“SHE EITHER BELONGS
TO ME, OR TO THE LAND”
Emine Akbaba is a German photographer of Turkish descent, human rights activist.
Emine was in Istanbul for a week, to capture the series of protests for the International Women’s Day. Since 2016, she was coming back and forth from Germany to Turkey, working on the project about femicides – the violence regime that has been haunting women for years. Despite the Istanbul Convention that was signed in 2012 by Turkey to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence, at least 4 women are murdered every day. Emine has been travelling across Turkey to record the stories of the families of victims of femicides, and to take photographs of the places where the murders have occured. Emine is convinced that it is our responsibility to remember their names and to demand justice.
I always worked with the stories about women; perhaps my background had an influence on this.
My mom’s experiences influenced me as a photographer quite a lot. She experienced enough violence throughout her life, in her first marriage, and then from my father. My mom immigrated to Germany when she was young, and she did not have a chance to be independent, to have a life outside of the family. And this is how I learned that I want my life to be different. I wanted to be strong for my mother, and for other women who could not get away from a circle of abuse.
I was born and raised in Germany, but I always felt like I am standing in between two cultures – I am German, but I am also Turkish. And in the Turkish culture, a woman always belongs to a man – first, to her father, then to her husband. If husband dies, she belongs to her father again, or to her son. Hence, the phrase you either belong to me, or to the earth. I wanted so badly to break through this mentality.
In 2009, when I entered photojournalism school in Hannover, I was the first Turkish person to study there, and I was the first person in my family to do higher education. When I compare myself to people from Turkey, of course I am priviledged, but it doesnt mean that I am coming from a white German family. But they did not know this when they were asking me: “Is your brother going to pick you up from school?” Lots of things were assumed about who I am just because my name was Turkish.
But still, the focus of my stories was the Turkish community, I was always coming back to my roots. I wasn’t aware at first but I always reached out to women and their stories. I learned about this pattern at the Danish School of Journalism, where I went on exchange in 2013. One of my mentors pointed at it: Can you also see that you’re always doing stories on women who are on the move?
And it suddenly made sense. I was trying to understand what my mom went through, and I was trying to understand how her experiences shaped me as a woman. I did a photo project The Rose in the Garden, about my mom, grandma and me – the three women from different generations, and how we influenced each other. I also started doing self-portraits as a way to cope and focus on my emotions, to be in the moment and to create space for finding out what I want to do.
The same year, I went to Mardin, Turkey, to cover stories of the Syrian refugees – back then, this war wasn’t in Germany just yet, no one was talking about it. I just decided to go. Booked a ticket, told my family about it. I didn’t even have any contacts there, but I knew that I had to be there if I wanted to find stories.
When I arrived I started talking to people and soon enough I found a contact with a family. It was a mother who lost her husband at war in Syria, and she fled with her 4 daughters. I stayed with them for 2 weeks in the same place. I’ve met the older sister only once, she didn’t live with them because she married at a very young age. It’s as if her mom had to give her away to have enough money for the other children. She had to sell her daughter.
I knew why I’m doing this, why stories of women are so important to me. There was no one who was able to help my mom, no one to support her. I am not naive to think that my photos or my projects would change the world, but I want to give people the feeling that someone cares about what happened to them, someone is there. And then other people would hopefully start caring, maybe after they see one photo or hundred photos. And then there will be change.
When I started working on the project about femicides in 2016, no one really knew what was going on, it wasn’t on the news. I put photos of women who were killed on my wall. I would add another photo, and then another one until they’d fill my room. Not that I did it every day, but when I wasn’t doing the fieldwork, it was still on my mind. The end resul of a project would be a photobook. I’m meeting with the families, doing interviews and their photos, and I also photograph the exact place where the women got killed.
Without the families I’m not able to do anything… Its just a story, its just an idea, but thats it. You have to bring a project to a personal level. Each day 5 women are killed in Turkey, it’s a fact. It is clear that it was a femicide but the police is included: they are faking the autopsy, they are faking the evidence… Oh, it was suicide. But there is nothing on the body, which could be related to suicide. And then imagine talking to someone’s sister or someone’s mother about this, when they know the truth… You feel so helpless because You are not able to do anything, to reopen the case and demand justice. It is only in the last 10 years that the women rights activists started to keep a record of femicides, to inform people; in February, 33 women got killed, but the number of the suspicious deaths is getting higher. When you compare to 2019, there were 474 cases and 150 suspicious death. In 2020, 300 femicides, and 166 suspicious cases, like oh she jumped form the window… But still, I think that those 300 would mean that at least one woman is getting killed every day, and this is just a number we know of, it could be more. We only have the statistics from the last 10 years or so, the government does not keep track of it – it’s the activists and the families that do it.
