Laurie Penny interviews the Turkish feminist and author Meltem Arikan May 2008
When the final scene ended, there was shocked silence. Absolute quiet, for two minutes. 'We were so scared!' said the director. And then the lights came up and with them thunderous applause. Some of the audience had tears pouring down their faces.
This was the reception in Zurich, Rotterdam and Istanbul of Meltem Arikan's new play, I'm Spoiling the Game. The award-winning secular feminist author is on a mission to raise a shout against the forces of religion and patriarchy grinding down women in the Middle East and across the world.
Her last novel, Enough - Don't Hurt my Flesh, which deals with incest and domestic violence was banned and then prosecuted in her native Turkey for 'disturbing family order' and attacking moral values. 'The government says that incest doesn't happen in Turkey,' she said, 'There's a strong belief that the family is a holy, sacred space. I'm saying that it's not holy.'
Although she won the case, Arikan has moved away from fiction for the present. I'm Spoiling the Game is the 40-year-old's first play.
'The theatre is so important as a protest space,' she tells me as we share a cigarette outside the Curzon cinema in Soho. With her dramatic ice-white top-knot and glittering green eyes, Meltem Arikan hails from the same blonde Turkish stock as London's new mayor, but there, fortunately, the similarity ends. She is red-eyed, having just watched Persepolis, the stunning new biopic of Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi.
'It began with the Islamic party in Iran, just the same,' she explains. 'It's so frightening to see these injustices happening in Turkey now.'
Although Arikan's work examines 'honour' killings, the veil and the notion of religious virtue with a visceral brutality born of personal experience, the emotional politics of her work touch on universal feminine experiences - something many of her readers and audience find difficult to handle.
'So many of these things are happening to women in Europe too, so it's uncomfortable,' she says, smiling darkly. 'In Zurich, people came to the play expecting to learn something about foreign cultures. Instead, they were forced to investigate themselves and their own culture. Some of them didn't like that.'
Arikan's play is certainly uncomfortable. Hastily flicking through the script on the way to our rendezvous, I expect to learn a few interesting facts about that amorphous topic, Women and Islam; what I don't expect is to find myself weeping messily and openly on the Central Line. From the opening lines, I am hooked:
'I vomit, I slice a razor across my wrists. The more I hurt myself, the more I get noticed. I can't tell the difference between love and pity. I don't love myself but I am constantly playing the game so that others will. I don't like myself but I continue to vomit so that others will.'
Meltem's characters speak openly and angrily about incest, rape, eating disorders, self-harm, virtue, marriage, modesty, sexuality, and the uses of female suffering. At the centre of her stage, young women and men debate their differences with a disarming tenderness undercut by rage; hostile disembodied voices of male religious leaders, officials and psychologists clamour around the emotional space of the stage, clustering out the female actors who struggle to make their passions and issues known. At times, the tender subtleties of Arikan's writing is breathtaking; elsewhere, her point is quite literally hammered home:
I've got a sledgehammer in my hands and I'm coming to tear down the wall between your mind and your body. I'm not an object to be used to satisfy your manhood. Are you ready? This will really hurt.'
Where years of painstaking academic research lend her stories authority, early experiences of grief and loss have cemented the visceral power of Arikan's work. 'When I was five years old, my family was in a terrible car accident. My parents were in hospital for two years, and then my mother eventually died. I was brought up in Ankara by my aunt, by my grandparents.'
'Seeing so much death so early makes you ask questions. About religion. About God. About life. About men and women,' she says, with an impish sadness. 'I've never stopped asking questions, really.'
Meltem Arikan still lives in Ankara, with her husband and thirteen-year-old son, although now, she says, 'It seems I live mostly in airports!.'
Those airports are the first stop on a ceaseless mission to promote her work, aided by a small army of fans. The uncomfortable, challenging nature of Arikan's feminist writing has led to continued difficulties in finding English publishers for her novels and her play. 'We need brave publishers,' said her friend and translator, graphic designer Melin Edomwonyi. 'Not everyone will do it.'
Undeterred, Meltem continues to write for her growing fanbase in Turkey and mainland Europe. 'All of my writing is about the journeys of women', she says, 'It's about not allowing the system to dictate how you exist. And that's what's starting to happen in Turkey today, that's what divides people - not the economy, not the environment, but the veil, the family, women's issues. Although women don't have power, the men in power talk about them all the time! But if women were truly empowered, the whole system would crumble.'
Meltem Arikan's message is radical, subtle but ungentle, a heartfelt protest against religious patriarchy everywhere. Perhaps it's this outspokenness that English-speaking publishers have found distasteful: angry Middle Eastern women who can speak for themselves are still challenging to Western post-colonial sensibilities. Her manifesto is strident, articulate and unashamed:
'If you want to change the world, all women everywhere have to learn how to exist, truly exist, as whole women, as emotional and political creatures. That's the first step. Women being themselves, really existing and being empowered, would bring the system to its knees.'
However much she is hounded by Turkish authorities and tutted at by European theatre goers, one thing is certain: Meltem Arikan is not about to roll over and hush. And thank goodness for that.
Laurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.