Turkish women’s personal accounts lay bare prevalence of strip-searching in prisons

A female deputy from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) created a stir last week, when she denied the practice of unlawful strip-searches against women in Turkey’s prisons.

"I do not believe there are strip searches taking place in Turkey,’’ Özlem Zengin said, responding to pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker and lawyer Ömer Gergerlioğlu, who brought up the matter during a parliamentary session.

"Gergerlioğlu is terrorising parliament,’’ the AKP deputy group chairwoman said.

HDP’s Gergerlioğlu was referring reports that 30 women taken into police custody had been strip searched in August in the western province of Uşak and subject to humiliation at the hands of officials.

The row between lawmakers has sparked a debate that has extended beyond parliament as opposition parties call for an end to the increasingly applied practice, which scores of victims say is implemented during visits, entry, transfer between facilities, and hospital transfers across the country.

Women are coming out to share the humiliation they faced when forced to remove their undergarments and being subjected to invasive body searches.

The wave of testimonies would have made late Turkish socialist Sultan Seçik very proud.

A member of the Social Democracy Party and columnist with socialist Gelecek (Future) newspaper, Seçik in 2001 had given an account during an anti-torture council meeting of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of officer Sedat Selim Ay.

Ay would later be appointed deputy director of the Istanbul Anti-Terror Police Department despite charges of rape and torture against him.

Seçik, who passed away in 2015,  faced trial along with 15 others over her account of rape. But she would have been proud of the cries of Turkish women against strip-searching if she were alive today.

Despite the passage of decades since the 90s, not a great deal has changed in terms of the treatment of women in police detention.

Birgül Koçal talks about her first time being stripped searched in 2016 in Istanbul’s Gayrattepe police station. 

“I was arrested following 11 days in detention and brought to Bakırköy prison,’’ she explains. “Following our entry procedures, we were strip searched in a small room…. After we were transferred to Silivri Prison, we were strip searched yet again, as though we were being arrested all over again.’’

Koçal explains that it is “not possible’’ to put into words the feelings she felt at the time. 

“We hear and see a great deal of what people are subjected to,’’ she said, “the harassment and rape of women… I have never been scared of being arrested or jailed… On my way to prison all I prayed for was for God to not allow the officials to touch us. This might give you a picture of what I was thinking when it happened.’’ 

For Koçal, the statement by AKP’s Zengin is unacceptable.

“I have come to understand that this is something that must be shared when I saw that there are people in this country, who deny that strip searching happens,’’ Koçal said, referring to AKP lawmaker.

“It boggles my mind that Özlem Zengin, a lawyer, can make statements on the matter without as much a tiny bit of research. I don’t know how her conscience can accept such a thing,’’ she explains.  

Aslı has been visiting her husband who is incarcerated in Turkey’s southern town of Elbistan for four years.  She is subjected to a strip search every time.

Aslı explains that both her and young daughter are asked to remove their clothing, down to their undergarments each time ahead of their visit.

“They would remove my baby daughter’s diapers every time to see if there was anything in it and ask me to remove my bra if it had a wire in it. They did this for years, they would ask us to leave our underwear there and, at best, check our underwear by touching us,’’ she explains.

Every one of the searches made the visitors feel as though they were not human, Aslı said, adding that she can still “hear the cries of small children during the searches.’’

For Fatma Nur Ener, who has also been subjected to strip searches, Zengin’s declaration is “disgraceful.’’

“Has this person ever done any research on this matter?’’ Ener asks, “Which victim has she spoken to?’’

Ener says there are thousands of women subjected to strip searches, something she personally witnessed repeatedly during her 357 days behind bars. 

“I know its a big and difficult to discuss trauma. But let us combine forces and fearlessly expose this violation. It is not us who should be embarrassed, but them (the perpetrators,’’ she adds.

Aygül Arat was detained during her university years in 2011. She shares her account of being strip searched in the police headquarters of the southeastern town of Cizre.

“Two female police officers asked me to remove all of my clothing and they denied my objection to this. I was hoping that they could empathise with me as women, but the exact opposite happened,’’ she explains. 

As women from all walks of life, including lawyers, teachers, doctors and housewives, continue to share their stories, bolstering the opposition’s call to end the practice of strip searching, it has become evident that this subject will continue to occupy Turkey’s agenda in the days to come. 


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.