Turkish soap operas reveal the power of global content sharing
“I lived with my husband for 13 years, until I started watching Turkish soap operas.”
So begins Kismet, a documentary that chronicles the impact of fictional TV series on women’s empowerment in the Middle East. The dramatic opening line is reminiscent of a soap opera itself – but it’s not, and its verity reveals the potential impact of global content sharing.
It’s old news that viewers project themselves into characters; they see their own problems and challenges reflected in the ups and downs of onscreen plots. (This is happening consciously but it’s physiologically motivated in the brain through cells called mirror neurons.) What has changed is the dynamism of global content. With the rise of streaming platforms and new creative media companies around the world, the distribution of content internationally has become easier and more common. Case in point: Turkish soap operas are broadcast in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
The increasing fluidity of creative media has changed lives, particularly for women in the Middle East. The woman in the opening scene of Kismet revealed that she filed for divorce from her abusive husband after watching Gumus, a Turkish soap. Gumus tells of a modern woman, Noor, with a career and a loving husband who treats her as an equal. She reasoned that if Noor deserved equality, then so did she.
By espousing an equitable and modern marriage model, Gumus sparked swarms of divorces in its 95 million viewers and an uptick in babies named after its two main characters. But its romanticism also offered an easy distraction from everyday life – an escape welcomed by fans who faced turbulent governments and violent protests during the buildup to the Arab Spring.
While some series inspire romanticism, others expose the prevalence of sexual assault. Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? tells the story of a young woman who is raped by three men while her fiance looks on. Despite attempts to cover up the truth, Fatmagul goes to court to seek justice and identify the perpetrators. Fatmagul’s story also serves as a vehicle for discussing sexual assault, a taboo subject. Many of the Middle Eastern women interviewed in Kismet confirmed that if a girl were raped in their communities, her family would try to hide it.
Samira Ibrahim, a young Egyptian survivor and activist, recounted that her friends and family avoided her after her assault and urged her to stay out of court. Despite their pressures, Ibrahim filed a lawsuit and succeeded in outlawing forced virginity tests. After her case, Ibrahim said that other women began to share their own stories of rape and assault. However, she insisted that the topic is still taboo: “Fatmagul has the keys to Turkish society, we need that here as well.”
In Turkey, the impact of Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? transcended television. With the collaboration of women’s rights organizations and NGOs, the producers filmed the final court scene with crowds of grassroots activists and fans who came in support.
Although the Turkish soaps themselves have not yet motivated legal change, they have been crucial in helping women identify sexual assault. Dina Farid, an Egyptian activist, explained that most women she interviews deny that they are survivors. “TV and movies probably have the most impact on the girls being more willing to come out and say I’ve been a victim of sexual harassment, I’ve been a victim of abuse, of rape,” she said.
A young Turkish couple, Serpil and Ferruh, reported that TV series have also exposed alternative conceptions of marriage, such as marrying for love, and the result has been transformative. “The producers know we are a society dependent on TV, so they create series that address critical issues for Turkish society…They see a Turkish man behaving gently towards his wife and it affects them,” they said.
Berrin and Layla, two Grecian women, echoed their thoughts. “The way series portray them shows that Turkish men have developed so much, that you can be a free woman inside a relationship.” They watched Magnificent Century, a soap distinct in its historical setting: it takes place in the 15th century and traces the life of an Ottoman sultan. Berrin and Layla are distinct, too, as they are some of the only women interviewed from a non-Muslim country. Their support and acknowledgment highlight the truly global impact of the series.
The last interview in Kismet centers on a woman named Badisbah who saw her life reflected in the plot of Life Goes On. In the show, Hayat, a 15-year-old, is forced to marry a 70-year-old man who keeps her from going to school and is physically and psychologically abusive. Badisbah revealed that watching the soap forced her to remember the injustice of her own marriage and made her even more grateful for her divorce.
Meltem Miraloglu, who played Hayat, noted that “many people were affected after watching this series, as a result, girls escaped marriages and went to the police for help or resisted the will of their family. This news makes me very happy; it means that we achieved something.”
Kismet offers a fascinating glance at the potential impacts of global content distribution. Beyond cultural exchange and broad economic opportunity, traveling TV series and movies can potentiate real social change. Just ask women like Badisbah, or Serpil, or Samira, who sourced empowerment and inspiration from Turkish soaps.
*As seen in Kismet, TV shows wield impressive social power. Yet, their direction (sadly) is often manipulated by political pressures. In Egypt, the New York Times reported that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has crushed his country’s once vibrant creative industry – just in time for Ramadan, the most popular season for soap operas.