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Eylem is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at University of East Anglia

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Women in Middle Eastern Film - Part Two

Film presents and represents women’s place in a society. Presences are noticeable, but most especially where the character or the actions presented are counter-intuitive. Where presences are in line with expectation and norms then they become, if not absences, at best inconspicuous. As such, they touch the viewer’s consciousness only at the outer edge of awareness. The notion of presentation is not limited to what actually appears, but also how it appears. Moreover, film asks us whether an absence is more or less noticeable than an expected presence.
Violence often recurs in the representation of issues around women or women’s experiences in patriarchal cultures. Indeed, films about and by women from the Middle East offer a response to the ways in which the female body is controlled in contemporary patriarchal society and discourse. The questions to ask then are: how do women represent violence if violence is brutal for women? Is explicit violence the same as suggested violence? Are depictions of male violence toward women ever condoned? What filmic strategies, then, are there that filmmakers can adopt to depict or critique the violence women experience in a way that does not add to existing aggression against women? How can women say what they cannot say within a certain space? How can they represent that which they are not supposed to film in a society ruled by a strong regime with powerful political and cultural control?
Censorship serves as another form of violence. Yosefa Loshitzky’s analysis of Yulie Cohen-Gerstel’s My Land Zion of 2004 focuses on what can be characterised as emotional violence experienced by the female protagonist at the level of identity and metaphor within the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Europeanisation and Judaisation. Violence sometimes appears in the context of exile and dislocation; Syrian filmmaker Hala Alabdallah Yakoub’s 2006 film I am the one who Carries Flowers to her Grave depicts a return to the home country from Parisian exile. Yakoub is an experimental filmmaker, born in Syria, living in France, working between the two countries. In Yesim Ustaoglu’s 2003 Waiting for the Clouds we see both physical and emotional violence, as the focus is on the burdens placed upon women’s shoulders; both literally in carrying heavy loads as workers and metaphorically through the oppressive roles imposed upon them by the male in the private sphere. Other examples from Turkish cinema include Önder and Gülmez’s The International of 2006, Akın’s 2007 film The Edge of Heaven and Bastards by Saraçoğlu from 2008. The Edge of Heaven’s Yeter (the character’s name is chosen intentionally; “yeter” means “enough”) becomes a prostitute after the loss of her husband and she lives in exile. The International’s Gülendam suffers the loss of her boyfriend. In Bastards, Hatice is shot by her own fifteen year old son, who was assigned the role of restoring family honour.
Who is directing? Can they represent accurately different people, including those who they are not? Can men represent women and vice versa? Does it matter whether there are not many women directors? It does only if we adopt an existential view of representation rather than a principal agent view, that is, if it is believed that only women can represent women, or that they do it generally better than men. It is from this perspective that the absence of women directors leads directly to absences in the films themselves. These absences will not be those intended by a woman director who consciously and experimentally plays with norms and expectations, but will be the unintended and overlooked absences arising from a failure to understand the nature of what is being presented and represented. So it is an issue whether directors are women, not just because there should be equal opportunities for women directors, but because, if one adopts a certain view of what they are representing when they bring their work to the screen, something will be lost if there are no women directors to ensure the proper representation of women in film.
Contemporary Middle Eastern films indeed reveal powerful cross-currents producing complex and often contradictory effects, acting both to reinforce and to mitigate against the manifestations of male dominance in different narratives and contexts. However, despite these complexities, gender asymmetry in society is produced, represented and reproduced through filmic texts. Nevertheless, women’s attempts to film their concerns and represent their experiences from their own point-of-view are significant.
Some assume identity can only be experienced and understood by those holding the identity in question. As such, people can only be truly or properly represented by someone sharing that identity. Take a political analogy to consider a weaker version of this. One may feel that there should be a more representative sample of women in parliament because their presence makes a palpable difference to what would otherwise be a predominantly male enclave. Thus, it would be thought, the interests of women are not properly represented because they are not properly understood. Here, the very presence of women as women in such a context makes a difference. Likewise, while the strategies that different women filmmakers of the Middle East use may differ, they are connected by similar processes of revising and reconceptualising their work. It is important for them to devise strategies whereby they can make their voices heard about women’s issues and experiences. They offer distinctive intention in cinematic style, as well as stunning examples of experimentation.
Women directors of the Middle East engage in self-expression, even as they engage in expression of a more radical kind – expressions of political, social and cultural change.

Women in Middle Eastern Film - Part One


Critical debates around women and gender politics in the Middle East are increasing and increasingly stimulating. This is particularly due to the expanding interaction between scholars’, critics’ and filmmakers’ writings and works from Western perspectives and from within Middle Eastern countries. This dialogue between the East and the West is also the centre of attention as far as writings on World Cinema and gender politics are concerned. There is growing interest in the cinema of countries far beyond Hollywood and away from Europe, both in geographical and metaphorical terms.

