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In press articles and during some exhibitions of her prison works, the use by Zehra Doğan of menstrual blood to paint has often been highlighted.
Zehra has no authorized material, no pigments, papers, canvases or brushes to perpetuate her art in Amed’s women-only prison. So she bypassed the ban after, she says, having found that, in the end, she “had everything within easy reach“. She started using various supports including fabric, cardboard waste, recycled papers, feathers and hair. She worked on “prints”, made on wet surfaces or prepared with cooking grease, or even with bird droppings from the morning.
Describing the jail, its chipped walls and its promenade courtyard, where free birds satisfy natural needs; drawing shapes, women’s bodies and naked silhouettes with a pen or a mine, all of which appearing from an improbable streak of paint, these were Zehra’s pictorial investigations, in small formats, during the first months of a total ban on artistic creation material.
Zehra Doğan, at the same time, experimented with natural pigments, spices, crushed tablets, in mixtures, or raw.
Many of these handcrafted pigments and odorous mixtures were destroyed by the guards, as were a number of experiments or finished works, described as “garbage”, “disgusting products with an unbearable odour” and confiscated or thrown away, including some of her artworks. She spent the last months of 2017 playing cat and mouse with the guards, helped and supported by her fellow prisoners.
At the same time, she was struggling to find space and possible places where to draw, paint, and to protect her creations.
Partial bans on communication were imposed because of breaches of the rules, such as “singing with fellow prisoners” and, of course, participating in a spirit of collective resistance.
The prison authorities have heard of outside publications, as part of a support campaign that has been developing for two years, involving certain “names” of contemporary art for example. The quantity of mail and cards, except for blackout periods, which keep arriving at the prison, is not to the liking of the administration either, forced to tolerate this demonstrated solidarity.
But speaking and writing about the use of “menstrual blood” appeared not only as a taboo, but also as what it is: a woman’s resistance, proudly claiming her status and gender, and using it as a weapon of resistance, in an artistic process. That was too much for the patriarchal mentality of the prison and its regulations, the moral bigot…
Of course, we have also seen press articles, although favourable to Zehra Doğan, where the term “blood” was used with a scandalous or provocative connotation, concerning a women’s prison… Articles quite unable to describe Zehra Doğan’s approach, far from a simple call for help, as a victim. Zehra, from the top of her 29 years, claims the time she spends in prison as a full time for writing, reflection, creation and struggles. Being a caged woman is one…
Zehra therefore claims her status as a woman loud and clear. For her, the menstrual taboo is a patriarchal taboo, disguised as “dirt, lack of hygiene and cleanliness” or even an “untouchable status”. Would the blood of women be dirty, and the blood of martyrs glorified? The writer dipping his pen in his blood, or the chivalrous oath of blood, would be acts of honour, and the menstrual blood would become an excrement even lower in the scale of values than the droppings of a free bird?
Mixing blood red and turmeric yellow, coffee, ash or green herbal juice, is for Zehra not a provocation, nor a miserable cry, but an existential claim. She uses nature to create. Art rid of artifices, far from contemporary markets, and yet ephemeral, since destroyed when it falls under the hand of censorship.
Zehra tells us here with great precision and force, in one of her last letters, how she conformed to this kind of interview with her guards, when she was ordered to respond to the “allegations of use of female blood”, published here and there in what remains of press, out of range for her masters.
“The red of blood is a colour, and you all know that colour, as it flows so much on the Kurdish lands”, could write Zehra Doğan.
Today is a “disgusting” day
The date is one of a disgusting day. A warm day, buried in the matrix of history, suspended up there, anaesthetizing the brain with each turn, with its ongoing mechanical noise,…
The guard half-opens the door and calls “Let Zehra Doğan come, the chief guard wants to talk to her”. Thinking to myself “What crime have I committed again? What drawing did they find problematic again?”, I walk through the door, accompanied by Meral, the representative of our district. The chief guard was waiting in the hallway. It was with a relatively polite attitude and a “I don’t know how to say…” look that he started talking. “Don’t mind me, I’m sorry, but I hear you draw with blood, is that true?”, he asked me, with patriarchal embarrassment. He himself censored the word “menstrual” and simply said “blood”.
