Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Aysel Tuğluk is a Kurdish politician, a founding member and the first co-chair of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) in Turkey. She was elected as a member of parliament in 2007 and banned from politics for five years when the Constitutional Court outlawed the DTP in 2009. Tuğluk was elected to the parliament again in 2011. In 2018, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. This essay originally appeared in an edited volume of over 20 Kurdish women politicians’ personal accounts about their lives and political struggles. All the essays were written from prison.[1]

Tuğluk’s essay was translated from Turkish by MERIP editorial committee member Ayça Alemdaroğlu.

 

I was born in Elazığ, although my family is originally from Dersim. Because of my father’s job, we moved to Elazığ, where I spent my childhood and most of my youth. My brother was in the revolutionary struggle. As a child, I watched him and his friends with great interest. This experience, which I could not give much meaning to at the time (in the 1970s), would determine the course of my life. In a security operation carried out in Elâzığ, my brother was detained. He was taken to Bin Sekiz Yüz Evler (“1,800 Homes”), known as the torture center.

Aysel Tuğluk. Courtesy the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Like it was yesterday, I still remember how I waited for days with my mother at the door. After heavy torture, he was formally arrested and moved to prison. A few months later, the fascists, who were transferred to the same prison, were provided guns that they used to shoot at prisoners through the ventilation shaft, injuring many. My brother was then taken to Diyarbakır, as he was severely wounded. But he could not be saved. We were told that he was left to die after taking him off the respirator. Losing my brother was a major trauma for the whole family. This challenging process and the suffering we experienced as a family led me to question what happened. I was trying to find an answer to the question, “What were those good-hearted young people, and women, wanting to do?” As someone who experienced all that, I had no choice but to become a dissident, leftist and rebel. All this that had happened would become a turning point in my life.

As if what we lived through had not been enough, because our house was frequently raided, we moved with our relatives to Istanbul. I gained admission to the Faculty of Law at Istanbul University and started college. When I graduated and received my diploma, I first went to Bayrampaşa Prison, where they kept political prisoners. I began visiting the revolutionaries, whom I knew since childhood. There was brutal torture of people in custody in the 1990s. In this period of severe rights violations, I saw defending political prisoners as my mission. As patriotic lawyers, we followed up on human rights violations, detentions and allegations of torture, while offering legal support.[2] Later, we established the Foundation for Society and Legal Studies (TOHAV). The purpose of the foundation was to create physical and psychological treatment opportunities for torture victims and to follow their legal cases. I was in the administration of TOHAV for two terms. I also became a member of the Human Rights Association (IHD). The struggle for human rights was a requirement of my profession.

In the same period, with a group of women friends, we established the Patriotic Women’s Association. On my way to the police station to complete a filing about the foundation of the association, we talked half-jokingly about me not being able to return due to the possibility of being taken into custody. For the first time, Kurdish women wanted to continue their struggles institutionally, under the umbrella of an association. Everyone was very excited, viewing the establishment of the association as a significant achievement. However, soon the association was shut down. As a lawyer defending human rights and freedoms, I took part in the defense of Abdullah Öcalan [founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK] when he was brought to İmralı [where he has been imprisoned by the Turkish state since 1999]. To carry out our works more systematically, with a group of lawyers, we established the Asrın Law Office. Until 2005, I followed Öcalan’s case and I spoke with him many times during this period. These were challenging but fulfilling times. Of course, we were talking with him about both the litigation process and political issues. In every meeting, he would discuss the issue of women. He viewed women’s lack of freedom as a problem of freedom for the whole society and emphasized the necessity for women to create their own democratic mechanisms and authentic organizations. Every meeting we had with Öcalan left a mark on us.

 

Women Hung Up the Co-chair Sign

 

I was not too interested in politics, but a search for new Kurdish politics had begun. There were efforts to establish a new political formation encompassing a wide range of Kurdish, Turkish, leftist, socialist and democratic sections of society. Based on the others’ recommendations, I became involved in the coordinating efforts carried out under the name of the Democratic Society Movement.[3] It was an exciting endeavor. The group, including Democracy Party (DEP) deputies arrested in 1994 and released after over ten years in prison, held meetings in provinces, districts and villages. Delegates elected by grassroot balloting became the founding members of the party.[4]

We started working; we were also discussing the new party’s principles with the public and getting their suggestions. During these three to four months of preparation, we set a good example of democracy; approximately 350,000 people voted in local ballot boxes to determine the delegates for the central party administration. This preparation created great excitement among Kurds. However, we could not achieve the results we wanted in terms of bringing leftists, socialists and democrats to the party in the western part of Turkey. With an emerging will among the people, the Democratic Society Movement become a party.

