Women and Turkish Cinema: Gender Politics, Cultural Identity and Representation

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By: Eylem Atakav

Following a decade of increased and violent polarisation between Left and Right in Turkish politics, the army decided to intervene and put an end to what appeared to be incipient civil war. The military intervention of September 12th, 1980 aimed towards a period of depoliticisation in society as it crushed all political parties and particularly leftist organisations, while temporarily suspending democracy and thereby bringing normal political life to a complete halt. I, Atıl Eylem, was born a year after the coup. My name is extremely politically resonant and literally means ‘go for action.’ It has an overt link with the leftist political activism that both my parents were involved in. As I explain in detail in the introduction to my book:

“The story behind my name does not only refer to the name of one of the left wing journals (Atılım) which had to be published clandestinely, but also assigns me the role and pride of carrying the keywords of the left wing activists who fought, and at times were either killed or went through serious physical and mental torture, for their ideas. I was born a year after my father lost his comrade (arkadaş) who was shot while being carried wounded in his arms (still trying to voice his ideas); and after my mother and father had cried for their books which died in the cold damp cellar of a friend’s house, while being hidden from the police, who were inspecting every house to find censored books. Whoever had a copy of Das Kapital, was to be stamped as leftist, and hence needed to be under strict scrutiny by the police. These books full of ‘dangerous’ ideas should be burnt. Those who had managed to read them did so by covering them with gazette papers or hiding them behind the covers of other non-dangerous books. I was born on a day when no newspapers were published, because it was a religious holiday.”

This personal background informs my initial interest in analysing this decade’s political, social and cultural environment from a critical perspective. In the repressive and depoliticised atmosphere of the post-coup period, the first social movement that emerged to articulated its demands was the women’s movement. It expanded the scope of pluralism and democracy in Turkey through different concerns communicated by women in the public realm. Although feminist ideology is overtly political, in this period of depoliticisation the movement was only able to exist because its activists sought to free themselves from both the Right and the Left and any other clearly partisan political label and they did not found any institutions seeking to increase women’s political representation. Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, women had been given rights by the state through what is often termed state feminism. In the 1980s, women were, for the first time, raising their own independent voices through campaigns, festivals, demonstrations, publications of journals and the forming of consciousness-raising groups.

Profoundly affected by the social and political milieu, Turkish cinema went through a period of change in the 1980s. Overtly political or social realist films were censored, banned or destroyed as a result of the forcible depoliticisation in the aftermath of the coup. Women’s lives and issues (perceived as neither left-wing nor right-wing and hence apolitical) became prominent in Turkish cinema and this led to the production of an extensive body of women’s films.

This brings me to the central proposition of this book, that is: the enforced depoliticisation introduced after the coup was responsible for uniting feminism and film in 1980s Turkey. The feminist movement was able to flourish precisely because it was not perceived as political or politically significant. In a parallel move, in the films of the 1980s there was an increased tendency to focus on the individual, on women’s issues and lives, in order to avoid the overtly political.

Analysing the field of visual representation requires an understanding of the political and the social. It is for this reason that in Chapter One I provide a political and social framework to the study of 1980s Turkey, the women’s movement and cinema. In Chapter Two, the questions that frame my analysis are: what is the link between the women’s movement and representation of women in Turkish cinema in the 1980s? Were cinema and the women’s movement both affected in the same way in the post-coup political milieu? Were films affected by the movement or were they simply marginalising political issues by focusing on women’s lives? In Chapters Three to Six I analyse case study films in depth by employing textual analysis. I examine the operation of cinematic signifiers and elements of plot, characterisation and narrative structure in four films: Dünden Sonra Yarından Önce/After Yesterday Before Tomorrow (Nisan Akman, 1987), Mine (Atıf Yılmaz, 1982), Asiye Nasıl Kurtulur?/How can Asiye Survive? (Atıf Yılmaz, 1986) and Kurbağalar/The Frogs (Şerif Gören, 1985). Indeed, women’s films of the 1980s do not merely reflect some unitary patriarchal logic but are sites of power relations and political processes through which gender hierarchies are both created and contested.

In the final chapter of the book, I focus on contemporary women filmmakers in Turkey who tend to concentrate on a range of issues around political, cultural and ethnic identity as well as memory. It is also in this section that I offer a further study into the representation of women of Turkey in several documentaries made by women directors who live outside Turkey, which place the relationship between religion and women’s place in Turkey at the centre of their narratives. Olga Nakkas’ 2006 film Women of Turkey: Between Islam and Secularism, for instance, draws on interviews with women and examines the individual and political resonance of the headscarf and veiling. Binnur Karaevli’s 2009 film Voices Unveiled: Turkish Women Who Dare provides a critique of the ban on headscarves whilst also touching upon issues including female officers in mosques; violence in the name of Islam; lack of education and economic dependence of women; women and Turkey’s EU candidacy and the tensions inherent between Muslim and Western cultures.

There are a growing number of publications on the cinema of Turkey and although there are publications on women and Turkish cinema in English, these are articles in books or journals. This is the first volume in English on the topic. Every book is and offers a journey. On a final note, I would like to say that whatever journey the reader takes through the volume, I hope that it is one structured by explorations, interconnections and new discoveries.

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Biography

Dr Eylem Atakav is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. She is the editor of Directory of World Cinema: Turkey (2012). She is currently working on two co-edited collections Women and Contemporary World Cinema and From Smut to Soft Core: 1970s and World Cinema. She is on the editorial board of Sine/Cine: Journal of Film Studies. She teaches Women, Islam and Media; Women and Film and World Cinemas modules at UEA. Her current research interests are on the representation of ‘honour’ based violence in the media. She writes regularly on issues around gender and womanhood for the Huffington Post (UK) and for her co-authored blog on women’s cinema: Auteuse Theories. Follow Eylem on Twitter: @eylematakav

Women and Turkish Cinema – Gender Politics, Cultural Identity and Representation By: Eylem Atakav Routledge (2012) ISBN: Hardback: 978-0-415-67465-2 (website: http://www.routledge.com/books/ details/9780415674652/)

For more articles on cinema and representation please go to our home page and read the brand new issue of the United Academics Journals of Social Sciences titled: Cultural Representation & Cinematic Representation.

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