A square of sky

A black dog is seen walking through a field; in the background is a Turkish prison with high wall and watchtower
The 20 women whose stories feature in Asiye Müjgan Güvenli's book all have one thing in common: they are guilty of the offences for which they are being punished, and they don't dispute it (image: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Akgul)

In the 1970s and 80s, the author Asiye Müjgan Güvenli recorded the stories of women in Turkish prisons. Now the texts have been published in German and provide an insight into disturbing patriarchal conditions in Turkey at the time.

By Gerrit Wustmann

It is said that almost everyone who has something literary or journalistic to say in Turkey will eventually get the opportunity to write a prison book. Over the last eight years, the number of prison books has certainly risen significantly once again, and many have also been published in German – by Can Dündar, Ahmet Altan, Selahattin Demirtaş, Deniz Yücel and Adil Demirci, to name just a few of the more recent publications.

Since the Republic of Turkey was founded a century ago, the number of years in which the justice system based on the rule of law has functioned even moderately well is not very large, to put it mildly. 

Following a brief period of reform after the turn of the millennium, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP oversaw a rapid restructure that brought the judiciary to heel, and after the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016, if not before, the use of torture also returned to Turkish jails, which were meanwhile substantially extended to make space for the new political prisoners. 

There were periods in which anyone could be arrested at will for voicing anything remotely approaching criticism of the presidential palace. 

For once, however, these political prisoners are not the focus of Asiye Müjgan Güvenli's new book, which has just been published in German under the title Sind immer wir schuldig? Lebensgeschichten aus dem Frauengefängnis (Are we always the guilty ones? Life stories from the women's prison). These are women who have ended up behind bars after committing murder, grievous bodily harm, theft or other offences. 

Cover of "Sind immer wir schuldig?" by Asiye Müjgan Güvenli
Over the last eight years, the number of prison books published in Turkey has risen sharply, with books by Can Dündar, Ahmet Altan, Selahattin Demirtaş, Deniz Yücel and Adil Demirci and many more being published – some even in German. Pictured here: the cover of "Sind immer wir schuldig?" by Asiye Müjgan Güvenli (image: Verlag auf dem Ruffel)

No other way out

The author, who was born in 1957, studied sociology and worked as a journalist in Turkey. She has been living in Switzerland since 1997 and writes books in German and Turkish, as well as continuing to write articles for Turkish-language online media. 

In the 1970s and 80s, she herself was an inmate of several Turkish jails as a political prisoner – though unfortunately, the book reveals nothing about the background to her own imprisonment. 

Instead, the author gives us the collected stories of her fellow inmates from that time: the years surrounding the military coup of 1980. The stories are all anonymised; no full names are used, and even the forenames are probably not real, which we may assume is for the women's protection. 

The 20 women who speak to us through this book all have one thing in common: they are guilty of the offences for which they are being punished, and they don't dispute this. All the same, in her brief foreword Güvenli puts the word "criminal" in inverted commas, and expresses her understanding for these women. 

"For family and social reasons, under the pressure of patriarchal rules, as a result of poverty and violence, these women saw killing or stealing as their only way out. Women who killed their husbands had to do it to prevent their husbands murdering them. Or they killed their husbands because they saw it as the only way of freeing themselves from these men," Güvenli writes. 

Few opportunities for women

This, to put it mildly once again, is problematic – particularly as it doesn't hold true for all the stories contained in this book. Take, for instance, the woman who didn't murder her husband, but her husband's lover, a woman he had brought home with him from Germany. Or the woman whose motive was a blood feud, and who explains how omnipresent this principle is in her own life and the lives of others in her rural village. 

Güvenli provides a lot of reports in which the women's offences, the hopelessness of their situation, their lack of recourse in the face of domestic violence, abuse, discrimination and family pressure, are entirely understandable. You can see why they did what they did, and why, either with forethought or in the heat of the moment, they became murderers. 

One such case is a woman called Serap, whose story opens this volume. She absorbs herself in cutting squares out of bed-sheets and looking at the sky through the holes (evoking the view of the sky through square cell windows). She married her husband for love, against her parents' wishes, but still finds herself in a marital hell, where she is degraded to being a cleaner and sexual plaything. 

Her fate is far from being the most disturbing example that Güvenli presents here. No, the stories are very often gruelling affairs that reveal how few opportunities women had at that time, even in left-wing and supposedly progressive circles. 

Their trust in a fair justice system was close to zero, an attitude based not on prejudices but experience. Many of them (though by no means all) were victims who became perpetrators because they simply couldn't see any other way out – and we know that these things still happen in Turkey today, with femicide and abuse a sadly common feature of daily life. 

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Violence against women is omnipresent

But none of this does anything to change the fact that murder is murder – a perspective that Güvenli's book doesn't take at any point. However, then as now, an absence of the rule of law is the problem, alongside misogynistic social norms. If women had the option to liberate themselves from these relationships, without having to fear family or other consequences, and if they could take their violent husbands to court, many of these offences would not have happened – would not have had to happen. 

This is not to say that the existence of functioning authorities under the rule of law would get rid of this problem altogether. The issue of violence against women is, unfortunately, also omnipresent in Germany. And in Germany, too, people don't like to talk about it. There is still a lack of widespread awareness here, and of support for people to take action against patriarchal conditions. 

Güvenli's book is so important because it gives a voice to women who don't usually have one. Although these reports are already around 40 years old, they are without doubt representative of the fate of many women who are still having to go through similar things today – and not just in Turkey either. 

Gerrit Wustmann

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Asiye Müjgan Güvenli: Sind immer wir schuldig? Lebensgeschichten aus dem Frauengefängnis, Verlag auf dem Ruffel