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Portrayals of Sapphic Love in Early Turkish Cinema

Four Women in the Harem, Haremde dört kadin
Birsel Film

As the calendar turned to May 27, 1960, Turkey experienced an unprecedented moment that left an indelible mark on its collective psyche: a group of young military officers staged the nation’s first military coup d'état and introduced a new constitution. Despite the profound blow to the foundation of Turkish democracy, the new constitution had received acclaim from various quarters for its progressive inclinations. It offered a more comprehensive protection of human rights and significantly extended the scope of civilian and labor rights. 

The Constitution of 1961 had a direct impact on Turkey's art scene as well. Films and literary works previously banned due to fears of communism were now freely released, while numerous film magazines and art groups emerged across the country. Drawing inspiration from the Italian neorealist movement, a group of young filmmakers aspired to explore socio-political issues as well as themes that had been considered too daring to portray on-screen, including those relating to sexuality and intimacy. 

During the progressive political climate of the 1960s, certain socio-realist filmmakers were emboldened to incorporate LGBTQ+ themes into their narratives. However, despite the relatively liberal policies of the time, Turkish cinema largely refrained from depicting male homosexuality and featuring openly transgender characters. Conversely, portrayals of love and intimacy between women were somewhat more acceptable and featured in numerous films from the era. Renowned directors such as Atıf Yılmaz, Halit Refiğ, and Aydın G. Arakon emerged as pioneers in directing some of the earliest instances of homoerotic films, where the dynamics between two women are explored through ambiguous and sometimes problematic forms of storytelling.

In 1962, Arakon’s Ver Elini Istanbul (Istanbul Come My Way) became the first Turkish film to feature a scene of physical intimacy between two women. In this landmark production, two characters, Seher (Mualla Kavur) and Türkan (Leyla Sayar), share a fleeting kiss on the lips. While the brief kiss between the characters marks a milestone in Turkish cinema, nevertheless, the plot dynamics that led to the kiss is not without issue. 

Ver elini Istanbul, Istanbul Come My Way
Acar Film Prodüksiyon

The kiss between Seher and Türkan is notably problematic due to its occurrence following an act of violence, specifically when Seher, Türkan's employer, physically assaults her. The motivation behind the kiss remains somewhat ambiguous, but it appears to involve a power-play and a hint of jealousy between the two characters. Seher, who holds authority and financial independence, kisses Türkan to assert her dominance. Jealousy also plays a role here, as Seher's aggression begins upon learning of Türkan's affair with one of her enemies.

This troubling dynamic exemplifies a common pattern in early Turkish cinema, where female characters often appear submissive and fragile compared to their male counterparts. Furthermore, violence often served as a plot device, triggering sexually-charged interactions between heterosexual relationships. When we examine Seher's inclination towards violence alongside her masculine presentation—underscored by her objectifying gaze towards the women who work for her, and her distinctive clothing choice, where she opts for collared shirts and pants rather than dresses or skirts like the rest of the women featured in the film—it becomes clear that the kiss between Seher and Türkan, despite marking the first on-screen lesbian kiss, is no different than the heteronormative kisses that came before.

While the significance of the first kiss between two women in Turkish cinema may be overshadowed by attempts to locate it within a context of heteronormativity, it's worth noting that not all depictions of lesbian intimacy share this tendency. In fact, just a year after the release of Ver Elini Istanbul, Halit Refiğ directed Haremde Dört Kadın (Four Women in Harem), where intimacy between women is explored less problematically and more audaciously. Unlike the ambiguity surrounding Arakon's decision to feature a kiss between two women, Refiğ, in a 1973 interview with Yedinci Sanat Magazine, attributed his motivation to his curiosity about how the Turkish audience would react to witnessing not just physical attraction, but a portrayal of Sapphic intimacy and affection on-screen. 

In a sense, Refiğ's curiosity was more than fulfilled when his film was showcased at two different film festivals. Warmly received at the Sorrento Film Festival, the reception was starkly different at the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. During the screening, a conservative group barged into the projection room and destroyed the copy. As a result, neither the audience nor the jury were able to finish watching the film. Despite the unfortunate incident at Antalya, copies of Haremde Dört Kadın survived. Nearly 10 years later, it was broadcast on TRT (Turkey’s national public broadcaster) and reached a wider audience. 

Haremde Dört Kadın is set in 1899, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire before its eventual collapse. Sadık Pasha (Sami Ayanoğlu), renowned for his loyalty to the Sultan, resides in a magnificent mansion with his three wives: Şevkidil (Ayfer Feray), Mihrengiz (Birsen Menekşeli), and Gülfem (Pervin Par). Also living in the mansion are his two nephews, Soldier Rüştü (Tanju Gürsu) and Doctor Cemal (Cüneyt Arkın), as well as Ruşan (Nilüfer Aydan), an orphan whom Pasha took under his wing. The story begins with Pasha's frustration over not having an heir. In response, he decides to take Ruşan as his fourth wife, leading to tension among the other wives who fear that Ruşan may give birth to the son Pasha desires.

