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A discussion of the role of feminism in Turkish cinema during the period of army rule offers many interesting perspectives, finds William Alderson

Eylem Atakav, Women and Turkish Cinema: Gender Politics, Cultural Identity and Representation (Routledge 2013), 150pp.

The focus of Eylem Atakav’s book is the relationship of Turkish cinema to the Turkish women’s movement in the decade following the forced ‘depoliticisation’ of public life after the military coup of September 1980. As she notes, ‘in their attempt to avoid the “political”, filmmakers chose to focus on women, and this occurred in parallel to the emergence of the women’s movement’ (p.3).

In order to analyse the potential relationship between these shifts, Atakav outlines the historical context of both women’s history in Turkey and the cinematic attitudes to women, before looking in detail at four films from the 1980s which portray different aspects of women’s position in Turkish society. She states that ‘I ultimately argue that the enforced depoliticisation introduced after the coup by the incoming military government is responsible for uniting feminism and film in 1980s Turkey’ (p.4).

In setting out the historical context, Atakav reveals the degree to which women were subordinated to men in Turkish society, and how this is reflected in its cinematic history. Despite the ‘state feminism’ of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, which ‘made women’s equality in the public sphere a national policy’ (p.21), women’s private lives were dominated by men. The most extreme, but not uncommon, expressions of this domination were rapes and honour killings. She notes that it is human rights issues such as these which are a major barrier to the Turkey’s joining the European Community, and suggests that this might lead to changes. In addition to the division between men and women, she addresses the divisions and tensions among women themselves, between Muslim and Westernised women, between village and city women, between poor women and educated women with careers.

Atakav’s description of women’s position in Turkish society is moving, the more so when set against the attempts to change things. In the 1970s, ‘as women were included in the leftist movements as comrades and asexual beings, a new analysis developed among intellectuals which defined the issue of women as the woman question’, (p.25) and the ‘woman question’ was subordinated to the fight against class exploitation. After the coup and the forced ‘depoliticisation’, women were able to respond to the international feminist movement and to begin voicing their concerns directly, without subordinating them to political perspectives dominated by men. Atakav suggests that this freedom might be a consequence of Kemalist ideas (‘state feminism’), or ‘because women’s groups and activism were thought to be insignificant’ (p.27). Certainly, she acknowledges that whilst they became ‘politically active individuals’, ‘women were not successful in the radical transformation of the society’ (p.37).

To support Atakav’s argument, we would expect to see evidence of a direct impact of this movement on cinema, but what she actually presents is a parallel process, and one in which the films shamelessly reflect and exploit women’s conditions in their narratives. Outlining the subordinate position women historically-occupied in Turkish film-making, Atakav explains that the pressure of television meant that by the 1970s, ‘there were two main tendencies seen in Turkish cinema, which contradicted one another: pornographic films and films dealing with social issues’ (p.44). She adds that, ‘although one might have expected sex films to have attracted a greater degree of censorship, in fact, the contrary was the case’ (p.45). This indicates an institutional acceptance of women as sexual objects and reinforces the idea that they were considered politically insignificant. After the coup, ‘not only were the sex films of the 1970s banned, but also films of the previous decade dealing with social and political issues faced strict censorship and were even destroyed because of “political concerns”’ (p.48). In other words, the coup created a vacuum in terms of what type of films could be produced.

Before considering the analysis of film in the 1980s, it is useful to identify how much film had changed by the end of this period. Atakav (quoting Asuman Suner) states that ‘one of the tendencies that can be observed in films since the early 1990s is that “the figure of woman … often comes into view as a constitutive absence. She is the driving force behind the narrative, yet absent as a subject”’ (p.108). This does not suggest that films during the 1980s had raised the profile of women or empowered them, or that the feminist movement had affected the ‘insignificance’ of women as portrayed in Turkish films. Instead it suggests that during this period women were equally unsuccessful both in radically transforming society and in transforming cinema.

Atakav identifies two prominent trends in Turkish cinema in the 1980s. One was a focus on the psychological effects on individuals of the coup, and the other was the ‘depiction of female characters engaged in a search for identity and independence’ (p.48). Thus Atakav notes that the film Mine ‘has been considered to be the pioneer film dealing with women’s search for independence’ (p.70). This film was released in 1982, the same year that ‘the non-feminist, non-profit-oriented publishing company YAZKO offered women (who until that time were only gathering in private houses, particularly in Istanbul and Ankara) their first opportunity to produce specialised publications by and about women’ (p.31). Clearly this pioneering film was released before the feminist movement had established a level of recognition which could have influenced it. In this context, it is highly significant that Atakav comments on the films of the 1980s that ‘although these films empower women by dealing with women’s issues, at the same time they marginalise women in their narratives’ (p.113).

Prior to Mine, women in film had been stereotypically either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but 'Şoray, who until then had been portraying “virtuous” woman characters is shown naked for the first time in this film while taking a significant part in the creation of a new understanding of female sexuality and identity’; she ‘became a new icon: the image of the woman as a sexual being’ (pp.70-1). Atakav poses two alternative readings of this film: that it is about a woman ‘taking control of her sexuality’ or that it is about a woman ‘saved by the love of a man’. At the same time, she acknowledges that ‘the film goes along with an erotic treatment of women and fails to break down the traditional forms of cinematic pleasure where the male gaze is dominant’ (p.71). These statements do not suggest a serious impact of feminism on cinema.

It is a measure of the thoroughness of Atakav’s presentation of her material that a third reading of Mine is identifiable, namely that women and sexuality are being exploited as a political metaphor. The central character, Mine, knows that she is going to be condemned and so chooses to be condemned for something she values. Unloved and raped by her husband, she narrowly avoids a gang rape by villagers, but is aware that this has been ‘officially’ sanctioned and is only the first attempt, and so she decides that if adultery is to be forced on her, it will be with a man of her choice. With this reading of the film, it becomes plausible that what was happening was that the two commercially important strands of pornographic and social-issue films were being merged into one under the guise of addressing issues of the individual. There is no need to suggest any reason for this new approach apart from commercial interest, especially as the exploitation of the sexual appeal of women formerly excluded from performing naked would successfully attract a male audience.

Arising at a time when women were starting to voice their opposition to such oppression in the real world, this cinematic approach meant that a film of this type also attracted a female audience (p.67). Nonetheless, it was still essentially a continuation of film-makers’ long-standing focus on women as sexual objects dependent on men, and so there was no legacy in the 1990s of significant change in the cinematic portrayal of the status of women in society. Atakav’s evidence suggests that feminism and film were not united, but remained on parallel courses and driven by separate needs.

Women and Turkish Cinema is a fascinating and rich study of a complex subject. Its weaknesses (including a certain amount of intended and unintended repetition!) do not devalue its merits. It is only a shame that its inexplicably high cost makes it a book most readers will have to borrow from a library rather than purchase. Certainly, anyone interested in Turkey, film or women’s oppression would find it worth the effort to beg, borrow or buy a copy.

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