Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A letter-interview with Professor Busra Ersanli

A letter-interview with Professor Busra Ersanli, who has been held at Bakirkoy Prison for Women and Children for the past 128 days

[Originally published in Turkish on T24, an independent internet news site, this interview was conducted by Hazal Özvarış.]

Today is March 8, International Working Women’s Day. 24 women were murdered in the past month only, while the ministry entitled “Ministry of Family,” recently absolved of the word “Woman” in its title, introduced to the Turkish parliament the highly-expurgated bill for “Protection of the Family and Prevention of Violence against Women.”

While the bill continues being discussed in the parliament, we received Professor Ersanli’s response to our letter from February 19. Ersanli, who was a professor at Marmara University’s Department of Political Science and International Relations, has been in Bakirkoy Prison for Women and Children for 128 days. The formal criminal charge against her is still unfinished. And so the grounds on which the arrest was made remain unknown.

One wonders whether the grounds are the lectures she gave as part of BDP’s [Peace and Democracy Party] Political Academy, or the notes on autonomy that she took in her journal. Alternatively they can be, to quote the Minister of Internal Affairs, Idris Naim Sahin, “the communist activities that she undertook before 1980” -- or are they “her sister’s [suspect] husband”![1]

Evidence and accusations have yet to be revealed… Also unknown is how a faculty member at a university, whose whereabouts and anti-war stance are in the public eye, could be a terrorist. Professor Ersanli is celebrating the International Working Women’s Day at the prison, all of five wards of which, she says, are too full. While she still awaits the finalization of the official accusations against her, let us read together the answers that Professor Ersanli gave [to the questions in our letter]:

- Those who have visited you report how “lively and joyful” you are. How are you? How are your days in prison passing?

Yes, I am, indeed, lively and joyful. There is a simple reason for it: I don’t like being a victim. Someone looking worried and sad is upsetting to some people, and pleasant to others. I don’t want to upset those who love me, nor would I want to please those who have had wrongdoings against me. The feeling of helplessness prevents one from working, and enjoying life. My personal way of resistance involves a continuous [self-]distancing from helplessness.

I read and write in the prison. I began with the things I hadn’t had the chance to read outside. We are 28 people here. I teach courses on Political Science twice a week: on Political Culture, Political System and Women in Turkey, and on Political Ideologies.

- You said “I don’t know what KCK means.” Of the 125 political prisoners held at Bakirkoy Prison for Women and Children, 104 are arrested due to [their alleged relationship to] KCK. What does KCK mean to you now?

To this day I do not know what “kay-ci-kay” is. There are conflicting explanations in the press. I also was not able to get to know about it here. I suspect that the people I know and am acquainted with here in the prison do not have substantial information about it either –I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation. Apparently my arrest was decided under the rubric of [alleged association to] PKK/Kongra-gel [Kurdistan Workers’ Party][2]. I couldn’t believe it even when I saw it written. I know very well that I have no relation to an armed association because that would be simply impossible. I cannot bear to approve of any armed conflict, regardless of whether it is righteous or evil. This is how my morals work. Also, the number of residents at Bakirkoy has risen from 104 to almost 140. We no longer fit into 5 wards.

- What do you think, as part of the KCK operations ongoing over two years now, is specifically aimed in the case of your arrest?

Your questions are always referring me back to this “kay-ci-kay” issue. As far as I understand, however, my arrest was actually related to BDP [Peace and Democracy Party]. Everybody knows I am not a PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] member or that I would be against arms and violence… Their actual target [by arresting me] could be the transitivity that BDP provides to the “front and back yards”…[3]

- In response to the criticism that ensued following your arrest, Idris Naim Sahin stated that “There are thirty thousand professors” and that he “…would have understood the commotion if it were a thousand of them being arrested,” asking: “What is this big deal for one person?” He continued: “Dear friends, I recommend you take a little tour in the pre-80s youth of Madam Professor Busra Ersanli. To see what crimes, what kinds of communistic activities that she was charged with and served prison time; and check out who her relatives are, to see for which other activities her sister’s husband is also in prison.” [With these words Sahin] brought your past forward as evidence to your potential criminality now. How do you feel about his approach?

Certain media had already started a smear and discrediting campaign against me around the time of my arrest –40 hours before my arrest to be more precise. The ministry may have taken over the post [from the media] to be more effective.

- Prime minister Erdogan asserted his wish that the former chief of general staff Ilker Basbug be tried without arrest. Why do you think the government refrains from expressing a similar wish for your case?