As the party’s preparations continued, the co-chair model came up as a new party chairperson model. Women friends were putting in massive efforts in all aspects of the work, while Leyla Zana and I were involved in coordination. The co-presidency proposal caused great excitement among women. Men, on the other hand, could not make sense of the co-chair proposal. They expressed that it would create a binary situation, generate difficulties in practice and in decision-making and tried to block any decision on the proposal. For them, the fact that it would not be legally mandated was a strong justification against the model. They were taking refuge in the legal argument by asserting, “It is not legally possible.” The women exhibited a determined stance, stating, “We will make our decision here, implement it and leave it to the state to override it.”

In addition to the co-chair model, the issues of polygyny (among party officials) and the women’s quota also caused great controversy in the meetings we held to discuss the party’s principles and program. When we (women) asked to mandate a decision that men with two wives would not be allowed to take administrative roles in the party, almost all of the men were strongly opposed, arguing that if we were to apply such a rule, many people who had been involved in the initial coordination work would not be able to take part in the party administration. They argued that given that polygyny was widespread, such a rule would cause a public reaction and that we would not be able to find party administrators. Hence, they proposed applying the rule only to those who had become polygynous after the establishment of the party. Their most substantial argument against the women’s quota was, “Where will you find so many women?” When we reminded them that women were half of the population, they would start a discussion about “quality.” Women, sensing strong political support, did not back down on any of the three issues. By taking a determined stance, we ensured that the co-chair model and women’s quota were included in the party program and charter, and we agreed in principle against polygyny. These gains created great enthusiasm and a sense of victory.

By taking a determined stance, we ensured that the co-chair model and women’s quota were included in the party program and charter, and we agreed in principle against polygyny. These gains created great enthusiasm and a sense of victory.

While all this was happening, the decision to launch the party came through. The women set up a commission and started working to identify a female co-chair. Unfortunately, the commission’s work did not yield any results, and the women who were proposed did not accept this task for various reasons. When our efforts failed, women friends stated that I should take on this job; I felt I had gotten into trouble. In a way, I was compelled to take the position. Of course, as a woman, it was an honor to be a co-chair, but I feared that I was not good enough for the job and I was worried.

When the Democratic Society Party (DTP) was established in 2005, Ahmet Türk and I were elected as co-chairs. Our offices as co-chairs were next to each other at the party headquarters. What happened in those two offices, side by side, was very interesting. Men who came to the party headquarters—including party members and administrators—would go directly to the male co-chair’s office, and all political debates would take place in that office. Those who were a little kinder would open the door and say “goodbye” to me as they were leaving. While politics and party issues were intensely discussed in the next room, the visits to the female co-chair’s office were out of courtesy, and politics was out of the conversation. Even more interesting, a door sign was hung for “Mr. Ahmet Türk / co-president.” No one bothered hanging a sign for the female co-chair’s office. I was being disregarded. This situation caused a massive reaction among our women friends. Soon, women made an “Aysel Tuğluk / co-chair” sign themselves and hung it at the entrance to my office.

In this process, we managed to co-chair with the determined stance and solidarity of our women’s organization. Gradually, there was a change in men’s attitudes. After a while, the discussions started again with a notification from the Supreme Court of Appeals. The letter stated that the co-presidential system was against the political parties’ law. The male members of the party’s central executive committee came to my office and expressed their “sadness” and stated that if we continued to implement the co-chair system, the party would be closed and that we could not take such a risk. They were looking for a solution, and they suggested, “Let’s make you the deputy leader responsible for the party organization.” Aware of what was going on, I said that I could not decide this alone, and that we would discuss and decide on it with our women’s council. Our women’s council convened and agreed that the vice-presidency offer would not be accepted, and that we would continue the struggle to pass the law for the co-chairmanship model. We immediately launched a petition to submit to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, demanding legislation of the co-chair act. In a very short period, 98,000 signatures were collected and presented to the Parliament.

