Sex A Taboo To A Muslim Girl

Rosie Millard
There is no way that Selin Tamtekin could be described as even remotely low-life. Immaculate, groomed to perfection, she walks towards me on perfectly unscuffed heels, without a gleaming hair out of place or a single microfibre of dust on her pristine white shirt.

At 33 she looks after the private clients of a Mayfair contemporary art gallery, organising dinner parties for collectors and inhabiting a glittering world that thinks nothing of dropping £40,000 on a painting. Her father is Yuksel Tamtekin, one of Turkey's most revered consular-generals.

Yet she has caused outrage in Turkey after the British publication of her debut novel. The Turkish Diplomat's Daughter is a racy roman à clef, chronicling sexual affairs with a Bangladeshi landlord, a sailor and a Freddie Mercury-obsessed fantasist.

When Turkish newspapers got hold of the book, Tamtekin admitted her identity (it is written under the pseudonym Deniz Goran) and was so roundly pilloried that worried friends dubbed her "the female Salman Rushdie". Splashed on the front pages of at least four national newspapers, she was derided as a "high-class Mayfair prostitute" who was writing about her own thinly veiled sexual experiences. The media were astonished that not only a Turkish woman but one from the highest echelons of society had written so frankly about her sexuality.

A public witch-hunt went on to name and shame members of the Turkish elite whose sexual peccadil-loes were supposedly outlined by the novel. Tamtekin went into hiding for three weeks, horrified by the uproar.

Despite the title, she insists that the novel is not about her experiences.

"It's not an autobiography, although there are people and situations in it that have inspired me. In society, women are expected to play the game according to the rules. Well, I wanted to create a character who does as she pleases. It's not common for women in Turkey to be so overtly sexual," admits Tamtekin.

Although she concedes she has not received death threats, the examples of not only Rushdie, but also Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker murdered for Submission, his transgressive film about women and sex in Islamic society, are a reminder that artistic expression as social critique is not easily accepted in some Muslim countries, even the secular ones.

Tamtekin is unbowed and is furious about the hypocrisy. "It's not as if no one has sex in Turkey. Of course women have sexually active lives, but they always make sure that no one hears about them. Women aren't able to stand out as individuals and talk openly about sex or fancying men," she says.

Turkey might pride itself on its secularity, but it seems as if the notion of a sexually active woman is as utterly taboo there as it is in far more fundamentalist Muslim countries. Tamtekin, who has a BA in history of art from University College London, is the first Turkish Muslim woman to publish a sexually explicit book. The reaction to what would seem pretty mainstream in Britain and the rest of Europe, where even such salacious series as Sex and the City have become accepted, shows how wide the gulf in attitudes still is between Turkey and its neighbours.

The process of Turkish accession to the European Union may well require a wholesale modernisation of the country's attitudes to women and freedom of expression. "There are no tele-vision programmes where people just chat about sex, for example," says Tamtekin. "Where I am from in Istan-bul, it's not that restrictive. I come from a secular, liberal background. But a high number of people living in Turkey regard virginity as crucial and would not contemplate the idea that their daughter might have sex before marriage."

As her book roundly attests, this morality is often utter hypocrisy; Tamtekin vividly describes a society where young women may well be sexually active but who are encouraged to visit a back-street doctor for a bit of "corrective" surgery before marriage.

She writes of a society where in remote rural areas incest is an unspoken but present horror and where, even among the middle classes, "sex, especially female sexuality and homo-sexuality, is still regarded as taboo - it's always done in a highly intricate manner behind closed doors".

From the subsequent furore, one can only surmise that many of her observations on Turkish society are spot on; even her father, the worldly wise diplomat, has stopped speaking to her since her book came out. "When a female Turkish author writes about sex in such a big way, that's a big issue," says Tamtekin sadly.

Given all the fuss, why did she go on with the publication of her novel in Turkish, which is now imminent? "Before signing the Turkish agreement I did have my doubts," she admits. "But if you have an idea and have created something, you have to take a stand and go all the way. I'm not insisting on imposing my own ideas, but everyone has a right to an opinion. I believe I have a right to publish this book in Turkey. And I will stand by my book."

She says that when writing it she just let her imagination wander. "I mean, why do people make such a big deal of it," she says. "We all have sex, everyone does. Sex is part of life and we should come to terms with it. From an early age, my father always taught me there was no taboo in art. And so I took him at his word."

Somehow I suspect that did not go down too well with the former consular-general. "Well, I sent him a letter reminding him that he always told me I was an artist with a great imagination. Of course, my mother asked me why I didn't write a novel all about flowers and birds."

Her novel is a lively gauntlet thrown down by a single woman championing casual sex. It encourages women to indulge in sex openly and freely and even dares to cast a sceptical look at marital fidelity. And it's not just about Turkey.

As she writes: "I never seem to understand why society considers sexually liberated women as such a big threat. Even in London, as a woman you need to play down your sexuality, otherwise people see you as some sort of a nuisance. I find it insane that there is still a majority out there who actually believe men . . . have a much higher sexual drive than women."

While The Turkish Diplomat's Daughter (Burning House, £10.99) may not be perfect literary fiction, the ideas that it suggests are quietly revolutionary. "I would like to be able to change opinion a bit," says Tamtekin. "I am not saying every woman should be leaping around, but they should have more freedom to do so if they wish to. And be open about it."

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