We had the chance to meet with the Kurdish women’s movement and its institutions that came together under the roof of Tevgera Jinên Azad (Free Women’s Movement – TJA) in Diyarbakır when we went to 2022 Amed Newroz as a group of feminist women. We met or re-met with women who work actively in fields ranging from women’s labor to women’s language, art and culture, to combating male-state violence. We listened to the stories of how the Tohum Women’s Cooperative started to operate despite all their resources were confiscated by the trustees; how the Women’s Culture, Art and Literature Association (KASED) together with other cultural institutions created a space for tens, hundreds, thousands of women to express themselves; how women at Rosa Women’s Association struggle to build lives free from male violence and abuse by law enforcement officers despite the operations and detentions they endure. The determination of these women, all of whom are TJA members, to stand up and organize in all areas of life, despite a process through which all their institutions, opportunities and freedoms were at stake with statutory decrees, specific war and appointed trustee policies, gave us hope and strength in our feminist struggle. We hope you will feel the same way while reading this interview
First, could we get to know you better? What was the motivating factor behind the foundation of Rosa Women’s Association, what sort of a period did that correspond to? What kind of activities and programs do you lead? How long have you been involved in the association?
Adalet: We had started talking about [a need to found an association] before the emergency law was lifted in June 2018. Around August, the idea to found an association became clearer to us. With the official registration, we declared the foundation of our association towards the end of 2018. As you know, all the institutions, information and solidarity centers were closed down during the emergency law. There was a high increase in incidents of violence. There are only the reports of İHD (Human Rights Association) and TİHV (Human rights Foundation of Turkey) from that time because they were the only institutions who could still run documentation activities. These reports referenced quie high numbers of incidences. There was not much visibility of the violence that was taking place because, like most of civil society organizations, opposition media was under attack, too. Therefore, although we lack concrete data, we have experienced an intense social withdrawal. I used to be a public officer in Mardin during the emergency law, then I was expelled with the decree-laws and moved to Diyarbakir. Then, I started to take part in the women’s movement through civil society and platforms. First, it was the platform. Once the emergency law was lifted, we could found an association to continue our work in Amed.
Ruken: I had not met Adalaet at the time, though I know Elif long before from Diyarbakir. We have experienced the blockade of Sur together. It was a period full of armed confrontation and decree-laws. There were a lot of people sentenced, a lot of people had to migrate abroad. There were people imprisoned, who were rendered jobless, who were prisoned at home… There was also a migration and population policy at play in this region. The majority of the affected people from these policies were women. Members of my family had to leave; we were all being threatened. I did not have a salaried job at the time, I was taking care of my child. Just as I started to send them to the nursery and started to say I could become a part of something, even the nurseries were shut down. We were told there will no longer be any instruction in Kurdish. We, as the families of the children who used to go to nurseries, formed a collective nursery and organized around this structure. There used to be a number of women’s organizations that worked towards addressing this need prior to the declaration of the emergency law. Diyarbakir is a city with a lot of in-migration and where violence is experienced in an intense manner. Therefore, there were initiatives to prevent violence, and where a woman-centered approach to municipalities was adopted. With the declaration of the emergency law, everything was closed down, nothing was left. I used to be interested in cinema, those institutions were also closed down. Even the names of the parks we used to frequent were changed, some of them were closed. Portraits were hung, it was treated like an occupied area. Whatever civil initiative, they were all closed down. In a period like that, we ran into people who asked us “are you crazy, how can you found an association in such a period?” But then, as the Kurdish Women’s Movement, we had to organize ourselves, and there were lots of things to do. That’s how we found Rosa Women’s Association. That brought such hope to us. That atmosphere was full of fear. Despite that, we started to organize big marches. We had really good responses to our activities/events, people started to know more about our association, people felt ownership. Rosa Women’s Association had an encouraging side in a climate of fear, both for us and for other women living in the city.
Elif: My story is not much different to those of my friends’. I used to work as an attorney at law at Diyarbakır Kayapınar Municipality Ekin Ceren Information Center for Women in 2011. I used to follow up with women’s applications, cases. One morning in 2016, I woke up to the news that my name was on the list declared by the decree-law. I woke up that morning and my job for the past seven years was no longer mine. There were a high number of cases I used to monitor, all those were taken away from me, you have no idea what will become of those women. I was really affected psychologically. Then, I started working at Diyarbakır Bar Association Women’s Rights Center. I met Adalet there, and she told me about their desire to found an association that will work on preventing and responding to violence. I was only able to give legal support through the Bar Association. When that’s the case, you are able to see all the deficiencies and needs in the system. Women apply for support, but they have to give up on their demand after a while due to these deficiencies and the social pressure they feel. That’s why we used to feel stuck. When I heard that Rosa Women’s Association was going to be active soon, I felt really happy. I had missed the old days. We used to have a lot of resources under our hand when we used to work for the municipality women’s information center. We had applied for founding a shelter, everything was ready to go. We had waited for two years for a permission from the ministry, we had opened a procedural case, too. When a trustee was appointed, the attorney at law appointed by the trustee took the case from me. There were applicants who were referred to a shelter, who were supported by the means of the municipality. We collected support from people around us after the appointment of the trustee, but it was not enough. Most of them had to return to the place they experienced violence. The desperation caused by this situation was horrible for everyone. I had the intention to remain in the field and do something. Therefore, I wanted to take part in the Rosa Women’s Association. We had a hope to fight against the shrinking and annulment of our struggle, the confiscation of our opportunities, and appropriation of our values. Of course, we don’t have the opportunities we used to have, we work under very limited conditions, under state pressure, but I think we have created a lot of things despite that.
