Growing Up Married

In Conversation with Eylem Atakav

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 University of East Anglia


Child marriage affects many young girls and women all over the world, and yet, while the number of cases is extremely alarming, there appears to be hardly any awareness of the subject, never mind public visibility. The consequences of forced marriage are dire with severe psychological, physical, and social impact on girls and women. If we are to raise awareness, the silence surrounding forced child marriage needs to be broken. In her documentary film Growing Up Married (2016), feminist media scholar Eylem Atakav faces the issue head-on. Her film brings to the screen four women from Turkey who were forced into marriage as children; as adults, they recollect their memories, on camera, for the first time. Growing Up Married—a milestone of feminist filmmaking in its celebration of women’s narratives of survival—foregrounds their voices as they tell their stories of having been child brides.

According to the international humanitarian agency, Co-operative for Assistance and Care Everywhere (CARE), 39,000 girls under the age of 18 become child brides every single day.1 While the numbers are alarming, these cases are mostly hidden from view and go unnoticed. As Miriam Kent (2016) writes, “Child brides are invisible. There is no paperwork involved, the marriages are often illegal, and the brides frequently do not even have birth certificates. These crimes are unseen and their perpetrators go unpunished” (n.p.).

The consequences of a childhood interrupted by forced marriage affect these girls as they enter adulthood years later. Academic and filmmaker Eylem Atakav, in her internationally acclaimed recent 27-minute documentary Growing Up Married (2016), confronts this urgent global issue. The film, in Atakav’s words, “Focuses on four women from Turkey who were forced [into] marriage. They reveal their own experience and recollection of being child brides on camera for the first time.” Atakav adds, “What happened in the past isn’t important. How they remember it is what was important to me.”

Figure 1
Figure 1

Academic and filmmaker Eylem Atakav (used with permission).

Citation: Girlhood Studies 11, 3; 10.3167/ghs.2018.110309

Growing Up Married premiered in September 2016 in Norwich, UK, and has since been screened in various cities in the UK, America, Bangladesh, and Turkey.

Atakav, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA), is doing research into the representation of women in media and film. She is particularly interested in the representation of honor-based crimes, forced marriage, child marriage, and gender politics. Her engagement with these issues and themes led to her launching the “Women, Islam and Media” module in 2011 at UEA. The aim of the module is to interrogate and rethink the power of media and its construction of images and identities.

In an article in the The Guardian, Atakav (2012) talks about the motivation behind the module.

Researching, teaching and discussing the complex relationship between media images, women and religion is a challenging task, which requires a subtle approach. To address this challenge and complexity, my aim is to make teaching this topic meaningful, and go beyond the superficial, while being critical and investigative.

Bringing women’s authentic experiences and stories to her research and teaching was something Atakav always wanted to do. Growing Up Married is a testament to both a practical approach to feminist activism, and to the power of media and film. As she insists, “We’re feminist media scholars, and as great as theory and research is, we need to move beyond that and make our own media and do our own feminism.” As Kent (2016) notes, “The film is everything feminist filmmaking should be [in] addressing issues of gender oppression through the stories of the oppressed” (n.p.).

For Atakav, there is something accessible about film, and this is tied to its ability to travel. “No matter where Growing Up Married is screened, there is always someone from the audience who comes up to me and talks to me about their own experience of abuse and violence,” she says.

Growing Up Married begins with a clicking counter. The rolling number starts the film, but the audience does not yet know to what these numbers allude; we find out only at the end of the film. We watch and listen to four women from Turkey as they remember. By the end of the film, the significance of the final number, 736, becomes clear: it is the number of girls who have become child brides, and been forced into marriage over the 27-minute span of the film. In honoring the specificity of the cultural struggles of the four Turkish women, Growing Up Married reminds us, with its rolling numbers, that forced marriage is a global and urgent issue.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The opening of Growing Up Married showing the counter, against a brick wall. Leyla’s voice can be heard as she sings.

Citation: Girlhood Studies 11, 3; 10.3167/ghs.2018.110309

The film makes child marriage visible, raises awareness, and initiates a much-needed conversation with women about their personal experiences. In this interview, conducted on 10 July 2018, I discuss with this film-maker the inspiration behind her film, doing feminism, and the impact of women’s voices in telling their stories.

