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TNGO Director of Investigative Journalism Margaux Seigneur explores the intricacies of student activism in Ankara, Turkey through a conversation with two student activists.
When you talk to feminists in Turkey, violent music hits your ears, like a refrain that repeats itself ineluctably. This verse reflects the systematic violence faced by the part of the population that chooses to stand up and protest. This noisy minority denounces the persecutions that have spread like a pandemic again and again in a country where it is not good to be a woman: Turkey.
In a small coffee shop hidden by a multitude of buildings on the frenetic street of Kizilay in Ankara, I met some of these young women, who courageously choose to stand up, shout for their rights, and remind a government that has forgotten them that they are there. There were a dozen students all committed to the struggle for the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community. All of them stood before me, proud and full of hectic energy that lit up the whole room. The first time I heard their voices was on a street one autumn evening. The civilian police prevented me from approaching them to report on the fights, though I couldn’t help but record their denunciatory voices singing the traditional slogan of the Kurdish feminist movement:
“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”(women, life, freedom)
Indeed, on the evening of November 5, 2021, about twenty women, activists, students, and feminists gathered to protest the sentencing of Çilem Doğan, a woman who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her husband after experiencing repeated domestic and sexual violence.
Among this shy crowd of protesters stood a young law student of Ankara University; Nisan. Her academic path is not a fluke. Indeed, the young woman wishes to specialize in law to become a lawyer and eventually, defend the cause of women. Raised by a feminist mother, Nisan grew up with a sense of injustice that she vowed to address in the streets as well as on the university benches.
The Reality of a Feminist Activist at her University
It all started when Nisan joined the feminist collective at her university, a powerful organization that brings together many feminist students from all over Turkey, Üniversitesi Feminist Kolektif.
Gradually, this law student began to suffer from the impact of sexism behind the heavy doors of her university.
“One of the academics at our university is strikingly brutal when it comes to mentioning women’s rights. He even called feminist activists “whores” in front of the whole class. I have witnessed sexism in my school and, therefore, in the law. Our academic dean is deeply sexist both in his language and in the words he writes in his book. We students learn directly from his book. I can’t let this go. I have to call out this sexist injustice that is passed on through education”.
The Dangerous Pressure of Fascist Groupuscules
As Nisan and her group attempted to protest against a system formatted by a sexist reading of the law, they themselves were targeted by the student group Türkiye Gençlik Birliği (Youth Union of Turkey), a revolutionary ultra-nationalist organization known for their radical actions and ideas. This group announced that they “will not let the enemies of the state stage a protest under the guise of a dance”.
In 2019, as all of South America sang and danced against patriarchy and violence against women, feminists around the world borrowed the lyrics of the song “Un violator en tu camer” (a rapist in your path) and performed it in their respective countries. This movement did not escape the attention of Turkish feminist students of Ankara University, who also got together to shout:
“The patriarchy is a judge who judges us for being born and our punishment is the violence you can see. It is femicide. Impunity for my killer. It is disappearance. Is is rape. And it was not my fault, not the place where I was nor the dress that I chose! The rapist was you. It’s the police. The judges. The state. The president. The oppressive state is a rapist macho”.
In an attempt to replicate the protest dance at Ankara University, Nisan told me that, “a month after the protests started in South America, we wanted to do it on our campus. It should be noted that our campus is about the size of a kindergarten. We were seven women dancing in the courtyard. Suddenly hundreds of police officers came to surround us. The university prevented other students from going outside to avoid a general gathering,” stressed Nissan who went on to explain:
“The police were joined by the TBG, who defend the purity of the Turkish race. They shouted; “Take her, take them one by one.” At that moment, I was so angry that it gave me power. I threw pink paint on them. My legs were shaking but I did it anyway. This wasn’t my first altercation with them. Before that, they had already attacked me and insulted me by saying “This person is affiliated with the PKK, she is a terrorist! They say this to criminalize feminism when there is no correlation between the PKK and feminism“.
On that day, the Turkish police arrested 8 students, 5 women, and 3 men. The students were released later. It should be stressed that The KYK (Kredi ve Yurtlar Kurumu) scholarship of the students participating in the demonstration at the Ankara Cebeci Campus was revoked.
University Politics: A Mirror Reflecting Government Actions
While feminist activists are facing pressure from ultra-nationalist groups such as the TBG, there is also a heavy atmosphere in the academic world that strongly opposes feminist demands.