How has the interest of women in the city evolved in the years since the foundation of Rosa Women’s Association? How did they respond? How did you overcome the obstacles placed before you?
Adalet: The founding of Rosa Women’s Association was welcomed with great enthusiasm. There was a great withdrawal within the city and its surroundings in the post-emergency law era. Once we started to make our announcements on social media and on TV, women started to approach us. That brought incredible energy, and we needed that. Most of us had been leading our struggle in various institutions, within the local government system, in some way, but we were expelled from there. The founding of the association was very good not only for the women in this city, but also for the women in the surrounding cities. Ruken also mentioned that women somehow heard about it and came to all the marches and event calls we organized with very limited manners. We were a nascent organization then, we didn’t have the financial means, we were no part of a network. We established those with time. For instance, we formed Şiddetle Mücadele Ağı (Anti-Violence Network) on March 8 with other civil society organizations in the city, and we empower ourselves. We joined other networks and platforms in Turkey. We participated in Sığınaklar Kurultayı (Shelters Convention), and the then-called Nafaka Hakkı Kadın Platformu (Women’s Platform on the Right to Alimony). We also started to take part in the meetings of Women are Strong Together.
Right after the association was founded, we started receiving applications. That was very hard because there were no mechanisms in place. Due to political sensitivity, most of the women did not want to go to the shelter run by the municipality, where a trustee was appointed, or at ŞÖNİM (Violence Prevention and Monitoring Center). They faced violence at home, but they did not want to seek shelter at a place run by the appointed trustee. Or they would go to ŞÖNİM but leave after three days there, because of the violence they encounter there. We still run into major problems due to the lack of any mechanism or wrong administration/management of those mechanisms in place. Since 2020, women who only partake in our demonstrations have been detained. Despite all the police blockade, and all the operations, detentions, we continue with our work. It was the third operation I endured when I was detained on March 16. I was arrested during one of them. Again, despite all that, the women’s interest in our work is quite inspiring and exciting. I witness that intensely when I go to the villages and neighborhoods to distribute flyers. When we tell women that we are an association that is a part of Kurdish women’s movement, and that we can provide legal and psychological counseling upon demand, a lot of women replied, “where have you been until now?” and held our hands. There are still major deficiencies in the field, we try as hard as we can, but we fail to meet the demand. On the other hand, I have witnessed that they are waiting for us. There is years-long tradition, and a sense of trust that comes with that tradition. That trust was able to resist all the pressure and violence it had to endure. That’s an important feeling for me.
When faced with so many operations, how do you keep the data regarding the violence cases reported that is essential for combating male violence?
Ruken: We came together under the umbrella of Rosa Women’s Association as women from different background who have worked in documentation, field, mass campaigning and management positions. Therefore, we have been aware of the needs. Being able to receive reports of violence was one of them. Elif and I used to receive such applications. I am a sociologist and Elif is an attorney at law. First, we created a form for reporting, then we approached other non-governmental organizations that work in the domain of violence against women and receive reports of violence, with the idea to have a common form in place. That is how we have created the Anti-Violence Network (Şiddetle Mücadele Ağı). For instance, we included the Education and Science Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen) into the network because there are incidents of abuse and violence involving students and instructors. The Trade Union of Public Employees in Health and Social Services (SES) is directly involved in the network since their members work in hospitals, and it is a crucial part of the mechanism that is in place when a woman is subjected to violence.
Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) is a part of the network that focuses on state violence. The Human Rights Association (İHD) has been receiving reports of violence from Kurdistan for years now. The Women’s Rights Center, the Children’s Rights Center and the LGBTI+ Commission at the Bar Association are among the constituents of the network. The Psychologists Association, the Social Workers Association have also joined the network. We have run a workshop with all these institutions to review the form. We discussed what sorts of questions should be asked. We have also discussed creating a common database. We have signed a three-article protocol to maintain a common database. We created the database, but it never went live in Diyarbakir. Our form was looking at different variables and comparing them while collecting data. Due to a fear of state intervention, we consciously never launched the website to ensure confidentiality of personal information. Even the smallest note can be confiscated, it goes into indictments. Therefore, we keep as little data as possible about women and to make sure what they share with us are not exposed in this way. But our infrastructure is ready, our database is waiting to be implemented one day. On the one hand, we are trying to think about the security of this data. We prepare our reports using mostly numbers and we try to protect them.
Elif and I have been in the documentation process from the very beginning. We have been bringing together the common data of the Anti-Violence Network and keeping a tally for three years now. We used to issue reports every six months, then we decided to release them once a year on November 25. These include not only the number of reports of violence we received as a network, but also references to what kind of incidents were reported and what recommendations were made. All institutions write their recommendations separately and then we combine them. For example, we write in articles about the difficulties we encounter in police stations regarding the ineffective implementation of the Law 6284, the unofficial but de facto removal of abortion in the field of health, and the situations encountered in ŞÖNİMs. Later on, we started adding cases of child abuse to these reports. We generally work with the 18+ age group, but most of the abuse files from both the districts and the surrounding cities are referred to us. We follow up, we go to Children Monitoring Centers (ÇİM). Since the number of abuse cases is so high, we called on all NGOs to take responsibility in this regard. The team that prepares the report is expanding. The Anti-Violence Network has also become more and more active. Indeed, even within the most impossible situations, we work with incredible enthusiasm until the morning to see what we can produce by working together, with the ambition of not being locked in those houses where they want to shut us down.
