GUEST POST – Breaking Out of Cocoons with Üstün Bilgen-Reinart

Dear breakers-out of cocoons,

How to confront tough issues compassionately? This is a question that I keep asking as I prepare for our seminar and reflect on my own literary and actual journeys across cultures.

Together, we’ll explore two books by two very different women, Egyptian Alifa Rifaat (1930–1996), and Turkish Elif Shafak (1971–), who both faced stigma in their societies for breaking taboos in their work.

The issue of patriarchy is tough anyway – patriarchy in a Muslim, Middle Eastern society is even tougher. In Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret, a slim volume that has become a world classic, we’ll meet women who suffer deeply from the patriarchal restrictions in their societies, but find comfort in religion. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on their lives.


Patriarchy is a theme that hovers over Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul as well. As she takes on the issue of the Armenian genocide in Anatolia, Shafak points to the role of women in discovering submerged history and conveying collective memories. In her work, just as in Rifaat’s, religion seems to be a source of comfort and insights.

The women whose works we’ll explore, creatively and courageously seek their identities and define their societies. We, the readers halfway across the world, also need to be courageous and creative as we set aside our assumptions to discuss the themes that recur in these works.

I invite you to join me to immerse yourself in what you may find strange, foreign and inexplicable – because only by exploring those “barriers” can we begin to glimpse the richness of women’s narratives in a rapidly changing region of the world that often seems remote and inaccessible to Westerners.

For more information on our Toronto Pursuits seminar, Muslim Women Writers of the Middle East, click here.

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart

UstunÜstün is a former CBC journalist, author, and lecturer. She was born in Turkey and came to Canada as a teenager. In 1998, she returned to Turkey to be near her aging parents and to teach at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. After losing her parents, she chose a semi-nomadic lifestyle, straddling the two worlds she knows and loves: Canada and Anatolia. Üstün trekked through Turkey on the back of a motorcycle as preparation for her travel memoir, Porcelain Moon and Pomegranates. She is passionate about literature, writing, and women’s lives.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *