Spoken Word Istanbul, in pre-pandemic times, offered a unique opportunity to a rich variety of performers on stage. We encouraged and were home to writers, poets, singers, stand-up comics, actors, some of them complete amateurs, some of them inching their way or leaping into professional venues.
I took for granted my regular presence as a female host and our ban on sexism, thinking that these only would naturally sustain gender balance on our stage. For a long time, I didn’t even notice that the weekly performers’ lists I kept in a tiny notebook were overwhelmingly filled by men. Growing up in a world where patriarchy runs the show in politics, business and many other social spheres, you’re hard-wired to assume that gender imbalance is the norm, and therefore, normal.
In fall 2017, among performers on our stage on a Tuesday night, only 3 out of 18 people were women, preceded by a 4/27 and a 5/18 ratio in earlier weeks. I made a call on the stage and on our social media accounts to attract more women. After an initial foam of enthusiasm and increase in female presence on the stage, the rate dwindled back, stabilizing on a regular male predominance week in, week out.
Then I tried to ask myself why and how that was happening. I began to notice that some people who approached me to sign up said: “Well, I don’t know exactly what to say and my English is not that good, but put my name in there.” As we pride ourselves on providing a platform for free expression, we always welcomed performances which did not quite fit into any definition. Then I noted these performers who really proved that they had nothing to say but filled their 6-minute slots anyhow and walked off the stage completely pleased with themselves. These people who oozed self-confidence were always men.
Women in general, I noticed, wanted to feel ready first. They did not boast when they had no substance to offer, were quieter in their sign-up requests. However, this also starkly contrasted with the presence of our women regulars who did not lack the confidence, talent and gregariousness of their male counterparts. They were comfortable, did not take themselves too seriously, and did not hide away in shame after an occasional lackluster performance. Yet the issue remained: These women were a constant minority among a large group of regular or transient male spoken worders.
Exactly two years after I first called attention to the gender imbalance on our stage, I repeated my call, and we again received a short-lasting uptick in female performers. Our regular, Banu, stand-up comic by night, psychotherapist by day, came up with the idea of dedicating a few slots every Tuesday to an open discussion about potential root causes of the problem, thereby hopefully attracting more women to our stage. On our first trial, we met with an aggressive reaction from an audience member, a woman, who shouted: “What you’re trying to do is so patronizing - Women might have better things to do on a Tuesday night than come here to perform spoken word.” Our effort fizzled out.
It’s not easy to predict what the gender ratio on the stage will look like after nearly two years of stage-thirst among our community members. It is equally difficult to engineer a solution around positive discrimination when we have an open-door policy towards anyone who wants to speak. When we let freedom reign, making it very clear that we welcome everyone on the gender spectrum, why do we have a steady dominance of (mostly cis-gender) male performers? I don’t know, but we need to keep highlighting this fact and seek answers.
Merve Pehlivan is a writer, and the founder of Spoken Word Istanbul.