Elif: In 2016, as soon as we got over the initial shock when we were removed from our posts at the Ekin Ceren Women Information Center of the municipality, we remembered that the entire archive was at the office of the institution. Then, I took all the application documents to my office. Two months after we were removed from our posts, the trustee was appointed. They called the municipality and asked for the files. I said I had them, they told me to surrender them. I told them I wouldn’t. That archive is the product of our seven years of effort, our memory, our everything. I will not surrender these files, because there are applications we’re still monitoring. Then three men and a woman came to my office, they forcibly took away all the files. Let me give an example of the difficulties we experienced afterwards: We had an applicant living in Kulp, she was forced into marriage as a concubine (kuma) at a very young age, she had two children and was kept in a barn. She and her children were not given food. Her husband was persecuting her, and she was not giving up her children. She came to us, and we went to the village together, taking our woman co-mayor in Kulp Municipality with us. I had gone to the gendarmerie before, they said they could not go with us because the village is close to the conflict zone. We went there anyway as a delegation, took the children and the woman, and returned to Diyarbakır. She was able to rent a house for herself and her children and received social support from the municipality. After we were removed from our posts, our communication with all the applicants was cut off at once, since our only communication channel was the application forms and they had received the forms from us. This woman was also unable to reach us afterwards, and we could not reach her because they confiscated the forms. Unfortunately, she continued to face the same persecution, her children were taken away from her, and she was subjected to violence again. Afterwards, she somehow reached me on the phone, explained her situation, and asked for support again. But there was nothing we could do; we were all removed from our posts. Once that man –the perpetrator of the violence– realized that we had to refrain from providing support to the woman –the applicant–, he started to exert the same type of violence on her. Unfortunately, there are many more examples as such. Every time we talk about archiving, I think of this applicant. Our current archive is only our memory.
What kind of a relationship do you have with other women’s organizations in the city and with the women’s movement / feminist movement in the country in general? Do you have any relations/connections with the international women’s movement?
Adalet: First of all, there is the Anti-Violence Network, formed by various institutions in the city. We pioneered the establishment of this network as there were technical needs because of the lack of mechanisms in place that are needed to be addressed to combat violence. Therefore, it is a relatively narrow network. It is a domain in which only the institutions that receive direct reports/applications work to quickly resolve the case of violence, provide support and collect data. There is also the Dicle Amed Women’s Platform, which is an older platform that was re-established during the state of emergency. Within this platform, there are women’s councils of political parties, women’s commissions of NGOs, and women’s institutions. In other words, we are included in a wider network. The platform was progressing slowly due to the pressures, especially during the period when we were first established. The establishment of the Rosa Women’s Association also strengthened the platform. The platform loses power from time to time due to operations, but it recovers itself every time. We organize events within the platform, especially for November 25 and March 8. Locally, TJA (Free Women’s Movement) and its women co-chairs are a great resource for us. I try to make this point about the co-chair system whenever I can: most of the applications/reports we receive from villages and districts come through co-chairs. Women reach the co-chairs, and the co-chairs refer them to us. In fact, there is an un-institutionalized process that develops naturally. The women’s council, TJA activists and co-chairs have a great contribution to our work in this regard.
Apart from that, we are a part of all the networks in existence throughout Turkey. At the Shelters Convention, we discuss the problems related to ŞÖNİM and shelters, how we can better solve them, and try to develop policies regarding them. We are involved in the Anti-Violence Network. Moreover, networks such as Women’s Platform for Equality Turkey (EŞİK), Women’s Coalition to cooperate in studies related to the Istanbul Convention, the right to alimony, and Turkish Criminal law (TCK) Article 103. We also attended the first comprehensive Istanbul meeting of Women are Strong Together. It was very exciting, but then it faded out a bit. It turned into something limited to Istanbul and had less implications on us. We feel its absence from time to time.
Being a part of the Women’s Coalition had a positive effect on reaching the United Nations mechanisms. Presentations on reporting to international mechanisms were informative and valuable for us. We are a part of several platforms in the international arena. These are platforms that mostly work on the Istanbul Convention and gender studies. We are also part of the Human Rights Defenders Network (İnsan Hakları Savunucular Ağı). They mostly follow our judicial processes because almost all of us as rights defenders are prosecuted for our work. And the network also reports these cases to the European Union mechanisms. All of these make you feel powerful.
Elif: There was a gap during those two years, from 2016 to 2018, when we were removed from our posts. When the trustee was appointed, we had lost all our resources and women could not apply to the state for services/protection due to insecurity. When there is no women’s institution or platform where they live, where can these women apply? That’s why since the establishment of the Rosa Women’s Association, there has been a large number of applications. There was no other alternative. Surely, there was the Dicle Amed Women’s Platform, but it was not very active. Due to the demonstrated need at the time, the platform came together again, started to hold meetings, and revived itself within that two-year period. Then the Rosa Women’s Association was founded. It is very difficult for a person or a single institution to deal with the whole system, especially in this region. Cooperation is crucial. With the foundation of the Rosa Women’s Association and the Anti-Violence Network, other institutions came to life, came together and gained strength from one another. We do not have a shelter at the moment, but when somebody reports violence, we are able to organize very quickly and refer them to the relevant institution. That’s why cooperating within the women’s struggle is like a lifeline.
As a women’s organization that receives reports on violence in Diyarbakır, what are the difficulties you encounter while working in the field? How do you relate to practitioners in countering violence mechanisms?
Ruken: Since we were the only women’s association working in this domain, we received a lot of applications, it was challenging. Whether it is an application from Silopi or an application from Van via social media, or a woman who went to Europe from here and experienced violence there, they can all apply to us. Since we had just started the organization, we have attached great importance to the proper receipt of these applications. We needed to fill out their reports over the phone, and we used to argue a lot about how to do it properly. For instance, a 14-year-old girl is going to be forced into marriage, the case is reported to us. With whom we communicate with and engage is very important. First, at least, the applicant and the institution must not be harmed. It is difficult to conduct our work when the state has usurped every area of our operations. For instance, we might have to work in and communicate with a village made up entirely of village guards. What will we do then? Whom should we liaise with, which NGO would be best to engage with on this matter? When we assess that our involvement in the case will have a negative effect, we engage other institutions and refer the case to them.
