The Queer Feminist Possibilities of Can

RIDGS GRPP Fellow Ali Yıldırım Uses Unique Methodologies to Study Alevi Culture
A professional headshot of Ali Yildrim

Ali Yıldırım is a PhD student in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies and recipient of a 2022 RIDGS Graduate Research Partnering Program (GRPP) Fellowship. He came to Minnesota from Turkey and received his bachelor's and master’s degrees in Istanbul. Ali’s dissertation is an original and ambitious project, encompassing research and methodologies from history, gender and sexuality studies, ethnic studies, and religious studies. The guiding question of the project is to show how sexual and sectarian minoritization are intertwined and used as substitutes for one another in the context of the Alevi population in Turkey. Ali approaches this task using two “conceptual building blocks:” deviance, and the Alevi concept of can

Alevis in Turkey

Ali provides a brief piece of historical and cultural context to allow readers unfamiliar with the role of Alevis in Turkey’s political and social environment to engage with the most crucial parts of his research. This article captures only a very small portion of Alevi history and culture. The Alevis are an ethnically and linguistically diverse religious group (many of whom identify as Muslims, although some do not) with populations across Turkey who perform worship and religious services in cem houses instead of mosques.

According to Ali, Alevi spiritual rituals are highly embodied and performance-driven and often charged with political dissent since cem houses are not officially recognized as places of worship in modern-day Turkey, nor are Alevis even recognized as an ethnic minority group by law, like Armenians and Jews are in the country. Alevis have faced various forms of marginalization in Turkey for centuries; this has occasionally taken extreme forms such as the Sivas massacre in 1993, perpetrated against Alevi intellectuals. Despite the lack of formal political recognition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited several cem houses as part of a political outreach campaign, sparking controversy throughout the Alevi community. Ali wants to be very careful not to subscribe to any of the binaries characterizing much of the discourse around Alevis in Turkey, stressing that Alevis are diverse in their political and religious beliefs and that it would be misleading to paint all Alevis with the same brush. 

Building Blocks

Ali’s first building block requires an investigation into the roots of the idea of Alevi sexual deviance and how that notion became central to political and sectarian policies and attitudes marginalizing Alevis in many different realms of Turkish life. This component of the dissertation would be the first comprehensive scholarly study of Alevi sexuality to date. According to Ali, Alevi scholars have argued that, as in many nation-states, a minority group has been marginalized for the political purpose of strengthening the national identity of the majority, and in this case, that group is the Alevis.

Alevis, as a group with geographic and religious affiliations in Shia Iran who often do not assimilate completely into the dominant culture, have been, as one example, accused of being dirty and impure due to a difference in religious practices. This is a characterization which helps emphasize the “purity” of the dominant, non-Alevi Turkish people. Alevis have also been portrayed as participants in deviant sexual activities, including incest and orgies, within cem houses, a stereotype pejoratively referred to as “blowing out the candles.” 

The second building block involves using religious studies and queer and affect studies lensed to postulate how the Alevi concept of can could be used as a counterintuitive space with the possibility to challenge the allegation of deviance, and, in the broader sense, to teach a new theory of belonging and worldmaking. Can is a Turkish term that is commonly used to denote the feelings of love, being loved, living-ness, soul, and self. In Alevi life, the term takes on the additional meaning of being and becoming, in a non-gendered way. As Ali describes, “when you enter a cem house, you are no longer woman and man, but can.”

This is a unique concept in Turkey, although Ali conducts studies of literatures in disciplines such as gender studies and Indigenous studies in order to understand similar concepts from other cultures which resonate with can, such as the concept of two-spirit in indigenous cultures. A thorough and sensitive treatment of this concept requires truly interdisciplinary study. Ali describes further aspects of the concept that he is researching, saying:

Rather than taking it for granted, I am trying to understand the politics, the discursive politics and politics related to gender and sexuality beyond this [face-value] concept, and of course, I will not render it ahistorical. There is also a history beyond the concept of can.

This level of immersive study can only be achieved through physical immersion in Alevi communities in Turkey, which is where Ali has spent much of his research. In addition to a wealth of archives and opportunities to receive oral histories, it is equally crucial for Ali to be present in a space in which the entire community embraces a certain embodiment of the Alevi concept of can in their everyday lives. 

"A Queer Feminist Ecology"

Ali’s connections to scholars within other RIDGS units allow him to approach this work using lenses and vocabularies beyond those specific to Turkish studies or even gender and sexuality studies. He is inspired by the unique ways in which disciplines such as Black and Indigenous studies treat the unique intersections between race, ethnicity, and allegedly “transgressive” or “non-normative” sexualities, which lends him new frameworks for analyzing his own subject matter.

Ali’s conception of can as applied to his own life, which he situates as “a constellation, a queer feminist ecology,” helps him see connections and even kinships between Alevis and other geographically and culturally distant communities who have also faced overlapping ethnic and gendered marginalizations. In his work and social life, he sees these not only as connections but as solidarities. It is here that he recognizes that his work fulfills an additional, autoethnographic purpose. Ali is indebted to his co-advisors, Dr. Sima Shakhsari and Dr. Richa Nagar, who are Persian and Indian respectively, and who also have their own culturally specific, but similar conceptions of can. Through discussions with them, Ali is gaining a greater understanding of transnational feminist/queer theories and how can influences his own life and work.

Ali’s work has taken on a new urgency as the 2023 Turkish elections grow nearer. His work and activism are intended as an intervention to combat ignorance of Alevi culture in Turkey. This is an ignorance that stems from Aleviness not being taught about in schools, allowing old stereotypes to dominate perceptions. This ignorance comes with consequences; during the month of Muḥarram last year (a month with special significance to Alevis), many cem houses were attacked with physical violence, and as long as the Turkish electorate and their representatives continue to refuse to recognize Aleviness as a unique and valid religious practice, Alevi communities will continue to be denied the services and privileges granted to other religious organizations. 

Diligent, Wide-Ranging Study

Ali is aware that many people come to his work not knowing much about it and often treating it as a local study, far removed from their own, usually US-centered studies. He sees this as a dual opportunity to both inform others of a fascinating and important part of the Turkish political and cultural environment, and also to show that his work has wider-ranging implications, saying:

I am trying to show how Alevi studies and transnational feminist/queer theories might inform one another; that relationality across time and geographies. Without rendering them ahistorical, acultural—all those epistemic violences—without falling into those traps, maybe a side of my purpose is to make these linkages explicit, but from a critical lens.

In case it is not yet clear, Ali is a cautious, diligent, and deliberate scholar with an extremely sharp eye for rhetorical and epistemological pitfalls and inauthentic analytical shortcuts. For example, while Ali is passionate about showing resonances and kinships between Alevis and other communities across the globe, he is hesitant to use any language or descriptions implying that the experience of Alevis can be fully universalized or completely mapped onto the experiences of any other communities. This includes stepping back from the language of “identity” and “representation,” which he used relatively uncritically in his master’s thesis (also about Alevi communities) because he now sees those terms not as unimportant, but as potentially leading to a universalization or distillation of the Alevi community, which he feels would not be authentic or do justice to the subject matter.

Ali sees this change as an example of his intellectual flourishing in graduate school and points out that it is worthwhile to highlight more examples of intellectual shifts such as this. Especially in graduate school, there is often a lot of pressure to appear all-knowing in one’s field, which is an attitude that prevents that vital kind of growth and revisiting. Ali constantly references how he is inspired by the texts that he reads and the conversations he has with his colleagues and co-advisors, and he hopes that perhaps someone reading this article will be inspired by his work and reach out for a conversation.

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