Nezahat Doğan of the Yeni Yaşam interviews Figen Yüksekdağ, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who has been imprisoned now for more than five years.
From her prison cell, Yüksekdağ answered questions on prison conditions, the oppression of women, the women’s struggle for freedom and equality, and the most vital demands on 8 March Women’s Day.
You have been in prison for more than five years now. How can we define the current situation in prisons regarding the conditions surrounding you and other female political prisoners?
All oppressive regimes that draw their strength from patriarchy and from fascism see those political figures they cannot cope with, who are role models for the whole of society and especially women, as their enemies, as the active participation of women in politics rocks the foundations of the regime. This hostility is in fact the reason why hundreds of female political activists are kept in jail for years. The other reason has even deeper roots. The codes of domination established through wars against women for thousands of years are being smashed with the awakening and rebellion of the oppressed gender in political struggle. So the issue is very ideological.
By imprisoning us they are punishing the will of women, which rocks the foundations of patriarchy all the way up to its roof, opening up holes in its walls on the way. This is a way to deal with our struggle, but only history, society and the strong will of women can decide how successful they will be.
Thousands of female political activists including hundreds of elected women (HDP MPs, mayors and councillors as well as branch officials) will return to the free political struggle even stronger.
Violations of rights, isolation and disciplinary proceedings in prisons… What are the difficulties you are facing?
The isolation and the penal system in general are the basic causes of the difficulties in prisons. And of course even before these comes the problem of justice. The government has turned Turkey into a closed prison [for prisoners] and a semi-closed one [for the whole of society], constantly swinging the sword of jurisdiction over the people. As a result the general struggle for rights and justice is essential in order to end the maltreatment and political oppression in prisons. But in doing this it is also not possible to further postpone focusing on all the accumulated problems and the humanitarian crisis in prisons especially in the last two years.
The difficulties I and our people are facing are not much different from what other prisoners face. Though as high profile targets we do sometimes face attitudes that demonstrate hate or prejudice, because the smear campaigns of the government continue even while we are in prison. But the most important problem in our daily lives is isolation. All rights to the most basic activities were suspended during the pandemic. We are not allowed to have visitors, even from our families, for more than half an hour.
The correction system has turned into an outright punishment system. The prison administrations have been given the authority to extend the periods of imprisonment beyond the sentences passed by the courts. There are prisoners here whose release will be delayed due to decisions by an ‘observation council’, even though they have already served their time. They are also trying to demoralise political prisoners through disciplinary measures. They impose a penalty at every chance, which amounts to systematic punishment. For instance a communications ban was imposed on us om the eve of 8 March because of the slogans we chanted when Garibe Gezer died [in prison].
How do you see the women outside, looking from inside, in terms of organising and acting together?
We still have a long way to go in terms of organisation. We cannot see the problem only in the context of women who are already organised. We have to think about an organised struggle of millions of women, and pave the way that will eventually lead to that. So the women’s movement needs to broaden its horizons. Recently it appears that women’s organisations are making more systematic efforts towards joining forces, with more successful outcomes which is good, and uplifting. However there is still the need for further solidarity; to unite in a single aim and to say, ‘all of us together as one’. For instance there is a vital need to act in order to get results for the Istanbul Convention, and against violence targeting women, putting aside all our differences.
Women will be on the streets tomorrow. 8 March is a very important date and each year there are new slogans and a new agenda. What should women chant this year?
Focusing on violence against women, femicide and to reinstate the Istanbul Convention in connection to this will be important. This will be the first 8 March since the withdrawal from the convention. There have been many demonstrations previously against the withdrawal, but presenting a determined stance on 8 March this year could bring results. The economic crisis and women’s poverty, the demand for peace in the face of the war waged inside and outside the borders, all of these could be the themes of 8 March this year.
What would you like to say for 8 March?
I send my greetings to all women on this International Working Womens’ Day. I hope the 8 March 2022 becomes a turning point where our unity, our struggle and our joys grow. I salute all women who welcome the 8 March with strikes and struggle, who do not surrender to violence, who chant on the streets in our name, in the name of dear Emine Şenyaşar, in the name of all prisoners’ mothers struggling for their children. I salute all LGBTI individuals speaking out through the Pride movement, and the women who join in efforts to reclaim life and peace in a region of war and death.
What is the utmost concern for Figen Yüksekdağ?
I have the greatest concern of all: It’s Freedom… It’s both my great concern and my remedy.