Women on Screen: Early Ottoman/Turkish Films Featuring Muslim Women

< Program < PANEL NO. 8: Performers and Performance

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This paper will trace unhistoricized women actors in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey respectively. When filmmaking began in the mid-1910s, Muslim women were forbidden to perform on stage. Early cinema adopted the tacit regulations of the existing spectacle culture, consequently Muslim women’s participation in performance arts was considered “immoral” and “dishonorable.” Acting in films as a profession had ethnic and religious categories. Thus, women performers were mostly non-Muslims; examples include Lusi Arusyak, Rozali Benliyan, Mademoiselle Blanche, and Madame Kalitea.

At times, Muslim women attempted to break this unspoken rule which was derived from customary gender roles, social norms, and religious obligations. Actress Afife Jale (1902-1941) is known to have succeeded in doing so, along with other overlooked figures such as Nermin Hanım. The late Ottoman era represents a gradual transformation of women’s status in society from the Young Turk period (1908-1922) to the proclamation of a new nation-state, Turkey, in 1923. Growing public education of girls, emancipation of women, visibility in public space, secularism and the state’s Westernization ideology all led to rapid changes during the early Republican years. This government-led socio-political and cultural reformation found its place also in film production. Muslim women actors emerged from private film companies’ initiatives and government-led projects. Just to name a few: Bedia Muvahhit (1897-1994), Neyyire Neyir (1902-1943), and Feriha Tevfik (1910-1991).

Professionalization of women in filmmaking in this period reflects various discourses and representations that this paper will discuss by relying on archival documents in the form of state reports and press reviews. The research aims to provoke questions about the agency of women, social and religious norms, and the State’s intervention which built a new era for Muslim women’s role in filmmaking during the transitional years in state formation.

Özde Çeliktemel-Thomen (Middle East Technical University)

Özde Çeliktemel-Thomen is a historian of cinema and visual culture of the Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Middle East Technical University’s History  Department, working on a monograph. She received her Ph.D. from University College London (2018) with a dissertation on the regulation of cinema during the late Ottoman period. She finished a bachelors and masters in History at Boğaziçi University (2006) and Central European University (2009). Her academic interests include technology of early cinema, gender in early films, educational films, wartime films, and the use of cinema for propaganda purposes.