Turkish fashion designer alone against the state

Turkish designer Barbaros Şansal has been transformed in the eyes of the public from a fashion industry celebrity to one of the most effective dissidents in the country since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist party came to power 17 years ago.

Şansal is not in the habit of mincing his words and has found himself facing a lawsuit for insulting the president in a series of tweets last year. The prosecutors are seeking a five-year prison sentence.

The 62-year-old designer made headlines in 2017, when he was arrested in north Cyprus and deported to Turkey over a video on social media in which he criticised the government and the people of Turkey.  

He was attacked by a waiting mob as he disembarked the plane upon arrival at Istanbul airport and then arrested for “inciting the public to hatred or hostility”. He later was given a six-month and 20-day prison sentence, but released when the sentence was suspended. 

But Şansal still continues to advocate for rights and freedoms, most of all, the right to personal security and to be able to walk the streets without fear. 

“I demand the immunity of my physical integrity as a victim. Without ensuring this, it is impossible to have freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of movement,” he said. “Do not touch my body. Do not use violence, do not harass, do not batter, do not rape.”

Şansal said he had been attacked in August in the presence of police at a Red Crescent tent as he attempted to donate blood. Şansal said the attacker told the Red Crescent staff that should refuse to take the designer’s blood and accused him of insulting Turks, before physically attacking him. 

Şansal thinks the Turkish state is behind such attacks. “Now the state protects the perpetrators against me. I, on the other hand, have been making a legal struggle against the mighty Turkish state like a Sancho Panza and do not resort to other ways due to my respect for the rule of law.”

The designer, also an advocate of atheist rights in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, does not care that he has been excluded and sometimes declared a persona non grata. “Try to live according to your principles, your words, your judgments ... If you are labelled an unwanted person, never despair,” he said. 

Şansal does not however see Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the only problems of the country. 

“Turkey has been suffering from this absurdity because it has never completed its religious and sexual revolution,” said Şansal, who is also a vocal supporter of gay rights. 

Even after Erdoğan eventually loses power, the country will still struggle as long as it is a unitary state, Şansal said. “In my opinion we need a federal system; local governments with increased powers. We should never allow a single-party government. Coalitions should be obligatory. The election threshold should be removed,” he said. 

Şansal said the family was to blame for he called social corrosion in the country. “Turkey thinks the lynchpin of the society is the family. That’s why this society has decayed. In fact the lynchpin of the society is the individual. If you cannot become an individual in your own family, the collapse of the family leads to the collapse of society,” he said. 

The designer is also wary of new parties being formed by prominent former senior figures in Erdoğan’s ruling AKP.

“You were all there. You were cooperating with those people for 17 years,” he said. “You were blind to the rights of trade unions, professional organisations … You closed your eyes when human rights, the constitution and the rule of law were undermined.”

Şansal also dismissed the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“I do not trust them as a citizen. I am saying this bluntly. I also do not trust the HDP, or the CHP. I do not trust political parties.”

© Ahval English