Viewing Contemporary Turkey and Pakistan through Television Series

August 14, 2017

For a century now structuralists and post-structuralists have been arguing about the arbitrariness of meaning of symbols and words; the same word or object can mean different things in different settings.

The objects surrounding our daily lives are not just pieces of particular shape and color meant to perform a particular function. Objects are texts that convey meanings. They are the instruments of emotion and ideology. Therefore the narratives built through the usage of social and cultural objects can not be treated as objective or innocent. They are filled with the makers’ bias: ideology, motives or sensation. Television dramas and films are like dreams. Elements belonging to disperate contexts or situations can be combined together along with human beings from disperate backgrounds. A story can be woven through this manipulation that is far away from reality or makes the idea of reality obsolete. Yet, in these represented or imaginary stories, objects and their combinations become metaphors, open to interpretations. Hence, in the light of above statement, visual media plays two important roles: it reflects as well as shapes the society. Here we comparatively examine two television serials. One is set in Turkey (Huzur Sokağı or Serenity Street), and another is set in Pakistan (Khuda Aur Mohabbat or God and the Love). Representation of Islam, Islamic symbols and women are at the centre of the two narratives.

“I did not start wearing hijab before because … ,” says Feyza (Selin Demiratar), the character of a young Turkish girl who wears miniskirts, visits late night parties and drinks occasionally, to her beloved, Bilal (Kutsi). Feyza belongs to a rich corporate family where the concept of hijab exists as a dressing for the poor, ignorant and backward people, thus having no place within the realm of a “modern” family.

“… because I always had a feeling that if I begin wearing hijab I would be doing it for you, not for God. Now I don’t care whether you are with me or not. I have found my world now,” Feyza tells Bilal, a man who comes from a modest family and defines every aspect of his life in keeping with religious guidelines. Feyza utters these words after going through a series of hardships and deception at the hands of her own family members and friends. As she prays in silence calmness befalls her. Prayers give her peace that she has found absent all through her life. Now in this new world bowing her head to God liberates her from all the sadness of past and fear of future. Even Bilal, her beloved, who in fact had opened the gates for her to this new world of spirituality becomes insignificant to her. Such is the overpowering influence of this new life.

These lines describe what lies at the heart of the narrative of the Şenol Sönmez directed Turkish television serial, Huzur Sokağı. Few things in this message set Huzur Sokağı apart from its Pakistani counterpart, Khuda Aur Mohabbat, directed by Saud Raheem. First, it establishes that religion is to be appreciated as a ‘consequence’, not cult or authority. Second, compromise between love and God, rich and poor is not completely impossible, as represented in Khuda Aur Mohabbat. Third, within a social setup woman’s identity does not have to necessarily be overshadowed by religion, which has historically been deemed as proprietorship of man. The two serials, though unrelated, hit the screen around the same time in their respective countries – Huzur Sokağı in 2012 and Khuda Aur Mohabbat in 2011.

The relationship between religion and modernity

Both Huzur Sokağı and Khuda Aur Mohabbat have a socio-historical context in Turkey and Pakistan. The two countries are Muslim majority and the debate between Islam, secularism and modernity has existed ever since the two states were formed in the first half of the twentieth century. More specifically, since the 1980s the debate gained more salience in Pakistan as well as Turkey, with a particular focus on women. In Turkey, the demand for the right to wear the headscarf in public places, like schools, public offices and universities, was raised as the secularist republican rule had become ever more oppressive in that regard. On the other hand, through Zia-ul-Haq’s “Islamization” process in Pakistan new parameters were legislatively drawn curtailing women’s rights. The two television dramas capture these two opposing debates involving Islam, women’s rights, and human rights.

Huzur Sokağı represents a complex interplay between religion and modernity. It rejects modernity in its Western form, which promotes individualism and divests a human being of spirituality. It completes this “modernity” by infusing a spiritual element – that is religious values – into it, and it revitalizes the power of a sokak or street. Thus an individual is no more simply a corporate machine, but a human being, a social animal who identifies himself/herself within a neighborhood. The food cooking in one kitchen can be shared by the entire community. So Huzur Sokağı emphasizes molding of the existing social order to make it conducive for all the social agents irrespective of their beliefs, gender and economic status. It does this by putting the individual at the center. Conversely, however, Khuda Aur Mohabbat reflects the rigidity of the social structure in which an individual is merely an object that serves this structure.

For a century now structuralists and post-structuralists have been arguing about the arbitrariness of meaning of symbols and words; the same word or object can mean different things in different settings. This is exactly what the two serials exemplify. The headscarf and abaya, traditionally a Muslim dress, for instance, assume two different types of meanings within the setting of the two television serials under discussion.

The power of ideological symbolization

Huzur Sokağı’s hijab, analyzing the character of Shukran (Sinem Ozturk), signifies wisdom, self-respect, patience, politeness and prudence. The hijab of Khuda Aur Mohabbat, on the other hand, is a symbol of an overarching authority — a mix of religion and patriarchy. It not only segregates but also blocks. Apart from being a symbol controlling identity of a woman, the hijab of Khuda Aur Mohabbat, which also extends to the face, allowing only eyes to be visible, acts as a wall that solidifies the difference between male and female. Throughout this drama serial hijab has a central role that cements the male-female difference.

