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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

TV matchmaking shows expose the dark side of marriage  

They have millions of fans and offer the hope of happy-ever-after to those searching for their life partner. But they can also shed light on domestic violence

Search for a spouse: recording Esra Erol's popular marriage show on Turkish television. Nick Ashdown for The National
Search for a spouse: recording Esra Erol's popular marriage show on Turkish television. Nick Ashdown for The National

The two contestants sit on the same stage but are separated by a barrier so they cannot see each other. Erkan has boy-band good looks, with blue eyes and chiselled features. Zahra is tall and model-slim, with a curtain of long dark hair.

After exchanging formalities, Zahra says she is impressed by Erkan’s respectfulness towards his parents and by the fact that he shows his emotions readily.

Erkan then asks how she would feel if, say, he asked her not to go somewhere or not to wear certain clothing. Zahra says she would respect his wishes. Erkan admits he is smitten.

“For the first time in my life I’m really taken with a person I’ve never seen before. This can’t be happening,” he says. Cue rapturous cheers from the audience.

The barrier goes back, Erkan’s face lights up and minutes later he is down on one knee, proposing to Zahra.

“That was fast,” says show host, Esra Erol.

As in Western countries, matchmaking shows are hugely popular in Turkey. But there is one big difference. In Turkey, the endgame for couples is not just an all-expenses paid day out. It’s marriage.

Couples typically meet the first few times on the show and then meet for tea off-camera. Depending on the couple, their families are also heavily involved at various stages and certainly when things look like they're getting serious. And as befits a process as important as choosing a mate, everyone is allowed to take their time. Shows last three to four hours. If the couple end up getting married, they're invited back on for the wedding.

Despite ratings of more than three million viewers out of a total viewership of around eight million for daytime television, not everyone loves the shows, however. Conservative religious groups in Turkey regard them as improper, while feminists and leftists say they are too conservative and degrading to women. And then there are those who simply think the shows are trashy and a poor reflection on Turkish society.

Earlier this year Numan Kurtulmus (who was deputy prime minister at the time) said Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) had received 120,000 complaints about marriage shows, saying they “ruin Turkey’s social and traditional family structure.”

But Feyza Akınerdem, a sociologist at Bosphorus University, believes there is another reason for such disapproval. It is because the marriage shows expose the problems women — and particularly working-class women — have to face in domestic life including desertion, violence or worse.

“On these shows, you have to be open about yourself. When you open yourself up, you open up about your family relations, your intimate relations, your past experiences in the family, in any previous marriage,” Ms Akınerdem says. “It opens up a huge, formerly secret aspect of family life, and when you look there, you see very systematic violence [and] discrimination.

"The women talk about the defects, the problematic aspects of marriage. I think this is what the state finds problematic, because they always want to promote the Turkish family as the only proper way of living.”

For some women, the marriage shows offer the chance of escape.

“Marriage shows basically promise a new life,” says Ms Akınerdem “Marriage means happiness in the end, so they’re searching for happiness.”

In October 2016, Leman, a 25-year-old mother-of-two was a contestant on Erol's show, and told her sobering story. Her father had deserted the family and Leman got married at 16 in an unofficial religious ceremony in order to escape her difficult home life. After fathering two children, Leman's husband abandoned her.

“I ruined my life and now my kids are living the same life I did,” Leman told the show audience. “I just want to get my life back on track; that’s the only reason I’m here.”

Sometimes the revelations about married life are even darker. In May 2014 Sefer Çalınak, 62, was kicked off a live broadcast of another marriage show, Flash TV's Luck of the Draw after confessing he had served four -and-a-half years of a 14-year jail sentence for killing his wife "accidentally" in a fit of jealousy. He had subsequently killed another lover during an argument in another "accident" with an axe.

Another contestant met and married his wife on Erol's show and killed his bride three months later.

The horrified presenter turned to Ms Akernidem, asking if she, Erol, was to blame for bringing the dead woman and her murderer together.

Bu the academic said femicides — the killing of women on account of their gender — are the result of a patriarchal system.

"Politicians like to single out marriage shows as the sole source of evil for Turkey's familial problems, because politicians don't want to look at systemic problems," she said. "Marriage shows don't cause the problems — they reveal them."

Until 1990, Turkey’s national public broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) was the country’s sole TV channel, with a brief to promote the values of Turkey’s then Kemalist elite, secularist followers of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Programmes showed an idealised version of Turkish society, which never featured problems such as domestic violence or the oppression of women.

“After commercialisation [in the 1990s], television opened its screens to the lower classes and their tastes," Ms Akinerdem said. " And then the urban elites started to criticise television, saying it was trashy, for lower classes, it’s for foolish people. They didn't want to see or hear about these problems."

According to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 42 per cent of Turkish women have been beaten by an intimate partner. The global average is 35 per cent. Divorce in Turkey has increased by a staggering 82 per in the last decade, according to 2016 figures from Turkey's general directorate of criminal records and statistics. Almost 40 per cent of divorces occur within the first five years of marriage and divorce cases constituted the highest number of lawsuits heard in the three biggest cities — Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir — last year.

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP), the marriage shows pose a dilemma. They offend the party's conservative values and those of its Islamist allies but the AKP's core constituents — lower middle-class, traditional but not extreme — are also the core audience for marriage shows.

“The AKP elite hates these shows, but if they want the AKP to remain populist, they can’t ban them,” says Ms Akınerdem.

Watching television is also a key component of social life, particularly for women, the working classes and the rural population. According to government statistics, 95 per cent of Turks say it is their favourite activity.

Suzan Akyüz, 68, a retired director of libraries at the Ministry of Culture used to like marriage shows because they dealt with important social issues. Erol even spoke out against religious marriages. But the competition for viewers made them resort to sensationalism, she says.

"These shows reflected society — that's why they were popular but now they are bad role models for society," she said, " At first the women come on looking like village girls — very simple — and then they put a lot of make-up on them and make them look like models.”

However, Ms Akinerdem believes marriage shows do more good than harm overall.

“In the end I’m in favour of opening up these secrets in public so we have a chance to talk about them, to have proof about what’s happening to women," she says.”

And what of Erkan and Zahra? They did get married, on live TV in December — but on a rival show, after a falling-out with Esra Erol. They are still together and like the thoroughly modern couple they are, they have their own instagram account.