There is also the issue of the police stations being non-functional with regard to reports of violence they receive. When you go to the police station, almost entirely made up of male police officers, both the applicant and you are exposed to violence. I remember one of the first applications/reports we received. We spent hours at the police station. The woman’s husband had two shotguns, and he is after the woman. We could barely arrange a vehicle to meet her. The woman had to go to ŞÖNİM as a last resort. I got in the vehicle with the police, because even in the vehicle they were trying to persuade the woman to return to her husband. Then I returned home. After two hours, the woman called and said it was a horrible place and she couldn’t stay there. There is a logic behind the distrust of state mechanisms. But on the other hand, the state must perform its duty to prevent violence. The police station must do its job, ŞÖNİM must do its job. We also received criticism for taking women there. But they must do their job, perform their duties. We insist on this. By forcing them to do so and by demonstrating their shortcomings, we will make these mechanisms work for all women. This is one of the hardest parts of our job. The psychological dimension of the job is also quite heavy. Following an operation, only three people remain, and even then, we try not to fall behind, and manage our workload. In a sense, we get by by showing our support for one another, by trusting ourselves and women’s solidarity.
Adalet: When we first started, a trustee had not been appointed to Bağlar Municipality yet. Although the municipality was not run by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), it was not a trustee either. We used to be able to direct applicants to the Kardelen Counseling Center shelter there. It was fine, at least the women didn’t say they didn’t want to stay there. Then, with the 2019 election, a trustee was appointed. The elected mayors were not given their mandates because the co-chair was removed from their post due to the Decree-Law (KHK). A mayor was appointed directly from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) The first thing he did was to shut the counseling center. They made it dysfunctional by moving the shelter to a very visible location. Recently, we come across the following a lot: we send applicants to ŞÖNİM. They leave the shelter two days later, call and say, “I want to go to a shelter in Istanbul, Mor Çatı.” Women are now creating their own options; they are aware of which shelters are more independently run. For example, they know the shelter of the Istanbul metropolitan municipality, they know that of Mersin, they know of Mor Çatı. They do not want to go to shelters directly affiliated with the Ministry of Family. Therefore, we make such referrals as well. We made a lot of referrals to Mor Çatı, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality shelter and the one in Mersin. However, the shelters overseen by municipalities run by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) are perceived differently from those overseen by the state.
Elif: A young woman who found our phone on the internet about a year ago called and said: “They forced me into marriage. I’ve been married for two days, I locked myself in a room. Please help me”. After talking for a long time about what to do, we directed the police. The law enforcement officers took her from the house and brought her to the police station, and our volunteer lawyer went with her. She was in shock when she called me later. Turns out, when our lawyer friend went to the police station, they didn’t let her into the room at first, but when she entered the room, the police were questioning the woman who was forced into marriage and asking the following questions: “What are you doing in Rosa? Why did you go to Rosa? How do you know about Rosa?” Imagine,
They ask questions like these even to a young woman who is in such an emotional state, because she has called for help from Rosa. In other words, and although both Adalet and Ruken have already mentioned it, we have difficulties in the field both because of the pressures against us and due to the lack of functioning state mechanisms. That woman stayed in the state shelter for two days. Two days later she got out and told us, “Even if you kill me, I won’t go there again.” We sent her to Istanbul, to Mor Çatı. Law enforcement agencies, ŞÖNİM, Family Courts [special courts that deal with family law, uncontested divorce, contested divorce, alimony, custody, compensation, etc. cases] are already a disgrace. This is the situation in general.
We asked the applicant women, who have experienced violence before they were dismissed from their posts at the Women’s Rights Center of the Bar Association, about why they did not prefer the shelter. They responded that the perpetrator of the violence threatened, ‘how can you file a complaint against me at a state institution’, which deterred them from doing so. There is a distance between the Kurds and the state, the distance between women and the state is twice that, and it is interwoven with insecurity. The subconscious of women says, ‘even if I am exposed to violence, I cannot complain to the state about the perpetrator’.
Before the trustees and decrees, were you in the process of making a policy against male violence in Diyarbakır? How did this process affect women’s struggles to avoid violence?
Adalet: I was in Mardin when the trustees were appointed. All the information centers were closed at first. We were about to open the first shelter in Mardin. We had just launched the preparatory phase since it was the first time in a while that the municipality was not run by the AKP. The whole system was being rebuilt. The percentage and the number of women employed at all the institutions and units of the municipality had reached to 50%, and that had a positive impact on the city. When the emergency law was declared, and all institutions were closed down, there was an increase in the number of abduction and sexual violence incidents perpetrated by guards, law enforcement, soldiers, police and special operations officers. We had formed a platform following the appointment of the trustees. Women, somehow, used to reach us via this platform and we tried to provide support to them in return. We used to follow their cases at the court. Since Mardin’s city center is very small and the rural area is quite large, violence can be difficult to monitor. I can say that the decree-law and the trustee processes have intensified sexual violence, especially from the state (that is, perpetrated by public officials). With this remark, I leave the rest to my friends.
