Films about gender in the Middle East tend to follow scholarly trends that reflect Western preoccupations with women's empowerment (or lack thereof) and an interest in the dynamics of alternative sexualities and their repression. Filmmakers have approached these topics with more or less self-awareness about assumptions that may inadvertently reproduce their expectations about modernity, freedom of choice, and the role of the individual. The approach or concerns of the filmmaker are not necessarily those nearest to the heart of a typical man and woman in the region, whose lives are shaped by more mundane traditions and problems, like maintaining virginity, finding and affording a suitable marriage partner, and perhaps as well by a desire to submit to the strictures of religion or family, rather than escape them. This was the message of the anthropologist Saba Mahmood in her analysis of women willingly participating in Cairo's mosque movement that to a Western eye might appear disempowering.1 Mahmood reminds us to not only see through the eyes of local people but also to try to understand from their vantage point, which is sometimes not one we are comfortable sharing. The film Gender Me accomplishes such unfettered understanding by allowing Muslim homosexuals to express the unedited variety of their fears and feelings, including attempts by some to reconcile their lifestyle with their faith. By contrast, in the film Women of Turkey, the Turkish filmmaker has chosen interlocutors who share a specific understanding of modernity, a Western definition that the filmmaker and most of her interviewees celebrate, but that barely scratches the surface of the condition or views of women in that country.
Gender Me is a moving, compassionate look at the lives of Muslim homosexuals at home and in exile, their relationships with their families and their Muslim faith, and their trials under homophobic regimes. Despite the hardships and struggles, one senses an unextinguished exuberance and love of life. While the director is a woman, the filmmaker is himself a young gay man in exile in Istanbul and Norway, bringing immediacy to the interviews. In separate interviews, gay men in exile from Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, as well as gay men in the relatively more tolerant Istanbul, demonstrate the range of sometimes horrific experiences that homosexuals confront in those societies and reveal the double and even triple lives many of them must live.
The genius of the film lies in its ability to capture the inner lives of these men, their feelings of pain, love, and bewilderment at the personal and moral predicaments they face as a result of their sexual preference. What are the consequences if they tell their families? As pious Muslims, are they committing a sin? How can one be a gay Muslim? How does the Islamic community react to them? A gay American imam has some advice about how to interpret the Qu'ran in this regard and discusses cyberspace as a safe place for gay Muslims who are not willing to be visible. The film also follows Turkish gay men facing compulsory military service unless they can "prove" they have a "psychosexual disorder," that is, that they are gay. The interviews are painful, honest, and thought provoking, without losing a sense of people's personalities and joy in being who they are. Interview subjects break into dance, weep, and vamp.
Production quality is excellent, with much of the conversation in English and subtitles in English. The film is available in a 29- and a 52-minute version; the latter is book ended by clever animation. I would use this film in courses that deal with Muslim societies, gender, and religion to spark discussion comparing attitudes toward homosexuality in different religious traditions (the film compares Islamic state policies, different interpretations of orthodox Islam, and Sufi Islam), under different state systems, and in contrast to expectations of masculinity.2 The film might also be paired in the classroom with readings about masculinity in the Middle East.3
Women of Turkey, however, is a film that stands in its own way and in its present form has little usefulness for teaching. It features some heartfelt dialogue by and about women in contemporary Turkey by a variety of young secular and a few pious women, who generally are only minimally introduced and described. This leaves their statements untethered to such characteristics as social class, education, age, family status, workplace, or other factors that might help the viewer situate them. The film also provides little coherent historical or social context for understanding the significance of their statements. What is provided is uneven and scattered, with some subjects of conversation cut in such a way that they seem disconnected.
The film consists of a series of interviews with women, most uncovered, some veiled, on the topic of women's place in Turkey and particularly on the issue of whether the headscarf should be banned on university campuses or not (it was banned at the time the film was shot). The women interviewed tend to give rather superficial pro or con opinions, with little explanation of either the circumstances of the ban or the reasons for their opinions. There is an undercurrent of essentialist assumptions that sets "local Islamic culture" against a modern, Western, secular lifestyle. There are some historical images of the army and of the first veiled woman elected as a member of parliament being booed out of the forum, but these are neither fully identified nor their stories told or significance explained. Unless the viewer already knows about the history of military coups in Turkey and the background to the veil ban and has some knowledge of Turkish political history, these images are likely to be meaningless or may be misinterpreted as indicating that Turkish society in general is something it is not. Toward the end, there is a discussion of Turkey's efforts at gaining EU membership that seems out of context, since it is neither explained nor linked to other issues in the film.
The film makes some mentions of women in Turkish history, but these are brief and misleading as they represent an uncritical official historical narrative that women were given full equality in the early republic in the 1920s and 30s, which is not entirely the case, either legally or culturally. Indeed, a liberal feminist movement sprang up in the 1980s to address the inequalities that, to this day, still hobble Turkish women. Some of the major issues facing women -- not addressed in the film -- are violence and women's lack of participation in the labor force (less than 30 percent) and in politics. While there are a few women in parliament, at lower levels of political bureaucracy the numbers dwindle even further. A veiled interlocutor in the film makes reference to honor killings, but the subject is not taken up in more detail. Instead, the film offers a generally upbeat view that whether one agrees with the ban or not, Turkey is a "model of coexistence between Muslim and Western cultures" and a "bridge between Islam and the West."
The interviews are interspersed with images of picturesque Istanbul scenery and street scenes that seem to have little relevance to the theme of the film except to illustrate Turkey's beauty and modernity. The soundtrack is not of good quality, the narration is heavily flawed, and the English subtitles that translate the Turkish dialogue are at times wrong in a way that undermines the speaker's intent.
The two films described here both deal with gender rights, but while Gender Me allows the full complexity of people's desires and fears to emerge, Women of Turkey narrowly edits its views to express a particular ideological position and to promote a Westernized modernity that does not do justice to Turkey's complexity.
1 Saba Mahmood. Politics of Piety (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
2 David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).
3 Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb, eds. Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (London: Saqi, 2006).
Jenny White is associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, former president of the Turkish Studies Association and of the American Anthropological Association Middle East Section, and sits on the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies. She is author of Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (forthcoming 2012, Princeton University Press); Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (2002); and Money Makes Us Relatives: Women's Labor in Urban Turkey (second edition, London: Routledge, 2004). Professor White lectures internationally on topics ranging from political Islam and nationalism to ethnic identity and gender issues. She has been following events in Turkey since the mid-1970s. Professor White blogs on contemporary Turkey at http://kamilpasha.com/.