Turkey’s Women’s Volleyball Team Inspires Pride

As the volleyball game neared its end, thousands of fans watching on giant screens in an Istanbul park rose to their feet and fell silent. The ball soared, a Turkish player set it up near the net, and her teammate spiked it. Her Italian opponents blocked the shot but knocked the ball out of bounds, handing victory to the Turks and causing the crowd to erupt into chants of “Turkey! Turkey! Turkey!”

The nail-biter victory on Friday by Turkey’s national women’s volleyball team in the Women’s European Volleyball Championship was the most recent conquest by the country’s most successful major sports team, a record that has turned it into a rare source of national pride that holds appeal across the country’s social divides.

While some ultraconservatives have attacked the women as an affront to Islamic values, their fans laud them as paragons of female empowerment in a country where many women feel they have yet to achieve social equality. And the team’s successes are a welcome bright spot for Turks struggling with sky-high inflation, political polarization and a slow recovery from devastating earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people.

Affectionately referred to as “the Sultans of the Net,” the team won the Volleyball Nations League championship in July in Arlington, Texas, and became the world’s top rated women’s national team, according to FIVB, the sport’s international governing body. On Sunday, they face Serbia in the final match of the European championship in Brussels.

At home, the team’s games are aired live by the state broadcaster and its players exude star power. Legions of followers on social media celebrate their accomplishments, track their frequent hair-color changes and speculate about their romantic entanglements.

Corporate sponsorships and state support have flowed in. In 2021, when Turkey granted citizenship to the Cuban-born player Melissa Vargas, she received her new Turkish ID card from none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“They are fighters,” said Ceren Duyan, a biologist at a biotech company who watched Friday’s game in the park. “When we see women do good things in sports or anywhere else, we see that we too can be powerful.”

After a victory on Wednesday against Poland, one player, Zehra Gunes, told Turkish reporters that the team was advancing Ataturk’s vision for Turkey.

“As Turkish women, we try to be role models for future generations by holding a light on the path that Ataturk showed,” she said.

Another star player, Ebrar Karakurt, received floods of hateful and homophobic messages after posting photographs of herself on social media in affectionate poses with other women, and an Islamist newspaper called her “a national shame.”

In 2021, when the team was competing in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a prominent preacher sharply criticized the team for not adhering to his conception of how a Muslim woman should behave.

“Girl of Islam! You are not the sultan of the courts; you are the sultan of faith, virtue, chastity and decency,” the preacher, Ihsan Senocak, wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

A spokesman for Turkey’s volleyball federation eventually responded to the hubbub, praising Ms. Karakurt for having the “the spirit of a fighter to represent her country.”

The players’ broad social acceptance has encouraged parents to let their daughters play, too, she said.

Ms. Demir recalled meeting a family who asked her whether their 9-year-old daughter could become a Sultan of the Net.

“Start at once,” she told them.

Safak Timur contributed reporting.

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