Turkey’s soft power of TV drama
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.”