Zahra Khosroshahi:You’re currently at the University of East Anglia (UEA) as a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies. Your academic interests include the Middle East, women’s cinema, and the representation of honor crimes in the media. Can you talk about your research and why you chose to focus on these issues?
Eylem Atakav:It all started with looking at women in Turkey and their representation in cinema. My PhD was about 1980s Turkey and the women’s cinema that emerged around the time of the feminist movement in the country. I was trying to make a connection between feminism as a movement but also [between] women’s films that appear in parallel with each other. I was looking into how they were linked. This was during the depoliticization of cinema after the 1980 coup in Turkey. And, actually, this brought cinema and feminism together in an unimaginable way because women’s films were never seen as political. They had nothing to do with party politics. So, directors were like, ‘Okay, we’ll stay away from politics,’ and since feminism wasn’t interested in party politics at the time, it was seen as a cultural movement, completely harmless and non-political altogether. So, there was this idea that we should let women do their thing, and so this context gives feminist films a space to emerge. So, in a moment of de-politicization feminism had the chance to emerge in film.This is what I was interested in looking at and in looking at different films to do with women, I ended up teasing out some common themes and recurring issues and some of those had to do with honor killing and honor crimes. The concept of honor was big and so I started to show a lot of interest [in] the representation of honor-based crimes in my academic research, which later became linked to my teaching as well.
ZK:You launched the “Women, Islam and Media” module, first of its kind in the UK in 2011. What were the motivations behind this module? Addressing the taboo is difficult, teaching it presents its own set of challenges. It puts you in direct face-to-face contact with your students. Can you talk about your experience?
EA:It started in 2005, when I came across the Time magazine cover, which was a photo of Mona Lisa in a headscarf, and the European setting you would anticipate was changed to look ‘Islamic.’ They did that by having a mosque as the background for example. The article was about immigration, which continues to be relevant today. I wanted to do something about this.So back in 2011 I came up with a module at UEA, called “Women, Islam and Media,” which received a lot of attention from the media itself, with [the] BBC coming to the classroom to do interviews because [the] module dealt with such sensitive topics and they were interested in those conversations.I soon realized that in people’s perceptions, a lot of the issues I had been looking at were intrinsically linked to Islam. So, my aim was to deconstruct those ideas by looking at images from all over the world and to interrogate the narrative the media had given us. I started collecting all kinds of images that were about media’s representation of Muslim women. I didn’t want to just focus on western examples either.I remember showing the Arabic Barbie doll for example, then lots of examples from Turkish television, something they wouldn’t have had access to if it weren’t for [my] being there to translate for them. We discussed many issues such as the politicization of the veil and how it is used as the focal point of political debate and how all the conversations are centred around women, and their bodies.We looked at a film called They Call me Muslim (2006), about a woman in Iran refusing to wear the headscarf and rejecting it, and … two women in France who want to wear the scarf as a practice of their faith but can’t. So, these were some of the issues we explored in the module. I also wanted to undo some of the perceptions around honor killing, forced marriage etc. For a lot of people, these issues are associated with Islam. I wanted the students to unpack these associations and question where they come from.
ZK:You talk about how you wanted to interrupt and interrogate the images we’re often exposed to through media. What kind of power do you think the media has in constructing these images?
EA:A lot. Getting non-academic stakeholders in the classroom really shed light on this issue. So, for example, when we got [the] Norwich constabulary to come into class and ask the students whether they think honor killing happens in the UK, their initial response was ‘no.’ When [the students] were told they do actually happen, they thought it would happen in places like London or Birmingham. A place like Norwich was the last place they’d associate with honor killing.This is where the power of the media comes in. We looked at how the British media presents a case of honor killing. For example, if there is a white couple, and then because of, say, jealousy, the man kills the woman, it isn’t referred to as honor killing, it is referred to as murder. But when the couple are Muslim, the whole thing changes.So, media is very powerful in building those images and as much as we can do in the classrooms, teaching students how to deconstruct these images, and encourage them to have a critical approach, I think media is a big powerful industry and it’s often difficult to undo its damage. But from a media scholar’s perspective, we’re working perhaps with the next generation of media makers, to invite them to think about creating alternative images.
ZK:The work you do and the subjects you engage with are very relevant to today’s current political climate. How do you think representation fits into that and what do you think the role of academia and research is in creating impact and change?
EA:When it comes to my research or my film Growing Up Married, there are different things I want to achieve. One is to challenge Western perceptions of issues such as child brides, honor-based crimes, gender violence, and genital mutilation—those kinds of issues, particularly forced marriage, as something that we dissociate from the West. But, it happens a lot and it happens everywhere around the world. According to statistics 39,000 girls become brides every single day. According to the 2015 Turkish population research, there are one in three marriages [in which] the girl is under 18. So, the statistics are really alarming.If we are academics doing theoretical work on these kinds of issues, we need to really take our practices from our offices, classrooms, and perhaps our campuses to the broader public to demand … policy change and public changes. What has changed my view about academia, especially with Growing Up Married, is how we can use our projects and research to make change happen. Rather than just producing research that will only be read in journal articles or books by a limited amount of people, we can make our work accessible and public facing. To do that, it’s important for all of us in academia—students, faculty and admin colleagues—to work together to make that change possible.
