by Paola Cesarini
No dizi was ever more intentionally designed to produce a social impact than “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” (What is Fatmagül’s Sin?). Based on a story by Vedat Türkali, the series realistically narrates the struggles of a young woman from a small Aegean coastal village, who falls victim to brutal gang rape shortly before her wedding. The sexual assault, however, is only where the story begins. Starting from the second episode, the series vividly recounts Fatmagül’s serial re-traumatization following the rape, while she heroically attempts to rebuild her life and achieve justice.
With accurate details, the show describes Fatmagül’s physical and psychological wounds in the aftermath of the violence. Beren Saat delivers an extraordinary performance, in what is undoubtedly a challenging role. Next, the story relates how Famagül’s sister in law (Mukaddes) and the rapists’ powerful families coerce her into silence, an unwanted marriage, and a move to Istanbul. After she rebels and decides to pursue justice, the dizi illustrates the ensuing negative publicity, social ostracism, and plain harassment that she is forced to endure. As the trial begins, the series explains how Fatmagül is compelled to relive time and again the horrible night of the rape before (mostly male) representatives of the police and the judiciary, in addition to her tormentors. Finally, as the tide starts to turn against her rapists, the show portrays Fatmagül’s anguish at the possibility that they might escape justice after successfully fleeing the country.
The series’ significance goes well beyond the gender dimension. As a matter of fact, “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” is also a story about men and, more precisely, about men’s liberation from anachronistic mores. To illustrates this argument, the series employs a clever juxtaposition of the two principal male characters in Fatmagül’s life: Kerim and Mustafa, brilliantly interpreted by Engin Akyürek and Firat Çelik, respectively. Kerim is a handsome, college-educated blacksmith with a tormented childhood, who struggles to find a balance between his common origins and his uncommon talents. Mustafa is a clever and attractive fisherman, whose doting parents have, however, failed to teach him self-doubt and the difference between right and wrong.
Mustafa is Fatmagül’s fiancée, and hence someone whom she loves and has known her entire life. Conversely, Kerim’s and Farmagül’s paths first cross on the same day when he becomes the involuntary bystander of her rape. Fatmagül’s assailants — Erdogan, Selim, and Vural — are in fact Kerim’s summer childhood mates. On that fateful night, the boys are partying together on the beach after Selim’s engagement soirèe, when Fatmagül has the misfortune of happening upon them. Erdogan is the first to instigate the assault. Selim and Vural subsequently take their turns. And Kerim just stands there and watches the horror unfold before his eyes through alcohol- and drug-induced stupor.
After the deed, however, it is Kerim who takes responsibility for Fatmagül’s rape by marrying her. While his actions are initially motivated by guilt, he soon falls sincerely in love with the young woman and makes it his life’s mission to restore her to happiness. Conversely, Mustafa can only see Fatmagül’s rape as an affront to his all-important honor. He regards himself in earnest as the chief victim of her disgrace and, in turn, completely overlooks her pain. Egged on by his clueless mother, he thinks only of saving his name and never of comforting Fatmagül. Even worse, his thirst for revenge becomes an omnipresent threat for Fatmagül and Kerim and forces them to move far away from the only home they have ever known.
Mustafa and Kerim’s diametrically opposed reactions to Fatmagül’s plight are, in a broad sense, a reflection of their upbringing. Kerim is college-educated, while Mustafa’s schooling never went so far. Most importantly, however, Kerim was brought up by Meryem — a positive, smart, sensitive, and unconventional woman with a remarkably modern outlook on life. Conversely, Mustafa grew up with two traditional and narrow-minded parents who, despite their good intentions, raised a young man with an exaggerated sense of self and a grossly outdated black and white vision of the world. In short, while nature bestowed both Kerim and Mustafa with comparable intellect and good looks, it was their education that made all the difference in how they reacted to Fatmagül’s tragedy.
“Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” is a story about the conflict between tradition and modernity that still ravages many societies around the world, including Turkey. In this context, Mustafa’s right to exact retribution for his “honor” is hardly questioned by those closest to him. On the other hand, Fatmagul’s resort to legal justice is frowned upon as an act that brings shame not only to herself but to her family and her community. Prisoner of this selfish and retrograde mentality, which reduces women to mere symbols of a man’s “honor,” Mustafa’s actions cost him the loss of Fatmagül. In turn, his stubborn failure to come to grips with reality eventually drives him to suicide.
While not entirely immune from machismo, Kerim is far more open-minded and compassionate than Mustafa. Instead of considering Fatmagül as in any way tainted by the rape, he comes to admire her dignity and resilience in the face of adversity. Over time, Kerim fully liberates himself from the trappings of the traditional patriarchal worldview and, in so doing, he is able to find happiness with Fatmagül. Kerim’s story thus confirms what Gloria Steinem famously argued 50 years ago, namely that “ Women’s Liberation really is Men’s Liberation, too.”
Other characters in “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” experience a similar “liberation” as a result of their close association with Fatmagül. Rahmi finally gets a handle on his insufferable wife Mukkades. Meltem finds the courage to reject Selim’s lies and claim her independence. Emre comes to appreciate that not everything is what it seems. And Fahrettin Bey reconciles with his son as a result of Fatmagül’s influence on Kerim. These characters have one thing in common. Fatmagül’s example gave them the courage to relinquish the traditional wisdom, embrace their identity, and become who they were always supposed to be.
“Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” is also a powerful narrative about what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” According to the renowned philosopher, evil is more often the handiwork of ordinary people than demonic monsters, especially when archaic mentalities, obsolete traditions, and perverse ideologies empower them with authority.
“Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil. […] The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. […] And the greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”
Reading Arendt’s passage, one might believe that the brilliant screenwriters of “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” — Melek Gençoglu, Vedat Türkali, and Ece Yörenç — had her words in mind when they created the characters of Erdogan, Selim, and Vural. Erdogan is the worst of the lot, on account of his complete lack of empathy towards the victim. Defiant to the very end, he consistently tries to deflect his main responsibility for the rape by claiming that he was not alone in committing it. Selim is a pitiful but dangerous combination of entitlement and stupidity. He constantly tries to exonerate himself by arguing that Erdogan made him do it, and is genuinely surprised when he realizes that he will actually have to face punishment for his crime. Vural is the only one, whose conscience torments him soon after the rape. So much so that he eventually loses himself in a sea of guilt and self-loathing.
The three rapists never pause to reflect on the potential consequences of their actions. Not because they are high on drugs and alcohol, but because it simply never enters their mind that, one day, they can be held accountable for violating a powerless village girl. Fatmagül’s tormentors are not evil masterminds who premeditate their assault. They are average young people, who lack the integrity necessary to resist their base impulses. They also think of themselves as superior and untouchable. They are “normal” kids, whose inability to distinguish right from wrong renders capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty. Just like Arendt’s insight into the “banality of evil”, “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” reminds viewers that — under the right circumstances — ordinary people can be perpetrators of extraordinary crimes.
Finally, “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” is a tale about the responsibility of bystanders, where the latter are defined as individuals who, after witnessing evil, choose passivity and/or obedience instead of resistance and justice. Bystanders often think of themselves as neutral, unbiased, impartial, dispassionate people who have the acumen of never taking sides in a dispute. They sincerely believe that their conflict-avoidance strategy is the right thing to do. Such belief is particularly strong in societies, which actively discourage the open manifestation of emotions and create an aura of “respectability” around those who consistently rise above the fray. Human tragedies, however, often happen because ordinary people choose to do nothing to prevent or stop them. Consequently, to use once again Hannah Arendt’s eloquent words:
“Bystanders must share a ‘vicarious’ or ‘collective responsibility,’ for they were part of a community that silently encouraged the predators and even sheltered them.”
In “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?”, culpable bystanders abound, starting with Kerim. The justice system eventually forgives him, and so does Fatmagül. For a very long time, however, the young man simply cannot forgive himself. And that is what distinguishes him from the rest of the guilty bystanders in this sordid affair. The others, regrettably, remain unrepentant for most or all of the show, and rarely seek to make amends, unless for self-serving purposes.
Among the bystanders, Mukaddes — incredibly interpreted by Esra Dermancıoglu — is the character most viewers love to hate. While definitely vile, she is however far less hypocrite than the rest. She claims that life made her suspicious and aggressive and that she is only trying to protect herself. Based on the hardship she experienced, her course of action has indeed a coherent logic to it. While her suffering and trauma are authentic, unfortunately so are her bitterness, malice, arrogance, and selfishness. As a result, she never receives the kindness and support that Fatmagül enjoys throughout the story.
Resat and Perihan (Selim’s parents,) and Münir (Selim’s Uncle,) on the other hand, have no excuse whatsoever for their repeated attempts to cover up the rape. They definitely should know better. Even Perihan’s love for her son does not justify her willful disregard for Fatmagül’s plight. The contrast with Meryem is particularly illuminating in this respect. Upon learning the news of the assault on Fatmagül and inferring her son’s potential involvement, the blacksmith’s adoptive mother is profoundly outraged and openly harsh in her censure of Kerim’s (in)action. For her, there is no grey area in which he can take refuge from his wrongdoing. At the same time, she does not leave Kerim and Fatmagül to fend for themselves. Once her son accepts responsibility for his mistakes, she grants him and his young wife all the unconditional love and support she can muster. In the end, Meryem turns out to be far more a “real” mother to her adoptive son, than Perihan ever will to Selim.
In essence, “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” constitutes a powerful indictment against the male chauvinism and patriarchal mentality that still tolerate — when not encourage — gender violence around the world. It also specifically condemns Turkish laws and institutions for being both unwilling and unable to deliver justice for victims of sexual violence in a country, where domestic violence, forced marriages, rape, femicide, and honor killings are unfortunately recurring events.
“Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” was first broadcast in Turkey on 16 September 2010. It was immediately very successful both at home and abroad. It also helped to spark much needed public debate on the issues of violence against women. In 2011, Turkey was the first to ratify the Council of Europe’s “Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.” The treaty specifically targets violence against women and obliges ratifying countries to prevent gender-based crime, provide adequate protection and services for victims, and assure the prosecution of perpetrators. The same year, the Turkish government passed a law to implement the Convention.
Despite the legal efforts, however, violence against women in Turkey continues. NGO lawyer Funda Ekin thinks that the problem remains with society at large: “There is still a general attitude that, in some cases, violence against women is acceptable.” Ekin says that what is needed is a change in the collective mindset regarding gender-based violence, starting with children’s education and the images broadcast by the media. To date, no dizi has dissected the issue of violence against women more vigorously, intelligently, and successfully than“Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” The series thus remains emblematical of the positive impact that television shows may have on society and, in particular, on women’s rights.
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(C) Copyright by NA-TEN and Paola Cesarini
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