Together with our differences, if we prioritize the principle of “joint struggle”, we can constitute a stronger women’s struggle. We need to act by knowing that the country has entered a dangerous corner in terms of women’s rights.
Our feminist companion, HDP (People’s Democratic Party) politician Gültan Kışanak, has been in prison since 30 October 2016. Gültan, who was imprisoned at the age of 19 in the years of the September 12 military coup and stayed for two years in Diyarbakır Prison, which was famous for the tortures in that period, is now staying in Kandıra F-Type Prison, where Garibe Gezer was tortured and died, and Aysel Tuğluk, who is not released persistently despite being seriously ill, stays. She has been going through an unending trial process for more than five years. Gültan’s case, whose 14 years and 3 months imprisonment sentence given by the local court was overturned by the district court, was combined with the “Kobane case” and Gültan is being tried with a prison sentence of hundreds of years in this case.
She said that during the pandemic, prison conditions got worse and they lived in a heavy isolation and all of Gültan’s works after the book Kürt Siyasetinin Mor Rengi, [The Purple Color of Kurdish Politics] were confiscated during the searches made in January 2021. Gültan describes herself and those in her situation as “political hostages” and this expression, which is also used in the interview of Gültan, was found objectionable and censored by the prison administration.
Longing for the days when we will fight and laugh together side by side, and not giving up demanding justice for Gültan we talked with her about the lawsuit process, prison conditions, Aysel and Garibe, women’s politics, social alliances.
You have been behind bars for five years. Your trial continues still, and all your cases were combined with the Kobane case in July last year. What do you want to say and what awaits you now?
This case has further political significance. Criminalizing society’s reaction to the barbarism of ISIS means upholding that barbarism. They want to make democratic politics here pay for the defeat ISIS suffered in Kobane. But it was the people’s resistance there that allowed the Middle East to breathe a little easier, and that victory is in part due to the democratic public in Turkey showing solidarity.
For us women, ISIS represents the wildest face of patriarchy and organized misogyny. Therefore, we consider this case also as the wrath against women’s claim for freedom. It harms my dignity to face trial as a woman for speaking to the press against ISIS attacks on Kobane. I spoke because I, as a woman of conscience and responsibility, could not sit silently while ISIS sold women in slave markets and used them as concubines in Kobane, as they did in Sinjar and other places.
This case is also a recent example of the Turkish political tradition of covering up and leaving in dark the massacres perpetrated by the deep state or counter-guerrillas by blaming on the left and revolutionaries.
Another message of the case is that it is being used to shut down grassroots politics. As the discourse of “do not take to the street, it will be a provocation” has brought some opposition parties to fear taking to the streets, this is the point to which the state wants to bring all forces of democracy.
The only evidence against us is conspiracy documents, and the trial process itself has virtually been made into a method of torture. They want to make a serial trial as a two-week long hearing, followed by a week off. It’s a complete torture. We are expected to sit on a chair and follow the hearing for hours during two weeks, and in the week in between examine the case file consisting of thousands of folders (hundreds of thousands of pages) and prepare our defense immediately. The case file is not delivered to us in print because of its content, they are uploaded to the prison computers, to which we only have limited access. The purpose of insisting on these hearing periods is to prevent lawyers from watching the hearings regularly, to usurp our right to defense, and to prevent the exposure of the plot documents in the case file. But despite all these plots and all these unlawfulness, we will do the requirements of the democratic struggle in the courtrooms as well. We will not allow the so-called Kobane provocation to be covered up. Today, the lawyers said that the court has made a new decision in the form of a two-week hearing and a two-week break.
You have spoken out about the covid-19 pandemic normalizing isolation conditions in the prisons. We also hear that prison conditions are getting worse, especially after the pandemic and with the effect of the hardening of Turkey’s political environment. What kinds of rights violations and maltreatments have you encountered? How do you struggle against these?
The pandemic has turned prisons into places of absolute isolation. We were not allowed open visits for 19 months; we were not allowed to touch our loved ones. On 9 December, we were allowed a visit of half an hour and were limited to two people each. It is still not clear whether we will be able to receive open visits in the future. Non-contact visits were also limited, and were completely banned from time to time. All social communication opportunities within the prison were removed, and as per the law on execution, it was possible to have “chat and sports” in the common area with other prisoners at certain times every week. All common area activities are banned. Since March 2019, we have not been able to meet and have a talk with anybody but our cellmates.
