ISTANBUL (WOMENSENEWS)– A cinematic depiction of five adolescent sisters being married off one by one in rural Turkey, the movie "Mustang" has received plentiful accolades abroad; including an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign Film.
But in the country where the feature film was shot by French-Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the reaction is decidedly more mixed.
"There’s this idea you see in online comments and other responses that Turkey is being depicted wrongly in the movie," says Eylem Atakav, a senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. "But the stories I’ve heard from Turkish women who were married off as children are far worse, much more brutal, than anything it shows."
Atakav, who spoke with Women’s eNews in a phone interview, is also working on a documentary about child marriage in Turkey, her home country.
"One woman I talked to wanted to be married off at age 14 because she was being raped by a neighbor’s son and by her own aunt," Atakav says.
Another young bride told the filmmaker that after failing to bleed on her wedding night, she was "beaten and tortured" and subjected to a so-called virginity test as the older girls in "Mustang" are also forced to undergo.
Accurate figures on the scope of child marriage in Turkey are hard to come by, in part because many such unions are conducted solely by an imam — rather than in the legally required civil ceremony — and never officially registered.
But data collected by academics and nongovernmental organizations indicate that between 14 percent and a third of all marriages in Turkey may involve a bride under the age of 18.
"We need specific research dedicated to this issue and covering all of Turkey so we can clearly see the existing situation before we can design effective policies and services to combat it," says Özlem Ba?do?an, a project coordinator at Flying Broom. The Ankara-based women’s organization works to raise awareness about child marriage and advocates for more government attention to be paid to the issue.
Turkish officials, including the country’s top religious authority, have spoken out against child marriage, but both relevant laws and their implementation are inconsistent.
In 2002, Turkey raised the legal minimum age for girls to wed to 17 from 15, but marriages at age 16 are still possible if a court grants permission.
Other laws define a "child" as anyone under the age of 15, adding to the confusion. And though prosecutions are occasionally made under laws prohibiting the sexual abuse of children, the Turkish Penal Code does not address child marriage specifically.
"Government officials and lawmakers are publishing decrees [on the topic of child marriage] while not taking steps to implement the laws," Nilüfer Y?lmaz, an activist with the Fethiye Free Woman and Life Association, based in southwestern Turkey, said in an email interview. "Legitimizations of this situation can even be found in their statements."
Some of the recent controversial comments by conservative Turkish politicians praising women for their childbearing role or for their chaste behavior find their way into "Mustang" as snippets of news broadcasts playing in the background of a few scenes.
Women’s rights activists say that such remarks, as well as the offering of financial incentives for having multiple children or for young couples to marry while still in university, promote a dangerous focus on women as obedient wives and mothers.
"Some families don’t make investments in their girls because the thought is that they will just be married off and leave," says Y?lmaz.
Limited education and job opportunities are often both a cause and a result of child marriage, which generally ends a girl’s formal schooling.
"Preventing child brides and promoting vocations for girls are flip sides of each other," says Ba?do?an of Flying Broom, which also works to increase the range of jobs that girls (and their parents) see as available to them.
Family’s Common Property
Perhaps even trickier to tackle is the way many female children are seen as a family’s common property, says activist Y?lmaz. "From the moment they enter into adolescence, marrying them off becomes the dominant thought to protect the family’s ‘honor.’"
That’s exactly what happens in "Mustang" where the sisters’ playful behavior with boys is seen as a threat to their chastity, and to the family’s reputation, leading them to be locked up inside their house and prepared for marriage. The girls’ acts of rebellion — sneaking out to meet a boyfriend and attending a soccer match, learning to drive a car — have been both praised as inspiring and criticized as unrealistic.
"This is a film that shows both what women are suffering and what unexpected power they can have to break through norms and take control under dire circumstances," says Serra Ciliv, director of the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival, which will be screening "Mustang" this weekend in 33 cities across Turkey, as well as in northern Cyprus, Armenia, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Academic Atakav agrees there is a cultural "obsession" with women’s honor, something she says has often been reinforced by Turkish cinema.
But, she adds, "There is so much respect for mothers and fathers, the people who are often forcing marriage upon the girls, that you wouldn’t see this rebellion that you see in ‘Mustang.’ Instead, women internalize this idea that they’re not worth anything [outside of marriage]."
While "Mustang" leaves its characters still in adolescence, Atakav says the documentary she is making examines how being married as a child affects women throughout their lives.
And she says she had no trouble finding women to participate, even where her parents live in ?zmir, a western Turkish city often described as liberal. "When their neighbors found out I was working on this documentary, they were knocking on the door at 10 at night, saying, ‘We want to talk to you too.’"