ZK:So what would you say was the inspiration behind Growing Up Married?
EA:We’re feminist media scholars. This means we are dealing with issues around inequality and diversity, and while it’s important and incredibly valuable to theorize those kinds of issues, as a feminist media scholar I want to urge all other feminist scholars to continue critiquing media but also think about making our own media. I think this is how research can become accessible and mobile. The more mobile and public-facing the more meaningful your work becomes as you start to see its impact on the public. Growing Up Married came to exist purely from a volunteer basis and dedication to making research accessible and mobile. I used film as a medium to allow these ideas to travel.
ZK:You made your documentary Growing Up Married in 2016. Can you describe the process?
EA:In 2015 I was sitting in my office typing away. I was working on an article about child brides and forced marriage, because there were several films that had come out around that time, and so I wanted to critically reflect on it. Suddenly I realized that from the start of my PhD and in my research in general, something was lacking, and that was me actually talking to women. I constantly referred to women as a single entity. Making the film and talking to women who shared their experiences really shifted my thinking.After that moment of realisation in the office, I had a trip to Turkey, and one of my mom’s neighbours asked me if I could talk to her daughter who was 16. Her daughter was in love with a man who was 15 years her senior, so she wanted me to talk her out of marriage and, instead, to encourage her to continue with her school[ing]. When I sat down with her for a few hours, it led to her telling me her own story and how she was forced to marry at 15 and the sexual abuse and violence she had experienced. My immediate reaction to the stories was shock: I still remember the first thing I asked her, ‘How are you still alive?’ But also [said], ‘We need to tell this story.’ I told her that there are many people who will speak out if she started the conversation, and that if her daughter heard her story, then she [could] really change her fate as well. And so she agreed. I got my camera out and we started to see what we could do. We were thinking of a short clip; I never imagined it to be an actual film.
ZK:What inspired you to take matters into your own hands and to make your own film? What was your breaking point?
EA:Well I think that moment in the office. I’m never going to stop writing articles but talking to women has completely changed my understanding about what the academic world should be. We’re here to critique representations, and media presents different aspects of reality, and if we want to change our reality, then we need to think about how we can change the representations of that reality so that we can start living with different images.That’s what I wanted to do with the film, and what I want to do with my teaching as well. At the heart of it is giving voice to women. Well, I don’t want [to] say giving voice to women. What I mean is, using my research to allow women’s voices and experiences to be shared as widely as possible. I think this is it. That’s what is at the heart of the project.
ZK:You’ve spent a lot of time researching issues around gender and film. Did you feel that your academic research prepped you for what was going to be coming up on the ground, filming?
EA:It is an incredibly different experience sitting in front of a screen and critiquing it than sitting in front of a totally different screen and editing your own work. I’ve never felt as challenged with theoretical work as I was with editing. Trying to bring all those hours to a 27-minute film was one thing, but to do justice to the experiences of those women was a whole different ball game. There is an enormous amount of power you have, and you’re constantly thinking about how you may be shifting stories.So yes, it did shake me quite a bit, switching from the academic side of things to the practical side of filmmaking. Part of it was because I had chosen a very powerful topic, maybe because the stories of the women I spoke to made me feel incredibly powerless. It certainly made me question the meaning and place of theory. Here we are theorizing violence, when people are living it. It’s a very luxurious place to be.
ZK:There are inevitable gaps between theory and practice. How did you manage to [close] those gaps?
EA:I’ve been writing about this. I have written a self-reflexive article about the kinds of ethical issues I had to consider, and my own position as a scholar and the power relationship between myself and the women I interviewed. I have also been writing an article about dissemination as a feminist act and public engagement and the importance of how we need to implore that more as feminist media scholars.
ZK:How do you see your work as feminist? How have you reflected on the power dynamics between you and the women you interviewed?
EA:I want to challenge the discussions around power dynamics. There’s this idea that as the interviewer and researcher I am the one with all the power, and that I tell these stories, take credit for them and essentially use these women, this idea that I am using their stories to tell my own, and so on. I want to challenge this notion. I have been very conscious about the existing and inevitable power dynamics, and yet I want to challenge this kind of thinking. If we think like this it creates a backlash. And that backlash will lead us to doing nothing. It is fact that some of us are in a much more privileged position than others. But if we work together, and only if we work together, then we can create change. Every single time I have screened the film I have been in touch with the women and contacted them.Every single time after the screening, without any exception, someone has come up to me to tell me about their own experiences. This film has so far allowed other people to come forward to talk about some of their painful experiences. This is just a drop in the ocean, but it shows you where feminist media scholars can go, and what we can do, by making our own media and creating our own narrative.
ZK:Here you have used a local story, and the experiences of four women from Turkey, to comment on an issue that is international. But also, you’ve really shown through this, that this isn’t a Turkish problem; [it] is much bigger than that.
EA:Of course, this is what I write and talk about a lot. What fascinated me throughout the entire process has been precisely this. The idea of four women from Turkey talking about their experiences that ends up becoming an incredible and powerful tool for policy makers in the UK. That journey, which I theoretically reflect on, to me, has been mind blowing.