Elif: With the appointment of the trustees, a lot of opportunities/resources have disappeared. We have already talked about it, and we have been telling the same story for years. Now I would like to say something different: we received several applications where the perpetrators of violence were municipal workers or municipal officials. Previously, when municipalities were run by HDP, municipalities had women’s councils. They were dealing with such incidents. The retribution ranged from salary cut to dismissal, to termination of employment contract for the perpetrator, and men were afraid of the consequences, which put a stop to the violence. When the trustee was appointed, all of us in the women’s council were dismissed. Then, we received two or three applications for harassment and stalking, in which the perpetrator was a municipal worker. We no longer had a choice but to resort to Law no. 6284 and reported the cases to the law enforcement. In fact, one morning, while I was on duty at the Rosa Women’s Association, a man, a municipal worker who had already been reported by a woman, tried to break into the office by force. When we refused him entry, he left a letter. In other words, these men have gained a lot of courage and strength from the destruction of the structures we had established. There was intense mobbing in the municipality. Women, who returned to their posts at the municipality following reemployment lawsuits, were subjected to serious mobbing. Men started to think that women were acting as they wanted, that women were left alone, without support. This resulted in our inability to resolve some of the applications we have received.
Ruken: What my friends have been talking about, the period from 2018 until now, describes a transition phase. Now we are in the third phase. At the moment, it is well known that no matter who the perpetrator is, whatever the incident is, we will disclose it and go after it. Women know the types of violence very well. They know very well how the children are abused. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of abuse cases in Diyarbakır and its districts, in public institutions, schools, etc. All of these were brought to light by women and mothers. Because now, they listen to their children. They know how abuse psychologically affects their children. Women can now describe the psychological violence they have been subjected to. Previously, in the first applications we received, we used to describe the psychological violence experienced by the survivor. But now, they come and spell it out themselves. That is the case for stalking and digital violence, too. Recently, we have started to work with young women, we are trying to raise awareness. Digital media has created a serious need for that.
Apart from that, we observed during Newroz, as well as on March 8, that women leave their homes [to join the demonstrations], they are not organized anywhere, but they know men-state violence very well, they say that femicide is political. Of course, there is an organized attitude in general in Kurdistan, but I am not talking about anything directly related to that now. Women now know very well what they are exposed to, and they do not accept it. For instance, when they go to the police station, they may be exposed to violence at the police station. They know very well what could happen if they went to ŞÖNİM. As Adalet said, women know which shelters are better. They know that they are under a very serious threat exerted by male violence within this system. You know, it was a small circle of people who said that the Istanbul Convention is not being implemented. But now, with the annulment of the convention, people know what the Istanbul Convention is about and what it corresponds to in society. Women now know what they have lost. This gives me hope. Young women are much more political in this sense, which means they are aware that violence is political, they are aware that the system somehow produces violence. Even how the applications are submitted is changing now. So here, perhaps, we are outnumbered as activists, but I had high hopes for the future [when I saw that] during March 8 and Newroz [demonstrations].
You also get a lot of applications from women who are abused by the police and special forces. What would you like to say on this topic?
Ruken: Here, special war policies are implemented, and they are trying to get women tangled up in this web. We have been receiving applications like that. First, very deliberately, cops “like movie stars” are sent over here. They all look like they came out of the TV series, Arka Sokaklar. And they are trying to harm young women. The cops are trying to drag women into forced sex work. This is more apparent in mountain villages, because soldiers tell on one another in border towns. There, the system is not yet homogenized. When someone does it, the other can complain about him, that’s how the incidents are revealed. But in the city, especially in Ofis district of Diyarbakır, the process is very organized. They are in a structure that protects itself very well. It is very well organized, and they hide each other. Therefore, it is very difficult to reveal what is going on. We can trace them through the applications we receive from time to time. For example, we received an application from a 14-year-old child. It was horrible. She stated that she was raped by the soldiers and worked here as a sex worker in well-known hotels. We received her statement with the help of a psychologist. We immediately called the prosecutor and made him come. The prosecutor came, and they heard her statement several times. So, the prosecutor knew. The state is in the business, the prosecutor is in the business. But we couldn’t take it any further because he didn’t state that he lived in a closed room in ÇİM. “I can’t tell, I’m afraid,” he said. We are telling the state that this is a child who has been subjected to such systematic abuse, so that you can investigate and reveal it; but we face such obstacles in following up as a case.
Adalet: This organized law enforcement abuse has actually been going on since the 90s. So, it’s nothing new, it has a history. It has been carried out in a very systematic way, especially since the beginning of the 90s. But in the 90s, it was not taking place in city centers but mostly in border cities, rural areas, border areas such as Mardin, Nusaybin, Cizre and Van. Since the blockades, it is quite commonplace in city centers. One of the most important reasons for this prevalence is the use of social media. Especially high school and university students establish relationships through social media accounts, such as Instagram, or in cafes. In Diyarbakir, there are many cafes that young women go to, and the police there add drugs to their drinks and expose them to sexual violence. Then these women are forced into sex work with substance addiction, and they cannot get out of that spiral.
For example, there is an applicant named G.B. She is very young and has been subjected to violence by the police in a very systematic way. Her relationship first started with flirting, but the first time they met, the man started to be violent towards her before even saying hello. Then there is the rape, detainment, and then the violence produced by the mechanisms in place. She calls the law enforcement, asks for support, no one shows up. Because the incident took place in Cizre and the police officers in question are the colleagues of the perpetrator. They also inflict violence on G. They say, you are lying, you were already lovers. She wants to go to the doctor to be examined. Since she was raped anally, the doctor tells her, “Anyway, your hymen will not be intact”, he does draft a report, he does not continue with the medical examination. I mean, she’s been through so many things. But it never stops. She wrote to the Presidency’s Communication Centre (CİMER), reported to the governor’s office, and she did all of that alone. Then, she finally came to us. There are too many such incidents that are covered up. Because women are ashamed, afraid, threatened, blackmailed, afraid of the reaction of their families if they were to reveal what they are going through.
