Turkey’s soft power of TV drama

Modernist portrayal contradicts fraying of Turkish women rights
Friday 04/09/2015
A Saudi family watching the Turkish soap opera Gumus in Jeddah.

London - Turkish soap operas are eagerly watched across the Middle East, provid­ing for some Arab women a model of a liberated fe­male. But the growing Islamisation of public and private life under Tur­key’s ruling Justice and Develop­ment Party (AKP) has meant that, even for many Turkish women, the characters depicted on such pro­grammes are a far cry from reality.
One of the most successful TV dramas was Gumus, which aired in 2008. The Middle East Broadcast­ing Corporation said about 85 mil­lion people, more than 51 million of them women, watched the final episode. The story starts as a rags-to-riches tale in which a small-town girl, Noor, is married off to a wealthy heir, Muhanned.
The premise is that Muhanned, who is yet to recover from the death of his pregnant girlfriend, refuses to marry Noor. As the storyline de­velops, attention shifts to greater issues generally confined to the pri­vate sphere, including adultery, ar­ranged marriage, abortion and rape.
It also portrays the idealistic, if not highly romanticised, marriage between Muhanned and Noor as a marriage of equals. Their relation­ship is somewhat utopian for Arab women, who encouraged their hus­bands to emulate what they thought was a typical Turkish husband.
Turkey has benefited from its newly found soft power among its Arab neighbours. Figures from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism reveal a steady increase in visitors, particularly from Gulf countries, with a 34% increase in visitors from Saudi Arabia, in the years following the airing of Gumus.
Leyla Simsek-Rathke, from Equal­ity Watch Women’s Group, an Istan­bul non-governmental organisation fighting for gender equality, said that “since the 1990s the flourishing advertising industry and TV dramas have created numerous modern fe­male ideals that left traces in public memory… Women are influenced by those remarkably strong female characters, though these characters are also put in grave conflicts under patriarchal regimes.”
Many Arab women live vicarious­ly through the Turkish characters due to slow reforms in their own countries. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Arab nations lag behind most others in such reforms.
Thus, these television pro­grammes are useful in inviting Arab women to reflect on their positions at home and in society at large. They also challenge the assumption that modernism and piety are mutually exclusive: characters are often por­trayed as engaging in premarital sex and consuming alcohol.
On the surface this may portray women as being free, yet this dis­tracts from the female protagonist’s greater goals, such as gaining the respect of a dominant male figure, most often her husband.
“In many of those productions these strong women are successful­ly incorporated in conformist struc­tures of family and marriage. In the end these stories mostly reflect a male desire for strong but manage­able and honourable women,” said Simsek-Rathke.
Nevertheless, the image of the modern and self-sufficient woman portrayed in the productions is coming under threat. Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticised for increased con­servatism, often disproportionately affecting women.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made headlines re­cently for telling a woman in parlia­ment, ”You, as a woman, be quiet.”
Ozlem Altiok, also from Equal­ity Watch Women’s Group, said, “Women’s bodies, roles and status in society have always been fun­damental for the launching and consolidation of different political projects in Turkey.
“The statement is equally true for Arab societies. Think of Nasser in Egypt. Think of Shah Pahlavi in the 1920s and then the ayatollahs in Iran in the aftermath of 1979. In this sense, the instrumentalisation of women’s issues does not constitute a rupture.”
Turkey was once considered a pioneer in terms of women’s rights. The first decade after the establish­ment of the republic in 1923 saw education reforms, the adoption of a new civil code and the granting of suffrage. Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is considered a hero for valuing women’s roles so highly.
“The modernisation processes that sped up, especially after the es­tablishment of the Turkish Repub­lic, allowed women an existence in public life. Women took part in in­dependence war and gained equal citizenship,” Simsek-Rathke said.
These ideas have become de­tached from Turkish society, as shown by Erdogan’s comment at a summit on women and justice that gender equality is not realistic ”be­cause it goes against the laws of na­ture”.
The limitation of reform is that it has always been an abrupt intro­duction of legislation rather than a result of natural social processes. The irony is that the rights of wom­en are being held hostage by the political elite, the vast majority of whom are men, both in Turkey as well as Arab countries.
”This is a call to undermine the accomplishments of earlier femi­nist movements,” says Altiok.
“The struggle to make gender equality a reality, the movement to establish this simple idea that women are persons in their own right — and not just sisters, wives or mothers to men — has been there for a long time. The backlash against the idea has also always been there.”