Interview with Ayşe Börhürler, journalist, “Islamist” documentary filmmaker
Mehmet Basutçu - 20/04/2007
We are publishing this interview online with the kind permission of the producers of “Bleu Bazar,” a new monthly program on the French channel TV5 Monde, whose stated goal is to “work toward increased mutual understanding between the north and the south Mediterranean.”
The interview that follows was conducted in Istanbul Thursday 15 March 2007 by Marian Naguszewski, a TV5 Monde journalist. My role in this small team was as consultant and interpreter. We created a six-minute piece on the state of documentary film in Turkey that will air 15 May.
At Babelmed, we had already crossed paths with Marian Naguszewski. Marian, who knew our Web site, had asked the Babelmed editors in Rome to put her in touch with someone who could support her team in Paris and in Turkey.
While it is not directly related to the relationship between Turkey and the European Union, this interview is interesting for two reasons.
First, it is a series of documentary films on the lives of Muslim women in thirteen countries, made by a Turkish filmmaker who is herself a practicing Muslim. Ayşe Böhürler, born in 1963, is a journalist by training. She works for Kanal 7, one of the biggest private television channels in Turkey, and she makes documentary films. She also has political responsibilities within the ruling Islamist party, although she doesn’t identify herself as an “Islamist”—a label she finds too reductionist in the face of her life as an engaged, active, Muslim woman.
Second, this interview is also an incongruous encounter between one of the doyens of Turkish documentary film, Enis Riza, a leftist intellectual with Trotskyist leanings, and a female documentarian who bases not only her personal, but also her professional life on her religious beliefs.
Here then is the essence of what was said during this meeting, arranged at the last minute as a result of our persistent requests, just hours before Ayşe Böhürler was set to fly to London for the screening of her latest documentary, “Behind Walls: Women in Islamic Countries” (Duvarlarin Arkasinda, Müsülman Ülkelerde Kadin), and to take part in a roundtable. . . .
Marian Naguszewski: Can you tell us about your latest film?
Ayşe Böhürler: We started working on this project three years ago. We wanted to know how women lived in different Muslim countries. What are the conditions of their lives, the daily problems they face? How do they see the modern world? We addressed questions of marriage, couples, domestic violence, education, and so on. Our first trip, two years ago, brought us to Oman. That became the starting point of a major research project. Apart from Turkey we went to thirteen countries. The film ended up comprising fifteen episodes, with three on Turkish women. We concluded that there is huge diversity in the conditions of women’s lives, and in the way they prioritize the problems they face.
Enis Riza: It’s a lovely project. I’m very jealous—I would have liked to make this film! But I think it needed to be made by a woman. It’s better this way.
Ayşe Böhürler: There were also men among my assistants and in the team that created this long series. We traveled and toured a lot in different locations, not only in big cities, but also in the country, in villages, in the desert. . . . It was a real adventure that taught us a great deal about the status of women in Muslim countries. We interviewed about 200 Muslim women altogether, and we discovered that they were all different. Islam was what they had in common, but the conditions of their lives were intimately linked to cultural and geographic differences. In each country, women had different priorities with regard to their daily problems. In Sudan, genital cutting was of greater concern to women than other problems. And in fact this traditional practice, perpetuated by grandmothers, actually has nothing to do with Islam. In Egypt, women’s main concern was the inequality they face within the judicial system. Enis Riza: In Turkey, it’s the problem of the veil. If we could resolve this issue things would be better.
Ayşe Böhürler: The issue of the veil has, sadly, become a political symbol, something artificial. It’s a shame. This marginalizes women. Ultimately, it’s discriminatory and unfair.
Enis Riza: For our part, we say that the most important problem women face is social inequality. . . .
Ayşe Böhürler: We also created this documentary to subvert certain accepted ideas. In western countries, particularly after 11 September 2001, people think that there’s just one type, one model of a Muslim woman. That’s wrong. In Turkey, for example, Islam has never been really radical. Even during the Ottoman era, despite a legal system based on Islamic law, there was a secular approach. Turkish society has a European history; it was at the meeting point of many civilizations. It was able to unite within itself different cultures, different ethnicities. Radicalism is the result of ignorance, solipsism, and feudalism. When you are open to the world, there cannot be radicalism. This is what we discovered in the geography of Muslim countries. There is no radicalism in Indonesia, for example, contrary to what many people believe. Moreover, we discovered that the situation of Muslim women in Turkey was much better than in other countries. Nearly everywhere, there are active women in positions of responsibility who have a political and economic role to play. But they are often women from well-off areas who belong to the ruling classes. In Turkey, women have more freedom and they actively participate in the social and political life of their country, whatever their socio-economic background. It’s a fundamental difference. Marian Naguszewski: You work as a journalist and filmmaker for an Islamist television channel. You are yourself an Islamist woman. How big a role do your beliefs play in your professional life? Does it influence, for example, the choice of the subjects and themes that you address?
Ayşe Böhürler: At Kanal 17 we don’t accept being labeled as an Islamist channel. We are a generalist channel and we address a large audience. As for myself, I don’t define myself as an “Islamist” journalist or filmmaker. My religion defines the rules I observe in my private life. For example, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t have extramarital sex, I pray, and I fast during Ramadan. Apart from this, I do the same things other women do in their daily lives. I have a job, I earn my living, I am free, and I don’t feel any pressure—neither religious nor masculine, including from my husband. I accept the limits that Islam imposes on me, that’s all. As for their influence on my work, that works at a moral level, the level of intellectual honesty. I don’t want to say that my point of view is Islamist. I am careful not to betray people or the truth. The documentary genre has its own language that one must respect. I always try really to understand what people are telling me so as not to distort what they’ve said. I try to reflect the reality of life as it unfolds day to day. I also never use segments filmed on the street without getting the permission of the people who were filmed.
Enis Riza: We agree on all of this. We share the ethics of the documentarian. Apart from that, everyone can have his own opinions, can choose the subject that seems to him most important.
Marian Naguszewski: Your opinions and your beliefs don’t prohibit certain subjects or themes?
Ayşe Böhürler: Not really. I can deal with all the subjects within my ethical boundaries. I have, however, chosen not to film certain things. When we were in Pakistan, for example, in the red-light district there was a street called “Red Light Street” where young women, as well as homosexual men, were prostituting themselves. I was curious to find out what they might tell me. I wanted to film them, but I told myself that it wasn’t for me to speak of that particular reality.
Marian Naguszewski: Isn’t that a form of censorship?
Ayşe Böhürler: Not entirely. I don’t forbid anyone from filming this subject. I simply think it’s not my place to do it. I would, however, very much like to know how men and women live in these conditions, what they think, what they feel, and so on. If another documentarian filmed life in this Red Light Street, I would be curious to see his film!
During this interview, I didn’t think of photographing Ayşe Böhürler. Subconsciously, it was probably an excessive respect for the prohibitions I attributed to an Islamist woman. It was, quite simply, ridiculous. While she had an Islamic veil covering her hair and was dressed conservatively, she is a woman who works in television—a filmmaker moreover. Hadn’t she been talking with ease and natural confidence in front of the TV5 camera?
When we arrived in her office, we didn’t dare extend our hands to her either. Enis Riza, who had never met Ayşe Böhürler, had warned us: “Some Islamist women don’t shake men’s hands. I don’t believe she is strict in that regard, but you should keep it in mind.”
So we didn’t extend our hands in greeting at the beginning of the interview.
At the end, it was she who took the initiative to shake ours.