This violence is entirely due to the fact that they are Kurds. In other words, the fact that women are seen as a part of this land and the perpetrator men see themselves as a state is the issue here. They see in themselves the right to exert sexual violence to women here with the uniform of the state, with the weapon of the state. They get that power from the state, and they know that even if they are put on trial, they will not be punished, on the contrary they will be protected. For example, the special operations police, who was the perpetrator in a rape case in Mardin, was acquitted. The case is now back from the court of appeals though. But we were there at the trial, and the whole special operations unit was in that courtroom. They stood before the judge with their weapons. Therefore, the judiciary is also under pressure. Even if the judiciary was not under pressure, it has the same mentality with the special operations unit. Surely, they undertake such actions with a mindset that says, “I am the police of the Turkish state, I am the military, and I have the right to rape this Kurdish woman.” That’s what we see during the judicial processes.
Unfortunately, these emergency law (OHAL) processes, and the destruction experienced in Sur and Cizre, pushed the youth away. It also damaged a very large part of the women’s movement. Many of the women who fought at that time are now, either in prison, had to go abroad, were exiled or died- which created a gap. There is now a disconnect [between the movement and] young women between the ages of 14-25. We could not transfer the memory of our movement. In other words, we could not tell these children that we are acting under the law of the enemy, with the logic of war, and that there are situations in which war crimes are committed that go beyond the law of war. Now, we are trying to explain that. This is one of our most important activities.
Elif: It caught my attention that the records of the perpetrator’s messages to her were included in G.B.’s file. In those messages, the perpetrator said, “I did this to 30 more women, nothing happened. Nothing will happen again; you can’t make anyone believe.” I was really startled when I read this sentence. It meant that only one out of 30 women could file a complaint – considering a lot of things happened to her, too. I think she tried to commit suicide twice. Currently, three or four separate cases are pending, and we have objected to the decision of non-prosecution. Finally, as a last resort, we decided to send her to Istanbul. Friends in Istanbul accompanied her to get an alternative forensic science report. We are currently waiting for that. Imagine, a single policeman does this to 30 young women, and no one else could file a complaint. Only one woman could, which resulted in non-prosecution and suicide attempt. There are many examples like this. For instance, we have case that I am following up with, where a 12–14-year-old girl was forced into prostitution for about two or three years. When the case was revealed, the judicial process began. I guess it was 2014 when we started following the file. It is an on-going case. The girl had named 100 men. All of Kulp is involved. But it caught my attention that there were no police or gendarmerie, sergeant, or specialized sergeant among the 100 names given. Recently, the defendant’s lawyer caught me on the way out of the hearing. In fact, he told me that the abuse of this child was organized by the Gendarmerie, and that she was given drugs. In fact, she had given names of a number of policemen and gendarmeries in her first statement, but the prosecutor had removed these names from the file at a later stage. The lawyer said, “We are not able to handle the case, will you pursue it?” In such cases, if the perpetrator is a member of the law enforcement, the mechanisms that protect him come into play very quickly. It works so fast; and its effect spans from the prosecutor to the judge…
In the special forces case in Mardin that Adalet mentioned, when the girl went to the police station on the night of the sexual assault, they deleted the camera recordings at the police station, but the records were restored at a later stage. Police chief arrived at the station at midnight from Adıyaman. He took the girl and tried to persuade her until morning. He made a lot of promises such as ‘we will get your hymen resown’. Then the special operations officer’s colleagues went and exerted a lot of pressure. She was a girl from the orphanage, and she had no family. She ended up dismissing us all because of the pressure, she withdrew her complaints and statements. The special operations officer is also on the way to acquittal. We had demanded an administrative investigation against the officer and his dismissal. This time round, we saw that he is appointed to Kulp. He has been promoted to a higher position. Therefore, if the perpetrator is a public official, the mechanisms that protect him in the forensic investigation come into play, and people tend to stay one step behind, hesitate and cannot report the incident.
Adalet: I want to add something. In cases of sexual violence or murder perpetrated by these public officials, both the judges and the others, guide the witnesses while they are listening. Either they try to establish a link to an organization, that is the woman’s family becomes terrorists in that courtroom; or, as in the case of Mardin, they base their defense on the perception that the woman was doing sex work that night and was very comfortable with everyone. In other words, they mean that she deserved to get raped. The court board also supports this attitude. Basing the discussion on these points really bothers and hurts me. I am angrier. Kurdish women are either ‘terrorists’ or ‘immoral’, so they deserve sexual violence. In the end, all these men are acquitted.
Elif: For example, if you followed the İpek Er case, you must have seen it there. Süleyman Soylu publicly embraced the defendant, Musa Orhan. They declared the family terrorists. Try to put yourself in that family’s shoes and imagine that the Minister of Internal Affairs is behind the accused. Who will be reported to whom? How will you cope with this pressure? Imagine that they are constantly knocking on the door of the family. The mayor is going there, the trustee and the governor, too, along with the undersecretary… [if the family is not convinced], they are declared terrorists. People tell us about their experiences, but they don’t submit complaints to start the proper judicial investigations. We have a hard time convincing them because they know what will happen to them in the process. I try to put myself in the place of the women who tell their stories to us. Let’s say the perpetrator is a village guard, a policeman or a special operations officer, what happens if I were to go to a shelter? It’s a vulnerable position to be in.
24 women from different institutions were detained on March 16, on the grounds of the acts of November 25, March 8 and the Istanbul Convention. 11 of our friends were arrested. Operations against your institution took place, there were detentions and arrests. What do you think about these? How did you experience these processes?
