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This short piece is based on Hazal Aydın’s Middle East Section 2023 Best Graduate Paper Prize-winning essay drawing on her MA thesis.

Thinking about gray areas when it comes to discussing sexual harassment and silence is always tricky and uncomfortable. We tend to think that dwelling in grayness weakens our feminist anger and struggles, especially in the face of chauvinist efforts to discredit women’s voices and resistances. #MeToo movements once again showed us the multifaceted forms of power relations that create institutionalized silences and the ways in which they are maintained. However, reducing power relations to a narrative about the evilness of powerful men and the subjugation of innocent women not only simplifies the complexities of power relations but also undermines women’s agency and subjectivity. Following this binary thread of argumentation also leads us to reproduce patriarchal discourses about women’s passivity and weakness. Looking deeply into the gray areas and sitting with the discomfort it creates, while approaching it critically, could allow us to understand how sexual harassment and the culture of silence have become so prevalent in sites ranging from wealthy, glamorous Hollywood to the precarious creative industries in both the Global North and the Global South.  

How are silences created and maintained in an era where feminist consciousness is ever-growing? At the height of the #MeToo movement, women artists from different culture and creative industries in Turkey began to expose the abuse of powerful men these women had to work with. At the same time, they were forging solidarities and exposing the patriarchal structures of power that silence women. Understanding silence was key to the MeToo movement—or any discussion of sexual harassment. The first question addressed to women when they stay silent is, “Why did you stay silent?” This question does not have to be said out loud. It is such an internalized question that it starts to echo in women’s minds even before anyone else poses it. Especially if you do not find the strength or courage to say no at the right time and the right place, the silence grows. However, silence is not necessarily a sign of personal weakness; it tells a story about the place that creates that silence and preserves itself through silencing. There are numerous economic, social, and political structural relations of power preventing women from speaking up against sexual harassment in the context of creative industries. Similar to the more general, universal trend, Turkey’s creative industries, too, are characterized by a coolness trope, precarious working conditions, gendered hierarchies and power relations, and structural inequalities that pave the way for or normalize sexual harassment and silence culture.

Throughout my research with theatre industry workers in Turkey in 2020, my interlocutors walked me through their experiences as actors, playwrights, directors, and educators. They showed me how Turkey’s creative industries are very much like their global counterparts in their precarity, coolness, gendered hierarchies, and institutionalized power relations. While these structural relations of power were either concealed or normalized through the family-like ensemble environment or the supposed coolness of the art industry, they also shaped how women approached their labor, creativity, and body. 

Credit: Susma Bitsin,
"Speak Up to End." The logo of a feminist organization in creative industries of Turkey.
“Speak Up to End.” The logo of a feminist organization in creative industries of Turkey.

I was lucky enough to learn very intimate aspects of the embodied experiences of women actors, especially considering the difficulty of speaking about sexual harassment as part of those embodied experiences. In their narratives, one theme stood out above everything else and reshaped how I thought about women’s gendered subjectivities and silences: openness. Openness was a key term defining women actors’ experiences with their bodies, the intimacy of this form of tactile work, and dealing with the challenges of the spectator’s gaze. Openness was an aspiration, a state of being comfortable with your body without yielding to any societal restrictions, a sense of honor, or discomfort with tactility or gaze. 

While my interlocutors were explaining the major gendered differences between men and women actors, Duygu, a freelance actor, stated that “male actors are much more comfortable in using, opening their bodies, and expressing themselves. They are good at performing a given instruction without caring. For women, a ladylikeness (hanımlık) drags you down.” She further shared an audition story where she couldn’t stop thinking about whether her underwear was showing under her skirt. Meltem explains this necessity of controlling and constraining one’s body as the sense of honor (namus) that women have been taught from an early age. She critically states:

For a woman actor, there are Türkan Şoray laws. You are not supposed to kiss or have sex because “your father, husband, or boyfriend would be upset.” When you go up on stage, you have a sense of responsibility for the men in your life. That sense of namus [honor]makes it difficult for women actors. No matter how much you prove yourself as an actor or how feminist you are, that feeling remains in the corner of your brain.

Aslı stated that even though “openness of your body is vocationally incredible, once you start to open your body, the ‘women actors are prostitutes’ stigma appears in people’s minds. You’re supposed to find dramaturgical reasons to justify yourself while men talk about their penises, sex, or physically show everything in front of the cast and crew. When a woman does that, it alerts people.” Women are shamed and objectified when they are comfortable with their bodies and movements, but they are also invited to be open. Başak recalls how her professor commented on the scene she had been working for over a week merely by stating that he adored her legs. While Başak expressed her frustration, she asked, “How can you be open in an environment like this?” 

Openness lingers on women actors as a measure of their skills, success, and progress. If having an “open body” is the marker of success, what happens when someone chooses to be “closed” with their bodies? Esra, a graduate student in theatre, shared her experience in a workshop that intended to “open” the bodies of actors:

The educator wanted us to do an exercise. It was almost like foreplay. Men and women partnered up and carried each other to a sexual level by touching. Two students could not do the sexuality exercise, they hesitated, but the educator left everyone on their own anyway. Eventually, a girl slapped a boy, and some people left the class. The next day, we talked about it. Girls felt like they had to do the exercise even if they did not want to. You do these exercises in that context because you are perceived as a bad actor or untalented if you don’t. I still question how much I can open myself on stage—performing stuff like desire, sex, etc. I realized that I’m choosing not to open myself due to my past traumas, no matter how much I disagree with this. I still feel this moral obligation, and I restrict myself.

