Turkish Soap Operas: A Voice for the Voiceless

In 2008, some 85 million people in the Arab world tuned in to watch the final episode of the breakthrough Turkish television show Gümüş. During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle Eastern countries, three out of four people said that they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001. For the past decade, Turkish soap operas have spread to all corners of the Arab world, breaking taboos and conquering the hearts of millions of female viewers in the process. According to Greek filmmaker Nina-Maria Paschalidou, the shows’ appeal to female audiences is key to their success. “Soap operas talk in a very simple and direct way to women. They enter homes in a way no one else can enter.” In these programs, explains Paschalidou, viewers in the Middle East see women with whom they can easily identify.

Of course, these soap operas are just one of many ways in which TV and other media have enabled female empowerment in the region. Nonetheless, the Turkish shows, which often tackle sensitive subjects such as rape, forced marriage, divorce and extramarital affairs, are inspiring female audiences across the region to assert themselves in unprecedented ways. “It is not the ideal, romantic man they are dreaming of,” Paschalidou says. “What they are dreaming of is a life of their own choice in every way that one can see. They want to marry the man they want, they want to be able to work, to do what they want, to have children or not to have children, to make their choices.” Of course, the designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas that appear in these shows only boost their appeal.

The first Turkish series to transcend borders and win the hearts of viewers in the Middle East was Gümüş, or Noor in Arabic. Gümüş tells the story of a woman of humble beginnings who advances her career and discovers true love. According to reports from various media outlets, Gümüş has triggered a wave of divorces in Middle Eastern countries. For example, when Gümüş encouraged Samar, a 54-year-old woman from Lebanon, to think of marriage as an equal partnership between two loving people, she switched off her TV and hired a divorce lawyer. She also credits the soap opera Fatmagul, the story of a woman who is raped but finds the courage to take her case to court, with inspiring her to stand up for her rights.

Similarly, the shows’ male characters, like heartthrob Mohannad, played by Turkish actor Kivanç Tatlitug, have become the standard against which many Arab men are being judged, much to their dismay. Dubbed the “Halal Brad Pitt,” Mohannad has become the Arab world’s first pin-up boy. Apart from his charm and good looks, he represents something many female viewers seem to lack in their lives: romance, tenderness and a supportive partner for an independent wife. Reports in the Arab media describe how marriages have failed because wives insist on putting Mohannad’s picture on their mobile phone display or on their bedroom wall. In Bahrain, a woman allegedly begged her husband to have plastic surgery to look like the actor.

Naturally, the success of these shows does not sit well with conservatives in the Middle East. In fact, the soap operas have repeatedly been condemned for undermining traditional values. In Iran, where the shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities have reportedly accused them of destabilizing the institution of the family.” Meanwhile, Saudi Arabian clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the “malicious” soap operas that “corrupt and spread vice.” However, traditionalists across the Middle East may face an uphill battle: The Turkish serials have wooed audiences with their picturesque backdrops of the Bosporus and majestic views of Istanbul, leading Turkish tourism officials to claim that the soaps have caused Saudi tourism to the country to more than double in the course of a few years.

Indeed, the soaps don’t just export Turkish culture, they market it. “People who watch the series want the same furniture, they want the same lifestyle, and they want the same food,” says Wilma Elles, the German actress who plays Caroline in the hit series As Time Goes By. Accordingly, the dramas have become a commercial goldmine. Turkey’s Tourism and Culture Ministry claims that the value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to $130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming.

In their home nation, the soaps exposed the fissures and internal contradictions of Turkish society.

However, the shows have also been met with great success west of Turkey, particularly in the Balkans. While many Arab viewers value the shows’ portrayal of female empowerment and secularization, the same programs appeal to a sense of longing for lost traditions and forgotten religious values among more Western audiences. Among many Greek women, for example, the shows spark a sense of nostalgia for more traditional values such as the importance of family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan. Greece’s ongoing economic and political woes and their effect on the nation’s collective consciousness are undoubtedly part of the equation: “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

The export of Turkish dramas is part of a larger neo-Ottoman initiative by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to boost the nation’s cultural power. However, Turkey has not so far been able to translate the “soft power” of increased economic ties and cultural exports into the “hard power” of diplomatic and strategic influence over Middle Eastern and Balkan affairs, even as Turkey has tried to exploit instability among its neighbors to consolidate its status as a regional power.

In their home nation, the soaps exposed the fissures and internal contradictions of Turkish society. The narrative of a modern, open and culturally dynamic Turkey is challenged by a conservative, hostile backlash led by Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Once a promising liberal reformist, Erdoğan has tried to move the country away from its strong secular heritage towards a national identity centered on Islamic and conservative values. In 2011, Erdoğan publically denounced a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, and to treat our history with disrespect.”

Such remarks have fed anxieties among secularists about Erdoğan’s increasingly despotic style of government and his conservative social agenda. Despite a series of legal reforms over the past several years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In the soap Life Goes On, a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes this situation, but in reality such happy endings are uncommon.

Despite this paradox, the soaps’ impact as a cultural export hit is remarkable. Whether they feed popular nostalgia for a perhaps somewhat romanticized past in Greece or serve as a means for female empowerment in Saudi Arabia, the soaps’ popularity outside the country shows no signs of abating. The elusiveness of this “soft” power belies a crucial fact – the fact that the shows are having an undeniable impact on people’s lives, especially when viewers are transported to an imagined vision of the world where they are finding a very real voice.

Photo: Michael Fleshman