Kurdish Women’s Resistance in Turkish Colonial Prisons


Prisons are a fundamental cog in the colonial machine. This is particularly true in the context of North Kurdistan, under Turkish sovereignty, where thousands of Kurdish activists and nonactivists have been detained for decades. Among them, Kurdish women have often seen their resistance invisibilized, as Berivan Kutlay Sarikaya describes in this text. Through interviews with female prisoners and historical analysis, she constructs a “feminist unsilencing” project centering on their role in the Kurdish struggle from inside the walls.

Kutlay Sarikaya Funambulist 4
Photo from Diyarbakir Prison (standing, third from left to right) Emine Turgut (sitting first and third from the left) Cahide Şener and Sakine Cansız.

Historically, political captivity and mass incarceration of Kurdish people have been part and parcel of the Turkish state. The history of the incarceration of the Kurdish people goes back to the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Mass incarceration and the systematic physical, psychological, and sexual violence of Kurds have been employed as a colonial tool to spread intimidation to prevent and suppress the Kurdish anti-colonial struggle.

Although the exact number of Kurds who went to prison due to the Kurdish anti-colonial struggle is unknown, the total is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands, with the majority being imprisoned after the September 12 military coup in 1980. This event was the most transformative among the military interventions in Turkey as it restructured social, cultural, and economic life. Yet, an outstanding characteristic of the coup was the use of prisons as the primary tool of the colonial state to oppress Kurds.

Following the September 12 coup, militarized prisons in Turkey systematically introduced disciplinary control mechanisms. The prisoners were identified as soldiers and subjected to institutionalized training programs whose main aim was to “educate” them as soldiers. Women, too, faced the masculinization and militarization of their bodies in prison despite dominant sexist narratives deeming them unfit for warfare. They experienced systematic inequalities in social life but were suddenly considered equal to men in prisons and thus treated as soldiers. A former Kurdish female political prisoner recounted:

While we as women do not have equal rights with men in any field of life, we experienced complete equality in the Diyarbakir dungeon—in torture, solitary confinement, military training, crawling, push-ups, and singing military anthems every day, zone cleaning, and three-time roll calls per day—everything! The torture applied in male wards was imposed on us to the same degree, if not more. For instance, women are not required to perform military service according to the Turkish Constitution.