[This article is part of a special dossier on fandom and politics in the Southwest Asian/ North African (S.W.A.N.A.) region. Read all of the pieces, as well as the introduction, here.]
On 3 May 2020, cricketer-turned-politician and the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan addressed a public gathering where he spoke about the importance of watching Turkish shows instead of ‘typical Bollywood’. This speech came a year after Pakistan had banned the import or broadcast of Indian content following skirmishes on the border with India. The PM emphasized how the Turkish shows, and in particular Diriliş: Ertuğrul, can bring Pakistanis close to their ‘Muslim roots’ and allow us as a nation to get inspired from our lost glory.
While historians and critics remain divided over the show’s claim to be an historically ‘accurate’ account, the government of Pakistan didn’t blink an eye before getting the dialogues translated into Urdu and airing it on the state-run Pakistan Television and its digital assets. With an anti-India sentiment already a part of the public discourse coupled by the absence of Bollywood films in cinemas, the country which had relied on Bollywood for a healthy box office was bracing itself for the death of the cinema industry and for the rise of new stars and fans, all at the same time.
While Bollywood stars, even with Muslim names such as Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan represented an upper-caste, predominantly Brahmin, North Indian culture, the shared language, a similar set of common values, idiom and similar general appearance made them accessible for the average Pakistani fan. That is obviously apart from the cathartic experience that the Bollywood song and dance formula guarantees.
Diriliş: Ertuğrul on the other hand brought forward an overtly Muslim hero, fighting for the great Islamic cause against anybody and everybody who hinders the message of Allah. It displays the chivalry of a valiant soldier and the generosity of a forgiving king and claims direct inspiration from the lives and events of the various venerated figures mentioned in the Islamic holy book of Quran. While the Islamicate tropes being used in an epic period drama were a direct departure from the dominantly ‘Hindu’ popularly registered as ‘Indian’ mise-en-scène of Bollywood, the narrative elements remained consistent with those of Bollywood, or any other soap opera in the world. This allowed the fans of the Islamic Republic to enjoy a TV show not only as a binge-watch but also as family entertainment which complied by Islamic values and Islamicate culture with all the women covering their heads in front of everyone apart from their husbands along with Arabic phrases and idioms commonly used in Muslim countries around the world. It is pertinent here to mention that women usually don’t cover their heads in Pakistan’s news and entertainment broadcasts, in fact skin-fitted, and partly revealing dresses are common to Pakistani TV, film and fashion events.
The special treatment of the show successfully enabled the Prime Minister’s propaganda mission to pursue something more than just ‘Indian content’ with the newly launched YouTube channel ‘TRT Ertugrul by PTV’ crossing 8 million subscribers within one month of its launch and amassing 15.9 million in one year. But the state patronage of a TV show, sanctifying it as something more than entertainment, coupled with easy access to the internet and social media created a fan following that wasn’t afraid to express why the stars should be sacred, chaste and pious in their personal lives as well.
In an Instagram post on March 25, 2020, the leading lady of the show Esra Bilgiç, who plays the role of Halime Hatun, a calm, devoted and loyal wife of the protagonist, posted a picture of herself posing on a boat on her verified Instagram account. What started with a few heart emojis to admire her beauty, but the comments section soon turned into a slut-shaming space with militant moral policing, mostly by Muslim Pakistani men.
Esra: The Screenshot of the Turkish Actor Being Shamed on Instagram
A user by the name of Hassan Mehmood wrote: well done taaliyan honi chahiye hamaray liye aaj hum ek sacha musalmaan kehlanay ke laik hain ab ek dafa apne dil par hath rkh kr bata do kya tum ne kabhi marna nahi aaj mati ke oopar insaan kal matti ke neechay hoga are saamp khayen ge bichoo khayen ga.
“A huge round of applause for we aren’t even close to what a devoted Muslim should be. Take a vow on your heart and tell me that you don’t worry about death, about afterlife, when you will be buried under the sand surrounded by snakes and Scorpions as punishment.”
Another user just posted Bilgiç’s screen name in Arabic/Urdu along with a question mark. As if bewildered at her shamelessness and disappointed at her not covering her body as she did in the show.
