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“During three years of married life, she was subjected to severe violence. She came close to dying with her baby. Attempting to protect her son and herself from her companion’s violence, Yasemin Çakal found herself accused of a murder she never premeditated. She is imprisoned with her baby, on trial with the prosecutor demanding a sentence of incompressible perpetuity.”
These were the kindest words written about Yasemin, right after the mortal disagreement (July 10 2010).
As the civil claimant in Yasemin’s trial the feminist women’s collective “Feminist Kadın Kolektifi” knew a sentence of “incompressible perpetuity” should not be applied (footnote – this represents a true life sentence with no possible parole, as a substitute for the death penalty abolished in 2002). In fact, she should not have been the accused in this trial. Yasemin, whom the State had not protected, was forced to defend herself and her baby and, in order to stay alive, had killed her companion.
During that period, I was one of those who heard Yasemin’s cry. Only one among the thousands of women whose hearts were beating for Yasemin’s freedom and who gathered around her, facing a justice protecting the male. Yasemin’s trial lasted three years during which she was incarcerated. The tribunal, considering she “had committed the act in an emotional state and a panic that pushed her beyond the bounds of reason, in a state of forgivable shock” concluded there was no reason to convict her.
You may reach the timeline of the trial (in Turkish) by clicking here.
This was a victory for all women.
But it was only in learning that Yasemin was living in a refugee camp in Switzerland that I understood it was an incomplete victory.
Yasemin is now living the first difficult days of exile in Switzerland. With her child, in a room filled with people from all over the world, she awaits the day when she will start living again, in a place she does not know, in a language she does not speak. The Swiss Migration Office considers Yasemin Çakal’s asylum request as based on humanitarian – thus non-political- reasons. But isn’t everything that touches on humans political? Come, listen to Yasemin’s story in her own words, and let us decide together, if Yasemin’s case is political or not.
“They took me out of school because my breasts were more developed than those of my peers.”
“I am a tribal daughter (aşiret). My family lived in the most rigid form of traditionalism. We were raised with no flexibility but I think I was the one who bore the brunt of this. For as far back as I can remember, I was raised as a potential wife. A potential wife who would serve the man, and answer his needs.
I went to the same school as my older brother, and he wouldn’t even allow me to raise my head. I never went out to recess. Just as with the rest of my struggle for life, I couldn’t breathe in school either. My older brother had every right because he was a male. At home, I was the one who handled all the domestic chores. They would ride around on their bicycles, but I wasn’t allowed to do the same. I had good results in schools, but they were the ones who were congratulated. Because they were men and they would go on to further studies. In any event, there was not a single thought for my schooling! In fact, my mother forced me to hide my hair when I was only eleven years old. I didn’t want to. I remember I was beaten for three nights because I wasn’t covering my head, but I did not give in. They did not manage to force me into wearing the veil.
I matured faster than other girls my age. My brother said “that one’s breasts are too big, you’re going to get me in trouble, she shouldn’t come to school”, and that’s what happened. I always had this will to question, to ask myself “why?” Truthfully, I resisted also. The fact they did not succeed in making me wear the veil was my first revolt, and my first victory.
For years, I never saw any other place than my neighborhood, for me, Istanbul consisted of my neighborhood. They had frightened me so badly. As if, if I stepped away even a bit, if I went to the neighborhood nearby, I would fall into a bad path. After I lived through so much, I finally understood how all that was nonsense.
After school, I worked at small jobs. They were all jobs that kept me in my neighborhood. Those were days where I couldn’t spend so much as five minutes with my friends, it was the job-the house, the house-the job. It was a time when visits for arranged marriages didn’t stop. I’m speaking of an age when I didn’t even know the meaning of love. I never wanted to marry. Never… But my mother was going to give me to someone, I was going to be married. The only solution I had in mind at that childish age was that if someone asked, my family would not allow me to marry him, because people would think I had someone I loved and so , they would not come asking for me. As I said, I was young, I could only think like a child does. I met the deceased myself. I call him the “deceased” not because I regret him, but because, let it be known, I do not want to pronounce his name. Whatever…
He was interested in me. Go figure how someone can be interested in a little girl…He was older than me, but as part of my plan, I said “OK”. They came over one evening, supposedly to meet my family. There I was thinking my family would not agree, but the day they came over, the rings were exchanged and put on our fingers. Why? Because they were financially well off. I hadn’t given any thought to the financial aspect and only realized it at that moment. I said I didn’t want to marry him. I wanted to study, only to study. A few days later, I took off the ring and ran away. I went to my aunt’s. Of course, they came to get me that very evening. But not to bring me back to my parents’ house, but to that of my fiancé. An emergency religious marriage was arranged, no feast, no nothing. Years later, my step-mother insisted on holding a wedding feast. My step-mother liked me well enough. You will have understood that my marriage began before the official date. I never talked about all this, I was afraid. You can interpret my words as you wish because my fears have still not gone away.