Adalet: I’m laughing, I don’t know what to say anymore. This is actually an attack against our struggle, the women’s struggle. The last time I was questioned, they asked about three actions related to the Istanbul Convention. The previous ones went similarly, too. All the indictments contain statements and actions related to femicide or peace advocacy. In my first indictment, there was the action of the mothers of the hunger strikers in the prisons, who are the mothers of the detainees and convicts on hunger strike in Amed. That took place in Istanbul and Kocaeli, and they were subjected to police violence. You might remember it. It was stated in the indictment that I went there for support. My words about women’s struggle and my speeches about femicide were also included in the indictment. During this series of operations, over 100 women were subjected to investigations, detained, some were arrested, and we had friends who were imprisoned for an average of three to five months. The same things happen over and over again. Our families are also affected by this situation, as our houses are raided in the early morning hours.
But I would like to add this: Since the foundation of our association, we have been trying to establish good ties with all women’s organizations, women’s groups, and platforms in Turkey. It was quite a laborious task and has a serious history. It took 30 years to bridge the feminist movement and the Kurdish women’s movement. There has been a consensus on peace from the get-go. You know better than I do, many of you were/are a part of it. For example, you were in the Women’s Initiative for Peace. There are other initiatives as well. It took a huge effort. Together with Rosa and TJA, we started to revive this during the pandemic period, especially in the post-emergency law period. I think this bothers them a lot. They find it very disturbing that we are able to produce a common discourse, to lead struggles together, and that the women’s movement is growing, producing effective policies and doing it together. They are not comfortable with attacking the West, but they have created a good basis to criminalize us. They saw that they can establish connections with the organizations, carry out operations using the Anti-Terror Law (TMK). Because that’s what they’ve been doing for 40 years. They come up with something baseless, nonsensical, call in a secret witness. Or they don’t even bother with all that. In its essence, it is an attack on our strength, on our work. When I say we, I am not just talking about the Kurdish women’s movement. They are doing it all to intimidate the Turkish women’s movement. Elif and Ruken can speak to what is going on besides these operations. Because it is a very difficult process for them.
Ruken: From the moment we receive the news, a roaring process begins. On the one hand, we are constantly looking out the window to see if anyone is coming. During the last operation, we were informed that a friend of ours was detained by her partner. I had woken up very early, I realized what was going on and immediately called Adalet. I couldn’t reach her on the phone. I started wondering if they detained her, too. Then Adalet’s mother reached out to Elif. I immediately went to Adalet’s house. When someone is detained, she is not taken by herself. The people in that house were experiencing the same thing for the third time in a year and a half. Adalet has a little daughter, she is subjected to police violence every time. Adalet’s mother keeps telling me, ‘Male cops put my daughter in the elevator, they all got on the tiny elevator with her’. Of course, all these experiences are nothing new for the Kurdish women’s movement or the Kurdish people. But this is a serious violation of rights and systematic torture. When the state commits violence here, I know what it does to my mother. The children don’t shed a single tear to remain brave and strong. They don’t cry. They say, I was not afraid, I am not afraid. But, of course, they are scared. Not being able to even say that is a very serious phenomenon. We work in the field of violence. We are also exposed to violence; our children are also exposed. We pay attention to recount the events on social media without individualizing them. But the individual part also hurts us. I mean, for example, Adalet experienced this, at least the children should not experience it. Let Jiyan or Sarya not have to go through the same experiences.
When there is an operation, it is rather shocking at first, and then we are in a hurry to announce it. We start saying that we will not accept it, we are not afraid, we are not running away, we are still here, and that our struggle continues/will continue. We announce that to you all. You know that part very well, we all go through that together. As we are deciding where to make a statement, who can write it, and what to say, we don’t have a moment to experience our pain and sadness. We live through those intense moments without sleep, as if we are holding our breath. They do so as a conscious method of punishment.
Adalet: They loot all the books, every single time. They throw the books on the floor, open them one by one, and examine them. It’s all the same, books about feminism, women’s struggle. I also like poetry; I have several poetry books. I had a book from my student days, by Şükrü Erbaş, it’s called “Aykırı Yaşamak” [Living the Contrarian Way]. They’re obsessed with it. They show it to each other, take a picture of it and send it to their superiors to say, “look at what we found”. The last time that happened, their superiors told them there is no need to confiscate that book. There are books by J Sara Ahmed, Bell Hooks, Judith Butler at my home, but they went through all of them and only confiscated the Jineology books. While they are at it, why don’t they confiscate others? When they confiscate them, you see that they are following another method. They are trying to squeeze you into a corner. In the interrogation, I insisted and asked them: “I have a lot of feminist books in my house, why didn’t you confiscate the others but only these ones?”
Elif: Adalet was giving a statement around midnight. They asked Adalet, “Tell me what you know about the Rosa Women’s Association”. She started her answer with “it was founded in 2018” and talked about their activities since then. As lawyers, we inform our friends outside about what is happening. Once, a friend replied, “Let’s start with Rosa Luxemburg.” Thereupon, Adalet began to talk about Rosa Luxemburg. Of course, the officers taking the statement were surprised, and asked “Who is this Rosa?” The other one said, “There is a woman named Rosa who comes from Luxemburg” (laughs). One day, they raided the Women’s Academy (Kadın Akademisi). We were also present as lawyers during the raid. While looking at the books one by one, they found a book and started to argue among themselves whether to confiscate it or not. The title of the book was “The Medical Revolution”. One of them says let’s take it, the other says no, let’s not take a book about medicine. Lastly, they asked their superiors, and he looked at the book, and then said, “It says revolution on it, let’s just take it.”
