Muhteşem Yüzyıl: Traditional Women Roles in the Age of Emancipation

Living in an Arab country, I think anyone would find it rather difficult to overlook the feverish debates sparked by Arabic-dubbed Turkish soap operas featured on Arab television screens. Three years ago, it was the spectacular drama series Noor that captivated the region’s (and MMW’s) attention. But this time in 2012, it is the dazzling Turkish Muhteşem Yüzyıl, known in Arabic as “Hareem Sultan” (The Women of Sultan), that dominates personal conversations and public discussions within communities of women.

Cast of Muhteşem Yüzyıl. Image via Dubai TV.

This Turkish production tells the story of Sultan Suleiman, who was known for his great achievements and his efforts to spread Islam throughout the European continent in the 17th Century. He was described by European leaders at that time as the “Greatest Sultan of all”. But Muhteşem Yüzyıl’s focus is not on Sultan Suleiman’s heroic deeds in the battlefield, but rather on his relationships with slave girls brought to his palace from different countries. And the most intriguing of them in the soap opera is Hurrem, a young Ukrainian girl, who captivates the heart of Sultan Suleiman, and thus becomes his second wife. In many ways, Muhteşem Yüzyıl thrives on romantic entanglements and rivalries, showing the Sultan himself as torn between women seductions and heroic deeds to safeguard his empire, while women in the Haram or Sultan’s palace have only one concern to pursue: to win the love or even the attention of Sultan Sulieman to secure their survival in that rather intriguing royal setting.

From a technically visual perspective, I have enjoyed watching the soap opera. The special effects used in production were creatively employed to represent battles at sea and on land. Wardrobe, makeup, hairdressing and location design were effective in putting up a truly extravagant living experience in the Sultan’s royal household.

In Turkey, the soap opera has sparked critical reactions over its portrayal of a historical Turkish figure like Sultan Suleiman as a “disrespectful”, “indecent” and “hedonistic” man who was obsessed with sensual desires.  But fingers should also be pointed at Muhteşem Yüzyıl not for its misrepresentation of Ottoman leaders, but for its stereotypical portrayal of women as objects of subjugation and instruments of intrigue and seduction.  Of course, the drama shows the Sultan’s mother as a powerful figure who is viewed with respect and even fear by those in the harem, but that power only derives from her being Mother of Sultan and nothing else.  The soap opera shows an intricate power hierarchy in the harem, with the Sultan on top followed by his mother, his Ottoman wife, and his sister.  In the drama, Sultan Suleiman had two children from the Ukrainian slave woman, but the latter was never recognized as a Sultana as was the case with the Sultan’s mother, sister, and first wife.

What I am personally worried about is the potential negative impact of the representations of women as carried by Muhteşem Yüzyıl. The show is now in it is 30th episode, and seems to be defining women’s discussions in this part of the world. Every time I attend a ladies social gathering, I hear a lot of admiration for the outstanding beauty of the drama’s female characters, their seductive magic, and their exotic clothing and makeup.

The problem with this type of drama is that it reinforces stereotypical images of women as objects of seduction and as helpless creatures. Such portrayals would, in the long run, create self-perceptions among women that surely run counter to the impressive achievements women have made in modern life.  While feminist movements around the world are pushing for more visible women’s roles in their communities as leaders and professionals in their respective fields, media are consolidating those traditional images that we all seek to leave behind. It is true that Muhteşem Yüzyıl describes life patterns that dominated in the East some 400 years ago, but the glamour of the dramatic scenes and characters certainly have an impact on how women perceive themselves in our time.

I believe that television should take the lead in promoting historical drama works that depict women as real achievers rather than as objects of seduction and subjugation. Media should dispense with their sensational treatment of women for commercial profit and focus more on the heroic and human faces of women throughout history.  On television, historical drama works should provide a moral empowerment for women’s fight for equality and freedom in our societies.

  • Chris

    May I ask you, Samya, whether you have knowledge of Ottoman history? I believe a credible critique of this historical soap opera can only be done with profound historian knowledge of the Ottoman court, preferably of the era depicted even. I say this as someone who took a Turkology minor with otherwise different educational background, and has had some Ottoman language and history education. I have to admit right after saying that I feel my education did not even scratch the surface enough in order to comment on accuracy or lack of accuracy of the soap opera in question. My current Turkish teacher, a Turkish Native and historian by education with major focus on the Ottoman empire, commented on quite some accuracy of the show in class, though. He mentioned also the outrage by some Turkish officials and media representatives over the contents (“shame” etc.) and shun it off as the usual nationalistic reflex, and certainly not credible Ottoman historians’ critique. I can only pass on this as one educated opinion I heard. It rings familiar with quite some European courts of the time, and the status of women there, though, which in my semi-educated eyes makes it credible (essentially, royal mothers were highly influential, if in the background, in Europe, too; they were matchmakers striving to increase influence&power – for the kings, not themselves directly; they persuaded their royal sons to get rid of inappropriate wives; just like the Sultan, who very infamously had a thriving slave trade especially of white virgin girls up to his demise, the origin of, inter alia, the Tcherkess (Caucasian) minority in Turkey, they all were famous for mistresses, concubines etc. some of whom achieved quite some political influence – in the background, of course – still, I would not call any of these women true agents of their destiny given the surroundings that constrained them).

    So as you rightly point out, one question is whether the series is rubbish in its content. There you’ll have a major question on gender politics of mass entertainment productions, and the agenda behind those productions. If it is not bogus, but fairly accurate, historically, then I think your second suggestion to present women more as agents of their destiny is very ambiguous. So one should alter historical fact in a seemingly historical tv series? That would be mis-education and delusion. I do not think that would be appropriate even for sound intentions. Essentially, we can always learn from the past. It would be ideal if responsible mass media were to stage historian and politician/activist discussions after the show. (I am aware this is not likely to happen any time soon.) Still, I would be against such historical falsification. I feel ambiguous about the glamorization of the “woman is powerful in her own way – read: through her charms – in the background of power”-play. I just think if this is what the past is like almost all around the world, and what the reality of the world still is with few rays of light today, we should not mislead people into thinking it was different. There were, however, women who mastered their destiny better than you’d think they could based on the surroundings (they often depended on men providing support for their mastering their destiny, to remain honest). There is a novel biography for Lady Florence Baker, which I find fascinating from a very late Ottoman/colonial perspective (late 19th century – she was a slave girl in an Ottoman harem and sold as an adolescent to break free with her future husband, as her name tells an English noble). I am sure there are earlier fascinating biographies of women in harems or European courts, for that matter, who succeeded in securing themselves *some* freedom and agency.