“Kurdish women are punished both for their general political activities and their engagement with the advancement of women’s rights. If I were to give just one example about myself, I was sentenced to 22 years 3 months in prison for advocating for a matrilineal system in my speeches, which was found to constitute a danger for the public in the reasoned decision the court has provided. How else can it be explained that my dear friend Ayşe Gökkan was sentenced to 30 years for only carrying out activities to advance women’s rights?”
Democratic Society Congress (DTK) Co-chair Leyla Güven’s Newroz message read: Against oppression and injustice, you will continue the struggle outside, as we do inside [the prison]– “Now is the time to win.”
Leyla Güven spent seven years in prison, starting from December 24, 2009, due to her political activities. A lawsuit has been/is being filed against her. There are still pending and ongoing cases that were approved by the Supreme Court of Appeals. A total of the sentences demanded is ten years. Leyla Güven, on the other hand, continues her struggle without compromising her word and political line.
Leyla Güven was transferred to Elazığ T Type Prison on the grounds that the Elazığ R Type Prison, where she has been detained since December 22, 2020, is being closed. For those who want to send letters and cards, the address is: Elazığ T Tipi Kapalı Cezaevi D-4 Koğuşu, Elazığ.
You define yourself as a feminist, what made you become a feminist?
I, like other fellow women, was born into a patriarchal system. Within the codes of this system, women and nature exist to serve men in all their capacity. The man, the father, is the head of a household/family, and in his absence or cases where his authority was not sufficient, elder or younger brothers would be in charge. Men worked outside of the house, and women worked at home, but the women’s work is not considered valuable. Upon returning home, men would terrorize the household, and had the audacity to ask, “what were you occupied with until the evening?” The boys would be cared for as the ones that would continue the bloodline of the family, whereas the girls would be brought up to be passed on to a stranger/stranger family. Women, once they reach the age of 60, are considered to “become manly”, and only after that they could have a say within the community.
So the woman’s will was ignored, and she was forced to marry under the customs of having a second-wife, berdel, bride price, child marriage, and was killed in the name of honor killings. I grew up in such a system. Following the September 12 military coup, I went to Germany. I found the lifestyle there to be “extraordinary”. Women dressed, worked and were part of any activity just like men. That got me thinking. Women were studying, working, producing, and leading their own lives, making their own decisions. I was really into this lifestyle, but at the same time I was growing concerned about my family’s potential reaction to it. Then the hell broke loose. When I decided to take part in the active struggle, within the framework of deepening Kurdish question in the country, I was acting in line with my national awareness, that is my Kurdish identity– rather than awareness around being a woman. Naturally, that lasted until 1994, when I started to work as a member of the provincial board of directors and the chairman of the women’s commission under HADEP. That period corresponds with when I started to feel the conflict between women and men. My male colleagues would consider women’s rights redundant, be so impolite as to talk or take decisions in lieu of women, use all the party resources for their own sake, among a number of other problems that led my female colleagues and I start questioning the nature of this conflict. The question “why” was the most popular question in this environment. This very questioning quickly led us to organize ourselves in a distinctive manner. We were starting to realize on one hand, how powerful, and exploited, we were –even within the institutions. On the other hand, we were putting in the most labor within all sectors of the movement. The men were being tortured under the hegemonic system, but the women were not only tortured but also harassed and raped. Thus, we were able to see clearly the attacks against our identity as women, and as women, we had to lead a national struggle alongside a women’s rights struggle. Meanwhile, as the Kurdish women’s movement, we subscribed to the “women’s liberation perspective”. We were utterly sorry for saying “we are not feminists” when we were accused of being feminists. It was high time that all women were first and foremost feminists to lead a women’s rights struggle, develop policies regarding women, and take part in decision mechanisms with a women’s lens. I, we, too were feminists now. Contrary to dominant mentality, feminism is not about hating men but constructing a borderless, classless, non-exploitative, egalitarian, collective, ecologist, democratic life from women’s perspective, with the leadership of women. I salute all women globally who have developed the feminist philosophy.
You are being tried for your speeches. At what stage are these trials now?