“If you husband hadn’t wanted you, I would have killed you that day”
I had only been married for a few days when the violence started. My husband was someone with every imaginable problem; he made me live through all kinds of violence. Humiliations, beatings, torture…He wouldn’t even allow me to go outside. I can’t even remember the number of times I was in a condition to be hospitalized. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage due to the heavy violence to which I was subjected. Complaints usually petered out at the police station with the policemen saying “this is an internal family matter”, “you mustn’t stand between a husband and his wife”. Things can change if you happen to get a good doctor at the hospital, or a good policeman, or a good judge…
Of course, there can be cases that cannot be repaired through kindness; such as the two times when he stabbed me. I came back from the land of the dead. By court order, I was placed in a women’s shelter. If your family has influence and solid ties with the State, some things can happen that shouldn’t. As for my brother learning the address of the shelter, for example…Revealing it was an offense. The address of such a shelter is not to be revealed, should never be revealed to anyone. But unfortunately, in our country, this principle also is not respected as the law says it should be. I was already distrustful when it came to the State. After that event, my distrust grew stronger.
One week after my arrival, my older brother showed up at the women’s shelter with his police friends. My brother might have killed me that day.”If your husband hadn’t wanted you, I would have killed you,” he kept telling me. The only reason my family did not kill me is the following: the fact my husband had said “find Yasemin”.
My husband wanted me back because he was obsessed. He couldn’t give up. I filed complaints any number of times but each time, he was freed. Neither the police station where you had taken refuge nor the prosecutor took feminicides seriously in those days. In fact, things aren’t all that different now. But it was even worse back then. They even used language that legitimized feminicides. A woman was killed by her husband and the first sentence you heard out of everyone was “for sure, she cheated on him”, and went on to “she must have done something.” Yet, the majority of women who are assassinated are killed because they want to divorce.
Besides, the pressure from the neighborhood…People talk easily against women. They allow themselves talk about women who separate, who divorce, who are forced to leave the home, or even are assassinated. They have their share of responsibility in what a woman must struggle against, trapped in violence, in a life she does not want. It’s because of the pressure exerted by the neighborhood that hundreds of women lose their life by continuing to live in that house. Some women stay in a marriage they do not want, just so they will not be discredited by a divorce. Wherever the violence may come from, from the boss, the companion, the family, the society or the State, it is violence and must not be accepted. When I told my mother I wanted to divorce, je said “you left in your wedding dress, you will return in your shroud”. My family was hopeless. No matter what I did, I could not get a divorce. Each one of my days produced a beating, each one of my days was torture.
Returning to the day of the mortal disagreement…it’s as if my mind had made me forget. I can’t manage to remember clearly, the details are wiped out. My husband came home late and drunk that night. After humiliations and yet more blows he locked me into the room with my son. My son was hungry. He grew numb from crying. I also fell asleep with my aches and pains. When I woke up in the morning, my son was not beside me. At first, I thought he had taken my child and left.
He came back to the house with my son in his arms. He was barely in the house when he started hitting me and howling “why did you leave the room”? I tried to take my son from his arms. He locked the door and threw the keys outside. He said “today, only our remains will leave this place”. He was saying he was going to kill all three of us. I was on the floor, I attempted to pick myself up. At that moment, the knife that was on the table found itself in my hand. I must have stabbed him out of an instinct to survive. I don’t know how it happened. I was in shock. The report from the policemen who came to get me says: “On the scene of the crime, we found a woman in a state of shock, we brought her in to the police station”.
“Women are stronger together !”
I was arrested and my incarceration began. I was put in a block of common criminals, but both my act and my ideas were political. Violence against women is political, you find it everywhere. I understood that when I learned about feminism. I’ve known hundreds of women sentenced for all kinds of imaginable crimes and offenses. I listened to them. In the story of all the women to whom I listened, without exception, a man played a role. I can state that every woman who was there, was there because of a man. My feminist conscience started growing through those stories. And when you add to that everything I lived through, plus the macho mentality of justice, the masculine language of the media, how can you become anything other than a feminist?
