The Middle Eastern TV Show Bringing Feminist Views on Marriage to 80 Million People

In Turkey, a soap opera is informing women of their rights and challenging cultural assumptions about marriage.

Americans might not think of soap operas as the best way to spread awareness of serious women’s issues, but in Turkey—the media capital of the Middle East—these TV dramas are fueling a feminist movement.

In the fifth episode of A Woman’s Place, documentarians Kassidy Brown and Allison Rapson traveled to Turkey to meet the women who use soap operas to explore social issues like child marriage, domestic violence, and other topics that are often considered taboo.

Female characters push for equality while still respecting important traditions and religious beliefs.

Gumus, a show about a couple in an “equal partnership”—where the husband supports the female protagonist’s career ambitions and vice versa—made waves when its series finale brought in 80 million viewers across the Middle East and North Africa. “Showing equal partnership has led to serious changes—it’s incredible to watch,” Brown said. “A wave of divorce is happening [in Turkey] as women feel empowered by it.”

The show has “very Middle Eastern women doing very Middle Eastern things” Rapson explained. The marriage between the two characters was arranged, and the couple observes Ramadan among other traditions. But Gumus also deals with real-world issues that usually aren’t talked about in mainstream Turkish media, like premarital sex and unwanted pregnancy.

Although some people see rising divorce rates across the country as a bad thing, others see the increase as a sign that women are demanding a better place for themselves after seeing examples of positive, strong women on TV. Pointedly, the show was renamed Noor (the name of the female protagonist) when it was dubbed and rebroadcast for Arab audiences.

Because the writers, directors, and producers of these shows are themselves Turkish women, they are careful to make sure female characters push for equality while still respecting important traditions and religious beliefs.

“Women who are fighting for equal rights don’t want to feel alienated from their culture,” said Rapson. These soap operas show women across the Middle East that they don't have to be Western to be a feminist and they can support and respect their husbands while also demanding respect for themselves.