The co-chair system was achieved as a result of women’s determined stance and fierce struggle. It was practiced de facto until the political parties’ law was changed. In the persona of the female co-chair, the women’s agenda moved into the center of mainstream politics. We know from our experience that in a place where there are no women, nothing is done for women.

We know from our experience that in a place where there are no women, nothing is done for women.
 Traditional politics was carried out according to a male-dominated understanding. The chairman and the other men in the decision-making bodies of the party were determining all politics. Women’s persistent struggle on the issues of the co-chair model and women’s quota elevated women to the status of political agents. The understanding that sees women not as “decision makers” but as an “auxiliary power” in politics had started to change.

Many tragicomic events took place until the co-chair system was accepted institutionally. One of them that became public was me being addressed as “yenge başkan” (“auntie chair”). I was at a party meeting together with co-chair Ahmet Türk in Şemdinli district of Hakkâri. After the meeting, we went to a restaurant with party administrators. The waiter asked Ahmet Türk, “What would you like başkanım (my president)?” Then he turned to me and said, “What do you want, yenge başkan?” Everyone smiled at the table. I laughed and said, “You must have misunderstood the co-presidency model. Co-presidency is an institution consisting of a man and a woman with equal rights and responsibilities.” Even though we remembered and laughed about this dialogue later, it is a valuable experience showing what sorts of challenges and transformations of mentality the women’s struggle for equality and freedom has had to endure.

Today, the co-chair system is a criterion for creating a democratic attitude, is institutionalized and has achieved a legal basis; many political parties and even non-governmental organizations now incorporate it. It is now seen as a deficiency not to implement the co-chair system. But all this was not easy. Some of the difficulties we experienced during the process of getting the co-chair system accepted stemmed from us women. Women were always reluctant to take the position. Men were preparing themselves to become co-chairs, making a special effort, but women were perpetually avoiding it. Yes, all women advocated for it, struggling with great determination, but in practice, they preferred to stay behind the scenes when it came to taking office. But the way women stay behind, assuming that a job is difficult, contributes to the reproduction of male domination.

 

No Difference Between Men and Women When Electing a Representative

 

In the lead up to the 2007 elections, we started as a resistance movement. We knew that the 10 percent threshold was instituted particularly for us [Kurdish political parties]. Hence, we decided to participate in the elections with independent candidates to make sure that we would send representatives to the parliament.

Following the guidelines of our party regarding the determination of women candidates, the women’s council and our women friends who conducted work with locals formed the women’s selection committee. In accordance with the women’s quota, feasibility reports and consultation with locals, the selection committee determined the female candidates. When these women candidates were announced, issues that were never raised in regard to men became obstacles for women. Many things were said, such as, “Women cannot do it, nobody knows them; they have no political experience; people do not want them; they will cause a loss of votes.” This was the result of the understanding that politics is a man’s job. Women did not pay attention to this perspective in any way and did not compromise. Women candidates and our women’s organization carried out an election campaign with great effort. As a result, we won 22 representatives, eight of whom were women, proving that that [masculine] discourse had no importance in the eyes of the people. I was also elected as a member of the parliament in Diyarbakır in the 2007 elections. After 13 years, the will of the Kurdish people was again represented in parliament.

The Kurdish women’s political struggle was now moving on two axes. On the one hand, it was playing a role in the struggle for the existence and freedom of unrecognized people. On the other hand, it was trying to advance the equally important issue of women’s liberation. When we were elected as representatives, we began our work on these two issues. However, soon we faced a closure case against the party, resulting in a decision to close the party in December 2009, citing our political activities. Thirty-seven people, including Ahmet Türk and me, were banned from politics.

At the request of our friends in the party and non-governmental organizations, in 2010, Ahmet Türk and I assumed the co-chairmanship of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK). Established in 2005, DTK was a structure addressing all segments of society, including women, youth, non-governmental organizations, professional organizations and business circles. Implementing the co-chair model in such a mixed platform was crucial to the politics of gender equality. It was also an important experience for me.

When I look back, I see that despite all our inexperience, we managed to transform male-dominated politics. I can say that the public has accepted our political style both in the parliament and in the provinces.

Our principle has been to do politics with the people, in the neighborhood, on the street, in all areas of life; our departure from the classical political model created a positive public perception.
We did not refrain from expressing all societal problems openly and courageously in parliament, including Kurdish and women’s issues. Further, our work was not only in parliament. At the same time, we were pursuing specific activities with the public and women at the local level. We were doing politics along with the people, participating in protests and events. We eliminated the perception that “women cannot do it” with our praxis—so much so that in the 2011 elections, the female candidate selection committee received suggestions from all over the country. Our principle has been to do politics with the people, in the neighborhood, on the street, in all areas of life; our departure from the classical political model created a positive public perception. I see this as a significant achievement. We pushed back against male politics.

 

Democratic Politics Turned into a Subject of Indictment

 

Despite all our efforts, we have yet to realize a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, and we have yet to end the pain. As a woman, this is my biggest self-criticism. We could have played a leading role in achieving peace.

Before I was arrested, I was working in the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) as assistant co-chair, responsible for the work on law and human rights.[5] On December 26, 2016, I was detained in Ankara and brought to Diyarbakır. My detention was a continuation of the November 4 operation against the HDP. One day, after being held at the Diyarbakır police headquarters, I was arrested by court decision and brought to Kocaeli No.1 F-Type Prison. I was held in solitary confinement for two months. Then I stayed in the same cell as then-HDP Co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ. A few months later, Democratic Regions Party (DBP) Co-chair Sebahat Tuncel also joined us. The three of us stayed in the same cell. [6]

All my legitimate political activities in the framework of democratic politics were used in the indictment against me. It was a mock trial (Yargılama yapılıyormuş gibi yapıldı).
All my legitimate political activities in the framework of democratic politics were used in the indictment against me. It was a mock trial (Yargılama yapılıyormuş gibi yapıldı). It was an accelerated process; after three hearings, the court gave me ten years of imprisonment for “establishing and leading an armed terrorist organization.” Moreover, many other lawsuits continue to be initiated about my political activities, which have all remained well within the framework of freedom of thought and expression in democratic politics. Since the 1990s, the judiciary has attempted to push Kurds out of democratic politics. The cost of doing politics has been either death or prison or exile. Women who have now become a force in democratic politics are also in prison. Against this approach, we will continue our struggle to keep the path of democratic politics open, not only for ourselves but also for all peoples and women. We will continue to struggle for our labor, identity and freedom. We have no choice but to fight against the sexist mentality that dis-identified and imprisoned us at home as “mother, sister, wife.” Therefore, we, women, have to be assertive. There is nothing that a woman’s emotional and analytical intelligence cannot achieve.

Following the words of Samuel Beckett, “fail again, fail better,” after every lost battle, we must fight again, risking a defeat once more with the sense of pleasure of playing a game. We could lose a little more. What else shall we do? Losing time and again for the better is part of it. The real goal is to take charge of your life.

 

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Gültan Kışanak, ed. Kürt Siyasetinin Mor Rengi (Ankara: Dipnot Yayınları, 2018).

[2] Patriotic lawyers can be understood as lawyers who are sympathetic toward the Kurdish political cause and engage in law practice that defends and advances Kurdish rights.

[3] The Democratic Society Movement formed the Democratic Society Party in 2005, a successor of the Democratic People’s Party (1997–2005), which announced its merger with the movement to form the Democratic Society Party in 2005.

[4] The Democracy Party (DEP) was one of the first pro-Kurdish parties established in Turkey. It was founded in 1991 and banned in 1994 by a Constitutional Court decision for its activities undermining the indivisible unity of the land and the nation. The same decision sentenced DEP deputies to ten years in prison.

[5] HDP is a left-wing, pro-minority, pro-Kurdish and progressive party established in 2012. It won 13.2 percent of the national vote in the June 2015 elections, preventing the AKP from achieving a majority in the parliament and leading to a re-do of elections in November 2015. Many of its prominent Kurdish politicians are currently in prison. It holds 58 seats in the current parliament.

[6] The Democratic Regions Party (DBP) is the HDP’s sister party focused on local politics. The government systematically targets DBP politicians and activists, removes elected mayors from their offices and transfers their responsibilities to government-appointed trustees.

 

 

How to cite this article:

Aysel Tuğluk "Where Will You Find That Many Women?," Middle East Report 295 (Summer 2020).
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