Child Brides and Virginity Myths: Sexuality and Suppression in Mustang

***TW: Discussion of Child Abuse and Sexual Abuse***

In a remote village in northern Turkey, five orphaned sisters are robbed of their childhood as they are forced into arranged marriages to cover up a so-called scandal. In the first and last scene of youthful joy and childhood innocence, the sisters play on the beach with their male classmates. Following this, the girls are scolded for “pleasuring themselves” by sitting on the boys’ shoulders and the already stifling home becomes a “wife factory” from which there is no escape. Forbidden from attending school, the young girls must stay at home, where they are taught how to cook, clean and sew by their female relatives. They are forced to parade around town in order to attract potential suitors and, one by one, the sisters are married off to older male strangers. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s directorial debut explores the reality of child marriage in patriarchal societies and the yearning for a youth that is stripped away.

Image Source: Still via Movieclips Indie // YouTube

When the girls’ chastity is brought into question, the three eldest daughters are forced to undergo a “virginity report” (also referred to as a virginity ‘check’ or ‘test’). This invasive and inaccurate examination constitutes a violation of human rights and can be a painful, humiliating and traumatic experience. It can also be used to justify ‘honour killings’ if the woman is thought to be ‘impure’ and therefore the cause of shame on her family. There is no scientific evidence for virginity testing, and it is based on flawed assumptions about the hymen. The procedure assumes that the presence of a perfectly intact hymen is the confirmation needed to prove virginity. In reality, there is no examination that can prove whether a woman has had sexual intercourse or not. As opposed to being a barrier which is broken through sexual penetration only, the hymen is actually made of stretchy and flexible tissue, meaning it does not necessarily tear with penetration. In many cases, some tearing or stretching occurs over time from tampon use or strenuous exercise. Some women are actually born without a hymen, while for others, it may stay fully intact until childbirth. Another assumption about the hymen is that it bleeds when it tears, and therefore all virgins must bleed when they have sex. While this is true for some women, it is definitely not the case for all. When the second eldest daughter, Selma, has sex on her wedding night, her new in-laws inspect the bed sheets. When they fail to find blood stains, they force Selma to undergo another invasive virginity test. According to a 1998 scientific study by Dr. Sara Patterson-Brown, 63% of women reportedly didn’t experience bleeding after their first sexual intercourse. We have known for over 100 years that the presence of a hymen does not prove virginity, yet the myth still persists. In 1906, the Norwegian doctor Marie Jeancet examined a middle-aged sex worker and concluded that her genitalia was reminiscent of a teenage virgin. In a more recent study, doctors examined the hymens of 36 pregnant teenagers and could only find clear signs of penetration in 2 of the girls. Unless you believe in 34 cases of virgin births, I think it’s pretty clear that virginity testing is absurd and inconclusive.

Image Source: Still via Movieclips Indie // YouTube

Although the legal age of marriage in Turkey is 18, child marriage remains prevalent. In fact, Turkey’s former President Abdullah Gül married his own wife when he was 30 and she was only 15.  According to Turkish Philanthropy Funds (TPF), 40% of girls under the age of 18 in Turkey are forced into marriage. In January 2018, a government body under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s jurisdiction suggested that, according to Islamic law, girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 12 could marry. Child marriage is often the result of gender inequality and therefore disproportionately affects girls. Child brides are more likely to experience domestic violence, twice as likely to experience physical abuse and three times as likely to experience sexual abuse. Child brides are also less likely to remain in school; TPF found that the Turkish national average of female high school dropouts was 56%. Robbed of their childhood and adolescence and forced into a situation in which they have no agency or power, child brides suffer not only physically but psychologically too. Researchers writing in the journal Pediatrics found that girls who get married under 18 are more likely to experience mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. They are also more likely to become dependent on alcohol, drugs and nicotine. When the third eldest daughter Ece is next in line for marriage, she begins to act “dangerously,” having sex with strange boys and making inappropriate jokes at the dinner table. Unwilling to be forced into marriage, Ece ends up committing suicide and the surviving sisters attend her funeral. While many assume child marriage is a far-away issue, the reality is much more close-to-home. In the USA, child marriage remains legal in 46 states, with Delaware, New Jersey, Minnesota and Pennsylvania being the only states to ban child marriage with no exceptions. 20 states do not require any minimum age for marriage, with a parental or judicial waiver. In the UK, a legal loophole that allows 16 and 17-year-olds in England and Wales to marry, with parental consent, is being exploited and used to coerce children into marriage. The UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit estimates that between 5000 and 8000 people are at risk of being forced into marriage every year in England. In the past year, almost 30% of the calls received by the Unit’s helpline concerned minors, the youngest being only 5 years old.

Image Source: Still via Movieclips Indie // YouTube

Often referred to in reviews as ‘a Turkish Virgin Suicides,’ Mustang is so much more than that. For better or for worse, foreign-language films often have English-language counterparts that people like to compare, for example, Black Swan and Perfect Blue or Inception and Paprika.  The similarities between Mustang and Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut are, of course, there. Both films follow 5 sisters that are punished by their family members, largely out of fear for the sisters’ developing womanhood and sexuality. Both films also feature at least one suicide, but… that’s about where the similarities end. While Mustang is an original story written by a woman and based on her own experiences, therefore providing a sense of authenticity, the original novel The Virgin Suicides is written by a man. This places the author at an unavoidable distance from his female subjects, a distance which is reinforced in the film since we only view the girls through the lens of five boys and a male narrator. In Mustang, the narrator is the youngest daughter, Lale, who is able to provide a much more reliable and first-hand account. Comparing Ergüven’s debut to an English-language film also undermines the impact Mustang will have on the future of (feminist) Turkish cinema. Known as the Yesilçam era, Turkey experienced their own golden age of cinema from the 1950s to 1970s but political instability, a failing economy and rising production costs all contributed to the decline of Turkish Cinema in the post-Yesilçam era. By the early 1990s, production had fallen to just 2 or 3 titles a year, compared to 300 films a year during the Yesilçam era. The period from 1996 to the present, however, has seen a revival of Turkish cinema. Despite this, no film submitted by Turkey has ever been nominated for an Oscar. Mustang’s widespread critical acclaim and Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the 88th Academy Awards (as a French-German-Turkish co-production, it was selected as France’s submission) has brought international attention to Turkey’s often overlooked national cinema. Furthermore, Mustang works to challenge traditional representations of gender in Turkish cinema and push forward the emerging movement of New Turkish Feminist Cinema which has struggled to get off the ground or achieve international recognition since the 1980s.

Francesca Sylph

Featured Image Source: Still via Movieclips Indie // YouTube

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