Four Women in the Harem, Haremde dört kadin
Birsel Film

Undoubtedly, one of the film's strengths lies in its bold narrative, which openly criticizes both the Ottoman State and society at large. Corruption and hypocrisy are depicted not as anomalies, but as key factors contributing to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the film, high-ranking government officials are frequently shown accepting bribes from foreign powers to manipulate the Empire's politics, all while portraying themselves as loyal servants of the Sultan. 

Refiğ shows that corruption isn't confined to politics alone but something which permeates even the family unit. Behind closed doors, Pasha's wives conspire against each other to gain more power within his harem, a separate space reserved for women. Moreover, nearly all of Pasha's wives engage in sexual relations with Pasha’s nephew, Rüştü, in an attempt to get pregnant. Except by Pasha himself, Pasha's infertility is widely acknowledged among the mansion's residents. The biological lineage of the child matters little, as bearing an heir holds significant advantages for both Pasha and the mother. 

Amidst these complex relationships and schemes, Refiğ refrains from passing judgment on the actions of the women in Pasha's harem. Instead, their actions—whether immoral or harmful to others—are presented through an empathetic lens. With no means of opposing the men in charge, the women navigate the system to carve out a more fulfilling life for themselves, despite having little control over their own bodies. 

It's within this context that Refiğ portrays several instances of intimacy between Şevkidil, the oldest wife, and Mihrengiz, the second wife. Like Arakon’s Ver Elini Istanbul, the motivations behind these instances of affection remain somewhat ambiguous. However, the absence of shock or negative reaction following physical intimacy often initiated by Şevkidil indicates that such interactions between wives are neither new nor isolated occurrences.

Four Women in the Harem, Haremde dört kadin
Birsel Film

One of the most notable queer moments occurs at the start of the second half of the film. The scene unfolds with Mihrengiz receiving a massage from one of the servants, which is abruptly interrupted by the entrance of Şevkidil, who becomes instantly enraged upon witnessing the scene. While the initial assumption may be that Şevkidil is angered by the homoerotic nature of the encounter, it soon becomes evident that her fury stems from jealousy. As Şevkidil dismisses the servant from the room and takes her place on the bed, she asks Mihrengiz if something is bothering her. Following Mihrengiz's famous declaration, "All men can go to hell. I can't even stand the Pasha himself," Şevkidil and Mihrengiz begin kissing as the camera slowly pans towards the gas lamp next to the bed with Mihrengiz turning off the lights.

Along with this famous scene, there are a few other instances where physical familiarity and a sense of mutual trust between the wives are observed. Şevkidil and Mihrengiz are not merely competitors whose sole goals are to bear an heir to the Pasha; rather, they share their problems and feelings with each other. Unlike Arakon’s Ver Elini Istanbul, where the origin of Seher and Türkan’s kiss is rooted in violence, here, it is grounded in the need for genuine affection and mutual closeness, which Şevkidil and Mihrengiz are deprived of in their relationship with the Pasha. The affection between Şevkidil and Mihrengiz transcends their obligatory relationship as sister wives and transforms into a relationship where they fulfill emotional and physical needs without necessarily being exploited for their fertility.

While the intimacy between Şevkidil and Mihrengiz may not take center stage in the film, it serves as a critique against the Turkish State's tendency to declare LGBTQ+ relationships as belonging to an ideology 'imported' from the West. In Haremde Dört Kadın, Refiğ demonstrates that love and affection between individuals of the same sex is neither abnormal nor a Western invention, but rather something that has always existed within Ottoman society. The relative lack of representation of such relationships is not due to their rarity, but rather because they often occur behind closed doors, away from public view. And yet, similar to any other society, love and affection between individuals of the same sex persisted in the Ottoman Empire and continues to exist in the Republic of Turkey.

While Arakon’s Ver Elini Istanbul portrays lesbian intimacy as something confined within the boundaries of heteronormativity, Refiğ’s Haremde Dört Kadın demonstrates that there is a way to love one another without resorting to violence. In fact, Sapphic love can offer solace and a sense of limited liberation amidst oppressive conditions. Not only do Arakon’s and Refiğ’s films present depictions of same-sex affection, but also, thanks to the libertarian policies of the 1960s, Turkish cinema produced numerous proto-Sapphic narratives until the 1970s, when such relationships began to be portrayed through highly sexualized and exploitative terms.

In contemporary Turkish cinema, queer characters similar to Arakon’s Seher are abundant. Both Atıf Yılmaz’s 1992 film, Düş Gezginleri (Walking After Midnight) and Kutluğ Ataman’s 2002 film, İki Genç Kız (Two Young Girls) feature lesbian characters who exhibit assertive and possessive tendencies in comparison to their partners. Nevertheless, the dynamics of queer relationships, as explored through Mihrengiz and Şevkidil, remain somewhat of an anomaly in Turkish cinema history. The exploration of queer love and intimacy within the context of the Ottoman Empire has not yet been addressed in a feature-length film since Refiğ’s empathetic narration. In this sense, Haremde Dört Kadın becomes a crucial part of Turkish cinematic history in its exploration of the intricacies of the Ottoman family structure and how queer intimacy provides a politically neutral space where a sense of mutual trust flourishes between partners without the fear of persecution.


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