Arat: Two trans women or “sinners” in a Turkish prison

Diren is a trans woman who just entered her thirties. She will be subject to systematic torture inside an F-type prison cell coffin* for three more years. Buse, a trans woman in her forties, discovered her gender identity during her incarceration. She has been sentenced to life.

Source: Kıvılcım Arat, “Two sinners (!) at Tekirdağ No 2 [Prison] : Diren and Buse” (“Tekirdağ 2 Nolu’da İki Günahkar(!); Diren ve Buse”), Kıvılcım Arat, bianet, January 2, 2018, http://bianet.org/bianet/lgbti/192911-tekirdag-2-nolu-da-iki-gunahkar-diren-ve-buse

On the road to Istanbul from Tekirdağ, I kept thinking about the value and meaning of our lives. I reflected on the struggle against the multiple discriminations we face, as well as how  limited and narrow the spaces of solidarity meant for empowering ourselves are.

The system and social life is designed through a binary gender regime. The problems generated by and the lives sacrificed in the name of this regime entangle not only trans women but also those who do not define themselves with binaries  in an inescapable spiral of violence.

Even though the imposed stereotypes of ideal men and women are not the same across communities, binary gender models are cultivated, spread, and institutionalized through a disparate array of social groups ranging from Islamists to Liberals, from Social Democrats to Socialists.

While cursing this system and its founders, I think about the resistance of the two sinners staying in the coffins of Tekirdağ No 2. I think about their unheard, unknown, unwritten resistance… and how forlorn this resistance is…

As the wheel of history keeps turning, someone writes that history. This is the reason I’m writing this story to you. To document the resistance of these two sinner women and to render it known to the world, in spite of the power of those who miswrite the present and obfuscate history.

Diren is a trans woman who just entered her thirties and is child of a family from Dersim [Tunceli]. Until last August, she was trying to hold onto  life in Amed [Diyarbakir] with a public trans identity. She has such a kind heart that every cat, whether tortured, disabled or infirm has certainly stayed in her home. And hers is not just an ordinary love of animals… It’s a feeling molded with consciousness. She is a vegan who feels the cruelty of the human species as a personal conviction. Diren is an amazing human who has understood the connection between a slice of cheese she eats and slavery. She is also a brave woman who has declared her conscientious objection.

As Diren was trying to hold onto this life with all the sensitivity she carries inside her, she faced the accusation of spreading [terror] propaganda and, without any tangible evidence, was unfortunately convicted of this crime. As a result of this conviction, she will be subject to systematic torture and isolation in F-type coffins for three more years.

Buse is a trans woman in her forties who came to define her gender identity during her incarceration and is the child of a family from Ağrı. Convicted for life, Erzurum State Security Court** indicted Buse where she stood trial without a defense attorney present. She has been in prison for twenty years and has another seventeen more years to spend in that dark cell.

What brings Diren and Buse together in the same cell is that they were both sentenced based on charges related to the same crime. As one’s existence empowers the other’s, their unknown state casts them both into an endless abyss.

As a 30-year-old who has visited three different prisons forthree incarcerated women, I was aware of the violence I would be subjected to at the entrance to Tekirdağ No. 2. And, on my way, I decided not to complain. Thinking about what Diren went through at the hands of the soldiers and wardens, I tried to get used to the fact that I would be experiencing this violence for three more years. At the end of the day, I was a visitor and I was bound to go through the indignity they imposed on me once a month. My body was relatively freer than Diren’s.

Just like any other prison I saw, Tekirdağ No. 2 is also a structure built to break the human spirit. As I entered through its gate, I reminded myself not to let anything overshadow the joy of seeing Diren and I walked in. Those who have been there would know how it is–open visits are crowded, packed with many relatives, young or old, and children. I gave my passport to the officer, hoping that a passport not color-coded and gender neutral would allow for an insult-free, harassment-free passage.

After registration, I was able to pass through the first checkpoint with other women. Towards the second one, Diren’s brother warned me “Be careful, you won’t be seeing smiling faces after this point”. Not long after, the female warden asked loudly “Did you go through surgery?” in the middle of the crowd. And then she called the first checkpoint where I left my ID and asked what was written on my ID under the gender slot. After she hung up, pulling a wry face she ordered the male wardens: “I won’t search this. Take him to the other side”. Under the silence of tens of gazes the wardens touched every bit of my body from my breast to my hips, continuing their work with the joy of carrying out a patriotic duty.

As these events were happening at the gate, what were Buse and Diren going through?

Diren’s open visit takes place in a separate room. A policy of isolation within isolation. Two wardens hovering above us, listening to every word we utter. We can neither hug nor talk in peace.

As there are no vegan meals, Diren has been feeding on boiled potatoes and tomatoes for months. It is another trouble to get female clothes in. Her requests for bras and similar things have been denied. She talked about the indifference of the doctors at the infirmary. She said that the officers frequently refer to her with the name written on her ID and address her as “Sir”. This “Sir” title has become such a grave violence that she swallowed an entire box of hormone pills at once during past weeks. On the farewell note she wrote, she exposed the systematic violence she has experienced. After her stomach was pumped, she was handcuffed to the radiator at the public hospital in the state she was in. Fortunately, when her objections turned into a scream they brought her back to her cell. Even in this state, she thinks more about Buse than herself. What Buse has been going through for the last twenty years and what she will go through the next seventeen. Her operation has been denied in spite of permission for the surgery and this has made her psychological state deteriorate even more. Buse is planning to use the last weapon she has left, to starve her new body and to lay down to die.

We trans women, who are the decided sinners of society, try to exist through resistance. Our resistance is born out of an affront to humanity. This sin is deemed so great that even the mothers who carried the sinners for nine months stay away from their children.

Towards the end of my visit, Diren said that Buse got ready in the morning and put on makeup. When she asked her what she was getting ready for, Buse answered “You never know, maybe my brother will come”. A brother who was expected and who never arrived for years! Buse’s answer became a thorn in my flesh and invigorated my struggle. This sin which bars relatives from coming to open visit should be society’s cross to bear.

Buse has been trying to exist in incarceration without anyone by her side for twenty years. She thinks she has been forgotten. Fortunately, at the end of 20 years, IHD (Human Rights Association) Co-Chair and attorney Eren Keskin took charge of the entire judicial process and will follow up on the unlawful practices Buse has endured, including the right to operation she was denied. This Thursday, Keskin will go to Tekirdağ No.2 as Buse’s legal representative to clarify her demands for justice. The commission set up for Buse and Diren at İHD will share the rights violations with the public in a press statement released next week.*** The past twenty years of isolation will at least be subdued. Historians writing from their dignified perspectives may perhaps take little note of what’s happening, but this will be a thousand hopes for trans people to come.

As two sinners of Tekirdağ write their histories through resistance, the solitude we left them in will one day find us too. The only way out of the hell of a binary regime is not to participate in its norms but to dismantle the norm. What is imposed with the norm leads to darkness and the resistance of the trans women lead to light.

*Translator’s note: “Coffin” is an unofficial term which denotes isolation cells where many political prisoners stay in F-type prisons. 

**State Security Courts (Devlet Güvenlik Mahkemeleri): Designed after the State Security Courts of De Gaulle era in France, DGMs first originated after the military coup of 1971, equipped with extraordinary authority regarding the cases that “endangered the existence of the state”. Its judges and prosecutors were assigned by military authorities, which is why it was seen as a “martial law without the declaration of martial law”. DGMs were shut down in the mid 1970s, only to be resurrected after the military coup of 1980. They remained active until 2004.

***  İHD held a press conference on January 10, see bianet article for more info.

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