ISTANBUL, Turkey -Raped by her uncle when she was 9 and sold into prostitution by a man who had promised to marry her, Ayse Tukrukcu remembers her first day at a state-controlled brothel in the southern Turkish city of Mersin like it was yesterday. "There was a song--'Is This Justice, World' by Hakki Bulut--playing in the shop opposite the big metal gate and a line of men waiting," she says. "I asked the policeman at the door where I was, but he just laughed and pushed me in. My world collapsed."
It's been more than a decade since she paid off the $12,000 price she was sold for. Now, in an effort to draw attention to the plight of Turkey's 3,000 state-registered prostitutes, she's running as an independent candidate in parliamentary elections on July 22. "They talk about domestic violence, but it was the state that beat us up," she says, in the stuffy, shabby office that is serving as her Istanbul headquarters.
Frequently breaking down in tears, she goes on to talk about 18-hour working days in the brothel, social security payments withheld, even murder. "Serpil, mother of three; Fatma from Diyarbakir; Hatice from Izmir; all three were killed while I was inside and their deaths passed off as overdoses," she says. That was the rule for disobedience, she explains: first, a beating, then rape, then murder.
"We're not here simply to get attention," Tukrukcu says. "We're here so that people know the truth about all these things."
Running for political office from the margins, Tukrukcu is one of thousands of candidates in an election that has been defined by a national debate over Turkey's delicate balance between its staunchly secular state and popular support for a conservative government that has its roots in political Islam. Analysts expect that women will double their ranks and win about 10 percent of the seats and the Justice and Development Party will maintain control of parliament. Its first task following the election will be to select a president, and the prospect of a government fully dominated by the Islamic faction has heightened political tensions over the past two months.
'Labeled for Life'
For Saliha Ermez, who escaped in 2002 from another state-run brothel in southern Turkey and is now standing alongside Ayse Tukrukcu as an independent candidate, the worst thing about having worked as a registered prostitute in Turkey is that you're labeled for life.
She's not just talking about those ex-prostitutes who fall afoul of this predominantly Muslim country's conservative morals, sacked from new jobs when their former identity became clear. She's talking about the way her daughter's hopes of becoming a police officer collapsed when her mother's record was revealed in a background investigation. "I haven't seen her for two years and I don't know where she is," Ermez says. "All I know is that she refers to me as 'that woman' and vows to kill me if she meets me."
Hunched over his desk in a tiny office near the historic center of Istanbul, criminal lawyer Abdurrahman Tanriverdi confirms her story.
A statute passed in 1930 requires prostitutes working in official brothels to register with the police. Though the records are theoretically secret, they can be used in cases of national security, such as investigating the identities of people joining the security forces.
"It's a disgraceful piece of legislation, really, unconstitutional, illegal, inhuman," Tanriverdi says. "Above all, it breaches the fundamental principle of penal law: the criminal alone should be punished for the crime."
Since 1995, he says, he's represented nearly a dozen former prostitutes--including Ayse Tukrukcu--trying to get rid of their police records. Not one case has been successful. While he's as adamant as ever that the statute needs to be excised from Turkish law, he's not optimistic.
Islamic Party Led Reforms
The obstacle to change is not necessarily the Islamic government. Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party has pushed through some of the most significant legal reforms benefiting women in the 84-year history of the Turkish Republic. In 2004, a constitutional amendment guaranteed equality between men and women. That year also saw major reforms to the nation's penal code that criminalized marital rape and sexual harassment in the workplace, and stiffened penalties for honor killings. The government also launched programs to address domestic violence and improve access to education for girls.
The problem, as is so often the case in Turkey, lies in a legislation that is opaque and frequently ignored by state officials contemptuous of the rule of law.
Hayrettin Bulan, campaign manager for Tukrukcu's and Ermez's election bids, is more positive.
"The people we're aiming to represent are working too hard to survive from day to day to get involved in politics," he says. "Yet complaining from the sidelines isn't enough; you need a political platform."
Founder of Turkey's first-ever shelter for men in difficulty, as well as the shelter where Tukrukcu and Ermez are now living, Bulan has been campaigning for the rights of street children, drug addicts, prisoners and prostitutes for over a decade now. He's a past master at getting headlines.
In 1997, he locked himself into a cage for 24 hours to protest at prisoners' living conditions. For years, he had his weekly program on a local television station about social issues in his home city of Konya. "We picked Istanbul for the simple reason that all the press is here. Saliha Ermez is running in the same electoral district as (Turkish Prime Minister) Tayyip Erdogan."
Running with the slogan "neither left, right or center but underneath," the campaign has attracted a surprising amount of attention from the Turkish press. "My vote's for you, Ayse Tukrukcu," Engin Ardic, a popular columnist for the mass daily Aksam wrote on June 11.
Public Support, but Not Votes
While both candidates admit they have almost no chance of winning the 60,000 votes needed for a parliamentary seat, they say they've been overwhelmed by the support they've received by ordinary people on the street.
Baskin Oran, a dissident university professor who is also standing as an independent candidate, says that five years ago Tukrukcu's and Ermez's campaigns would have never happened without the reforms spurred by Turkey's bid to join the European Union. "People who before were too frightened to speak out are beginning to make their voices heard," he says, "and there are people out there willing to listen."
There are skeptics, though.
A doctor who runs a health and information center for prostitutes in Istanbul, Muhtar Cokar
sympathizes with the story Ermez tells about her daughter and has heard it from other prostitutes. But he thinks the two candidates' emphasis on state-employed prostitutes, and their implication that prostitution should be banned, is an unrealistic approach to the fundamental problems of prostitution in Turkey. "In Istanbul, there are 126 registered prostitutes and 30,000 unregistered prostitutes," he says. "The kind of brothels that these women worked in are disappearing in Turkey because no party wants to open them."
They don't want to give financial support to projects aimed at protecting prostitutes either, he says, and that risks causing major problems as the prostitution trade is carried on without official oversight.
A freelance reporter, Nicholas Birch has been working in Turkey and the surrounding region for five years.