The book ban is one of the issues that you mentioned a lot. What is the current status on?
Apart from the strict isolation imposed on the grounds of the pandemic, fundamental rights are restricted by making continuous changes in the execution law or prison circulars. For example, books coming from outside are limited to three books per month. All publications that do not receive advertisements from the Press Advertising Agency have been banned; we can no longer read any leftist or opposition newspapers or magazines in prison. In the past, the prison watch commission’s assessment of good behavior was necessary for release before the end of the execution; with the new regulation, people are not released because the prison watch commission does not give “good behavior” even though they have finished the execution of their sentences. Again, it has been made impossible to use the right of three-person non-relative visitors, which is included in the execution law. Even the cases in which people are acquitted visitors are not allowed by giving any justification. All authority is at the initiative of the prison administration. If you try to seek rights through the judiciary, you will see that the prison director, the prison prosecutor and the execution judge are all in agreement. In short, as in the rest of the country, there is a power-reliant, arbitrary, politicized rule of administration in prisons as well.
As women political prisoners, we try to keep our spirits up and protect our mental and physical health. Women’s solidarity here and on the outside is our greatest support and hope.
Garibe Gezer… Did you know her, did you have an opportunity to make contact with her? She was found dead a few months after she announced her experiences in prison and the sexual assault of the female guards to the public. You say/we say this is a murder. What could have been done differently?
I did not know Garibe Gezer personally. We didn’t hear when she was transferred to this prison. These Type-F prisons are so isolated that one only hears news from the nearest three or four cells. I do not know what she suffered when she was transferred. However, for about ten days, they brought her to another cell in the corridor where my cell was also located. That’s when we heard about her. We could barely hear each other when we were shouting. She was on hunger strike because she was not allowed to move to a cell with a friend of hers. We talked to the prison authorities about the acceptance of Garibe’s request. They were unwilling to accept it. A short time later, they had taken Garibe away while we were at the visit. We no longer had the opportunity to communicate with her. But we learnt that she was taken to a cell close to her friend and finished the hunger strike. Besides, we were relieved when we heard she had met with lawyers who were human rights defenders. We read about the sexual assault Garibe suffered in the newspaper. If such a thing happened in this prison, we could not remain silent against it. The newspaper Evrensel, which published the news, was banned on the grounds that it had “punishment of receiving advertisements from the press advertising agency.” We could not see any news/articles on the subject in other newspapers. We wanted the lawyers to get information from outside. However, unfortunately, we learned that Garibe passed away before we could get any reliable information. We had a great shock. Garibe’s death left a deep wound on all the politically imprisoned women here. We have been asking ourselves about what we could have done to prevent this horrendous outcome. We couldn’t hear Garibe’s silent scream, we couldn’t reach out to her. We are wounded and furious. Yes, F-type prisons are places of strict isolation, but conscientious responsibility is still gnawing at us. Her resistant and rebellious state misled us.
Twenty-four hours in F-type cells, we are on the alert: “Is there a knock on the door, whose door did they open, is there a shout of slogans, is there a cry or something happened.” When we hear an unusual sound, we struggle to find out what it is. Mostly, we have to make do with guesses and comments. Therefore, it is very important to be able to receive news from the outside. Human rights organizations, individuals and institutions waging a legal struggle need to communicate regularly with prisons, especially in F-type prisons, sometimes internal solidarity alone is not enough. You know, there is a phrase called “look out for someone”; those on the outside must look out for those behind bars. Under isolation conditions, prisoners inside, no matter how sensitive they are, cannot see beyond the cell wall with their eyes; their ears can’t hear the voices that can’t go beyond the concrete walls.
Aysel Tuğluk… your companion, your comrade behind bars. As someone who witnesses Aysel Tuğluk’s illness day by day, what can you say? The importance of women’s solidarity in the prison comes to the fore more at this point. What kind of solidarity do you constitute among women in prison?