It is clear that in producing works about their own cultures, narratives and societies or their views on the West, filmmakers from the Middle East have never been so successful. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s success with Three Monkeys in 2009 and Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s achievement with Copie Conforme at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival are good cases in point. Hollywood, then, may have been the carrier of ideologies and images of the East, but with the increased number of films produced from within Middle Eastern countries and/or filmmakers of that origin, previously absent images are now present. It is for this reason that focusing on Middle Eastern film in general, and women in it in particular, is significant. As far as ideas about transnational cinema and effects of globalisation on cinema are concerned, filmic representation is affected too. With more films from the East, and with more women directing them, change is inevitable: the existing and stereotypical images are shaken up as images of women of the Middle East originating from the East travel around the world.

Contemporary films from Middle Eastern countries build and reflect upon the plurality of thought and the potential offered by cultural exchange with and by women, films and cultures brought together within this spatial configuration. There seems to be three recurring themes central to the discussion of women in Middle Eastern film: the relationship between women and Islam; the concept of violence that resonates across multiple layers of reference (physical, emotional, political, economic, clandestine, sexual, military); and finally the idea of presence and absence both at the representational level on the screen and in regard to the existing and emerging women filmmakers.

Honour killings, women’s chastity, adultery, virginity and sex are topics which have a considerable impact upon women’s lives and experiences in countries where Islamic patriarchal regimes exist. There are certain expectations in the West about approaches to women in the Middle East informed by religion. Islam and tradition, in this sense, are depicted in film as the reasons for women’s oppression, as well as being presented as topics of criticism – particularly in films that have a feminist standpoint. A good example of this is Shirin Neshat’s 2009 film Women without Men, which offers a view of Iran in 1953, when a British- and American-backed coup removed the democratically elected government. Adapted from the novel by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, the film weaves together the stories of four women, whose experiences are shaped by their faith and the social structures of a patriarchal regime. Neshat explores: “the social, political, and psychological dimensions of her characters as they meet in a metaphorical garden, where they can exist and reflect while the complex intellectual and religious forces shaping their world linger in the air around them.”3 Alternatively, take Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree of 2008, the story of a Palestinian widow who must defend her lemon tree field when a new Israeli Defence Minister moves next to her and threatens to have her lemon grove torn down. The vulnerability of a widow, and the land as embodied within the woman’s body, is the focus of the film. Another film that is worth considering here is Syrian filmmaker Diana El-Jeiroudi’s Dolls (2007), produced by Proaction Films, the only independent film production company in Syria that is in operation today. This documentary film explores the significance of the ‘Fulla Doll’, the veiled version of the American Barbie doll, whilst at the same time asking questions about women’s identity and their place in a society where Islam is the dominant religion. As Shohreh Jandaghian’s interview with the director states: “With her first feature documentary, Dolls, El-Jeiroudi attempts to reveal a trend towards the commercial appropriation of a female model that limits the mind, soul and body of a young generation, into one approved set of social and religious frame of choice.” [...]

[*] Parts of this blog entry has been published in Near East Quarterly, Issue 1, 2010. http://www.neareastquarterly.com/index.php/2010/08/04/representations-and-or-interpretations-women-in-middle-eastern-film/

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

‘On Turkish Television Women Face Life and Death’: Confessions on reality TV and ‘feminist’ nightmares

In late 2010 Robert Fisk wrote (in The Independent) about honour killings, under the title of “The crimewave that shames the world”: ‘In Jordan a man raped his own daughter. She got pregnant… When he found out he accused her for having affairs with people and killed her to save the ‘honour’ of his family… A Turkish father and grandfather buried a 16-year-old girl alive for ‘befriending boys’… In Somalia another woman was stoned by 50 men for adultery… In Pakistan a young woman was axed to death for having an illegitimate child…’ This list continues. The reasons for honour killings differ but it was the first time a woman was shot to death for appearing and voicing her concerns on television when, in May 2005, after fleeing her abusive husband, Birgul made her way the television show “Woman’s Voice”’s colourful set, in Istanbul. According to press reports when she sought help from the police previously, she was directed to the TV channel and to this particular program. During the live show Birgul told of being forced to marry her husband some 20 years ago. Her husband, she said, had had two previous wives, both of whom he allegedly also abused. Host of the show Yasemin Bozkurt demanded protection for Birgul in her hometown during the live show. However, on her return, as she got off the bus, she was shot five times in the head and chest by her 14 year-old son, who, according to a news report entitled ‘On Turkish TV women face life and death’, yelled: "You went on television and disgraced the family!" Her son got arrested along with his father who was accused of sending him out on the murder mission (wenews.com).