I discovered what macho justice was at my very first hearing. The prosecutor read his indictment, without requesting an examination of the scene of the crime, without hearing witnesses, without allowing me to speak, and without seeing any value in receiving a report on the tortures to which I was subjected. This meant the verdict would be handed down at the next hearing, the second one. The prosecutor was requesting incompressible perpetuity. The judge presiding the council of judges did not even listen to me.” In any event, you’ve submitted your declaration” he said to me. At that very first hearing, I lost all hope, and understood my life was ending right there.
Ten days after the hearing, the lawyer Diren Cevahir Şen came to see me. She was attempting to convince me to to be a civil claimant in the trial, as the victim. I did not know her, I was afraid…That week, Diren came every day, and since she couldn’t convince me, she asked for my sister’s phone number in order to speak to her. At that time, I was shut off from life, I even had trouble understanding the simplest things. Diren spoke with my sister who then went to Mor Çatı.1 When she came to visit, she said “Sister, you can trust them, you have nothing to lose”. So I agreed.
The second hearing was one month later. As soon as I stepped out of the prison vehicle, policemen from the special forces surrounded me. I didn’t understand what was going on. There was such a racket outside…
When they tried to make me enter the Palace of Justice through the fire escape, I saw the crowd. Hundred of women yelling “Yasemin, Yasemin !”. At that moment, I surprised myself with a smile on my lips. There were so many women! With purple posters, flags, and this slogan “Women are together, women are strong when they are together!”
That is how it played out. After the hearing, we always stayed together. All the way through the fifteen hearings and after that, I never walked alone again. There were ten lawyers, journalists in the hearing room…Everyone was surprised, beginning with the council of judges. The feminist lawyers in the hearing room, the women outside…My lawyers defended me with enthusiasm. Our petitions were accepted, witnesses would be heard.
When I returned to prison, I saw that my trial was in all the news. Following that day, I received hundreds of letters. Hundreds of letters I read one after the other, I can recall every line. I read them so many times that I still remember who wrote, which letter, the names…
I spent three years in prison with the letters, my diary, reading, writing at times. I was liberated thanks to the fight of women from every corner of the country. At my final hearing, everyone cried when the judge read the verdict. The women had stuck together against the macho justice system, and had won a big victory.
Yasemin’s liberation. July 4 2017, in front of the Bakırköy women’s prison, in Istanbul.
“Jin, Jiyan, Azadi”
The women, my lawyers, my family were waiting for me outside the prison. While dreaming of the day when I would be liberated, I had made a promise to myself. I would greet the ones waiting for me with a slogan. With the slogan to which I feel the closest, the one that describes me best…When the doors of the prison opened, microphones were extended in my direction and a journalist asked me “Yasemin do you have a few words for women, a message? “Yes”, I said and giving the victory sign with my fingers, I spoke this slogan in my maternal language “Jin, jiyan, Azadi!” [Kadın, Yaşam, Özgürlük! in Kurdish.]
My family and my lawyer scolded me. This slogan was the reason why appeals and objections to the decision were accepted and the 15 year prison term to which I was later sentenced. But I have never regretted greeting the women with this slogan. If I was to redo it today, I would greet them with the same slogan and the same sincerity. Isn’t our fight for woman, life and freedom?
After my release, my family did not allow me to spend time with my friends. From the gate of the prison, they hurried me home. I cried the whole way. Returning to our neighborhood, the whole story was starting up again from the beginning. I was being driven in the car the deceased had bought for my family as a gift for their silence, toward the house in which I had arrived as a quickie bride and in which I had never set foot again. A fire ran through my body. I truly cannot find the words to describe what I was feeling.
The house was full. The whole tribe was there. I will never forget my uncle’s words: ” You raised a shit storm. From now on, you kneel and you stay in the house. You have no reason to go outside. You stay home and take care of your kid! If we find a man fated for it, we will marry you again.” At that moment, I thought my nerves would give out. I couldn’t say the words out loud to their faces but they were racing through my head; “No one has the least idea of what I’ve lived through. When I was being tortured, no one came to help me. Not only that, they told me ‘you left in a wedding gown, you will come back in a shroud’ . How can they say things like that.” While my thoughts ran in that direction, a totally different sentence came out of my mouth: “From now on, I will not exist for the lives of others, but only for my own and that of my son.”