Democracy never totally reigned over this country. The crumbs of the so blatantly inadequate democracy that was left was swept away with military coups that took place almost every decade during the Republic era. Every community knows about what happens to those who are not Turkish. Armenians, Syriacs, Kurds, Greeks, Yazidis, Alawites, non-Muslims and many other peoples and beliefs were othered and suffered great pains. Like all my other friends, I was put on trial for my political activities and speeches. I was sentenced to more than 30 years in these trials. There are approximately 25 other on-going investigations about me that either accuse me of propaganda or other matters. I think that the male-justice system has a quota in place for women, who are engaged in politics as Kurdish politicians. This is best observed when we look at the number of detained female parliamentarians, co-mayors, provincial co-mayors, council members, and institution representatives. Because women are punished both for their general political activities and their engagement with the advancement of women’s rights. If I were to give just one example about myself, I was sentenced to 22 years 3 months in prison for advocating for a “matrilineal” system in my speeches, which was found to constitute a danger for the public in the reasoned decision the court has provided. How else can it be explained that my dear friend Ayşe Gökkan was sentenced to 30 years for only carrying out activities to advance women’s rights? Unfortunately, being a Kurdish politician, and being a woman, results in paying a higher price than any other opposition member. “We wouldn’t have set on this path if we were to back down. ” We are already walking on the path to freedom. We will overcome all the barriers ahead of us, and construct a democratic, free life with all peoples. The beautiful days to come are worth the price we have paid today.
We know that you were involved in publishing Tevn magazine. Will its publication continue? And what’s the content of this magazine?
Tevn means loom in Kurdish. Throughout history, Kurdish women have made all kinds of weaving with the wool they have spun as a handiwork. This has always been a collective effort. Women gathered around Tevn, which is a social environment, chatting and pouring their talents into embroidering extraordinary motifs. As imprisoned women, we wanted to create a collective product. This is how Tevn emerged. We wrote in Kurdish mainly to protest the prohibitionist and assimilationist policies regarding our mother tongue, Kurdish. The content, the subjects we cover, is also shaped in this regard. We wanted to draw attention to a number of issues in Kurdish history, such as education, language, history, self-defense. For political prisoners, life in prison has never been a place to rest. On the contrary, it has been very important for us to use each minute in an efficient and meaningful manner. In this regard, our friends who have been in prison for many years have produced very valuable novels, articles, books, pictures, and similar products. Tevn was an amateur work of my friends and I in prison. It also constituted the preliminary trial for literary works, not as a magazine. We wanted to print 10 for each, so that we had them under our hands in order. My daughter Sabiha had made 20 copies of it. We were not planning to have a second issue. Also, my friends are exiled to Kayseri, Tarsus, Diyarbakır. There are six of us left of the group, who are transferred to Elazığ T Type Prison. Our editorial board is now disbanded, so to speak. It’s hard to assemble the same team and get the magazine out. You know, exiles are a prison classic. Despite everything, we will continue to read, write, and produce.
Rights violations is a topical issue in Turkey. We also know about the pressures and violations you have suffered. What is Leyla Güven going through in prison?
Detained people in prisons that are run with a capitalist-modernity mind set –not only in Turkey but all around the world– are “sought to be captured” as “seized” people with an effort to make them weak, depersonalized, subjugated, obedient and tamed. This mentality is unacceptable for political prisoners and has given rise to historic resistances. As we read in Foucault’s book The Birth of the Prison, all kinds of torture were applied to the prisoners in the past, and physical tortures made with special methods were shown to the public.
In more recent past, it is known that inhuman tortures were carried out in Diyarbakır, Ulucanlar and many other prisons in Turkey. Today, we see the modern versions of these tortures and methods being applied – physical violence is mostly accompanied by psychological violence. There are prisoners who remain in confinement as one person, two or three people. In dear Behiç Aşçı’s words, “Solitary confinement dehumanizes humans.” It is not allowed to bring in even the most basic needs, let alone magazines or newspapers. No type of food is allowed. In addition, pencils, paper, envelopes, blankets, bed linen, socks and many other things are prohibited, with the rationale that they will endanger the security of the institution. The reason and logic behind that decision is beyond anybody’s comprehension. Let’s say our trousers or tracksuits were too long and we cut to shorten them. Then, the cut part is “seized” during the search. That results in a report to be drafted against us on the grounds that we had “used the scissors outside its purpose”. They also interfere with the clothes worn inside the prison. One can be told, “you cannot see the warden looking like that.” The parameters of what is deemed appropriate depends on the officer in charge during infirmary visits or headcounts. I have heard testimonies of such practices from those who have experienced them. Officers seem to be in a competition to make the most mess and go into detail when they are searching the wards. The slightest objection results in reports against the objector and penalties. There are so many absurd and illogical things happening in prisons that I don’t think I can list them all here. I think that’s enough for now. I don’t think it is ethical for me to speak about my experiences when there are so many sick detainees and comrades who have been resisting for years in prison. I can only note that, in prisons we would like to let all the communities know that we will continue to sing in our unintelligible mother tongue Kurdish and dance halay with our hands in our pockets.
What can be done to strengthen the relations between those inside and those outside the prisons?