Others followed by a plain and simple ‘Shame on you’ while some questioned if this was what Esra learnt from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
Perhaps Bilgiç hadn’t anticipated that her newly found fandom in Pakistan will not only love her but also hold her accountable for the ‘hypocrisy’ of failing to live up to the set of values of her character. For a month or so Bilgiç didn’t respond to any of the policing on Instagram and continued tweeting and posting thank you notes to Pakistani fans until a couple of months later when she turned off comments under one of her pictures and eventually gave a befitting reply to a Pakistani fan.
“Elder sister Halime, please don’t wear such dresses,” wrote astounding_ali to which Bilgiç responded by saying, “Let me give you a little advice: Don’t follow me. Thank you.” Her response was lauded as a ‘clap back like a queen’ and ‘Sultan of Sass’ in Pakistan’s more liberal English language press.
Ertugrul: The Photo Shows Protagonist of the Show Photoshopped into the Chair of Chief of Army Staff Conversing with the PM.
As the show progressed, so did the fan conversation about Bilgiç. Eventually, Muslim social media users from around the world and in Pakistan started to argue in favor of her choice.
Kim, a Muslim Hijab-wearing woman from Morocco chimed in by saying that she wears a hijab by choice and since Esra is an actress she should be allowed to wear whatever the task demands of her. She even questioned the disbelief of Pakistani fans by asking, do you also think she is married to Ertuğrul (Her husband in the show) too?
Royal_g_98, that appeared to be the Instagram handle of a Pakistani user appealed to PM Khan to take Instagram away from Pakistanis: “PM of Pakistan please stop Instagram in Pakistan. They live in 8th or 9th century,” the account wrote.
The slow and gradual acceptance of Bilgiç as their own, even though with reservations, shows the eagerness of the Pakistani fandom to express itself pertaining to matters of piety and shame and how religion continues to be a launching point of ideas despite the slow death of the conventional missionary and his mission. This persistent confusion around accepting stars also speaks volumes about the politics of heritage and ‘roots’ in the post-nation-state world, especially when compared to Pakistan’s loyal and more than half a century-long, love-hate relationship with Bollywood.
“The dichotomy however collapsed with Bilgiç who, at once possessed appearance close in proximity to European femininity, but the heritage and ideology of the brown, Muslim woman. She was almost white and Muslim enough. She was not to be feared, yet possessed all the desirability. And thus began the crisis that led to the barrage of comments on her Instagram posts,” reported the daily paper, Dawn.
The dilemma for Pakistani fans of the Turkish show started with them being challenged to accept the characters and actors as different entities. This further led them to evolve and inquire which stars to own and how to own them and what part of our heritage to own and how to own it since the Turkish or Central Asian aspect was imported and broadcast as a direct replacement, and in some ways, answer to Bollywood.
The recently flourishing fandom of Turkish soaps and period dramas, of which the policing of Bilgiç is only one signifier, also demands a conversation about the clash of the conventional TV viewership fandom in Pakistan and the fandoms solely erupted out of YouTube. Prime time entertainment television in Pakistan is the most watched slot on television with the audience being divided into five different social categories: A B C D and E. The TV viewership predominantly caters to the housewife who is given a larger bracket of between 22 – 40 years of age, that does not include aunts and grandmothers who are a seminal part of the Pakistani nuclear family that resides under one roof. A focus on the housewife-viewer has been central to the evolution of soap operas in the West as well with the success of the first soap operas aired on TV being attributed to the free time housewives had after the introduction of the automatic washing machine and the dishwasher.
These private TV channels also have YouTube channels with remarkable following, but their conventional viewers still very much fuel the network’s formal economy through advertising revenue. Then there’s a huge but separate viewership that consumes both news and entertainment only on their phones via YouTube and Facebook and a significantly smaller viewership for OTT platforms, comprising mostly of people who either have a shared account with an expatriate sibling or can afford a credit and debit card.