However, perhaps for the first time in modern Turkey, a television serial has such an extensive visibility of the hijab and abaya, yet there is no conscious focus on this dress. Huzur Sokağı’s increased exposure to the Islamic dressing may be attributed to the changing ground reality of Turkey. After the lifting of the ban on headscarf in Turkey, the visibility rate of headscarf throughout the country has gone up. The portrayal of women, with and without headscarf, involved in normal exchange of social life, is an assertion of the need for different sections of the society to intermingle and coexist with each other in the new Turkey.

Its focus is on the complex features of characters – wisdom, shallowness, recklessness, foresight, morality/immorality, politeness and so on – that cut across the ideological and identity boundaries. In the process, not only is the social gender difference obliterated but the secularist-conservative divide also becomes insignificant; one is not promoted over the other. For instance, Bilal, the lead male character, who is depicted as very religious, self-respecting and authoritative, falls in love with Feyza, who is quite unlike him. For Bilal, the condition to be in love with Feyza and get married to her is not to transform her to a pious woman. This is not even a point. Even Bilal’s own teenage sister, Rezaan, doesn’t wear a headscarf and sometimes wears miniskirts. Still Bilal loves and cares for Rezaan as an elder brother would do. Though it is Bilal who, after their father’s demise, acts as head-of-the family, he never imposes anything to the family members. He acts as an obedient and respectful son to his mother.

The narrative and symbolization of Huzur Sokağı is integral to the Turkish government’s ideology in trying to redefine Turkish identity, i.e., advocating the creation of a culture of cooperation, rather than competition or confrontation, among different social and ideological groups. In a society like Turkey there has been a raging antagonism between extreme/strict secularist policies of past regimes at the cost of those who were surviving their religious tradition in the country’s remote corners.

Huzur Sokağı also attempts to serve as an educational platform which sends clear socio-cultural signals. It does not obliterate the “secularist” discourse to promote a “religious” one (as some scholars tend to see them as two binary opposites). It is simply redefining the secularist discourse to broaden its circumference in order to become more inclusive. Khuda Aur Mohabbat, on the other hand, is a spectacle of tragedy. An individual is trapped in a structure, whose rigidity gives him/her a choice between death and submission. The individual is an object whose emotions, feelings, thoughts and desires are subject to structural regulation.

The Social Divide

When two people – Imaan (Sadia Khan), a girl from a poor and religious family and Hamaad (Imran Abbas), a boy from a modern, rich family transcend their class boundaries and fall in love with each other, the end they meet is death. Even changing sides does not help Hamaad: he forsakes his rich family to become equal to his beloved and begins to pray, but then it is the girl’s father Molvi Aleemuddin (Salman Shahid) who refuses to accept this marriage, signaling the social stigma, entrenched inequality between the two families and “illegitimacy of love marriage in Islam”.

The uncompromisability of the social classes so vividly illustrated in Khuda Aur Mohabbat evokes a high degree of emotion. The narrative and mode of representation can be interpreted as a general signifier for the most of the post-colonial South Asian cultures, including India and Pakistan, the two most populous nations of the region. Within the boundaries of these countries two unequal societies exist side by side. While one is defined by its economic status – a highly westernized elite who predominantly occupy governmental positions, the other is defined by its poverty and religiosity.

Due to poverty and massive population states in Pakistan and India have not been able to exert their authority to the peripheries of the countries. Consequently, in the absence of any support from state apparatuses, large masses of population find refuge in cultural and religious rituals. It is the local bodies at village level and, in some cases, tribal bodies, that regulate the social life through religious or cultural decrees. Weak state institutions find it hard to reach out to the people at the periphery. While the elite are guided by their economic status, those at the bottom adopt religion and traditional rituals as an authority guiding social behavior. This overwhelmingly resulted in religion becoming a source of power, which became capable of justifying patriarchy. Molvi Aleemuddin represents this authority in Khuda Aur Mohabbat. The serial symbolically captures this convolution.

Islamic symbols like hijab and beard, in the past two decades especially, have assumed an extremely negative connotation. Comparative analysis of Huzur Sokağı and Khuda Aur Mohabbat opens a window to see the artificial nature of human perception about symbols: meanings of symbols are not natural; they are produced through social interaction. Therefore, anything wrong about Islamic symbols is only a matter of human perception, which can change as well.

Waseem Ahad is a PHD Candidate at Kocaeli University. Born and brought-up in Indian Administered Kashmir, Ahad lived first 22 years of his life through Kashmir’s independence war that started in 1989. After completing his Masters in journalism from Kashmir University, Ahad moved to New Delhi to work as a journalist for The Economic Times. In 2015, Ahad moved to Turkey for his research studies in Communication Science.