Aysel Tuğluk… Our acquaintance with Aysel Tuğluk goes back a long way. We grew up in the same neighborhood. Later, when I was a journalist, Aysel was a lawyer, and our ways often crossed on many issues such as human rights, justice, the Kurdish question, peace policies, women’s rights. Sometimes she was a source of news, and sometimes she was a companion for me. Later, we did politics together in the same party, we struggled together. And we have been in the same prison for the last five years. As a person who has personally witnessed the traumas she has experienced, the health problems Aysel is experiencing today extra hurt me, tear my heart out.
We don’t know when and what Aysel will forget anymore. Sometimes things come back, but she forgets them again. That’s why we’re so worried. She needs to have someone by her side constantly and make a kind of memory companionship. Unfortunately, we lack the means to at least slow the course of the disease. Old acquaintances, conversations, social shares, familiar places, etc. away from all the stimuli that will keep the memory alive, in a cell of a few square meters, a life consisting of routine tasks repeated every day. Everyone knows that dementia diagnosed in such an environment will progress rapidly. What a conscience. The final stage of dementia comes to the point of forgetting to swallow, even to turn over in bed. The sufferer no longer has any vital function. The reason for our demand and insistence that Aysel should be released from prison before it goes further is to save a life. For this reason, Aysel needs to be released as soon as possible, in order to obtain treatment opportunities, social communication opportunities that will slow the course of the disease, and care support. We women in this prison support her in the best way we can, but it is not enough. A maximum of three people can stay in the same cell. Aysel has two friends with her, they are helping her. All friends volunteer for Aysel’s care. However, in terms of Aysel’s health, the person next to her should not change frequently, and we do not have the opportunity to change the friend next to her whenever we want. Also, they insist on keeping her alone in quarantine after she goes to hospital, we even solve these problems with a lot of effort.
In fact, you have been married for many years and have children. But unlike male politicians, you never bring this to the public. We do not come across a photograph of married Gültan Kışanak in public. Does this have anything to do with being a female politician?
Being married and having children is a norm of the male-dominated system. If you are not married or have no children, you are considered “incomplete.” This mentality is about seeing women incomplete as individuals. A woman is only approved if she depends on a man and shows that she is a good mother. Having a consciousness that questions the basis of gender inequality is directly reflected in the way a person does politics. Of course, there is also the aspect of social acceptance. Politics is concerned about losing votes when it criticizes and confronts male-dominated norms. Because the society, which has internalized male-dominated norms, also votes for the “modest family” photo. As women politicians, we have to be a bit like Don Quixote. Otherwise, the male-dominated system grinds us on its wheels so that there is no trace of the female identity. If I tell you personally, this situation actually developed a little naturally at first. It was as if we women were in the foreground in the newspaper. Our house was like a clan of women. When we finished our work at the newspaper, we used to go home with our female friends. My husband used to let himself into his room. Then it was like that in party work. Women’s consciousness, women’s organization has become a part of our private life. My daughter also grew up as part of the women’s clan. In short, having many women together: It’s a good thing.
We know that co-presidency is the purple line of HDP; HDK (People’s Democratic Congress) and DBP (Democratic Regions Party). However, we observe that the representation of the co-presidency in prison is not strong for women. What could be the reason for this?
It is a very important step to accept co-presidency as a political principle, to apply it in practice and to ensure that it becomes a legal right. But we all know and live that this is not a state of full equality. Legal rights, principles, rules pave the way for gender equality, but equality does not happen immediately by making a decision or gaining a legal right. This is the issue and reason for the women’s struggle. That’s why we women have to deal with every achievement as a new area for struggle. And this struggle is double-sided, both against the male-dominated system and against the damage that the male-dominated system has created on us as women. The masculine mentality, which has been dominant for thousands of years, has spread to every area of life, to the entire social fabric, to every person through the form created as “masculinity” and “femininity.” While we as women struggle with the male-dominated system, we also have to analyze the form of “femininity” and re-constitute ourselves in practice. The questioning of “masculinity” is generally very weak in democratic structures in Turkey, and it does not go beyond generalizations among us as a political structure. This is an extremely important and deep issue; I wish these issues were discussed in detail in free conditions outside and even the discussion texts were delivered to us. But, as always, “gender equality” is unfortunately not on the first agenda. The country has very important problems; the problem of authoritarianism, the problem of one-man regime, the economic crisis, the ballot box will come, and how the social opposition will come together, etc. and so the issues related to gender equality are postponed. Women can only come to the forefront of the agenda as the subject of femicide. However, the basis of a holistic, strong, democratic struggle is gender equality. Anyway, let’s not make ourselves down, despite everything, the women’s struggle is gaining strength. That’s how we see it from here, and we’re raising hope.