It’s kind of a war situation between men and women. The one part of society is killing the other. And the terrifying part is that it is so visible. Men are not scared to do anything in Turkey. They are killing us, and then justify like: Oh I did it for my honour. I did it because I loved her so much.
The honour is complicated. Honour may have different names: jealousy, rage, a pride that was hurt. But it is always about how a woman should behave. While a woman could lose her honour, men could achieve it. Its not somehting you could reach out to or touch, its kind of a feeling, its nothing that is visible; only the act of protecting one’s honour is visible. Femicide is not a one time event, it is a long-trace violence that structured a relationship, it has always been there, imminent.
It’s not just because people are conservative… Its happening everywhere, in every part of society, its not like only uneducated people are doing that. In 2017, I went to Mersin to take a photo of a femicide – a woman wanted to divorce, he did not let her. He killed her metres away from the school where both of them worked as teachers. Another woman was raped by her boss and a group of men and thrown out of a window as if it was a suicide. And this guy was a doctor! The highest education level! It’s their mentality.The woman is doing something wrong which he somehow takes personally, and if he feels like his honour is damaged… Femicide.
In August 2019, Emine Bulut was stabbed by her ex-husband in front of her daughter. It was recorded in a cafe. I got a chance to meet her family. I went to her daughter’s room… After hours of talking, I set out to return home. I got into a small bus, sat next to the driver, and there was another guy sitting next to me. I was exhausted because of travelling for 3 weeks, and I just couldn’t wait to get to my hotel room and watch something stupid – nothing with the blood or the killings.
So I was on the bus, looking out of the window, and the guy next to me starts talking on the phone. It’s really quiet and he’s the only one who’s talking pretty loudly. He’s on the phone with his wife, threatening her. He said: It seems that you’re getting very motivated with what’s going on, don’t you think it could also happen to you if you don’t behave? And he was talking about the protest for Emine Bulut – lots of protests against femicides were happening across the country back then. It was so surreal to me, I was coming back from the family of Emine Bulut who was killed by a man because she somehow damaged his honour and the man next to me was threatening his wife he would do the same? And then he was just acting normal again: So what’s for dinner, sweetheart? He wasn’t scared at all.
It is sometimes hard to explain this to people outside of the Middle East, because they were not raised in this culture. I believe that something could change only in 50 years or so, when this generation would raise different men. Mothers play a huge role in socialisation, and they are responsible for educating their sons, change their thinking about what honour means and how to treat women. Mothers play a huge part in this, because they also learned it from their families, the place of a woman and the honour, and some are supporting it, passing it on… So it is a mentality of both men and women that has to be changed.
I think somehow in the next years I need to stop doing this project… It is a never ending story, I know, but it’s kind of killing me: I know the names, I know how they were killed, and the most scary part for me was that I could look at the videos of women being killed very brutally, and I don’t feel anything. That was the point when I realised something is going on… It’s not normal. I also started to dream about femicides. I started to dream of someone with a knife killing my sister… I started to look back when I am on the street… Doing this project really changed me. I realised that I could never marry a man who was born and raised in Turkey. Of course not every man is a murderer, but I’ve seen too much violence in Turkey…
And right now we could only wait and raise awareness, and fight for the Istanbul Convention. The law is there, but this government is not practising it, they even wanted to cancel it, there was a proposal… Because it supposedly goes against the family traditions.
Femicides are happening everywhere but when you compare Turkey to other countries, the numbers are very high. And also its getting very brutal. Maybe its cruel to say but there must be a respectful way of dying. But women are getting stabbed, they cut their throats, they burn their bodies… I dont know where this anger is coming from. Men are becoming more angry. I think because they are realising that women are getting more powerful and they are afraid of us.
When the text was being written, Turkey has left the Istanbul Convention on the 20th of March 2021. Hundreds of women came to the streets to protest, lots of people were detained. According to President Erdogan, the Istanbul Convention protects the LGBT+ community, which gets in the way of the traditions of the Turkish family.
she-author: Hanna Dosenko (site)
photo: Emine Akbaba (site)