Turkish media pushes women to conform to unrealistic expectations

Turkish talk show host Okan Bayülgen used to have a TV show where he regularly invited singers and actresses on as guests and made fun of their intelligence. This is a pattern of behaviour, which is clearly sexist, and aims to reinforce a stereotype that attractive women cannot be intelligent.

A similar type of spectacle aroused considerable discussion on Turkish social media this weekend, after the Miss Turkey 2018 winner, Şevval Şahin, went on a CNN Türk talk show hosted by Merve Şahin and Melis Özcan to answer questions about her private life, such as why she hosted private parties during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. 

Şahin was also subjected to a quiz that seemed intended to show her lack of knowledge. She eventually called her manager and walked out. 

As she explained later on social media, although she was born in Turkey, Şahin grew up in the United Kingdom, and attended university there. Is it really so surprising that a 21-year-old, who didn’t live in Turkey for the majority of her life doesn’t know who Health Minister Fahrettin Koca is, or the words of the Turkish national anthem?

Personally, I sometimes wish I didn’t know the words of the British national anthem, because it’s a terrible song that supports a religious and class-based structure I disagree with. And I wish I didn’t know who British Health Minister Matt Hancock was, because he is an incompetent mediocrity, who resembles a sad puppy.

What exactly is the point of this kind of social shaming? Are Turkish models expected to have a good understanding of Turkish politics and national history? If so, should we also expect the country’s top health official, Koca, to win a beauty contest? 

I am reminded of an anecdote told to me by a Turkish friend. Her mother received a phone call from a neighbour complaining about a female tenant, who her mother was renting an apartment to. The female neighbour complained that the younger woman wore tights at home, and owned a cat. This was apparently scandalous enough for the neighbour to demand that the young woman should be evicted from her apartment.

These incidents raise the issue of how some women support and impose a patriarchal view of other women’s roles in society. Presenters like those who quizzed Şahin similarly help to police the roles other women are expected to play, and to shame them for non-conformity with those rules.

This was also seen recently when pop singer Demet Akalın told a story on her TV show about how her car broke down."One day, when I was driving with my friend in the car, the tire exploded... We stopped and I immediately called my husband. For example, she could not call. One wants the power of a man," Akalın said.

But Şahin’s refusal to be cast in the role of an unintelligent model does seem to have brought her support from many Turkish social media users.

There is also an aspect of the criticism of Şahin that positions her as not Turkish enough for not knowing the words to the national anthem. Turkish models are apparently supposed to display sufficient nationalism to be taken seriously.

Şahin commented in a social media post saying “So what if I don't know the Turkish national anthem. Would I become a role model for Turkish women by knowing the national anthem?”

No matter how successful women in Turkey are, they know that they can be expected to be criticised for something. They might be labelled as “deficient, incomplete,” in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s words, if they neglect their duty to have children or have successful careers.

So what if women don’t conform to the expectations of patriarchy? Who gets to decide how they should live their lives except them? Perhaps men should concentrate more on fixing their own deficiencies rather than judging the other gender.

There have been 310 femicides so far this year in Turkey, and it is not women responsible for all these murders.

Turkish women, like all women in patriarchal societies, are expected to conform to a standard of beauty, which is considered to be a kind of currency, with which to find a good husband. If they instead decide to become successful on their own merits, they will be criticised for not being feminine enough, or not prioritising a family.

Those who do conform to beauty standards and are in fact put on a pedestal for such a performance will still be considered stupid, and are encouraged to repeat sexist tropes about women being weak and needing a man. How such attitudes are not recognised as a double standard is quite mysterious.

“Patriarchy is an amazing fiction. First by inventing something called a beauty contest, it makes women compete with each other based on a limitless and impossible to obey list of rules. Then it humiliates the winner once again by subjecting her to another exam independent of those rules”, said Twitter user haziraniniz.

Sexist attitudes towards women have cast Şahin in a role, which many women living in patriarchal societies will recognise. No matter how beautiful, successful or clever you are, you will never conform to the idealised expectations of patriarchy.

Not everybody has the luxury of refusing society’s demands and judgements, but we all sometimes wish we could say “so what if I’m not what you want me to be?’’

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.