideology has made women’s bodies vulnerable. In its logic, women are the property of men. Each political conflict is seen as a battle. When the battle is over, the winner can have the loot, including the women and girls. For example, after the July 15 attempted coup, pro-AKP social media posts claimed that the “wives of putschists are our trophies.” During the referendum of 2017, an employee of Istanbul Municipality posted on social media that it was war, and when those who oppose the presidential system lose the referendum, “we can have their daughters and wives.”

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