The Seamstresses. Directed by Biljana Garvanlieva. Macedonia: Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion, 2010. 26 minutes.

Voices Unveiled: Turkish Women Who Dare. Directed by Binnur Karaevli. New York: Women Make Movies, 2009. 69 minutes.

Reviewed by Şule Toktaş

The Seamstresses focuses on a group of women textile workers living in Stip, a small town in Macedonia. Due to the economic situation after the Yugoslav Wars and the collapse of communism, most men in this town are not able to find jobs excepting a few who could work as taxi drivers. Women, on the other hand, have the opportunity to work at a textile factory owned by a single boss. Before the Yugoslavian civil war, the city hosted a larger textile factory; yet, when the war was over, the boss opened a smaller factory, somewhat bigger than a workshop, and began exporting uniforms for the German police force and other textile products, mainly for the German and European market. The boss prefers women workers at his textile plant and describes his rationale as follows: "They are not old, some of them are younger, too. Only women work at our plant. They are more precise and smarter." This explains, partially, why women are often breadwinners of the family.

This documentary illustrates the economic situation in a small town in Macedonia by pinpointing the complexity of labor dynamics:

  1. production in a peripheral small town in Macedonia / consumption in centers of the European markets;
  2. production in a place with cheap labor / distribution to the markets for wealthy European consumers who are willing to pay high prices for certain brand names;
  3. production of textiles such as military and police force uniforms by women workers / consumption by the male personnel in these security forces; and
  4. production by women workers who provide for their family and are the sole breadwinners in a household / consumption by men and children in the household.

By way of the above points, the film portrays the paradoxes of globalization and the new challenges that it brings not only with respect to the changing relations within the economy but also within gender relations.

The benefits for women with these changing gender roles are ambiguous. Working conditions are harsh: sometimes double shifts (totaling nearly sixteen hours) in a day and seven days a week. The wages are low, as mentioned by one of the characters in the film: "You should see our price tags. A simple blouse costs two hundred euros. That's a monthly wage in Macedonia. My God, my wage is worth a blouse!" The women are extremely tired but have no choice other than continuing their jobs at the textile plant to support their children's education and the welfare of their household. However, their contributions seem not to receive a return in terms of power within the household, especially in their positions as wives.

By way of interviews conducted with various women, Voices Unveiled: Turkish Women Who Dare discusses a variety of women's issues in Turkey. Among the interviewees were a carpet specialist, an academic, a dancer, the head of the Turkish Industry and Business Association, a women's rights activist, a psychologist, and a student. Thus the women in the movie are elite women in the sense that they have middle- to uppermiddle-class socioeconomic status. The themes covered are motherhood, the politics of the headscarf, migration from rural to urban places, religion, virginity, close circle (neighborhood) oppression, honor crimes, restrictions placed on women by their brothers and fathers, the legal problems that discriminate against women, and patriarchal traditions. We learn more about these issues sometimes through the interviewees' personal life stories and sometimes through general comments made by these women in response to specific questions in the interview.

The film is a Kemalist documentary in the sense that it portrays Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey, as a leader who with several reforms (e.g., the Hat Law of 1925 that discouraged wearing the fez) introduced a Western style of living to the Turkish society and developed the status of women in the country. An assumption underlying the film is also Kemalist: education is the main instrument for the development of the status of women. This idea seems to reflect the position of Kemalist feminists in Turkey who not only are loyal to Kemalist reforms and secularism but also re a select group of “already liberated” women reaching out other women in Turkey who need to be saved and liberated. For example, in contrast to the children playing on the streets who appear to have lower class profile but the child of one of the women characters who was an activist in a women's organization was placed in front of a piano during the interview with her.

Another limitation of this documentary is that Kurdish women are ignored. The interviewees refrain from using the word “Kurdish” but instead refer to this ethnic group with terms like “the eastern region,” “the southeastern region,” and “women in rural areas.” In other words, the language preferred does not specify ethnicity and thus erases the ways in which ethnic difference may matter in women’s labor opportunities.

The film from time to time also encompasses Orientalist and/or touristic scenes, suggesting that the target audience is Western viewers. This may explain why certain shots were taken in popular and highly recognizable historical places. The resulting impression is that the film is part of Turkey's campaign to attract tourists from the West.

Educators might consider teaching The Seamstresses to address the relationship between class and gender and the economic changes affecting gender roles in post-conflict situations and countries. For example, courses about women in post-conflict zones and women in economic transformation and globalization can use this film in their syllabi. In a similar vein, Voices Unveiled can be utilized by educators to highlight women’s issues and the struggle of women’s movements in non-Western contexts and predominantly Islamic cultures.  Courses that focus on gender and society in the Middle East, women’s movements, and feminism in diversity might incorporate discussions which build upon this film.1

1 Çağla Diner and Şule Toktaş, “Waves of Feminism in Turkey: Kemalist, Islamist and Kurdish Women’s Movements in an Era of Globalization,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 12, no. 1 (2010): 41-57.

Şule Toktaş ( is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Turkey. She received her Ph.D. from Bilkent University and master's degree from the Middle East Technical University. She was formerly a Jean Monnet postdoctoral fellow at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute and a visiting scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Research on Gender and Women. Prof. Toktaş’s research interests include women’s studies, Turkish politics and foreign policy, and minority issues and international migration, and she is currently on the editorial board of the Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies and Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs and the Migration Research Center at Koç University.