If prisoners are imprisoned because of an individual act, their relationship is limited to themselves and their families. But if they are imprisoned for a social or political activity, it is a situation that concerns the whole society. Every individual that defines themself as a concerned citizen, in terms of rights, law, justice, equality, love, tolerance and so on, is concerned about prisons. Because those who struggle for the same goals know very well that in a country where all kinds of thoughts and activities are prohibited, prisons are their potential compulsory residencies. Therefore, as long as prisons exist, it doesn’t matter who is imprisoned. When outside the prison feels almost like a dungeon, it is inevitable for every woman, man and young person to behave more sensitively and apprehensively. First and foremost, the families of the prisoners and our self-sacrificing people have been doing this for years. Thank you.
Gültan Kışanak said “[Those] outside need to take care of [those] inside.” What would be your recommendations to do so?
Our dear co-president Gültan Kışanak has underlined something very important. As a result, each of us was either imprisoned for many years or became a relative or friend of the prisoner while not-in-prison. Our expectations when we are inside are directly proportional to our sensitivity on this issue when we are outside. There have been times when we have distanced ourselves from our comrades in prisons due to the weight of our practical work or for other reasons. However, it is important that every revolutionary, every patriot can recount what they did for the struggle that day and feel them when they put their head on the pillow at night. It is hard to say which is more difficult –whether to go or stay– both are. Another reality is that once in prison, we can see many details, political developments, etc. in a more refined and distinctive manner than when we are outside. For this reason, it is a necessity for our comrades to push us for what we can contribute to both the women’s struggle and general struggle. We want to be individuals who produce and contribute to the struggle, not idle and inefficient prisoners. From our perspective, despite the pale and colorless walls [of the prison], the inside and outside are one. Together, we must take care of each other.
You took part in politics as a single mother, what were some of the obstacles you have faced?
In addition to the difficulties of taking part in politics as a woman, there are also quite challenging aspects of being a mother. Especially families can be very challenging in this regard. While you can be treated with respect for having a job that pays, taking part in political activities and women’s struggle can solicit very different reactions. You frequently hear comments like “You are a mother; you are neglecting your children. What are you doing getting involved in politics?” etc. On top of all that, if you are a single mother, the reactions can multiply. By being told “I wouldn’t mind if you had a husband taking care of you”, you are presented with a reality where it is beyond imagination that a single woman attends to her children, survives financially, and engages in politics. Despite all that, as single mothers we have always continued and will continue advancing on our path by overcoming barriers, obstacles one at a time. There is no limit a woman/mother cannot overcome if she wants and believes so. I can tell you that as a mother who has done so. While men act only with analytical intelligence, women can be much more creative and productive with both analytical and emotional intelligence. The struggle of mothers is important and necessary in order to create a free, peaceful and livable world for their children, whom they raised with great efforts.
As a Kurdish female politician, what are your opinions about the political and economic situation of Turkey?
The situation Turkey is in today is the remnant of the denialist, assimilationist, monist, nationalist, and sexist policies of the past. The history of the Republic is characterized by an understanding that sweeps and manipulates problems instead of solving them, and that acts upon the thesis that “it will disappear when you say it does not exist”. One of the most important dilemmas of Turkey is the continuation of the Ottoman era dynasty mentality by the political parties although the multiparty system is in place. Since our childhood, if we were asked to count the politicians of the last fifty years, we could not count more than ten because each politician led his party for decades. We can say that the male passion for holding office is mostly present in Middle Eastern societies. History is full of bloody massacres in this regard. The despotic fascist government, which is embodied by the AKP-MHP (Justice and Development Party – Nationalist Movement Party) government, has brought the country to the brink of a political and economic abyss today. We all –workers, peasants, women, and young people of this country– paid the price of the July 15 coup attempt, which was the result of the power struggle between the government and the Gülen Movement (Cemaat) they used to trust in the past. It’s almost as if we experienced the 21st century version of the September 12 coup d’etat. The presidential decrees and state of emergency measures are the most concrete examples of it. At this stage, this government, which has suffered a complete defeat in both foreign and domestic politics, will of course be defeated in the first elections to come. But the country will not recover easily from the situation it is in, namely due to poverty, corruption, bans etc. Perhaps material damages can be compensated for, but healing of moral damages and wounds will not be so easy. It will take a long time before Kurds and dissidents who were put in prisons, sick prisoners left to die, laborers who were disowned with their wholefamilies, women murdered every day, young people whose hopes were stolen, villagers left in the fields they produced, and everyone who is not an AKP-MHP supporter can heal. It’s not because the AKP was so successful that they stayed in power for twenty years. Let’s not forget that. AKP stayed in power thanks to the opposition parties, who played their part in opposing rather than finding solutions to now-chronic problems of the country. Peoples in Turkey are no longer interested in discourses about