While having an “open” body, being entirely comfortable with every tactility becomes the measure of success, the discomfort with it becomes a sign that a woman is “closed.” This has very loaded connotations in Turkey and can be traced outside of the stage to the construction of women’s subjectivity and embodiment within the secular-conservative dichotomy in modern Turkey. While headscarf-wearing women in Turkey are called kapalı, which signifies both covered and closed, kapalı also refers to being modest or closed to flirtation and seduction. Women who do not wear a headscarf are called açık, meaning both uncovered and open. With or without the headscarf, being open or closed indicates a particular gendered and sexual subjectivity for women, which is situated in opposition to each other. This binary marks “open” bodies as modern, progressive, and liberated while marking “close” bodies as traditional, conservative, and constrained. In this case, the extent of a woman’s openness is equated with her ability to become a successful actor, and being comfortable with unbounded forms of theatrical intimacy on stage is presented as the pathway to achieve that. Having boundaries becomes a sign of closeness, conservativeness, and, therefore, a supposed early sign of one’s inability to become a good actress. What actors do is to seek out or grapple with the theatrical methods that promise that openness. The emphasis on the level of women’s openness also imagines men’s bodies as devoid of gender, not bounded by the masculinity that their bodies are socialized into, hence ontologically open and liberated.  However, the neutralization of this gendered binary conceals a crucial question: How does “openness” become a measure of women’s liberation, and who presents the elimination of boundaries as the pathway towards this? 

Taking a step forward also reveals that toleration and normalization of sexual harassment are closely linked with the ideal “open body” discourse, in which theatrical intimacy—the performance of all kinds of sexuality and intimacy on stage—is presented as part of the methods offered to overcome the “closedness” of actors’ bodies. For instance, Irmak explained how her professor disguised his sexual harassment as “part of the scene”, and she could not “fully grasp the discomfort” she felt because she just assumed that she was the problem. She linked her discomfort to her “closedness” to sexuality, which prevented her from immediately distancing herself from him. After I concluded my fieldwork, a woman actor exposed a theatre director on social media and explained how he disguised his abusive touches as a “sexual energy exploration exercise.” Like Irmak, she couldn’t say no at the moment because she linked her own discomfort to “not having an open body and having taboos.” The lack of witnesses and guidelines to rely on as a reference point led her to stay silent for a long time. 

To reach the idealized open body, gendered subjects render themselves vulnerable to sexual harassment by minimizing, disregarding, or altogether removing their personal boundaries. In the absence of consent mechanisms in the education and production environments, the line between theatrical intimacy and sexual harassment gets blurry, and in doing so, paves the way for the normalization of sexual harassment and silencing of women. While the open-closed dichotomy experienced by gendered subjects builds on existing political binaries such as modern-traditional or secular-conservative, these embodied tensions are exasperated under Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) gendered populism. Although irreducible to contemporary authoritarian rule, moralistic targeting of women’s bodies and queer bodies is the primary form of governmentality under AKP’s populism. Communities that position themselves in opposition to this government and its moralism tend to embrace an anti-moralism that proclaims itself to be emancipatory yet reproduces similar patterns of patriarchal savior syndrome and approaches women’s bodies as objects that need saving. In my ethnographic context, negating boundaries as the marker of “moralism” leads gendered subjects to pick a side. Women actors must choose between being bound by their supposedly circumscribed sexuality—signifying moralistic self-subjugation, AKP, conservativeness—or must accept boundless openness and theatrical intimacy—forcing women to render themselves vulnerable to sexual harassment and to say yes to everything in the pursuit of an “open body” that is the marker of being a successful actor and a liberated woman. 

Credit: Yeni Yaşam,
March 8 International Women’s Day
The Annual Feminist Night March, Istanbul

Feminist efforts to transform culture and creative industries are an ongoing struggle. With the efforts of feminist organizations like Susma Bitsin(Speak Up to End), Gösteri Sanatlarında Kadın (Women in Performing Arts), and many more, women on and off stage and screen are incorporating theatrical intimacy guidelines to their workplaces, exposing patterns of sexual harassment, building solidarities, and empowering new generation of actors. While openness and intimacy are appropriated for patriarchal means, women are still not giving up on their bodies and intimacies while continuing to think about what it means to be free and empowered. 

Timothy Y. Loh is the section contributing editor for the Middle East Section.


Hazal Aydın

Hazal Aydın is a PhD student in Boston University's Anthropology department. She holds a BA from Boğaziçi University in Sociology and an MA from Koç University's Comparative Studies in History and Society program. Her research spans gender, sexuality, queer studies, affect, media, creative industries, and political Islam.

Cite as

Aydın, Hazal. 2024. “Unraveling Silences, Reimagining Intimacy.” Anthropology News website, July 1, 2024.