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Issues facing modern Turkish women: Soap operas and other scandals

By Kate HarvestonMay 11, 2017

A Turkish bride
A Turkish bride Getty Images

Although times are changing across the world for women, the pace is less than reassuring when it comes to the visibility of women in entertainment, sports and other fields.

Women across the globe are seeking romance in their marriage, more representation in sports and empowerment across various roles that weren’t traditional for women in the past, but tradition and modern times must find a meeting place, especially in countries where women have been seen traditionally as second-class citizens. 

Turkey is one such country. Modern Turkish women face cultural scandal simply by expressing a desire for these needs to be met. Their voices are all but silenced in issues that face the country—except in prayer.

From controversial character roles in soap operas to invisibility in the sports arena and politics, there is more to the modern Turkish woman than the stereotypes the world places on her because of a headscarf. 

Whether she wants a little romance, for her daughters to be inspired by a hardworking female athlete or to march in protest rather than stay home, Turkish women want to be inspired and active in their autonomy, represented by powerful women who shake up traditional sensibilities on their way to visibility.

Turkish soap operas teach women how to ask for real romance

In the modern world, marriages of convenience, duty and tradition still exist in Turkey. Many people, at least in the western world, like to believe extreme traditional or conservative beliefs that harm others and create inequality for women exist in the past, rather than the present. 

In many countries, women remain silenced—they don’t know how to ask for or demand fair treatment—they’ve never seen it. For many Turkish women, that has changed. Some soap operas are giving them an idea of how to be autonomous in a world that forces them to rely on men. 

In Turkey, many women tune in to watch “Muhteşem Yüzyıl"—Magnificent Century or “Cesur ve Guzel”—The Brave and the Beautiful. Both are soap operas filled with secrets and suspense, but these soaps are also filled with empowered female characters who participate in romance and claim their place in the world. 

Women watching these dramas are asking: How am I different than her? These soaps are empowering Turkish women to speak their minds and ask their husbands to romance them.

Literature and entertainment provide open windows to view whole other worlds and possibilities beyond one’s life. These Turkish soap operas also have viewers outside the country, and many view these soaps as incompatible with traditional values. For instance, in these soaps, abused women walk away from their husbands, but, in real life, it’s much more complicated—women simply don’t have the resources to leave. 

Religious scholars in the area blame these soap operas for rising rates of divorce, citing the characters as immoral. In addition to seeing women walk away from abusive marriages, viewers also see women participate in premarital relationships and wear untraditional clothes—clothes that might represent a newfound freedom to dress as they want. 

But clerics aren’t the only ones who see trouble with these shows. Feminists in Turkey are calling them out for how reliant the characters are on men—despite some new-found autonomy. 

Where men ignore Turkish female athletes, women fill the gap

Many feminists are looking to sports as the answer. Women in sports exist in Turkey, but they receive little coverage, if any, in the mainstream media. Many women want to increase the visibility of Turkish and Muslim women in sports, particularly to inspire young girls. 

In 2012, for the first time, the London Olympics included Muslim women in the arena from Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. Despite this, not all sports make it easy for Muslim women. The hijab is banned in specific sports, such as boxing and basketball. 

When this happened, female Muslim soccer players protested, and the international soccer federation, FIFA, created a policy that permitted women to wear hijabs while playing soccer. Inspired by these acts, two women came together to form Shirzanan, an expansion of a female sports magazine by Salmaz Sharif, an Iranian journalist residing in the United States.

Shirzanan is Persian and means “Female Heroes,” and its 2014 incarnation became an inspiration for advocacy and media rights for female Muslim athletes. It was cofounded with Mara Gubuan, who worked previously for an NGO—non-governmental agency—advancing human rights.

Sharif and Gubuan tell stories of Muslim women in sports, making them visible where access is denied and advocating for the rights of women in athletics. 

Shirizanan offers workshops for journalists on how to cover women in sports and participate in advocacy events to raise awareness, attracting star athletes such as Hajar Abulfazil, an Afghan soccer player, and Mona Seraji, an Iranian snowboarder, to inspire young women.

Turkish women allowed to pray instead of protest

Last summer, a military coup in Turkey failed, and its women were being silenced. Clerics and the government told them to pray instead of protest. The Turkish government responded with a crackdown, and women were mostly absent from the protest. The images of protest that circled following the coup featured mostly men.

In fact, the leadership of the military is wholly men, and the even the government only has one female minister holding rank. Meanwhile, 43 cities in Turkey go without female representation.

It was mainly conservatives keeping vigil, and one primary religious group—the Ismailaga—decreed that women must remain home to pray while the men protest and support the government. Women’s groups were targeted, and women posted on social media about a rise in street harassment and misogynist language. 

One feminist group—the University Women’s Collective (UWC)—released a call to action for women to defend themselves while ruling parties threatened to rape daughters and wives. Turkish women are not spoils of war, but they are treated like invisible, voiceless goods. 

The ruling party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP, is infamous for its misogyny, and feminist groups and female journalists are anxious about the growth of conservatism. 

Even with legal protection, which is absent in some surrounding areas, women in Turkey still have to jump through hoops to get reproductive services, and many are returned home forcefully to abusive husbands when they seek protection from the police.

In a place where showing cleavage is scandalous, men who dress respectfully in court receive reduced sentences after killing their wives. It is in this culture that soap operas have captured the imagination of women, showing them they can have a voice and that their voice matters.