Excellent Excerpts: Gendered Fortunes by Zeynep K. Korkman

Welcome to our series, “Excellent Excerpts,” where we share selections from recently or soon-to-be published books we think you should check out! In this post we are featuring Gendered Fortunes: Divination, Precarity, and Affect in Postsecular Turkey by Zeynep K. Korkman, out April 21, 2023, Duke University Press. 

Book Synopsis:Image of Gendered Fortunes Book Cover

In Gendered Fortunes, Zeynep K. Korkman examines Turkey’s commercial fortunetelling cafés where secular Muslim women and LGBTIQ individuals navigate the precarities of twenty-first-century life. Criminalized by long-standing secularist laws and disdained by contemporary Islamist government, fortunetelling cafés proliferate in part because they offer shelter from the conservative secularist, Islamist, neoliberal, and gender pressures of the public sphere. Korkman shows how fortunetelling is a form of affective labor through which its participants build intimate feminized publics in which they share and address their hopes and fears. Korkman uses feeling—which is how her interlocutors describe the divination process—as an analytic to view the shifting landscape of gendered vulnerability in Turkey. In so doing, Korkman foregrounds “feeling” as a feminist lens to explore how those who are pushed to the margins feel their way through oppressive landscapes to create new futures.

From the Introduction:

 “You’ll achieve your goals in two years’ time. It’s incredible.” I listen intently to my fortune being read by an articulate middle-aged woman whom I have met only moments ago but who now engages me in a private conversation about all the hopes and disappointments of love, marriage, parenthood, work, family, and health that can make or break the gendered promises of life.

 Are you married yet? Well, I do see a boy. Do you have a son? You will have a son. Your partner, is he a Capricorn or a Virgo? Okay, a Virgo. I did sense an earth sign. Well, I see he’s troubled. Why is that? He’s a fighter and puts a lot of effort into his work, but his love for you is pure, I can see that. He’s a sensitive person and can sometimes become rather pessimistic. He’s also fond of his freedom, almost like a child. I do see a balanced relationship with mutual understanding, like soul mates. Are you in the same industry? Is he abroad? Well, I ask because I see that you’ll be traveling soon. And who is this older woman with health issues? Your mother or your mother-in-law?

 She is interpreting the shapes the coffee grounds have dried into inside my recently consumed cup of Turkish coffee to divine my past, my present, and, importantly, my future. Giving voice to the many worries and hopes she feels I must be quietly harboring as a newly married, secular middle-class woman, the coffee cup reader is still talking energetically, adding a few more comments on health and family. As I observe her blow-dried hair starting to frizz and her makeup beginning to run in the beads of sweat on her face, I imagine the long workday ahead of her on this already hot and humid summer morning in a downtown Istanbul café. She is preparing to end our session, making a final inquiry to see if I have any last lingering questions. She needs to move the queue along, I suppose.

I return to my seat in the next room of the café, surrounded by less than a dozen women. Most have arrived in small groups; only a few are sitting alone. Some are waiting for their turn for a reading; others stay to think or commune after their session.
There is only one young man, seated with a woman. I wonder if he will be getting a reading, too. In the air, the quiet pace of the ordinary mingles with a sense of anticipation that is at once evoked and eased by the intimacy of this feminized community gathered around divination. We are, after all, in no ordinary café. This is a fortune-telling café (falkafe), one among hundreds of similar establishments that have since the turn of the twenty-first century become a regular feature of secular middle-class neighborhoods in Turkey.

This book approaches the proliferating fortune-telling economy of millennial Turkey as an affective window onto the gendered contradictions of (post) secularism, Islamist authoritarianism, and neoliberalism. It demonstrates how secular Muslim women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) individuals navigate the anxieties of the postsecular condition, the vulnerabilities of gendered marginalization, and the precarities of neoliberalization through the medium of divination in twenty-first-century Turkey. As such, the book forwards attention to feeling as a way into the disregarded realms of the minoritized, both as a feminist analytics and as a methodological strategy for bringing into relief how gender and sexual minorities traverse broader social formations.

Criminalized by the early twentieth-century laws of an ambitious secularist state and disdained by the reinvented religious puritanism of today’s Turkish Islamist government, commercial fortune-telling has, despite these obstacles, boomed in millennial Turkey. This postsecular divination economy provides its largely secular Muslim, cisgender, heterosexual women participants, as well as its LGBTIQ participants, with an opportunity to make a living amid precarious labor conditions intensified by neoliberalization. In this context, fortunetelling provides its practitioners with a form of affective labor through which gender and sexual minorities attune to their gendered vulnerabilities and to each other. Fortune-tellers are lay sociologists, so to speak, who have a feel for social types marked by habitual tones of voice, gesture, clothing, and body language, as well as common life experiences, aspirations, and frustrations. Well attuned to the intimately harbored yet collectively formed wishes and worries of diverse classes of strangers, fortune-tellers successfully ventriloquize the gendered desires and troubles of their clients. It is in this way that fortune-tellers’ labors of divination conjure up safer publics in which to articulate gendered hopes and fears that are otherwise disciplined in a larger public sphere dominated by a religiously inflected gender conservatism that aggressively pushes back against a vibrant feminist and queer movement. In a transnational milieu where women (imagined as pious) and LGBTIQ people of the Muslim Middle East have been the favorite subjects of Islamophobic discourses that dress themselves up in the guise of a (colonial, pseudofeminist) concern to “save” them, this book shines a spotlight on how secular women and non-heteronormative men acclimate to and survive a global tide of religiously accented gender conservatism, secular hegemonic decline, political authoritarianism, and economic neoliberalism through gendered practices of divination.

The research set out in this book is situated against the backdrop of the downwardly mobile secular Turkish working and middle classes’ tenacious hopes and persistent anxieties over their economic precaritization and cultural and political marginalization because of rapid economic restructuring and an increasingly religiously inflected and gender-conservative political and cultural landscape. Anxieties over ever more precarious futures are felt most acutely by youths and gender and sexual minorities, whose chances of economic mobility and personal autonomy are stifled in a country whose president chastises college students for feeling entitled to land a job upon graduation but urges citizens to marry early, have many children, and simply trust that God will bless and provide for them and their families if they are pious. The political uprisings of 2013 in Turkey to which feminist and queer movements centrally contributed their critiques of masculinist state power exercised through aggressively intimate controls over the lives of the feminized provided a highly visible but fleeting chance for these populations to voice their discontents and collectively reclaim their futures through an oppositional political language. But the political developments, especially of the late 2010s, including the crushing waves of state violence and mass persecution that followed the 2013 uprisings and the 2016 coup attempt, thoroughly suppressed dissident voices, the persistent resistance of feminist, queer, and other oppositional groups notwithstanding. In such a milieu, Gendered Fortunes attests to how those disempowered along the heteropatriarchal hierarchies of age, gender, and sexuality come together, outside the political spotlight and away from oppositional political languages, to express their anxieties about and hopes for their futures in the language of divination.


Copyright Duke University Press, 2022

You can read the full introduction and order the book here.