By Alastair Flynn. Pictures of Sid, place where NNK Team meat Tijda Bozkurt.
Content warning: Sexual violence
Turkey, from a European perspective, is heavily linked with images of holidays in the sun and cities rich in historical interest. Contrary to that, we occasionally see the headlines in the news: “journalist assassinated”, “withdrawal from women’s rights convention”, “marry your rapist law to be introduced”. This disparity suggests that there are parts of life in Turkey that the regime would rather we did not know about. Tijda, a Kurdish woman in her early 20s, has to experience these headlines first hand.
20 years ago, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan first took power in Turkey, he ran on a platform of joining the EU and increasing religious freedoms. Since then the attitudes of those in power have changed dramatically. Turkey’s previously secular status is almost completely eroded, it is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in the world for press freedom and its recent withdrawal from the Istanbul convention (The Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence) signals its current trajectory for the rights of women. The pace of the change in Turkey has left a lot of people with outdated ideas of how repressive the situation is there.
Telling the ongoing story of a female refugee from Turkey will hopefully expose the darker hidden side of everyday life in this country.
The story of Tijda Bozkurt
Until she was 12, Tijda Bozkurt did not know she was Kurdish. She cannot speak the Kurdish language and up until her parents told her of her origins, she hated the Kurds.
In state media the Kurds are constantly referred to as terrorists, as the enemy, as the people you blame for everything wrong in your life. Her parents protected her for good reason, the uncle of Tijda’s friend was working as a conductor on a bus and took a phone call in Kurdish. He was murdered where he stood. This is certainly no isolated case and often the perpetrators are never prosecuted or held to account in any meaningful way. The name of the city in which Tijda was born will mark her out on her ID card as a Kurd to the Turkish authorities for the rest of her life.
Growing up, like any other child, Tijda had ambitions. Becoming a physicist was her dream but her teacher took issue when she challenged him on his skewed interpretation of the science. She was told that alongside the fundamental electromagnetic waves, there exist also waves to carry out the will of the angels and devils. As a result, the teacher called her a terrorist in front of the whole class. Her Kurdish roots were enough evidence for him.
Despite her experience of discrimination in high school, Tijda stayed strong and went on to study physics at university. The challenges continued, but were overshadowed by other happenings.
Tijda was raped. She went back to her home town for a wedding and a man spiked her drink and raped her, she was unable to move. Afterwards, once she had escaped, a local teacher found her and took her home to help her. The sage advice she was given? To close her mouth, to not say anything. This may sound ridiculous but the current legal climate for women in Turkey is declining exponentially. She was told if tried to take it to court it would be her that was found guilty.
Violence after sexual abuse
Despite this, Tijda decided to go to the police and attempt to seek justice. The Turkish police are not know to be sympathetic to either women or Kurds, it was not going to be easy, but she persevered. At the police station, they shouted at her and told her to stop being so emotional. They said she would have to write a report there and then about what happened. At this moment Tijda was in no state to be writing reports, she wanted to go home to her family, she wanted safety, not to relive it. They then told her she would have to go to the hospital in the next town so they could gather evidence of the rape. A police car with only male police officers was the only option for transportation. Police officers who knew she was Kurdish and already viewed her as below the law, if they did anything they could easily hide it. The alternative was to sign a declaration saying that everything had happened with her permission. She had no choice but to sign. In that moment, she was unable to do anything but go to her family, as would be the case with anyone in this situation.
After she explained everything to her family they decided to pursue legal action. The rapist hired a lawyer as well and intimidated Tijda’s lawyer to back down before the case was even brought to court. A new lawyer was found last minute but the case was lost. People were afraid to give evidence, the teacher who had helped her immediately after it happened refused to mention anything about rape.
First trial lost
The first trial was lost but it did not end there. After the ruling there were protests in her village. People took to the streets to try and overturn the decision but nothing happened. The police always found minor reasons to stop the protests and people lost hope – they could see nothing would change. The government had passed a ‘marry-your-rapist’ law that allowed charges against a rapist to be dropped if they wedded the victim. The family of the rapist asked if the two could be married, as in a lot of cases in Turkey this is seen by both families as the best solution. Tijda’s family said no. The other family told them that if this was the case, there were going to be problems, not just for the family, for their whole village.
At one point the rapist kidnapped her and locked her in his house to try and force the marriage.
Tijda decided to go to court again, to make a final stand against him. She got a hospital report of her condition and in the trial they managed to prove that he had lied in a previous statement. It looked like things were finally going the right way, but in the eyes of the judge the rape could not have happened. He called Tijda cold. He said that because she had not cried in front of the court, because she had delivered her testimony with no emotion, she must be lying. And what’s more – for not wearing a hijab she deserved it. The case was dropped and the rapist walked free.
If the state had wanted to punish the rapist they could have charged him for beating her; she had proof from the doctors that there had been significant physical violence against her but instead all charges were dropped.
From Turkey seeking refuge in Europe
For Tijda this was the straw that broke the camels back. This is why she decided she had to leave. To find a better life in somewhere else, in Europe. Where she can escape injustice, continue her physics education, and push more effectively for change in her homeland.
Upon hearing this story some reflection is warranted. For somebody in Turkey to get to Europe they have to travel thousands of miles and cross multiple guarded boarders. The EU make them travel in the back of trucks, pay thousands to smugglers, live in squalid camps. There is no legal way. You have to sacrifice some part of your dignity as a human being, pay money to gangs, sleep in the forests, and risk robbery – even death. Is this really the only way out for people like Isla? Is this what we, as a European society, have decided is the right way for endangered people to seek help?
The EU legitimises all of this by only allowing people to claim asylum once they are in the country. The universal declaration of human rights gives every person the right to freedom of movement and the right to seek asylum.
Currently only those who are physically able, have cash to spare and are not depended on at home are able to leave. The people who are most in need of help are those who are completely unable to get it.
While there are no clear answers to this debate, it is plain to see that the current situation is inhumane.