In the first decades of the 20th century, the public position of actresses underwent a radical transformation in Turkey. While the acting profession had long been commonly regarded as unsuitable for Muslim women and had been monopolized by women belonging to the non-Muslim minorities, in the 1920s the Muslim actress was not only legitimized but in fact embraced by the state as a model for Turkish women. In the works of Turkish and Ottoman theatre history, the emergence of Muslim actresses has been given some attention, but it has not been studied from a critical perspective inspired by theoretical questions. Moreover, the process of legitimization of Muslim women as theatre audience, which took place prior to the legitimization of the actresses, has been ignored. The present thesis seeks to develop a better understanding of these developments by approaching them as part of social and political history, while drawing inspiration from an interdisciplinary field of scholarship on gender and theatre. The time period studied begins with the late era of the Ottoman Empire and ends with the early years of the Turkish Republic, covering a time span of more than fifty years. In order to capture the complexities of the subject, a wide array of written sources, including memoirs, interviews, theatre reviews, books and a theatre play, are included in the analysis.
This thesis challenges historical narratives approaching Turkey’s transition from Empire to Republic as one of total rupture, and instead emphasizes continuities and the complexity of factors influencing the position of actresses in Turkey. Although rapid changes did take place in the first years of the Republic, the legitimization of Muslim Turkish actresses relied on transformations of both national identity and norms of feminine behaviour, and none of these were realized overnight. An analysis of original debates suggests that the legitimization of Muslim actresses also entailed a process of Othering of non-Muslim actresses, and that the Muslim actresses were summoned to the stage not primarily to represent femininity but to properly represent Turkishness. By showing how theatre has been perceived as simultaneously a reflection of and producer of modernity, this thesis highlights the role of theatre in Turkish nation building.