ZK:When we think of child brides, we often think about it as an issue that belongs to certain cultures and countries. In your film, you show the cultural specificity of these stories, but with the counter, you remind us that this isn’t just a Turkish problem; it’s an international problem—a patriarchal problem. This goes back to the idea of your module, that we have to stop thinking that these issues, which are rooted in violence and patriarchy, are only happening in certain areas in the world. These are global issues.
EA:Yes, totally. This is an international issue. It goes beyond the idea of culture, religion or country, although women’s experiences can be quite different. So, I am not universalizing women’s experiences here. I want to create a space for the local and personal stories, but also make us think about child marriage as a universal and patriarchal issue.I’ll also add this. Sure, the topic was child marriage, but I didn’t ask specially about their experiences of this. These were completely unstructured interviews. I only asked these women to tell me about their lives. They start with their childhood years, and in a matter of seconds, this was followed by their experiences as child brides. What was really interesting also was that they weren’t only talking about their experiences as child brides. These conversations lead to [their] talking about other issues as well—things like virginity tests, [the] concept of honor, sexual and domestic violence, patriarchal values, divorce, child custody, literacy, education, financial situations, and so on. The film intended to be about child brides but opened discussions around lots of other issues.
ZK:These numbers increase as we hear the women discuss their memories. In some ways, this is happening today, and the number is a reminder of the present and future of many young women. Yet we sit back and watch these women take a step back into their past as they tell their stories. How did you think about the past and memories in terms of healing and storytelling?
EA:The conversations I had with these four women are texts of memory. They told me about what they remembered of their childhood as married girls. It really doesn’t matter if what they remember is correct. What is really crucial and valuable here is how they remember their own past that ultimately shapes their identities in the present. Two of them talked about their experiences for the first time, and I know, as the ending of the film suggests, Leyla’s life … changed after speaking out. And these four women change people’s lives around the world as the film travels. There has not yet been a screening of the film where there wasn’t someone speaking out and telling me about their experiences of abuse. If women speak out collectively, change is possible. I wanted to keep the number of child brides as a rolling number in the corner of the frame, as a reminder of how haunting the statistics are.
ZK:There is a point when Leyla says, ‘These days girls fall in love,’ almost as if this [was] an issue [in] the past. Can you talk about the work you’ve done in Norwich, which reminds us that this is, in fact, still going on.
EA:It’s far from over. It is continuing. I really like her insistence on the idea of love. When you’re forced into marriage, love is never a condition, so she goes back to that almost wishing that this were the case today, and of course, for a lot of people it is. That doesn’t mean however, that forced marriage is a problem of the past.
ZK:Voice is an important theme in this documentary. The film draws our attention to the idea of voice especially when Leyla, for the first time, begins to sing. Can you talk about that?
EA:I asked Leyla what [she used] to love to do that [she] no longer [does.] She said, ‘I used to have a beautiful voice.’ Now she smokes a lot, so she’s lost her voice a bit. Nonetheless, towards the end of the interview, I said, ‘Do you want to sing?’ She looked at me, hesitated a bit, and then broke into song.
ZK:Also, on the topic of voice, this documentary is very much about these women’s voices. It’s about their recollection of their memories, but also the vocalisation of this recollection, and the visualisation of that through the film medium.
EA:Of course, and how that is then made mobile. It’s also important that it travels.
ZK:There’s also the question of your voice as the filmmaker. I mean we hardly hear from you. Can you talk about some of the choices you made to ensure that the women’s voices are dominant in this film?
EA:Well, you do hear me in the beginning. I cut myself out after to let their stories be dominant. Truthfully though, I am there in the editing of the film. I am the one who made the decisions to make sure there is a coherent story. In many ways I was there, too. So, to me I am very present in the film, because I am aware of what a four-hour version of this would look like.
ZK:There’s a motif and theme that comes up in all the women’s stories: the idea that this is generational and cyclical. Leyla’s mother who forces her into marriage has herself lived with violence all her life. When Bahar is born, she is born with a broken arm and taken away from her mother. The four survivors we meet are women, but they are going back to their memories as children. Can you talk about the relevance of this film in the context of girlhood studies?
EA:Well, the film is about four women whose childhood and girlhood was interrupted, and this interruption creates the cycle of violence and pain. At one point when Leyla is thinking back to her childhood, she recalls that all she wanted to do was play, but she was forced instead into marriage. All her dreams as a child and a girl were destroyed, and this then has an impact on her for the rest of her life. Child marriage fits well within girlhood studies. It reminds us of the importance of the earlier years. The film’s title alludes to this too, because, while they’re women, they are going back, through their memories, to their childhood years.
ZK:The doll is also an interesting visual motif that reappears throughout the film. Can you talk about its significance?
EA:In Izmir, there is a market on Saturdays that’s dedicated to women who want to bring in their own crafts and homemade products to sell. My mom told me [that] there are these women who knit dolls, and that it may provide some good visuals for my film. As I was panning through the dolls, I realized there was a bride doll with a price tag, almost signalling this idea of bride price. As you tilt down you see these women knitting these dolls, almost [as though] they are reproducing this system. The system reproduces itself. These dolls are for girls to play with, dolls that they may become, with price tags attached to them.
Figure 3
Figure 3

