For one of my classes, we were assigned to watch and reflect on a Turkish movie. The course is titled ‘Islam and the West. It highlights the Western interpretation of the East and teaches that Orientalism still affects how the East is positioned on the international spectrum. By watching the movie, studying the concept of Orientalism, and reading various Western and Eastern critiques of the movie, I wrote a review on how I, as a woman from more of the Western side of Europe, understand the meaning of this award-winning movie.
With the movie ‘Mustang,’ the viewer can get an insight into a Turkish, conservative, Muslim family’s life in rural Turkey. The heroines are five free-spirited sisters fighting against gender norms and want to break out from the lives that have been imposed on them. After a rumor spread in the village, marriages, potential marriages, suicide, and a well-executed escape plan will shatter the girls’ world. After that afternoon, their lives will never be the same again. This paper will argue that elements of Orientalism can be found in the movie, but I’m not at all convinced that the film would only be a mockery of the Orient.
The movie title applies to the girls; all five are brave enough to fight against their conservative family members, although one of them is the ‘real’ mustang, in my opinion. Lale, the youngest sibling, is in the center of the movie as she narrates it, and we get to learn the most about her. Lale represents the modernity and braveness that takes a girl in her position to escape with her sister to Istanbul in the hope of a better life. I enjoyed that even though Lale could be called the main character, the directors left enough room for her sisters’ character development; only after most of the sisters move out from the house can we get to learn more about her. I liked that the movie is linear in time and doesn’t jump back and forth between past and present; thus, it can lock the viewer’s attention.
As soon as the movie has been realized, it has gained significant national and international recognition. The opinions were divided. Several mostly Turkish critiques argue that the movie has been created for the ‘West’: ‘the film feeds the image of Turkey in the Western psyche and shows that they (West) want to see; ‘a frustrating orientalist work designed for the western world in an extremely affordable way.’ According to Edward Said’s well-recognized book, ‘Orientalism,’ this Western worldview of the East can be seen as a creation of ideas and views and still controls the discourse till today. Following up on this, the Orient was and still is ‘immature’, whereas the West represents normality and maturity in the world.
From an Orientalist perspective, the movie depicts a collision of two significantly different worlds. One of the worlds is symbolized by the grandmother, the uncle, and the village’s inhabitants, who all represent conservative, Muslim values. The viewer automatically builds animosity. In this patriarchal world, women are suppressed and forced to obey the male dominator’s rules, which doesn’t leave any room for females to shape their own lives. This is true for the whole village; since the conservative values still gain a high level of popularity in Turkish society, I would say that this village’s portrayal is not unique, and parallels could be drawn between with other regions of the country. The sisters were objectified and slut-shamed after the beach incident; their grandmother even said that their behavior was unacceptable because ‘you were rubbing your parts on boys’ checks.’ In order to keep the girls in order, on the one hand, the grandmother mostly uses emotional abuse. To retain the sisters’ purity, she takes them to a doctor for a virginity test. Following this, she turns their house into a prison and a ‘wife factory; they were withdrawn out of school, all their electronic devices and make-ups were confiscated, and they even had to learn how to cook and maintain a household from their elderly neighbors. The only piece of clothing they were allowed to wear was long, ‘shit-colored’ dresses, which covered them entirely. Iron fences were put up on the gates and windows to limit their movements ultimately. On the other hand, physical abuse is embedded in the uncle; he raped the older sisters several times even though he was calling them whores, when they returned from the beach, and he was unsure whether the girls are still virgins or not. Based on their belief, only a pure and virgin girl can get married, but their uncle seemed indifferent when sexually abused them.
The other world is represented by the five sisters, who embody a more free, modern, and Western worldview. In my opinion, it is easier for the viewer to sympathize with them than with the rest of the family. From an Orientalist perspective, the girls’ behavior could be seen as opposing the Turkish values and worldview, and they prefer Western values over Turkish ones. I think it would be a mistake to Westernize this. The girls didn’t choose the ‘Western values’ over the “Eastern ones’; they choose freedom over oppression and suppression. In an interview where the director was asked where she got the inspiration for the movie, she said that some of it came from her own experience. Personally, I’m not familiar with every aspect of the Turkish culture, but based on what the director said, there must be some truth. Therefore, the movie doesn’t demonize Eastern culture. It just shows a conservative Muslim family’s life. They wanted to get out of a traditional society, their hometown, to live a freer life where there are in charge of their own decisions.
The movie ends with two sisters running away to Istanbul seeking refuge at their teacher’s house. From my perspective, a girl/woman should have the right to choose how they want to live their lives. Therefore, Lale and Ece didn’t want to abandon their family; they went to Istanbul because they felt trapped in a village and a society that would have never allowed them to fulfill their own dreams. I would have to disagree that the movie was made for the West. ‘Mustang’is a movie about five brave sisters who had their own sets of values and could have done anything in order to get the life they have imagined for themselves.