Mustang is a powerful film that captures the texture of oppression of girls in Turkey
Dr. Eylem Atakav
Mustang represents aspects of what it means to be a woman, a man, and more importantly, a girl in a culture which is underpinned by a notion of ‘honour’ – a concept that is primarily linked to the policing female desire and sexuality. The idea of regulating women’s lives and experiences together with the cultural obsession with chastity and so called honour are skilfully depicted in Mustang.
The idea of regulating women’s lives and experiences together with the cultural obsession with chastity and so called honour are skilfully depicted in Mustang.
The realistic aspects of the story are intertwined with the moving soundtrack, equally realistic performances by the five protagonists, and the exquisite cinematography. The film focuses on the experiences of girls in a little town in Northern Turkey. It is typically the case that films that concentrate on violence against women within the context of Turkey choose to ‘travel’ to the East. In this regard, Mustang offers a story within a different geographical location – the North. This helps us remember that violent practices against girls and women (as well as men) are not geographically specific. The alarming figures, for example, of child rape and child marriages around the world suggest that these practices are and need to be considered as a global issue. That is not to say, of course, that cultural specificities should not be taken into account.
As Jennifer Hattam’s article on the film highlights, data collected by academics and non-governmental organisations indicate that between 14 percent and a third of all marriages in Turkey may involve a bride under the age of 18. Yet, it is worth remembering here that accurate figures on the scope of child marriage in Turkey are hard to track down. There are two reasons for this: firstly, these ‘illegal’ weddings (I use quotation marks here as different laws and their implementations are inconsistent) are conducted by religious authorities (imams) and are therefore never officially registered. Secondly, sometimes girls are not deemed by their families as human beings worthy of registering. This is something that was depicted in a documentary film about ‘honour’ killings in Turkey: Vendetta Song (2005). When director Eylem Kaftan sets on a journey to find out more about her own aunt’s murder, she visits the local council office to find out her details in the city records, but all she gets is this answer: ‘She died without a trace of a record.’ This idea of girls’ lives not being valued is indeed common. The film sheds light on the issue of girls being perceived as dangerous unless married off as soon as they reach puberty.
The girls in Mustang defy tradition and those gender-based forms of violence which constitute cultural practices within the family.
The girls in Mustang defy tradition and those gender-based forms of violence which constitute cultural practices within the family. They subvert this oppression by being loud; by using an aggressive tone of language (and quite rightly so, too!) in which they use swear words; by gaining the right to kill themselves; by having the choice to live and be mobile; by using how to drive; and most importantly by working collectively to support each other. As I wrote elsewhere, Mustang starts at the right place with the right attitude and a passionate tone to counter violence against girls and women. The protagonists’ 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 not only in the Turkish context but also in a global context. What is really important about the film is that it offers a story told from the perspective of girl - something we don't see often enough. And even more significantly the stories of oppressed childhood and violated girlhood are made visible with this film. One may think that what the film offers is way too brutal compared to reality, but based on my very recent experience of interviewing women (for a documentary film project entitled Growing Up Married, in which four child brides recollect their memories as adults) the reality is far worse and much more brutal than the film shows.
ABOUT DR. EYLEM ATAKAV
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 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.