the homeland, nation, or political survival. We could say that as a response to global events, every country and every government is reviewing its own party policies, while those in Turkey are concerned with who is more of a nationalist. It is not clear what the 6-party alliance has to say about the Kurdish issue, which is easily the most severe and painful problem of the last 50 years in this country. Because they’re still speaking under their breath. They abstain from making a single sentence statement regarding Kurdish, the language used by 30 million Kurds. I don’t even need to talk about the İyi Parti (Good Party) and other alliance partners. Because they already have an attitude that denies the existence of Kurds. However, the CHP (Republican People’s Party) – a party that is defined as a social democrat, takes part in the socialist international and the Kurdish people voted for in the past– is expected to perform the deeds. However, we can see that the CHP is still confused about the Kurdish issue. The democrats in the CHP describe it as the “Kurdish issue”, the nationalists call it the “eastern problem”, and the neo-nationalists as “terrorism”. It is a handicap in itself that the CHP thinks that Kurdish votes will necessarily go to them, simply because they are in opposition to AKP. The Kurds are not obliged to the AKP-MHP, nor to the CHP and their friends. Our people, who have experienced great pain during the rule of both parties, will determine their own attitude; it will have a democratic, egalitarian attitude that aims for the free association of peoples. CHP is not independent. There are, of course, women within the CHP who carry on women’s struggle and have a woman’s point of view. However, they also prefer to remain silent on the Kurdish issue. While their leader talks about male co-chairs and male politicians of HDP (People’s Democratic Party), they do not state that there are female co-chairs and female politicians in our party. Therefore, they mostly visit our male politicians in prisons and act as if women do not exist. Of course, it should be women within CHP who should react to this issue. Besides, we don’t need anyone’s mercy. We receive messages of solidarity from all over the world. Parliamentary delegations from many countries apply to the Ministry of Justice to visit us. I would like to address an important issue: there are female politicians in prison, too. Figen Yüksekdağ, HDP ex co-chairman; Sebahat Tuncel, DBP co-chairman; Gültan Kışanak, Diyarbakır metropolitan co-mayor; Aysel Tuğluk, HDP co-chairman; Nurhayat Altun, Dersim co-mayor; Gülser Yıldırım, Mardin deputy; Edibe Şahin, Dersim mayor; Dilek Hatipoğlu, Hakkari mayor, and hundreds of other female politicians… Since as women, we suffer from male politics, let’s deal with this situation with practical steps. Let’s create a game-changing discourse with our principle: “we are women first”.
The elections are around the corner. What do you think about the alliances, their current policies, and targets? Where do the women’s and feminist movements stand regarding these alliances?
Under normal circumstances, alliances take place between parties, movements, and formations whose policies and worldviews are close to each other. At this stage, this principle has been destroyed. Now, instead of principle, rule or law, the dominant understanding is that you can associate with anyone to come to power. Except for the HDP-DBP left socialist parties, there is no difference between the parties in terms of their politics and alliances, and the red flags are ignored under the pretense that the fundamental values of the republic are in danger. Yes, of course, we, especially us women, know that a reactionary, conservative, religious party like AKP, does not suit Turkey and contemporary world values. At the same time, we are not obliged to the dubious alliances that will solve the problems of our peoples. The efforts of the parties to the third alliance, which lead the democratic alliance of the peoples, are extremely meaningful and important. As a woman who defines herself as a feminist, I think that we side with all these revolutionary, socialist, democrat and patriotic segments that came together with the HDP. It is obvious that women will walk in alliances that produce democratic, ecological and emancipatory policies for women. The Chilean president won the election campaign by saying, “Affirm your dignity, hope will beat fear.” We, the women, will abide by the motto that “if not pushed, no dictator will fall” and we will run campaigns in all areas of life. The attitude of women, who are half of the society, will determine the outcome of the elections. Then we say let’s “dance”.
What can you say about the year 2022, as a female politician who never backed down from the path she believed in and the struggle she is a part of, and said “Presidency, deputyship, they are temporary, but the struggle remains”?
No one is born with titles, and those meant to have them often don’t– because we do not live under the same conditions, and we cannot equally benefit from the opportunities. Therefore, mostly men, and very few women can hold these titles. A person who puts all his money to work to become a deputy or mayor, instead of producing something for the society, tries to get back the money he has spent. On the other hand, when we, the women, come to these duties, we exhaust ourselves to ameliorate the lives of women and young people, on top of the classical services provided. In addition, a person does not necessarily have to have a title to fight in line with the ideology they believe in. If we can be ordinary citizens, friends, comrades, we will be happy for our people. The year 2022 will be the beginning of the years when the world capitalist modernity system is dissolved, and nation states go bankrupt. The global situation in which world citizenship develops will destroy exploitation, borders, classes, monism, nationalism, and sexism. Women will lead the democratic ecological system to be built all over the world. The women-led revolution in Rojava is a concrete example of that. Hoping that March 8th of 2022 will offer a rainbow-colored life to all women of the world. I celebrate March 8th for all women . I and my five female friends with whom I share my quarters, we all send our greetings and love. Long live March 8, Biji 8’e Adare…
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan