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In press arti­cles and at some exhi­bi­tions of her prison works, Zehra Doğan’s use of men­stru­al blood as a paint medi­um is often  high­light­ed.

Zehra did not have access to any art sup­plies, no pig­ments, papers, can­vas­es or brush­es with which to car­ry on with her art in Amed’s women-only prison. So she bypassed the pro­hi­bi­tion after, as she says, hav­ing found that final­ly, she “had every­thing with­in easy reach”. She start­ed using var­i­ous sup­ports such as fab­ric, scrap card­board, var­i­ous bits of paper, bird feath­ers and human hair. She worked on “prints” done on wet sur­faces or pre­pared with cook­ing grease, or from the drop­pings left by birds in the morning.

Describ­ing the jail in this way, its chipped walls and its prom­e­nade court­yard, where free birds sat­is­fied nat­ur­al needs, draw­ing shapes with a ball­point or a lead pen­cil, women’s bod­ies, naked shapes sug­gest­ed by some improb­a­ble trace, such were Zehra’s pic­to­r­i­al inves­ti­ga­tions, done in small for­mats, dur­ing the first months of a total ban on art sup­plies. 

At the same time, Zehra Doğan was exper­i­ment­ing with nat­ur­al pig­ments, spices, crushed med­i­c­i­nal tablets, mixed, or pound­ed in a raw state.

A good many of these hand-made pig­ments and odor­ous mix­tures were destroyed by the guards, as were sev­er­al exper­i­ments or com­plet­ed works, they described as “garbage”, “dis­gust­ing prod­ucts with an unbear­able stench”, con­fis­cat­ed or thrown out, includ­ing some of her art­works. The last months of 2017 were spent in a cat and mouse game with the guards, aid­ed and sup­port­ed in this by her fel­low prisoners.

At the time she was also strug­gling to find space and pos­si­ble loca­tions in which to draw, to paint, to pro­tect her creations.

Par­tial bans on com­mu­ni­ca­tion were imposed because of var­i­ous breach­es to the rules, such as “singing with co-detainees”  and, of course, hav­ing par­tic­i­pat­ed in “spir­it of col­lec­tive resis­tance”.

The author­i­ties became aware of out­side pub­li­ca­tions, as part of a sol­i­dar­i­ty cam­paign devel­oped over a two-year peri­od around some “names” in con­tem­po­rary art, for exam­ple. The amount of let­ters and cards arriv­ing at the prison, out­side pro­hi­bi­tion peri­ods, was not to the lik­ing of the admin­is­tra­tion either, forced as it was to tol­er­ate this demon­stra­tion of sol­i­dar­i­ty.

But talk­ing and writ­ing about the use of “men­stru­al blood” appeared not only as a taboo, but  also as what it was: a woman’s resis­tance, proud­ly claim­ing her sta­tus and her gen­der, and mak­ing use of it in an artis­tic process, as a weapon of resis­tance. This was too much for the patri­ar­chal men­tal­i­ty of the prison and its rules, as well as for its big­ot­ed morality…

Of course, we have also seen press arti­cles, although favor­able to Zehra Doğan, where the term “blood” was used with a scan­dalous or provoca­tive con­no­ta­tion, con­cern­ing a women’s prison… Such arti­cles were quite unsuit­ed to describ­ing Zehra Dogan’s approach far removed from a victim’s sim­ple call for help. From the top of her 29 years, she was claim­ing the time spent in prison as time in its full mea­sure, for writ­ing, for think­ing, for cre­at­ing and for strug­gling. Being a caged woman was one of those aspects…

There­fore, Zehra claimed her sta­tus as a woman, loud and clear. For her, the men­stru­al taboo is a patri­ar­chal one, dis­guised under a head­ing of “dirt, lack of hygiene and clean­li­ness”, or even an “untouch­able sta­tus”. Women’s blood would be dirty, and that of mar­tyrs glo­ri­fied? The writer dip­ping a pen in his blood or the knight’s oath with his blood would be actions praised to the heav­ens, and men­stru­al blood would be an excre­ment even low­er on the scale of val­ues than the drop­pings of a bird fly­ing free?

Mix­ing red blood and turmer­ic yel­low, cof­fee, ash­es or the juices extract­ed from greens was not a provo­ca­tion on Zehra’s part, nor was it a sor­did appeal, but rather a claim of an exis­ten­tial nature. Nature which she uses in order to cre­ate.  Art devoid of trick­ery, far removed from con­tem­po­rary art mar­kets, and yet ephemer­al, since it was destroyed when it fell under the hand of censorship.

Here, in one of her last let­ters,  Zehra tells us with much force and pre­ci­sion, how she behaved dur­ing this kind of exchange with her guards, when she was enjoined to answer “alle­ga­tions of using fem­i­nine blood” still appear­ing here and there in what remains of   hard-pressed media, out­side the voic­es of its master.

Blood red is a colour, and you know it, so much of it flows on Kur­dish lands”, Zehra Doğan could write.

Today is a “disgusting” day

The cal­en­dar shows a dis­gust­ing day. A warm day, buried in the womb of His­to­ry, sus­pend­ed above, anes­the­siz­ing the brain at each turn, with its con­stant mechan­i­cal sound…

The guard half-opens the door and calls out “Let Zehra Doğan come, the chief guard wants to speak to her”. Ask­ing myself “what crime have I com­mit­ted this time? Which draw­ing did they find prob­lem­at­ic again?” I walk out the door, with Mer­al the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our quar­ter. The chief guard was wait­ing in the hall­way. He start­ed speak­ing with a rel­a­tive­ly polite atti­tude, say­ing “I don’t know how to say this…”, “don’t mind me, please excuse me, but appar­ent­ly you are mak­ing draw­ings with blood, is this true?” He asked with patri­ar­chal embar­rass­ment. On his own, he was cen­sor­ing the word “men­stru­al” and set­tling on the word “blood”.

I then answered the man, adopt­ing a pos­ture show­ing there was noth­ing in need of being excused or resent­ed, “Yes.”. “Don’t do it, he said, the prison staff is dis­gust­ed and they are afraid of catch­ing germs.” The guard who was with him con­firmed “yes, it’s dis­gust­ing”.  This unex­pect­ed obsta­cle caught me unprepared.

As the own­er of this dis­gust­ing busi­ness, with a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty, I answered him as quick as a flash: “Dis­gust­ing? The fact we are unjust­ly kept impris­oned here, and as if that was not enough, the fact that as an artist, the sup­plies I need for my art are for­bid­den, are already dis­gust­ing facts. What I’m sub­ject­ed to is dis­gust­ing. I can only raise a protest against this dis­gust­ing state of affairs through some­thing social­ly per­ceived as dis­gust­ing. A thing con­sid­ered dis­gust­ing by the patri­ar­chal men­tal­i­ty. Which is to say, men­stru­al blood. In order to define dis­gust expe­ri­enced dai­ly, that which is tru­ly dis­gust­ing, I can only use some­thing that you con­sid­er dis­gust­ing, the blood from my peri­ods. If you are dis­gust­ed, that means I achieved my objective.”

I would have liked to explain to them that men­stru­al blood was con­sid­ered as sacred in His­to­ry, that there was noth­ing dis­gust­ing or germ-laden about it, that it was used by some abo­rig­i­nal or trib­al peo­ple to heal wounds, but I myself did not have the strength for that, nor they, the patience to listen.

See­ing my deter­mi­na­tion, the chief guard trans­formed the mat­ter into an issue of con­science. “If you had a con­science, you wouldn’t do things that dis­gust peo­ple and that might infect them. Myself, were I to touch it, I wouldn’t leave my bath­room for the whole day,” he told me.

I closed the top­ic by telling him: “It would be a fine thing if the issue of con­science were a rec­i­p­ro­cal mat­ter. And also, if you could con­sult your con­science for not pro­vid­ing me with paint­ing sup­plies and for­bid­ding me their access in an arbi­trary fash­ion. But it’s not a rec­i­p­ro­cal mat­ter of con­science. Con­science can­not func­tion con­di­tion­al­ly, only that which exists sees the light of day.” 

The fact they tell me all this shows that I won a long time ago. The van­quished one is always in a beg­ging posi­tion toward the vic­tor. So I am the one who is the stronger. I thus have in my hands a pow­er and they do not know what to make of it, when con­front­ed with it. They end up cling­ing to con­science  and attempt to stop me. I know what con­science is, thanks to the strug­gle in which I believe. What is left to us is to lis­ten to the voice of con­science. And as always, I add, my con­science. And my con­science tells me “car­ry on with your art, no mat­ter what hap­pens, keep on draw­ing and telling”. I lis­ten, and I decide once again, to car­ry on.

This is what it means, being a woman in the patri­ar­chal sys­tem. For the past five thou­sand years, we have been cursed, con­sid­ered as dis­gust­ing. This is an imper­a­tive of monothe­is­tic reli­gions, this curs­ing of the seed from which it comes, the ovaries…In Judaism, among oth­ers, when a woman has her peri­od, she must not touch any­thing, eat in a dif­fer­ent plate, sleep in anoth­er bed, and even to avoid the loss of abun­dance to the house­hold, she is put out­side the house. Some­one who touch­es her is con­sid­ered soiled. At the end of her peri­od, she wash­es, wash­es her clothes, breaks the plate and after mak­ing offer­ings, returns to the house. In Islam, things are no dif­fer­ent. The woman who has her peri­od can­not pray, bow down, fast. She can­not enter the mosque. The foods she cooks can­not be eat­en, the ones she touch­es are spoiled. Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, Islam, such is the hos­til­i­ty of patri­ar­chal reli­gion toward women. It’s about lock­ing up, cursing.

This is how I found the way to face all of this. I want­ed all the patri­ar­chal ones to feel this, that they be dis­gust­ed by the dis­gust­ing woman.

Imag­ine a deputy, an elect­ed woman in prison…For a sec­ond time, Ley­la Güven is a can­di­date at the elec­tion. As a jour­nal­ist, I would like to write on her elec­toral work. In prison, pho­tos are for­bid­den. So I would like to draw, but there is no paper. So I draw on the torn wrap­ping papers used for lemons. In your opin­ion, just this one pro­hi­bi­tion, that there is not one scrap of draw­ing paper, is that not in itself a dis­gust­ing situation?

Briefly stat­ed, con­sid­er for your­self: what is dis­gust­ing, my draw­ings or my dai­ly life?

Zehra Doğan
August 2018, Amed prison

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.

  • sang blood kan zehra dogan art

Spe­cial report on Zehra Doğan (Eng­lish, French, Span­ish, Turk­ish, Kurdish)
Face­book Page Free Zehra Doğan   Twit­ter @zehradoganjinha Web­site zehradogan.net

Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Zehra Doğan
Auteure, mem­bre d’hon­neur de Kedistan
Jour­nal­iste, artiste. Jour­nal­ist, artist. Gazete­ci, sanatçı.