What Diriliş: Ertuğrul managed to do was disrupt all forms of conventional viewing patterns and in turn fan habits. In addition to being uploaded on YouTube, the show was also aired on the state-owned TV channel PTV. The simultaneous and free access to the show not only started a dialogue between two separate set of viewers who shared a vastly different relationship to their medium of choice, TV and cellphone in this case, but also made Diriliş into a show that was being watched separately and collectively at the same time. Since no conventional models apply to Diriliş: Ertuğrul, it becomes even more difficult and equally fascinating to understand the heart and mind of the fan who wants an actor like Bilgiç to be not only answerable, but also accountable for her screen image and its associated morality.
Part of the surprising almost outlandish shaming also begs the question of whose set of moral principles dominates the collective viewing experience of the family and how does the response mechanism work when the shared morality is expressed by younger individuals, with greater agency and technological access to express themselves on the digital ecosystem.
Perhaps there’s another flow of ideas happening within the Pakistani family that relies so heavily on the role of the mother and more importantly, of the wife who is meant to leave her house and settle with the in-laws while making all the ‘necessary compromises’ that daughters are ‘meant to do’.
Bilgiç’s Halime does all that while braving a smile because she absolutely loves Ertuğrul and more importantly the husband’s service to the tribe and Islam are no huge tasks compared to the family politics and loneliness she faces when the husband is gone. Bilgiç’s character gives a generation of Pakistani mothers and mothers-in-law, who have internalized misogyny over the years, and are divorced from contemporary discourses on inclusivity and gender equality, hope and more importantly an ideal that they can hold to in front of the younger generation that seems too ‘detached’ from their roots and heritage. This fandom of the elder generation might be old in terms of their demographic appeal but constitute a major part of every household and hence take shows such Diriliş as an opportunity to resist or push back against newer ideas.
This cycle of cultural ideals repeats itself when the younger members of the household engage with the social media online. They feel the urge to express what they have acquired from their elders almost like native wisdom and repeat and repurpose that in discussions online. The same generation of users, also use social media to resist the ideas they have acquired at home and in turn find virtual tribes that use the internet as venting out spaces for familial values they cannot disagree with within the physical boundaries of the house.
This however is one aspect of the Diriliş's aggressive fandom, where the two viewerships collide. The other aspects are male viewers who are otherwise primarily news consumers, finding enough action, and male-oriented drama about balancing personal, professional and religious life in the rather patriarchal aspects of Ertuğrul's magnanimity and journey. Their shaming of Bilgiç is consistent with the male gaze and its associated morality derived out of the notion of honor and familial respect.
A close analysis of Diriliş's fandom and how it responds to her pictures on Instagram shows how the Pakistani government’s plan to acquire rights to Turkish epics not only triggered a fandom that was symptomatic of our existing religious partisanship but also reflective of how religion, piety and women’s bodies continue to dictate translational flows of identity and shared heritage, almost in a tribal manner, while partaking in a supposedly ‘worldly’ and cosmopolitan ecology of social media.
However, more than a space of policing, I see the virtual villages of participatory culture as spaces of possibility where fans may engage in fierce and ruthless attacks on their stars but there are chances, if not equal, of them being maimed and humbled by the comebacks of those who adhere to more progressive values and use the same internet features and lexicon such as slangs and hashtags as proficiently as the ones policing the stars.
Despite choosing a gendered experience for the paper, one can loosely take the Pakistani fandom of the Turkish star as a place of major ideological contest about both what it means to be a Muslim and Pakistani and what one wants a Muslim and Pakistani to be like on social media, without turning a blind eye to our ‘Hindu’ neighbor with centuries of shared experience.
As Arvind Rajagopal shares the framework of understanding the fandom of Dur Darshan’s 1987 production of Mahabharata, “Merely focusing on media itself does little more than confirm our fascination with power. The media neither cause, nor reflect events, they participate in them.”
With Imran Khan being ousted of power with a No Confidence Motion in the parliament two years after importing Diriliş, now seems the ideal time for him and his party to repurpose Diriliş's themes and symbols to their anti-establishment campaign.
President: The Photo Shows the Former President of Pakistan Visiting the Set of the Turkish Show under Discussion and His Wife Dressed as One of the Characters.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published in Henry Jenkins' "Global Fandom Jamboree Series" in 2021.