Breaking the Silence: The Importance of Mustang

Eylem Atakav on how Mustang offers an important challenge to perceptions of gender and female sexuality in Turkey.

Eylem Atakav

18 May 2016



As Deniz Gamze Ergüven's acclaimed debut film Mustang screens at the ICA, Eylem Atakav discusses gender and female sexuality in Turkey, looking at the importance of film in making women's experiences visible and changing perceptions.

It was July. I was in Izmir for the filming of Growing Up Married (2016) a documentary about four women who had been child brides, recollecting their memories as adults. I had spent the day interviewing two of my parents’ neighbours about their experiences. Then, at around 10 o’clock at night, there was a knock on the door. Three women from the neighbourhood came to ask if I was making a film about child brides and said that they wanted to talk about their experiences too! I was surprised to find how invisible and silent—yet common—this experience was. It was a truly eye-opening moment that signalled the women’s urgent need to speak out and the importance of recording their experiences in some form.

“They put a wedding gown on me one night and took me to some place I had never seen before. I was sitting next to my aunt in the car. I asked her: ‘Auntie, where am I being taken to?’ She pinched my arm and said: ‘Stop talking! It is rude to talk!’ I [have] remained silent since” said Avniye, speaking for the first time about her wedding night.

"I started cutting my hair so that he couldn't hurt me as much!”

“He was around 40 and I was 15. All I wanted to do was to go out and play hopscotch with my friends. I used to dread night-times…He used to drag me to the bedroom and took pleasure out of pulling my hair. I used to collect all my hair from the floor and pillows every morning. Then I started cutting my hair so that he couldn't hurt me as much!” These were the words of Leyla, who I talked to for the film.

I was very moved to find a connection between these real life experiences and Mustang, which tells the stories of five orphaned sisters forced to suppress their sensuality and being married off one by one to stop them bringing shame on the family for their “not-so-chaste” behaviours. A promotional image of Mustang even features one of the protagonists holding scissors in her hand as she is about to cut her hair. The cultural significance of hair is crucial to discussions around what womanhood and girlhood mean. The long hair of all five girls is highlighted in many of the scenes.

"Mustang provides an extraordinary and brutally realistic response to the increasing patriarchal and highly problematic discourses justifying child rape in Turkey."

It is through these fascinating women’s brutal experiences and memories that I’ve been trying to imagine what it means to be a child bride. And Mustang offered a poignant and beautifully visualised picture of what I’ve been imagining. The reviews and online comments around the film in Turkey suggest that Turkey is being depicted wrongly in the film. But the stories I’ve heard from Turkish women who were married off as children are far worse and much more brutal than anything the film depicts.

According to the UNICEF report entitled Ending Child Marriage: Progress and Prospects (2013), there are 700 million women who were married as children, and 280 million girls are at risk of becoming child brides. Turkey has one of the highest rates of child marriages in Europe with an estimated 14% of girls married before the age of 18. However, as Girls Not Brides state, statistical data available may not be—and in my view certainly isn’t—representative of the scale of the issue. According to reports written by feminist organisations in Turkey, like the Flying Broom, the figures are much more alarming - 1 in 3 marriages may involve a child. Most child marriages are unregistered (just like so many girls aren't officially registered by families for birth certificates) and take place as unofficial religious marriages conducted by imams. This religious context is not much highlighted in Mustang. As Jordan Hoffman comments in his The Guardian review: "One could easily graft something of a political message about Turkey’s increasing trend away from secularism in this film. However, there isn't much that’s specific to Islam." Though it is not explicitly explored in the film, the religious context is nonetheless an overarching element. The lack of specific research dedicated to this topic results in a lack of effective policies to tackle it.

"If we want to see a change in reality we need a change in the films and media that seek to represent it."

Silence and invisibility are key issues here. Stories similar to the ones depicted in the film are everywhere in Turkey and beyond. But they are not as visible as they should be or they are not loud enough to be heard. Mustang provides an extraordinary and brutally realistic response to the increasing patriarchal and highly problematic discourses justifying child rape in Turkey. The media’s representation of child marriages remains highly ideological in its tone while reinforcing dominant and historical discourses around the cultural obsession with women’s honour and chastity. Turkey’s president refers to the state of women’s affairs as the “bleeding wound” of the country, claiming that men and women cannot be placed on an “equal footing”. The tone of Mustang—particularly the protagonists’ use of swear words and strong language—is a critique of, and counter to, this discourse.

Films in particular, and cultural products in general, represent aspects of reality. If we want to see a change in reality we need a change in the films and media that seek to represent it. Mustang starts at the right place with the right attitude and a passionate tone to counter violence against girls and women. The girls’ act of rebellion—screaming in a culture where they are forced to remain silent; learning to drive and thereby gain mobility and independence in a context where women’s place is still often seen as the private sphere—can challenge and change stereotypical representations of girlhood in the Turkish context. Poignant in its cinematography, Mustang shakes you to the core with its realistic narrative. It is bold and brave. And most importantly, it offers a story told from the perspective of girl - something we don't see often enough. It is also incredibly important that we celebrate a woman director’s highly successful film as women filmmakers’ success needs to be visible - just as the film depicts.

"Mustang shakes you to the core with its realistic narrative."

Returning to Leyla in Growing Up Married… Only a couple of weeks ago I saw her again while I was visiting Izmir. She said: "Since last July, since I talked to you, I stopped cutting my hair short and have been letting it grow!" It is through films, and the process of making films and talking to women, that we may have the power to contribute to change. ■

Mustang screens from 13 May at the ICA

Dr Eylem Atakav is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia where she teaches courses on women and film; women, Islam and media; and Middle Eastern media. She is the author of Women and Turkish Cinema: Gender Politics, Cultural Identity and Representation (2012) and editor of Directory of World Cinema: Turkey (Intellect, 2013). Her academic interests are on Middle Eastern film and television; representation of 'honour' crimes in the media, and women's cinema. She frequently writes on issues around gender and culture for the Huffington Post (UK). She is currently finishing her first film, entitled Growing Up Married, a documentary about child marriages in Turkey. She has contributed to the House of Lords Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life report and recently secured AHRC funding to co-lead a project on British Muslim Values.

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