“I don’t feel safe in this country any more, I don’t think I’m loved. I fantasise about leaving this place as soon as I can,” said 19-year-old Alara Surer, while people-watching in Dostluk (“friendship”) Park in Istanbul.
Surer, a student at Boğaziçi University, one of the country’s most prestigious private higher education institutions, has been left feeling bitter after the political clashes that erupted on campus earlier this year. In January, Melih Bulu, a member of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) between 2002 and 2015, was appointed rector of Boğaziçi by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The decision upset many students, who initially voiced their discontent on social media and then through protests on campus.
It is unclear whether Bulu is still a member of AKP, but he is believed to have strong links with this party.
A collective statement from academics pointed out that it was the first time a rector had been appointed from outside the university, rather than by election, since Turkey’s period of military dictatorship during the 1980s.
“This is a continuation of the antidemocratic practices that have increased in volume in Turkey since 2016,” the statement read. “We do not accept this practice that clearly violates our university’s academic independence, scientific liberty and democratic values.”
As protests spread to other locations in Turkey, police entered Boğaziçi campus to effectively place it under siege, while the Istanbul governor’s office tried to ban further demonstrations on the basis of Covid-19 restrictions.
Police officers with riot shields lined up at the main gates of Boğaziçi, while students were asked to show ID to enter the campus.
“I’d never seen so many police in my life,” said Surer, who is a psychology undergraduate.
On February 4, Ata Murat Kalkan, a 21-year-old Turkish literature student, attended a protest on campus.
“The police kicked me and one officer hit me with his gun,” said Kalkan, adding that he received injuries that left him unable to walk for several days afterwards. “My leg got stuck between two [riot] shields.”
A month later, Kalkan told Inside Turkey, he was arrested and detained. During this time, he said he was sworn at and insulted by police, including with homophobic slurs.
“Police are allowed to beat us, hit us with their shields and handcuff our hands behind our backs but we are forced to see a judge when we push back on their shields in self defence,” said Kalkan, who is now on probation and subject to an international travel ban.
Surer said that more than 50 of her friends were beaten or arrested during a protest on 1 February, a figure confirmed by reporting from BBC Turkish and the newspaper BirGun.
“They wouldn’t let us out of the school’s gates. I saw the cops with their weapons,” she said. “They were confronting students with backpacks with weapons that are as big as I am. It was quite shocking to see.”
Boğaziçi academics who spoke to Inside Turkey mostly agree that systemic repression has been under way at Turkish universities since 2015. One staff member who wished to remain anonymous said that while Turkish universities were no stranger to anti-democratic practices, the recent protests stem from a unique “culture of Boğaziçi”, which prides independence.
“The first prerequisite to being a university is to be able to make decisions for yourself,” the academic said. “Boğaziçi has a very strong office of student relations, there are boards and commissions that include retired staff members and have a say in the internal affairs of the school, and nobody who is part of the mechanisms is over-assertive with their authority. This culture has been the result of a self-governing mechanism created over decades.”
The protests at Boğaziçi grew in late January due to a row over a student art exhibition which included a drawing depicting Muslim holy grounds adorned with LGBT Pride flags. The exhibition was denounced by the university’s Islamic society, leading to a criminal investigation and the arrest of four students who were denounced as “perverts” by interior minister Süleyman Soylu. Two of the four were later charged with inciting hatred and insulting religious values.
Nazlıcan Doğan, 25, who is training as a preschool teacher at Boğaziçi, was photographed on February 1 holding a Pride flag from the top of the university gates. She told Inside Turkey that the community was constantly subject to violence and hate speech.
“We are trying to deal with a government of hate,” Doğan said, explaining that universities used to offer a safe space for LGBT people. The protests against Bulu’s appointment were an attempt “to be free in the future, for a life where [LGBT existence] isn’t questioned”.
One of Bulu’s first moves as rector was to shut down the Boğaziçi LGBTI+ society and disband the school’s Commission to Prevent Sexual Abuse.
“Everything being done in Boğaziçi is in line with Bulu’s political identity,” Surer said.
Nationally, more than 500 people were arrested in 38 cities during protests, according to Turkey’s interior ministry. Gamze Toprak, a 21-year-old activist, was arrested during a protest in Istanbul on February 1. She told Inside Turkey that she was taken to court and sentenced to house arrest “without [barely] even seeing a judge”. Toprak said that she was not given a chance to speak in court before the judge made a decision.
Ordered to wear an ankle tag, Toprak said she was unable even to take the bins out or go to the grocery store for several weeks.
“There was a 100 square metre space dedicated to me, and I would get a call from Ankara telling me to return there if I ever left. They threatened to send in officers otherwise,” she said.
Toprak took off her ankle tag on March 8, to take part in the night march for International Women’s Day at Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
“Houses have always been prisons for women, so taking my ankle monitor off was a way to say, ‘us women will never be confined to houses,’” she said. “It meant telling the government, ‘you override our will and imprison us, so we will override your laws.’”
Night-time raids on protesters’ homes have been among the most controversial responses to the protests.
“I went to sleep in jeans and sweaters most nights because police can raid your house at 4am,” Kalkan said.
A report by Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation (TIHV) revealed that 801 people were mistreated or tortured in home raids and police interventions during the Boğaziçi protests. A total of 11 people were arrested, with 228 put on probation and 29 placed under house arrest. Two others were arrested for social media posts and six journalists were injured while reporting the incidents.
Arman Çağan Yazıcı, a lawyer for one of the detained students, told Inside Turkey that many arrestees had been subject to violence while giving statements.
“[The police] carried out home raids with automatic weapons, special op teams at midnight, by tearing down doors and walls. They would get eight, nine students on the ground at once and handcuff their hands on their backs while stepping on them. The real consequence of violating a demonstration ban is to get called in to testify by a prosecutor, either by a police notice or a phone call,” Yazıcı said.
Surer said that the police crackdown was followed by threats from other parts of society. “There was a mob in front of our school calling for sharia law and jihad. I thought they would attack us with knives and bats,” she said. “I’ve had death threats in Arabic on my social media [and] some of my friends closed their accounts because of this. We were portrayed as heathens whom people needed to defend their religion against at all costs.”
While the experience has made Surer question whether she wants to stay in Turkey, Kalkan by contrast believes that the protesters will continue to resist.
“We used to see this in movies, but we’ve normalised it after going through it ourselves,” he said. “We realised how strong we were.”