Since the 1990s there have been significant changes in the Turkish television programmes that target women. The shift is from shows that teach women domestic duties (cooking, child caring, cleaning) which all refer to the domain of the home, to shows that focus on overtly feminine issues but with a sensationalist approach. These programmes are introduced as and pride themselves for being ‘the voice of women’. This is apparent in their titles. Your Voice (Flash TV), As We Discuss (Channel 7), From A to Z (Channel D), Let’s Not Talk About That (Star TV), Adams and Eves (TRT-1), Between Us (Show TV), You Are Not Alone (ATV). Issues that are regarded as private are talked about in these shows with stories including rape in marriage, adultery, sexual problems, divorce and violence. In fact, dominance of sexual themes, citing frank and open discussion of sexual practices, orientations and deviance has never been discussed on Turkish television in such way before. With the explosion of the private in the public these talk shows offer entertainment through the discursive construction of the victim, within a space full of intimate confessions.

In a statement Channel D’s management (Murat Saygi) (Sabah, 18th May, 2005) said they cancelled the show because it was becoming a ‘social problem’. In a response to this, the co-founder of the Istanbul-based Women for Women’s Human Rights, also a feminist academic, Pinar Ilkkaracan said: “The major social problem is that these women get no help; they have no other place to turn. I think these programmes have come into being because of what’s happening in the field. Women wanted to speak out, they wanted help.” The host of one of the talk shows, Aysegul Yazici, (ATV, You’re Not Alone) said she was getting around 300 enquiries every day from people who wanted to appear on the show: “The main objective of my show is to tell women that they should not remain silent, that a solution will come if they raise their voice, and take steps to address their problems. I’m trying to show women their way out.’ Interestingly, along with women fleeing an abuse home, Woman’s Voice also featured women and men looking for dates and marriage. So there is an underlying task here: to reaffirm patriarchal structures through marriage.

The idea of ordinary people speaking about their experiences is culturally significant. But do these talk shows refine gender politics and how? Do they raise any form of consciousness on women’s human rights? Sadly, it is hard to argue that they provide women (as audiences and citizens) with the knowledge of basic laws and information on the way in which political system functions or other help mechanisms (if at all available). More importantly, they hardly ever regard women’s issues as social problems. Instead these problems are individualized and do not go beyond sharing sensational experiences on the small screen. Women become constructs of commercialism and are framed as victimized individuals – hence television in Turkey ends up melodramatizing the issues which have political resonance.

Friday, 24 June 2011

“Honour is everything for Muslims”? A note on Vendetta Song, Cinematic Representation, Religious Identity and Gender Politics in Turkey

In Eylem Kaftan’s 2005 bio-documentary Vendetta Song a group of men are asked what honour means and one answers: “Honour is everything for Muslims. It is everything in Islam.” Vendetta Song is a significant film that calls for an analysis for its exploration of honour killings, gender inequalities, the traditional practice of arranged marriages and the semi-feudal social structure in Eastern Turkey within the context of Islamic tradition. The film problematizes the relations of the West to the East (both within and outside Turkey) as the narrative is structured as a travelogue of a woman travelling from Canada to Istanbul and then from Western to Eastern Turkey.
Religious values are significant determinants in cultural practices and customs in Turkey: honour crimes may not be religious but they are certainly religiously practiced. Indeed, violence shapes gender relations in various ways: both in reality and at the level of representation it resonates at different levels: verbal, physical, emotional. I raise three main questions here about the relationship between cinema and religion. The first question is: what can be said about the nature of the relationship between religion and tradition at the level of filmic representation? The second question is: why and how are honour crimes regarded as a customary practice of ‘the East’? And finally: how does Vendetta Song as a film which takes the previous two questions as its focus represent these complex links between the concepts of honour crimes, religion, patriarchal tradition, and ‘the East’? Honour crimes are generally associated with Islam and the East. However, there is in fact no intrinsic or necessary link between them.
Vendetta Song problematises the concepts of Islam and tradition whilst at the same time positioning honour crimes within an Eastern context. The film, on one hand, critiques gender politics through its feminist discourse and, on the other, attempts to deconstruct this misperceived connection between Islam and violence against women. Whilst doing so it also places emphasis on tradition rather than religion. The two are distinguished, and whilst it is accepted that they might intertwine, or that one might be overlaid on the other in practice, by thus distinguishing them, space is opened up for the possibility of critique. The tradition is a patriarchal tradition – and this is what the film focuses on. However, there is a serious issue whether the film, although it appears to want to draw this distinction between tradition and religion, succeeds in doing so clearly or consistently. Whether this is because of the aesthetic choices made in the film or whether it is a consequence of the self understanding of those filmed is another issue which needs to be carefully considered. Members of a society can subjectively (but falsely) believe that things which are not intrinsically linked are thus linked. The point, then, is that religion and culture or tradition are different categories and should be distinguished as such. The fact that a certain tradition or culture is largely based on religious practice in fact does not obscure this point. To conclude, I argue that tradition should not be thought of as justification to practices including honour crimes. To invoke tradition to justify a (violent) practice is not sufficient. Instead, institutional practices must be targeted to think about the reasons behind patriarchal discourses and violent practices.