The arguments between my brother and I never stopped. One day, he said to me: “get a hold of yourself, you have changed a lot, but I’ll manage to turn you back into what you were before.” A few days later, what had to happen, happened. We had a huge argument. With 10 Turkish lira in my pocket and a phone with no credit left on it, I left with my son, saying I was going to the grocery store, and we didn’t return. I couldn’t call anyone, since I had no credit on my phone. I was wondering what to do when the lawyer Sezin Uçar called me. She often came to visit when I was in prison. She was never my lawyer but she was a good friend. My thanks to her, she came to pick us up in a flash. We went to her place. My father kept on calling me. He had confiscated my identification papers, thinking we might run away. Sezin grabbed the phone out of my hands and clicked it off. “You are not alone”, she told me.
Then, they found me a job at City Hall and I had my own house. I took my sister in with me, as I had promised and we started living together.
We were happy. Everything was going well until my brother found me. The first thing he did was to threaten me. I had to leave my house. Without really wanting to, my sister went back to the family. This brother is another older brother, the one who was a Sergeant Major. He had lost his job because of my situation. After that, he never left me in peace. He kept saying ” I lost my job because of you. No one has managed to kill you but I will”, and he wouldn’t leave us alone. I hadn’t taken him seriously before but what he was saying and doing started to scare me. Because in the end, he threatened me with a weapon. Several friends witnessed these things…
I received a lot of threats after my liberation. From policemen, from the deceased’s family, I was constantly being threatened. They even dropped off on my doorstep a tombstone with my name on it. Policemen showed up at my work, threatening me. When I took part in demonstrations, they would pull me aside and tell me “go home and stay there, stop showing up in one demonstration after another.” There was a lot of police harassment. They were particularly aggressive in saying “what are you doing in protests, what business of yours are politics?” I never answered them, but I did what I had to do. My answer was through my struggle.
At that time, everyone was telling me to go abroad, but I never wanted to leave the country. I thought I had fought hard to be free, and that I could go on fighting. I resisted like this for two years. But so many things happened that I had no other choice. Three months before I left the country, my son was attacked and had a concussion. The unknown perpetrator has not been found to this day! After that, I left my job and asked my friends for help until my son was better. And, once again, thanks to a solidarity network, I left the country. I was not under a prohibition against leaving the territory but there was a risk since my face is known. But I managed that also.
Now, my son and I are living in a room in a refugee camp in Switzerland. I don’t have huge expectations over what will follow. I would like to no longer be afraid and to live a life in which there is no death. I would like my only concern to be my son’s homework, that I handle my child’s problems at adolescence, that I have nothing other than everybody else’s problems, those of people who lead a normal life.
I am in such a psychological state that I jump with fear and investigate the slightest noise. To such an extent that I can recognize people walking by my door by the sound of their footsteps. I wake up from nightmares in the middle of the night. I still do not feel safe. In the previous camp where we were, it happened that my son started howling just at the sight of security staff. We have no place we can consider our own. We are in a room and the kitchen, the washroom and the toilets are collective.
I know my son is not well. He cannot go to the bathroom alone. He cannot sleep in another bed than mine. Selim entered prison with me when he was six months old. He slept with me on the lower mattress in a bunk bed. When he was a bit older, he would climb up on our bed by himself. This is a real trauma for him and for me because here also, we have a bunk bed. If I could, I would dismantle it, throw it away and sleep on the floor.
Selim cried a lot during our first days in Switzerland. “You lied to me, you said we were going to Switzerland”, he said. The camps feel like a prison to him. And he is right, because we are in a deserted camp, far from the city. Living here is no good for me or for my son. We are afraid. There is a procedure underway and psychologically, we are not well. I panic every time there is a knock on the door.”
Yasemin has rejected all the roles that the family, men, the State and society had put on her shoulders; and for that, she has paid a heavy price. Although her story is filled with difficulties, it is a familiar one nonetheless. Because what had made us women gather round the “Trial of Yasemin Çakal” was the reality of the existence of millions of other women who were forced to defend their life, be it at home, in the street or at work, which is to say in every living space. Yasemin simply raised her voice and it immediately became the voice of millions. That voice gave all of us a political responsibility and we find ourselves part of a solidarity network.
These days, Yasemin is awaiting the decision of the Swiss Migration Office. I think that decision should be satisfying for all of us women.
The asylum request filed by Yasemin must be considered as a political request so that she may be authorized to live in Switzerland with her son. Because, in my opinion, the fact the tale told here is “an endless story” reveals the political nature of her request.
Both Yasemin’s past struggle and her current one are part of the History of women attempting to be the subject in their own life. And that is precisely where this cause takes on a political identity.