Whenever the police would point me to a chair to sit at the station, that is the building on Vatan Street, they would also tell me how so many admirals and generals had also sat on those chairs. I do not think the comparison in your question is correct. In fact, it is far from appropriate especially for independent reporting. The army is a state institution and, with all its staff, works under the command of the government. Academia does not work for the state. Regardless of whether public or private, it is expected to be an autonomous area. The right thing for the researchers and academics to do is to carry on this freedom. Because university, etymologically [and otherwise] entails universality, its autonomy should be first and foremost. Unfortunately a reverse kind of tradition has been carried on in the political history of Turkey, where the military has been autonomous and academia dependent. The military has lost its autonomy. However, it seems academia has yet to traverse to the realm of autonomy. As for the Prime Ministers assertions on the former chief of general staff Basbug… Who knows, perhaps dear prime minister does not even wish that I be tried…

- Your arrest due to the KCK allegations was in contrast to your anti-violence stance, and caused public criticism. Your arrest was seen as exemplary of the lack of any effort [on the part of the state] to differentiate between accusing someone with violence and accusing someone for their thoughts. However, we found out, though Koray Caliskan’s article that the president of Marmara University would not contact you. Were you deserted by academia? Is this because the academia has grown numb to what has been going on, or because they are afraid of being associated with the Kurdish issue?

I was arrested because I am a member of BDP [Peace and Democracy Party]. And yet, I am referred to variably as having different alleged associations, which result in different reverberations. President of Marmara University, Professor Zafer Gul, had visited out department (the Deparment of Political Science and International Relations) before his appointment as president to ask for our support of his candidacy. He had told us about his projects and we had exchanged out opinions on academic freedom. He had made promises to support academic liberties. I think he should have contacted me as an academic after I got arrested, even if he didn’t share my political views [on a personal level]. He could at least have sent me something like a happy-new-year’s card. Especially following the clearing of my office [at the department]… I hear that police forces are positioned at the door to my office now. I have no idea what to make of this, when I am also denied a simple happy new year’s wish. I patiently await some kind of initiation, some contact that will come from the university management. I had once given them my support.

Of course I continuously get the support of numerous academics, including my close colleagues in the form of letters, cards, and books. Since January I have also been receiving support letters from Europe and the United States.

- Did Ahmet Davutoglu, who was your academic reference in getting the “visiting” position at Beykent University, failed your expectations from him as a politician?

Professor Davutoglu was not my reference. I asked me to work at Beykent because the department was in its infancy and in need of support. It was not that I was looking for a job. Beykent was very far from where I lived, too. I taught there for 2 years, which was mainly out of my respect and sympathy for Professor Davutoglu. His main work has been in the academic sector. I am sure that he must have wanted to support me in terms of supporting academic freedom. But I do not understand why Professor Davutoglu does not demonstrate his support publicly, especially because I am confident that he knows the meaning of academic liberty. We even have our thesis adviser in common: Professor Serif Mardin. I will keep waiting, and I know that I will be waiting for a while.

- Do you see any deficient or faulty attitudes within the Kurdish political struggle? Do you have any criticism towards the Kurdish movement?

Of course there are, and have been deficiencies and faults. But I do believe that they will decrease in time. Because it [the Kurdish political movement] is pioneer in terms of its quota for the representation of women and in terms of the liberties they embrace for women. I see BDP as a party that engenders hope and new horizons for the resolution of the Kurdish problem. They also work sensitively on the issues of labor, creative labor and ecology. It was BDP that have come up with comprehensive parliamentary questions comprising a variety of areas such as social, political, economic, educational, and cultural. Under normal circumstances I could also demand a quota for the representation of young people and suggest building up temporary cooperativeness with different parties on project basis. I am happy to hear that the last conference on Dersim was very good, for example.

All politicians have to create areas on which they can work collaboratively with others, despite their differing views. It does not suffice to be open to that. Ability to collaborate and have a dialogue is a key prerequisite in every single step.

[1] These are direct quotes from Sahin’s public speech in mid-November 2011. ( Ministers comments came as an official and public approval by a high-level government representative of the larger-scale hate-speech campaign that had previously ensued in the right-wing/conservative media (see, for example, our coverage from November 1 here (

[2] Translator’s note: PKK , also known as KGK, Kongra-gel, or Kadek, is known to have been engaged in armed struggle with the Turkish state since 1984.

[3] Translator’s note: Ersanli is quoting a public speech by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Idris Naim Sahin, where he had expressed his novel and chilling descriptions of terrorism. The latter include poetry, music, and painting, which, the minister redefined as indirectly terroristic activities, and likened their “motivation” to the “back yard of terrorism.”