Protesting for educational freedom, Free Literature is getting support from Emerson’s Professor Swanson

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Photo: courtesy of Fatma Elcan

Police restrict the south campus gate at Boğaziçi University in Turkey.

By Mariyam Quaisar and Karissa Schaefer

A group titled “Free Literature” (Serbest Yazın in Turkish), made up of students from Boğaziçi University in Turkey, have been protesting for educational freedom for over 70 days. To expand their movement, the students are asking professors worldwide to teach an open course, with Emerson’s own professor Rosario Swanson included. 

Melih Bulu was recently appointed the new rector, the academic head of Boğaziçi without a formal vote, according to Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit group that “investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world.” Bulu was reportedly appointed due to his connections to the President of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

The nature of the appointment spurred an onslaught of peaceful protests, which led to the violent arrests of hundreds of student demonstrators, HRW reported. The press was kept from broadcasting the protests on campus, silencing the students’ voices from reaching the media, according to the Boğaziçi students.

Student Ceren Yilmaz of Boğaziçi University, spoke about her initial reactions to the new rector in an interview with The Beacon.

“One day we woke up, and we were appointed a new rector, who was a complete stranger,” Yilmaz said. “We were shocked and we were just like, it must be a joke, or something like that. We couldn’t believe it.” 

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As the new rector, Melih Bulu is the academic head of the university, which is equivalent to a university’s president in the U.S. 

Inspired by the open lecture platform from other schools, student Merve Altintas of Boğaziçi described how the movement came to fruition. The students considered the possibility of hosting an open lecture, where professors or experts in a certain field teach an hour-long virtual course on a topic of their choice. In the case of Boğaziçi students, they asked for literature and resistance-focused lectures. 

“The desire to contact open lecturers with the principle of independent academia, brought us together,” Altintas said. “We aim to make our voices heard in academia and all around the world. Therefore, we express the whole process and our demands at the beginning of open lecture.”

As part of their peaceful protests, the students aimed to expand their resistance by searching for topics related to their movement, and thus contacted professors from around the globe who were familiar with their goal. 

“First we send an email and we talk about our situation, our issue. Then, we decide on a date and time, and then we invite them for open lectures,” said Fatma Elcan, another Boğaziçi  student.

The Boğaziçi students contacted writing, literature and publishing professor Rosario Swanson after finding her three published pieces about resistance and literature on the Massachusetts Humanities’ website

“Those three pieces were sort of my way to say, well, these people have found a way to circumvent silencing and start resisting by representing themselves in literature,” Swanson said.

Using her prior knowledge of resistance to oppression in Latin America, Swanson will give a one hour lecture to the Turkish students on April 23 via Zoom. 

“I am going to be speaking on a similar issue, my talk is called ‘In the Spirit of Resistance,’” Swanson said. “It is going to be about women or people who have resisted, primarily in Latin America.”

Cities all around the world like Paris, Berlin and Chicago, have also partaken in the Free Literature protests. According to the Boğaziçi students, there are numerous Boğaziçi alumni worldwide who are standing with the students by sharing their stories, since the media coverage of the protests is limited. There are protests globally with supporters of the movement taking to the streets.

“The University of Oxford, Yale and Harvard announced that they’re in solidarity with Boğaziçi University. So this situation basically started solidarity among universities,” Yilmaz said. 

Students of minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community and unorthodox Muslim women, were targeted by the Turkish government recently, which added more pressure to the anti-government protests. This came after an art piece was exhibited on campus, combining Islamic symbols with elements that criticize homophobia and misogyny. President Erdoğan has also issued several pieces of legislation labeled as homophobic and misogynistic by protesters, according to reporting by ABC News.

Ebrar Nawel, another Boğaziçi student, described the online aftermath of the controversy.

“After the public saw the art pieces on social media, they actually perceived it as an insult to Islam and began to curse LGBTQ+ invidiuals and Boğaziçi University students in general on social media,” Nawel said in an interview with the Beacon.

Tweets were shared by Bulu and the Minister of Internal Affairs, Süleyman Soylu, bringing hate speech towards the LGBTQ+ Boğaziçi student community. Twitter took action, labeling the minister’s tweet as “hateful conduct,” according to Reuters. The LGBTQ+ community is frequently scrutinized by the Turkish government, with their individual freedoms under attack, students said. 

“No matter if we are Muslim or non-Muslim, we are trying to build up academic freedom and autonomy all together,” Nawel said. “Our religion and sexual orientation or anything we have doesn’t matter. We all just want to take our freedom back. We want to provide democratic and multicultural atmosphere in the university again.”

Nawel further explained how traumatic these attacks have been for the students. The government titled these students as “terrorists,” trying to deny them as students of Boğaziçi University, she said. 

However, according to Nawel, the government was unable to fully succeed at this labeling, as public research proves seven out of 10 people think the students are righteous. Their impact shows the government can’t control everything, including public opinion, and made the students’ protests successful, Nawel said. 

Yilmaz also mentioned Free Literature’s basic demands and how open lectures, like Professor Swanson’s, contribute to their goal of ending corruption at Boğaziçi University.

“We want [the] resignation of [the] appointed rector and we want returned elections in our university back. Turkish media didn’t mention our protests, our resistance to police violence, so we would like to proclaim our protests all around the world because no one heard our voice in Turkey,” Yilmaz said. “This is our main point to holding these open lectures.”

Nawel added how important the open lectures are for generating widespread communication about their protests. 

“These open lectures give us a great chance to contact and communicate with people from all around the world. We argue how academics can be better, can be more free, and we discuss it actually. This is a huge process,” Nawel said. “[We] share our feelings and thoughts on what is academic freedom, what is autonomy and how we can get these principles back in our university.”

Free Literature strives for academic collaboration through the virtual, open lecture platforms. With this, they want to gather ideas and hope to gain their academic, individual rights back, the students said. 

Free Literature’s main goal is to regain the ability to choose the rectors for their university freely, students from the group said. The students emphasize that professors, students, artists and many more are invited to the open lectures. While they have placed importance on resistance literature, they also offer a chance for different areas of discipline or organizations to promote the movement and hold a conversation with the students. 

The students at Boğaziçi University say they face oppression, due to the forced political ideologies from the Turkish government.  They plan on changing that.

“In the university, we can’t breathe anymore because we feel that oppression any moment and it’s a very big obstacle to think freely and produce science, or art, or literature or literary pieces freely, and we think that these ideas are free opinion, free thinking,” Nawel said.  

Fellow students can help the Turkish students gain back their freedom by spreading their stories and advocating for them through social media and other platforms.