The child-bride doll from the market in Izmir, Turkey.

Citation: Girlhood Studies 11, 3; 10.3167/ghs.2018.110309

ZK:Many films about child marriages often start or end with a wedding. Your film rejects these kinds of clichés. Did you intentionally avoid images of weddings?
EA:That’s one thing I didn’t want to do, and maybe, aesthetically it would have looked better. But it’s overdone and, a wedding represents a celebratory occasion, a happy moment in one’s life. This was never the case with these women, and so I was adamant [that I would] stay away from those kinds of visuals. I think the doll, the culture that reproduces this, … is much more powerful than showing a wedding as if to celebrate this event. I wanted to give space to these women to talk about their experiences.
ZK:Tell me about the reception of the film. How was it received?
EA:We’ve so far screened the film for over 3000 people at various film festivals across the UK, in Bangladesh, the US andTurkey. As I’ve mentioned, every screening brought more people to the discussion. People would come up to me and share their experiences. I have worked with the Norfolk constabulary around issues of honor-based crimes and abuse. I have also participated at the House of Lords as part of the Women of the World seminars where my film was screened. The film has raised awareness around theseissues and has initiated a very important conversation. I feel that people are willing to hear more from women.
ZK:Women’s willingness and courage to talk about their experiences of sexual abuse and violence seems to be a global trend. For example, we saw that with the MeToo campaign. Going beyond Turkey and the issues of child marriages, do you think there is a different discourse around gender issues and women’s resistance globally?
EA:I would like to think so. Over the last year in particular we have seen women speaking out, and not just in the US, with the MeToo campaign, but also women in the Middle East. We’ve seen Saudi women recording themselves while driving, or women in Iran dancing in the streets and taking off their headscarves. Things are happening and women, as always, are showing resistance.
ZK:Would you say that women in the Middle East are making their own media then? Doing feminism?
EA:Absolutely. Their social media engagement is a way for them to introduce themselves on the global stage, and to show their resistance and their struggles. If we want to see change or be a part of that change, we need to change the images we live with. You can’t be what you can’t see, so we want more visibility and more voices heard. This is why representation matters. But also, we can inspire one another through our stories. I have never felt as powerless as I was talking to those women, and it was that feeling that inspired me to make the film. We can gain power from their stories and become stronger in fighting inequality together.



Atakav, Eylem. 2016. Growing Up Married. UK.

Contributor Notes

Zahra Khosroshahi is a PhD candidate, School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, presently completing her dissertation on visual representations of women in contemporary Iranian cinema. Email:

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • View in gallery

    Academic and filmmaker Eylem Atakav (used with permission).

  • View in gallery

    The opening of Growing Up Married showing the counter, against a brick wall. Leyla’s voice can be heard as she sings.

  • View in gallery

    The child-bride doll from the market in Izmir, Turkey.


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