I then answered the man, with a posture that showed there was nothing that needed to be excused or wanted, “yes?”. “Stop”, he said, “the prison staff is disgusted and they are afraid to catch germs”. As for the guard who was accompanying him, she confirmed, “yes, it’s a disgusting thing”. This impediment came from an unexpected place for me, I got caught without being prepared.
As the owner of this disgusting business, with a sense of responsibility, I immediately responded: “Disgusting? The fact that we are unjustly imprisoned here, and as if that were not enough, the fact that, as an artist, the materials I need to make art are blocked, are already disgusting facts. What you put me through is disgusting. I can only protest against this disgusting state by something considered disgusting in social perception. With something considered disgusting by the patriarchal mentality. That is, menstrual blood. To define daily disgust, which is really disgusting, I can do it by something that is considered disgusting by you, by the menstrual blood. If you are disgusted, I have reached my goal.”
I would have liked to explain to them that the blood of menstruation was considered sacred throughout history, that there was nothing disgusting about it, no microbes, and that it was used by some aborigines or tribal peoples to heal wounds, but neither I had the strength for it, nor they had the patience to listen to it.
The chief guard, seeing my determination, transformed the case into a conscience dilemma, “If you have a conscience, you wouldn’t do something that people are disgusted with and can get infected with. Personally, if I touched it, I wouldn’t leave the bathroom all day,” he told me.
I closed the subject by saying “It would be nice if the question of conscience were a reciprocal situation. And that you too, may consult your conscience by not giving me the painting material and prohibiting my access to it in an arbitrary way. But conscience dilemma is not reciprocal. Consciousness cannot function with conditions, only what exists can be born.”
The fact that they told me all this shows that I won a long time ago. The one who is defeated is always in supplication towards the one who has won. Then I am the strong one. I have in my hands a very powerful weapon and they do not know anymore what to do in front of this one. They end up clinging to conscience, trying to stop me. I know what consciousness is, through struggle, which I believe in. What we have left is to listen to the voice of conscience. And I listen to my conscience, as always. And my conscience tells me “continue your art, and whatever happens, keep drawing and telling”. I listen to it, and I decide, once again, to continue.
That’s what it means to be a woman in the patriarchal system. For five thousand years, we have been cursed, considered disgusting. It is an imperative of monotheistic religions to curse one’s own grain, the seed from which it comes, the eggs… In Judaism, when a woman has her period, she cannot touch anything, she has to eat in a different plate, sleep in another bed, and so that abundance does not disappear, she is even put outside the house. He who touches her is considered soiled. At the end of her period she washes herself, washes her clothes, breaks the plate and after having made offerings, returns home. In Islam it is no different. The woman who has her period cannot pray, she can’t bow down, nor fast. She cannot enter the mosque. The dishes she cooks are inedible, the food she touches is altered. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the hostility of patriarchal religions towards women is like that. It’s locking up, cursing.
That’s how I found the meaning to face all this. I wanted all patriarchal people to feel it, to be disgusted by the disgusting woman.
Imagine a congresswoman, an elected official imprisoned… And my decision to draw Leyla Güven’s initiatives, because photos are forbidden, and there is no paper. So I draw on torn wrapping paper that wrapped lemons. In your opinion, isn’t this ban alone, that there isn’t a single paper to draw on, a disgusting situation?
In short, consider for yourself, are my drawings disgusting or is it my daily life?
August 2018, Amed jail
Zehra Doğan – 2018, Diyarbakır Prison (Amed)
Pen and period blood, on cotton cloth recovered from an old t-shirt, about 30 x 40 cm
Photo by Jef Rabillon,, in solidarity with Zehra.