Indeed, Nisan testifies that it is becoming more and more difficult to publicly express activist ideas within the university itself:
“There is more and more pressure on us. Campus security won’t let us gather to protest. We are being persecuted within our university. The majority of the staff is affiliated with the AKP. This includes the security staff, administrators, etc. All these people prevent us from exercising our right to protest and express ourselves freely. For example, on 25 November, I was putting up signs in the corridor to promote the women’s rights demonstration. Every time I passed in the same corridor, the posters were torn down. I would put some up again, they would tear them up again. They are always watching us.”
While this may seem an insignificant story, in reality, it is a matter of the systematic restriction of freedom of expression. In very concrete terms, certain ideas are not welcome and those who fight for them are persecuted for doing so. While, in theory, the university embodies the ultimate forum for the plurality of knowledge, Turkish practice shows a totally different reality. In addition to the methods of physically preventing students from gathering to protest, other mechanisms have been put in place to muzzle those who speak out.
The Spread of Terror in the Private Sphere
“What happens when students are too annoying is that the administration kicks them out of dormitories. This is a big problem in the sense that rooms at the university are preferred by many young people because they are cheaper than flats. If you get kicked out you are literally on the street, forced to go back to your parents. Another way they shame us is to write to our family. They investigate us and then denounce us to our parents. Some families are very conservative. If they see that our behavior is not in line with that of an honorable student, we can have big problems”.
This method of shaming and denouncing is, unfortunately, widespread in Turkey. Another activist named Dogu has experienced this as well, stating:
“They have already sent letters to the address of my grandmother’s house. When I do activism it is something I have to think about constantly, it is in my head. For example, if you are an active activist and you start to disturb, the authorities may find your workplace, write to them and ask them to fire you. These things happen. There’s nothing theoretical about what I’m saying. The police spy on us, persecute us to discourage us in every way possible.”
While these obstructionist tactics against freedom of expression are constant, they have the particularity of intruding into the private lives of Turkish citizens. By sending letters to family homes and workplaces, the state is showing its overpowering influence over the whole of society. The message is clear: actions that are in opposition to the dominant ideology will have consequences for the family and professional life of the targeted person. This discipline of deterrence thus involves the spread of terror in the homes of activists.
A Rite of Passage in the Life of a Turkish Activist: The Arrests
This is a well-tested and proven method, and that is why it is repeated over and over again. When talking to committed activists, there is one topic that cannot be avoided: arrests!
“How many times have you been arrested? For how many hours? How old were you when you were first arrested?”
These little questions were strikingly commonplace among the feminists I talked to. In the café around the table where we sipped our kiwi tea, they explained that they have all been arrested at least once in their young lives as activists. They all laugh about it openly. It’s not a game, it’s part of the rules. Dogu told me her story:
“I hadn’t been demonstrating for long. During my first arrest, I was alone. It was a bit scary but I was prepared. They handcuffed me and put my hands behind my back to hurt me. My blood didn’t circulate in my thumb. It took me 3 weeks to feel it again. What was nice about my first arrest was that I made great connections. They have really bad techniques. They arrest everyone and put us all in the same place. Since the police take our mobile phones, we have to connect with the people around us. We have both the time and the space to talk to each other. I was able to talk to migrants, socialists, Kurds, and so on. All in all, it helped me to meet like-minded people, make contacts, discover new platforms, etc. They try to divide us but they create the perfect way for us to fight together. From then on I wanted to keep fighting. I was no longer alone. If I hadn’t been arrested, I would never have come into contact with the people who allowed me to continue the fight.”
The Women’s Struggle, Against All Odds
Defiance towards the government grows day by day and police persecution is increasing accordingly. Arbitrary arrests and dissuasive methods have become an integral part of the Turkish activist landscape. The testimonies of these two courageous activists are not working of great originality. Indeed, arrests and demonstrations that start in the street and end up in hospitals, beatings, and insults are part of the routine for many women’s rights defenders in Turkey.
If the face of revolution is female, then the face of violence is covered with a helmet protecting it from the egalitarian words of the country’s young women activists. While freedom of expression is an inherent practice of our fundamental freedoms, it is proving to be more complicated to apply them in practice in Turkey. Yet, despite the intimidation and threats to their futures, Turkish feminists are still evoking their rights to a government that keeps breaking them.
“We are not stopping and we are not obeying. We are not scared of the state’s action. We will continue the women’s struggle until we will get our feminist revolution!”