As an important part of the fight against male violence and patriarchy, you called for a campaign to question this on the occasion of male violence cases within the HDP that were made public a year ago. Has this been answered?
It was not possible to get regular, reliable and adequate information from outside and to be informed about developments, especially during the isolation process implemented under the pretext of pandemic. However, they stated that the women’s council put this issue on its agenda and discussed it and the women’s criteria were re-emphasized. I know that our friends are making an effort to perpetuate these discussions and to find effective methods in practice. I trust the women’s movement and female friends to take a stand; however, it will be better for the friends who are outside to evaluate the practical issues. On this occasion, I would like to underline once again that we cannot create a change in our circle without correcting ourselves. Male dominance has many dimensions that are reflected in our lives and institutions, and I know that these cannot be thrown away so quickly; however, the important thing is not to make any concessions from the perspective of gender equality for any reason. Violence against women is the red line of the women’s freedom struggle. Dot. It is unacceptable for this principle to be eroded for any reason.
Since you were put in prison, women’s rights have gone backwards as well. Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention with the sole signature of Erdoğan. What are your thoughts on alliances and current political goals in the women’s movement?
As the political system becomes authoritarian, attacks and restrictions on women’s rights increase. In fact, our arrest was the beginning of a planned systematic attack on women’s rights. It has continued. Women’s institutions were closed, women’s activities were banned, organization and solidarity were outlawed and prevented, various moves were made to deprive women of their acquired legal rights, some rights were regressed, the definition of gender equality was removed from official reports, etc. There is no limit to the sexist statements that are reflected in the public. The last step of this systematic attack was to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. They are on the alert to reclaim other rights if they get the chance. If we, as women, cannot form the broadest alliance and take a strong stance, we cannot stop this bad course. Despite everything in this process, women did not withdraw from the streets, they raised their objections and showed once again that they are the most dynamic force of the social opposition. Women’s movements know the importance of joint struggle and we have accumulated quite a lot of experience of joint struggle. The “Women are Strong Together” platform can intervene more actively in the process. I believe there are opportunities to build stronger ties and alliances. We know, one of the reasons we have been in prison for over five years is to threaten women. But as women, for us, such threats are a reason for more struggle. We are trying to contribute to the women’s freedom struggle from the inside, without making concessions from our stance and the women’s freedom line. Although I don’t know very well about the outside situation; I believe that the general situation in the country has advantages as well as disadvantages in terms of organizing women’s movements. It is known that the young people are concerned, reactive and questioning about the situation and are also open to the world and creative. For this reason, I believe that young women’s organizations will bring dynamism, renewal and strength to women’s movements. Young women are also more sensitive to all kinds of equality policies, especially gender equality. Particularly in societies divided on the axis of belief and identity, the joint struggle of women is not easy either. Perhaps these social divisions can be overcome more easily with the younger generation and a common denominator can be found. Together with our differences, if we prioritize the principle of “joint struggle,” we can constitute a stronger women’s struggle. We need to act by knowing that the country has entered a dangerous corner in terms of women’s rights. I trust women’s feelings, power of analysis, perseverance and determination.
One way or another, Turkey has entered the election process. The election processes, if women are actively involved, become a process in which equality policies come to the fore, social transformation takes place, and political parties feel obliged to change their policies on women. But if women cannot take the lead and intervene strongly in the process, even in opposition parties, a process in which male dominance becomes stronger can be experienced by using the pretext of voting concerns. For this reason, women’s movements must form an electoral policy without delay. Women can lead the establishment of the democracy alliance, which is a general need, with the broadest components. Feminist demands can be made visible. Women’s criteria can be explained. By going down to the field together and by displaying a stance that gives confidence and courage to women, women’s organization can be strengthened. Considering that women’s fight for equality and freedom and the struggle for social peace are parallel struggles and sometimes intersect, peace and freedom programs can be commonized with the feminist program. In short, there is a lot of work to do; I wish good luck to all women’s organizations and women activists.
As a Kurdish woman politician, what do you think about the economic-political situation in the country today? What do you think about alliances and current political goals?
There are a few basic principles of the visible/invisible partners of the current power and their manner of rule. First, everything is for power. Secondly, everyone must obey/owe loyalty to this power; those who don’t, are terrorists. Third, accept your destiny, do not hold me responsible for your problems. They rule the country with this approach and do not think much about giving the power up. They are trying to create the conditions for an election which they can win. And they have the character to do anything for it. These are known facts. We live political, economic and social problems together. What matters is the answer to the question “how do we get out of here.” To this question, almost everyone gives the answer that “if the opposition acts together, it can win.” But it is also known that it is not easy for all opposition parties to act as a bloc. I can make two suggestions in this regard.
First, the strengthening of the left/radical wing on the opposition side is critical. It is critical that the HDP, other leftist and socialist parties, women’s movements, platforms, labor organizations, and circles fighting for human rights, law and peace act jointly and set out with an understandable, clear demand and program. The stronger the left/radical democracy wing, the search for joint action with this segment will increase in other opposition parties. If such a strong radical democratic wing is formed, it will be easier to influence the policies of other opposition parties on the axis of democracy and peace and to break down the prejudices on the social ground. The formation of such a wing is not an obstacle to the joint action of all opposition parties. When the place and time are appropriate, when the conditions are met, it will happen.
Second, each opposition party should leave the feeling of “others need me” and come to the understanding of “I cannot succeed without other opposition parties.” This is a positive form of policy-making. It also reflects on the society as positive energy; it is a method that helps to resolve prejudices, polarization and division on the social ground. The problem today is not the fragmented structure of political parties.
The social structure is fragmented due to the policies of deadlock, hostility, agitation and polarization followed for years. The situation in political parties is a reflection of this. It is a situation seen in all countries which are unable to solve identity, belief and democracy problems and where long-term wars and conflicts are experienced. Politics cannot escape these real agendas even if it wants to. Knowing these truths, the opposition has to say something new about peace, democracy, social equality and economic prosperity. If the opposition parties cannot create a social movement, if they only expect the people to turn their backs on the government due to poverty and economic crisis, the government can find a way to manage this situation as well.
As a final word, in your last photo that we also used in the interview, you have a saz in your hand and a smile on your face as usual. What would you like to say for 2022 with this hopeful smile?
Honestly, I don’t know how to play the saz. Our friend Edibe, the former mayor of Dersim, with whom I stayed in the same cell, plays the instrument. Mine is just a whim. I also wanted to give a humorous photo to my daughter. We can look at life with a smile, despite the evils, and we should be able to. 2021 was a bad year for me personally and because of the social and political developments in general.
I got news of death after death; I lost my father, then my uncle and then another uncle. Figen, the president, lost her father, and other friends lost their relatives. The pain of Garibe’s death was completely different. Our condolences did not end in this prison this year. The lawlessness, destruction, oppression and femicides in the country are already darkening us. We will always have smiles on our faces, hope in our hearts and determination to struggle, in spite of all evil. I wish the new year to be a year where our hopes come true, happy new year.
A further note by Gültan Kışanak:
When we launched Garibe into eternity, we were indicted because we shouted slogans protesting femicide. A one-month communication ban (letter, fax, phone) was imposed on everyone involved. The reason for the decision is to shout slogans “for no reason.” They don’t consider the death of a woman as a sufficient reason for other women to react. It is impossible for an understanding in which life is deemed so worthless to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment and reveal the truth. An appeal was made to the Judge of Execution against this sentence. In addition, we made a denunciation for Garibe’s claims of violence, harassment and rape to be investigated and to reveal her experiences in prison. There are female prisoners in this prison, who were in cells close to Garibe’s cell and witnessed what she experienced, listened to Garibe, and knew whether or not the prison administration intervened in time on the day of the suicide. We demanded that these women be heard as witnesses and that their statements be taken into consideration by the prosecution. We sent letters of similar content to the Ministry of Justice. We now expect the public as a whole, and women in particular, to be sensitive about this matter.
For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için
Translator: Gülcan Ergün
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan