• Wednesday, October 22, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Kurd Women Fight the ‘Culture of Rape’

    Women in Diyarbaki protest against the Turkish government. Credit Jake R. Hess

    Women in Diyarbaki protest against the Turkish government. Credit Jake R. Hess

    Jake R. Hess

    SIRNAK (Turkey): In one of the more prominent of a series of recent rape scandals in Kurdish dominated southeastern Turkey, at least four girls aged between 12 and 14 were found to have been sexually exploited by state officials, including an assistant headmaster at a school and an employee of a local police department, over a period of two years in Siirt, a town located in a province plagued by fighting between the Kurdish insurgency and Turkish army. Schoolboys and shopkeepers were also involved.

    Lawyer Meral Danis-Bestas, who is involved in prosecuting the case, argues that the rape scandal is fundamentally rooted in political conflict. “This incident is connected to the Kurdish issue, domestic violence, and the social and political situation in the region,” Danis-Bestas, a senior figure in the leftist and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) tells IPS in an interview at her office in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan and main hub of Kurdish political activism in Turkey. “They all must be dealt with together.”

    Local Kurds see the scandal as another example of the Turkish state attacking Kurdish society. “It’s not possible that the police and public authorities didn’t know about it,” says Danis-Bestas. “The Siirt provincial governor, police chief, and local director of education are the ones responsible.”

    The Turkish government often uses violence, threats, and other forms of repression against female Kurdish activists. In July last year, a member of the Democratic Free Women’s Movement (DOKH), a loose amalgamation of mostly Kurdish women’s organisations and activists, was raped by plainclothes police at a private residence in Diyarbakir. “Go tell your friends that we’re going to do this to all of you,” the policemen reportedly said after carrying out the rape.

    The victim later filed a complaint with public authorities, and said she could identify the perpetrators. “We asked for pictures of police who were on duty that day and who had received search warrants,” Danis-Bestas tells IPS. “They presented some 5,000 pictures, and of course the victim wasn’t able to identify the perpetrator.” A year later, the investigation is said to be continuing.

    Besides taking up such campaigns, DOKH has played an important role in institutional politics, primarily through the leftist and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). There’s no formal relationship between the two organisations, although their demands and membership heavily overlap.

    Under pressure from DOKH members and other women’s rights advocates within the party, the BDP and its predecessors have historically adopted gender quotas for women. This has helped bring Kurdish women to positions of senior leadership both in politics and the party, a fact of great psychological importance for the women of the region. Out of all political parties in Turkey, the BDP claims the highest percentage of female members of parliament and mayors.

    “For a feudal place like Sirnak, it’s revolutionary to have female members of parliament, mayors, and party administrators,” Silan Botan, a DOKH organiser based in the southeastern town Sirnak tells IPS.  “However, neither the state nor society has accepted this revolution.”

    DOKH has now launched a year-long campaign under the banner “Let’s create a free and democratic society and overcome the culture of rape.”

    “The goal of the campaign is to broaden a struggle against social problems experienced by all social segments and to construct a democratic society,” DOKH activist Azize Yagiz tells IPS.

    According to UN statistics, 42 percent of women in Turkey are subjected to violence by their spouses. In a study published in 2000, two percent of women in southeastern Turkey reported that they had suffered sexual violence at the hands of security forces. This is likely a conservative figure, given the cultural taboos attached to reporting such matters.

    “We’re forced to wage a struggle on two fronts – against male dominance, and the political system,” says Botan, who was one of the first woman members of Sirnak city council. “Cultural norms in the region are very severe, and the state’s tyranny and oppression are out in the open.” There are some 40 lawsuits pending against Botan.

    DOKH activist Azize Yagiz, 23, has been to prison for her political activities three times, staying for three months on each occasion. She was first incarcerated when she was 17, and she’s currently facing roughly 20 lawsuits because of her work.

    Yagiz estimates that roughly 300 DOKH members have been imprisoned in the last year, among them the most talented and experienced of the organisation’s leaders, and that roughly half the organisation’s activists have been detained or imprisoned at least once.

    DOKH activists make no secret of their reverence for the imprisoned leader of the socialist insurgency, Abdullah Ocalan. “DOKH is a structure that grew out of the Kurdish freedom movement, which is both a democratic and socialist movement,” Yagiz tells IPS. “We see Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish people, as a big influence. He’s helped women locate their own history and acquire self-respect.”

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