At Mehmet and Pinar Ozcelebi’s basement home, it’s 8 in the evening. As their two daughters, Ada and Nisa, play with their neighbor girls, the couple watches TV. The family tunes into “Cesur ve Guzel,” The Brave and the Beautiful, one of the latest popular Turkish soap operas.
It’s like Turkey’s Dynasty, a story of secrets, revenge and a mysterious man chasing a rich, pretty woman. The male lead played by Turkish heartthrob Kivanc Tatlitug pursues the female lead played by actress diva Tuba Buyukstun. But he has a vendetta against her father. And the plot thickens and unravels.
Pinar, a homemaker, is hooked on these soap operas, watching them twice a day sometimes. She and her husband, Mehmet, a security guard, came to Istanbul from a Kurdish village in southeast Turkey seven years ago. Pinar says the soap operas have taught her to voice her needs. She demands appreciation from her husband now. She also wants more romance.
“These women are strong and patient. We women learn how to make decisions from these shows. Men surprise women with a holiday and gifts and I ask him to surprise me, say romantic things to me. Why am I any different? I tell him to celebrate my birthday,” Pinar says, eyeing Mehmet on the couch with a smile.
Turkish soap operas have hundreds of millions of viewers across the world, even on Netflix. In Turkey, they’re the main pastime for families in the evening. From China to Peru, these soaps are drawing viewers. "Magnificent Century," about renowned Ottoman King Sultan Suleyman and his harem, airs in 86 countries. In the US, viewers can see it with English subtitles on Netflix. But controversy over how women are portrayed surrounds these soaps.
For Pinar and many women in Muslim countries, the female characters feel empowered, and they inspire them.
In conservative countries like Afghanistan and Egypt, some religious scholars blame the rising divorce rate on these shows. Women characters can walk away from abusive marriages. They see these shows as immoral. Women have premarital relationships and wear what they view as immodest clothes.
But some Turkish women say while these soaps can invoke a degree of autonomy, they mostly encourage sexism because good women are portrayed as caregivers dependent on men. The women divorcees may be punished for stepping out of traditional bounds, either by being raped or being jailed.
Timur Savci, one of Turkey’s most famous producers, says "Magnificent Century" shows strong woman who fight back.
“I see more soaps about women earning success, becoming emancipated, becoming stronger or unchained. The soaps where there are no strong women figure are in the minority,” he says.
But Turkish feminists beg to differ. They say the soaps push a dangerous view of masculinity that reflects on Turkish society. "Magnificent Century" may show women in charge, but like Western-hit "Game of Thrones," the series glorifies violence against women. In one scene, one of the sultan's most respected aides expresses his anger by almost choking the woman who runs the harem. The show’s fans say the writers are just replaying history.
For former actress and now producer Elif Dagdeviren, Turkey needs more female character role models who don’t base their identity on men. Even if the viewers don’t like it, she says.
Dagdeviren quit a popular soap opera after her character, a high-stakes career woman, was turned into another traditional role.
“I was so happy about the role because it was like a role model ... but after the 15th episode, the role that I was playing slowly turned into a ... housewife, a mother, the ex lover came back and she left everything behind,” she says.
The producers told her that the audience wanted the character to become more nurturing.
So Dagdeviren quit, started producing films and opened an Internet business. She’s also the director of the Antalya Film Festival, Turkey’s answer to Cannes.
Some academics who study Turkish media say the storylines and portrayal of traditional gender roles may even encourage rape culture.
That's what happens in "Fatmagul’s Fault," a series about a village girl who is gang raped, but eventually marries one of the men who watches the rape. Remember Luke and Laura in General Hospital? Fatmagul is able to get justice, but she has to marry the witness to her rape.
Esra Gedik, a professor teaching sociology of gender at Bozok University in Yozgat, an ultra conservative city in Turkey, says in the evenings, every family is glued to these soaps. The impact can be seen in how teenage boys and girls interact with each other.
“These Turkish soap operas are based on the romanticization of violence ... of no means yes. It affects both Turkish men and women. They take these characters as role models,” Gedik says.
In the late 1990s, Turkish soaps showed more diverse roles for women. But when Turkey began exporting its entertainment to conservative Islamic countries, women’s roles changed to reflect more conservative societies. Turkey made $300 million last year from its soap opera exports.
Since the Islamist AKP or Justice and Development Party came into power in 2002, Turkish TV overall has become more conservative. Alcohol and cigarettes are blurred, the word magic is censored, love scenes are cut.
The irony is that many Arab women, Gedik says, view Turkish women as better off. “Middle Eastern women see these Turkish women as more modernized, but it’s not reality. It’s a picture they have.”
Still, Turkish feminists like Gedik and Dagdeviren are hopeful for change. Turkey has a vocal feminist movement. When there’s a scene in a show that glorifies violence against women, women take to social media, the streets, and the news to resist.
At the Oczcelebi house, Mehmet affectionately laughs at his wife’s requests. He loves Pinar but he can’t feign romance — it’s not in his personality, he says. He hints that he’s worried she’s being influenced too much by what she’s watching. She may be becoming too liberal.
“Women aren’t just sitting and waiting for their husbands anymore. They want to go out and learn about their freedoms. They learn to stand on their own. This is good, but I’m a little scared,” he says, giggling nervously as he plays with his daughters.
Fariba Nawa, based out of Istanbul, is a correspondent for The Fuller Project for International Reporting.