“In our work, the internet is a main stakeholder”: A feminist talk with Hayriye Avatar at the IGF

25 September 2014

The Turkish LGBTI rights organization Kaos GL turns 20 on September 20. At the Internet Governance Forum just held in Istanbul, Bishakha Datta interviewed Kaos activist Hayriye Avatar on their pathbreaking LGBTI activism, both online and offline.

Bishakha Datta: How did you get involved with Kaos?

Hayriye Avatar: I started to work with Kaos GL at the end of 2010 and have been working here professionally for four years. Before, I was a volunteer with Kaos for one year. Kaos has many different parts: academics, education, legal system, media. I’ve worked on most of these. I’m a lawyer, and Kaos GL gives legal assistance to LGBTI, also LGBTI refugees, in person, via phone and email. This is what I work on now.

BD: LGBTI refugees? How do you work with them?

HA: We work with LGBTI refugees entering Turkey. Many of them come from Iran, some from Morocco, Iraq and Afghanistan etc. Right now, there are Syrian LGBTI refugees. We have a good faith agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Turkey that we can represent LGBTI refugees – those identify themselves as bisexual, lesbian, gay or transy. But they cannot always openly claim their sexual or gender identity.

We give them social assistance. There is an asylum system in Turkey. Refugees can stay till they are resettled in a third country if not from the Council of Europe. We help them with their stay in Turkey, which is usually at least two years. There are over 60 satellite cities in Turkey – refugees are resettled there, not in Istanbul or Ankara. This is the rule. Except Syrian refugees. Syrians are under temporary protection.

UNHCR considers LGBTI a vulnerable group, which accelerates the process. Other refugees sometimes have to wait much longer.

BD: Is the internet an ally for refugees?

HA: Most refugees have internet and are doing their activism via the internet. Though they live in Turkey, these are small, conservative cities where they cannot be too visible – the only area they can socialize, the only thing they have, is the internet. For example, Iranian refugees have a really good network and are organized. Through the internet, they make contact with their colleagues outside Turkey. They access information. Where to apply for asylum? Which city? The internet is a basic means through which they can get such information.

Refugees face a very difficult situation. They have to support themselves, sometimes by working illegally, since it is impossible to get work permits. It is like slavery. Less money and a lot of hours, really tough work. They face very bad conditions. Iranian refugees help each other and support each other. LGBTIs help each other. Other refugees discriminate against LGBTI refugees, so they can face violence.

The Iranian Queer Organization has a magazine called Cheraq, which means “light” in Persian. One of the activist from IRQO; “We said, “let there be light”.

BD: How does Kaos use online means in its other activism?

HA: We were the first LGBTI association in Turkey, and started publishing our magazine in 1994, long before we registered as an association in 2005. After the magazine came the website kaosGL.org. This is not only a Kaos website but an LGBTI news portal. You can find everything regarding LGBTI issues on the website. This is the movement website actually.

The site contains not only LGBTI issues, but other important issues, such as Kurdish, feminist or anti-militarist movements. We are against all discrimination. Every discrimination gets its strength from the same thing – so we are against racism, militarization and so on. We collaborate with persons who reject going to military service. We collaborate with the feminist movement in Turkey, which is a very old movement.

We reach people through our website, facebook pages, through twitter. Our magazine is published bi-monthly, and we also publish it online. In our work, the internet is a main stakeholder. Social media and the internet are really powerful.

BD: Have you faced any problems online because of your work?

HA: In 2007, in one of the issues of our magazine, the main topic was pornography. We analyzed pornography and there was a photo of an artist called Taner Ceylan – he had a photo of himself, having sex with himself. The law requires that one copy of each issue be sent to the Press Prosecution Office. The public prosecutor decided that we cannot distribute this edition; it confiscated all the 1000 printed copies.

Our penal code has an anti-obscenity provision under which distributing or selling ‘obscene’ images is a crime. There is a law that protects children from obscene images. A case was made against the publication and against the then chief editor of the magazine. He kept saying that this is freedom of expression, this is not a porn mag, we analyse porn, this is not obscene. Technically, all the copies had been confiscated before distribution so no crime had been committed. So the charges were dropped.

But we felt the decision was made on the wrong grounds, a technicality – that our freedom of expression was violated. We were not given back the copies. The prosecution office took all the copies; we appealed to the local court which rejected the appeal. So we went to the European Court of Human Rights for a decision. It’s been a really long time; they asked for final comments two years back.

Also our websites www.kaosgl.org and www.kaosgldernegi.org were hacked twice. For a short time, the attack successfully blocked access to kaosgl.org. A hateful collage of so-called “hadith” (sayings of the prophet Muhammad), which exhibited supposed approach of Islam toward homosexuality could have been seen on the home page of our website. A similar attack also happened during the International Day against Homophobia & Transphobia and the same allegedly religious arguments reappeared.

BD: What do you feel about the blocks on social media sites in Turkey?

HA: Twitter was blocked for two weeks in April. Grindr was blocked a year back and is still blocked. One individual claimed that someone else opened an account in his name using his information. He could have told Grindr, they would have blocked that account. Instead, the court blocked the whole website on grounds of obscenity and prostitution. PlanetRomeo, which gay men use, is also blocked.

Lots of academicians, including professors Kerem Altiparmak and Yaman Akdeniz applied to the Constitutional Court for a decision to unblock Twitter, as part of a coalition on freedom of expression. This helped to open Twitter.

BD: What is the way forward for Kaos’ work on LGBTI rights?

HA: We are registered, we are a legal association, and we have a legal website, a formal website. Sometimes at state universities, people can’t access the Kaos GL site – the words gay lesbian trans are blocked. An LGBTI-friendly deputy Member of Parliament could not access the Kaos GL website in Parliament. When she tried to access the website, it opened up a page, saying give your name, MP number etc. She asked a question in Parliament and has demanded a written answer on this.

There is a new internet law in Turkey. There is heavy government control of the internet – they want to use it for determining and following people. They say protecting children is a necessity and that this is an issue of public morals, but it is unclear. In the past, in the present, in the future, these unclear legislations have been and will be used against LGBTI freedom of expression.

Image by Bishakha Data

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