They first started the operations against women’s organizations in Diyarbakır with the TJA. They detained everyone from TJA three or four times, they even detained one of our friends 12 times in one year. Then they saw it was always the same people getting detained for two or three times and had to stop because they were only duplicating their efforts. Then, they realized that there is another women’s institution in the city: Rosa Women’s Association. Rosa Women’s Association also receives many applications for violence, women come and go, marches are organized, statements are made. Thus, they turned to the Rosa Women’s Association. They performed seven operations against the association in one year. We all have pending cases. Now they are obsessed with DAKAP (Dicle Amed Women’s Platform). They are organizing an operation against all women’s organizations despite the fact that there are women’s platforms all over Turkey.
It’s not the first time that there are operations against women, but the detention of 20-30 women each time in recent years shows that there is a systematic opposition to women organizing. In the past, investigations were initiated with a secret witness. Now, they no longer need a secret witness. In the last lawsuit opened against us, they cite the pretexts of March 8, November 25, Istanbul Convention actions. All over Turkey, women protested against withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention on July 1, but our action was included in the indictment. They are seriously obsessed with the Istanbul Convention. I was there as her lawyer when they were questioning Adalet in custody. We asked them, “Why are you asking questions about the Istanbul Convention, did the prosecutor really prepare these questions?” The prosecutor of the investigation was a woman. One cannot really understand how a prosecutor could make March 8 the subject of accusations. I have a hard time believing that a woman had prepared these questions. They cannot bear the fact that three or five women get together and organize; that is what they don’t have any tolerance for, women coming together and organizing.
Adalet: Prosecutors actually don’t know much. For instance, they do not know what the Istanbul Convention is. During the interrogation, the chief who carried out the operation insisted: “When a woman is killed, you write ‘femicides are political’ below it, what do you mean by political?” They don’t understand what we’re trying to say, what we’re saying, they have no idea. When we say, ‘it is political’, they think we are only talking about the politics of the AKP government.
Despite all these pressures, you stand tall and continue to work. It takes a lot of determination; how do you constantly find that strength again? And is there anything you would like to add?
Ruken: There is nothing new in this story, actually, we are people born and raised in this reality. I was born in 1982, my name is Ruken, a Kurdish name. My mother is an activist who had to seek asylum. As a family, we have experienced police raids many times. When they couldn’t find her at home, they would take us away. They used to make us wait in the snow in the winter cold of Van. We’ve been through a lot. Moreover, in our association, I am one of the people who has gone through the least of such experiences. Each of us has been subjected to this violence and we are people from this tradition of struggle. Today, we are together because we can establish this bond with you. This violence will not end by being silent and shutting ourselves up. Our struggle will put an end to it. As an association, we believe in the butterfly effect. We were on the streets with all our might in an environment where the conditions looked like it was not possible. We were 10 people at first, then we became 15, from 100 people to 1000 people. Many of our friends were targeted and worn out. We continue with the strength we get from them. We know that when they are detained, they mostly want things not to be left unfinished. They are constantly sending news with lawyers, “Is X action over, is Y activity over?” We get this energy from our friends, from each other.
Very treasured women have touched our lives. We lost some of these friends, we commemorate them at every opportunity, we have not forgotten them. Some were exiled. Some are in prison. Ayşe Gökkan’s 30-year prison sentence really shook us. There is a great power we get from Ayla Akat. She is one of our founding friends, she has many contributions. When we went to the hearing in Ankara, we saw each other, albeit from afar. One day they will all return, and we will work together again. The exiles will also come back. Municipalities will be ours again. There will be more women’s centers. After all, we lived through that period, we witnessed it, and we are going through it now. We believe in our strength. A lot happens when a butterfly flaps its wings, women know that the best. We see that a slogan that three or four people created resonates with women in another part of the world. Lots of people took to the street. We continue with the strength we get from our friends, our comrades, and you.
Adalet: Since childhood, we’ve all been at war. We had to migrate from our home, from the places we live in. We came to the cities. I remember my high school years; it was spent in state violence. I have witnessed that women are most affected by this violence. My childhood, as a witness to my mother’s experiences, my high school and university years are intertwined with violence because of being a woman and being a Kurd. This situation has affected our life, our perspective, everything. Being in the fight is crucial to me. I think our anger keeps us alive. I am very angry, maybe I can’t control it from time to time. But no force can deter me from the path I believe in and pursue. And we are right, we are so right. We lost so many people. Just thinking about them is enough. Those we cannot see, those we have lost, those who lost their lives, those in exile… Sometimes I worry because I have a child. I am very afraid of being arrested, but I insist that we are right and that gives me strength. There is also solidarity, being together. What Elif, Ruken and other friends do while I’m in custody makes me feel alright. I feel good when I hear your news. This solidarity has a tremendously positive effect.
Elif: It is the women’s struggle that created me, made me who I am. A friend of mine used to say, ‘Women’s struggle is like poison, after you inject it into your vein, you can never give it up.’ Once you enjoy that struggle, you can’t let it go. We inherited a great legacy. We can be exiled tomorrow, go to prison, maybe even lose our lives in an action, but we know that others will take over the struggle. This great legacy we have inherited gives us such a responsibility and that responsibility gives us strength. Sometimes when we feel powerless, we feel empowered by our friends in prison or exile. Increasing pressure on women’s struggle is counter effective. It accelerates the women’s struggle. I do not remember a time in which we were in contact with female friends from Turkey as much as we are now, when we were so organized and joined our struggles. It [the pressure they exert] backfires on the system. Taking care of each other and picking up where one left off is the most important thing that keeps us alive. Our message is also clear: Stop the oppression or this struggle will only get bigger.
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan