Boğaziçi resistance: A cry for democracy and freedom

Yağmur Çağıl’s initial plan was to study engineering in a lower-ranking university, but the unexpected chance of getting into Turkey’s arguably most acclaimed university made her rethink what career she wanted to pursue.

Attending Boğaziçi University was a milestone for Yağmur, who is now a sophomore studying International Trade. Right before college, living in her hometown Antalya, she had fallen out with her best friends and had ended a four-year-long relationship. When she moved to Istanbul, she was all alone, thinking to herself, what am I going to do in this big city by myself? She found her answer at Boğaziçi University.

With its socio-economically diverse student body and reputable intellectual independence topped with a startlingly beautiful campus perched by the shores of the Bosporus, Yağmur was mesmerized. Little did she know that such a heightened sense of belonging would subject her to police violence and waiting for her friends in front of a courthouse.

On January 4 of 2021, protests erupted at the university: Boğaziçi students and faculty protested against the controversial appointment of a new university rector, Melih Bulu, through a presidential decree by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Yağmur was in Antalya, conducting her studies online due to the COVID-19 pandemic when her friends and professors started the Boğaziçi Resistance. Since January 4, protests have been ongoing on campus.

Melih Bulu, who has ties with the ruling Justice and Development Party, had been appointed to be the new Boğaziçi University Rector. The decision was met with outrage from the student body and faculty, interpreting Bulu’s appointment as an attempt at curtailing academic freedoms, saying the new rector is the first to be chosen from outside the university community since the 1980 military coup.

Prof. Dr. Zafer Toprak, a professor at Boğaziçi’s History Department, said that Bulu’s appointment goes against Boğaziçi’s rooted university culture.

“We are a transparent university and we are academically competitive. Only the people inside the department get to decide who will enter it. Not even once in the past had there been someone appointed as the rector right from above. This is the tradition we stem from, and thus I am a professor who believes that this uniqueness must be preserved.”

Since day one, protests were met with police violence that resulted in the detainment of more than 600 students. Some of which were temporarily arrested. Boğaziçi faculty members have also been attending the protests wearing their gowns and turning their backs on the rectorate building. Since the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan has been appointing rectors himself.

Despite the government intervention, students continued to protest through various peaceful activities. They held open lectures where famous academics like Judith Butler gave open Zoom lectures to show support. They also organized open exhibitions to display student art pieces.

However, one art piece particularly disturbed the government. A student piece that depicts Kaaba, a Muslim sacred site, with a Shahmaran figure and four LGBTQI+ flags on its corners were claimed to be insulting religious values. Over this, two students were arrested.

A student art piece depicting the Muslim sacred site Kaabe with LGBTQI+ flags and a Shahmaran figure.

Those two students were Doğu and Selo, and they were acquaintances of Yağmur. The two students were imprisoned for 40 days, during which they missed their finals and failed their classes. The university, now run by Melih Bulu, did not make any exceptions for their situation. Bulu also shut down the student-run LGBTQI+ organization over this incident.

Responses from the government officials were so harsh that some were banned from social media platforms. Ministry of Interior Süleyman Soylu’s tweet that read, “Four LGBT perverts had been detained for disrespecting the Kaaba”, was flagged by Twitter for violating policies on hateful conduct and was banned in France for being unlawful under French law. President Erdoğan also denounced student protesters as “terrorists” and said that the government will not allow anti-government protests. In another public address, Erdoğan said, “LGBT? There is no such thing. LGBT values have no place in Turkey.” This anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric that Erdoğan has adopted created a wide misconception among the social groups unfamiliar to the concept, creating the assumption that LGBT is a terrorist organization.

February 1 was when things escalated. That day, students were protesting for the release of their detained and arrested friends, and to denounce the Turkish government’s disregard of LGBTQI+ rights. Police stormed inside the campus and detained 159 students by using disproportionate force.

But the students were not planning to back down. The resistance was growing. This was now beyond the demand of a democratic university system. It became a protest against all types of many Turkish universities stood in solidarity with the Boğaziçi Resistance by holding their own demonstrations. This support grew and became international. Cornell University issued a letter in support of the Boğaziçi Students. The U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price expressed their concerns about the demonstrations at the Boğaziçi University and condemned the anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric surrounding them. A European Parliament member Kati Piri also shared her support and said “Turkish government’s tyranny now turns against students of Boğaziçi University.”

Janset Güney, a psychology student at Boğaziçi and also one of Yağmur’s flatmates, says that even though politicizing something in Turkey is a scary thing, people have realized that change will not come without politicization.

“We are in this resistance as the oppressed ones, as the LGBTQI+, as the women, as the minorities and we won’t let anyone oppress us. We will not let them marginalize us in the place where we feel the freest, Boğaziçi University.” said Janset.

She has closely observed the police’s behavior towards the university students. For Janset, it is scary to see that the police, who supposedly exist to protect them, are turning into antagonists.

“The scariest thing is to see the hate and disgust in their eyes, that really upsets me. They are filled with hatred. I know they are obliged to do things without questioning, but it just seems scary to see that they can treat 20-year-old kids like this.”

Turkish police attacking Boğaziçi student protesters by using shields and pepper gas. (Retrieved from BBC)

Just like everyone, Yağmur was also subjected to police brutality. One day, she was on her way to Boğaziçi’s South Campus to attend her friend’s hearing who was being prosecuted for displaying an LGBTQI+ flag on the school building’s rooftop. She was with a group of students from which two were wearing LGBTQI+ flags on their backs to show support. The police pacing around the school neighborhood intervened immediately and ordered them to take off the flag. Yağmur was shocked by their reasoning. The police had said:

“You cannot display this flag, it is forbidden. What you’re doing right now serves as a protest, and protests are banned in this municipality by the city health board. Also, displaying LGBTQI+ flags are banned by the government.”

This last statement was new to Yağmur: the government had banned the display of LGBTQI+ flags.

But they insisted. They did not take off the flags. That is when the police struck. 100 policemen came down on 50 students and forcefully removed the flags from the students’ backs. A bunch of students were hammered in between the quarrel.

Then Yağmur and her friends arrived at the South Campus. Their friend who was being prosecuted had been detained again. They started yet another protest for their friend’s release. This time the police blockaded them and put all the 50 students under a circle they formed, and detained all those inside the circle.

“I had a near miss,” says Yağmur. A police officer had also pushed her inside the circle, but she managed to hold on to a friend who was able to pull her out. If not, she would have been forcefully detained like the remaining of her friends who could not pull themselves out.

“I literally ran from the police in the Istanbul streets. I didn’t realize it then with the adrenaline, but what we went through were dystopic incidents. Police were violently present in most of the demonstrations we went to. They intervened with pepper gas, plastic bullets, water cannons, and physical violence. Boğaziçi students were seriously exposed to policeviolence.” says Yağmur, looking back at the tragic moments.

Yağmur also recalls attending a demonstration in front of the İstanbul (Çağlayan) courthouse, waiting for their friends’ release, when the police attacked the crowd and detained 50 more students using rear-handcuffing.

Currently, all the detained and arrested students from Boğaziçi protests have been released. Yağmur’s other flatmate, Deniz Yüksel, a Western Language and Literature student at Boğaziçi, doubts that there is any Boğaziçi student active in the protests and does not know at least one person who has been subjected to violence, if it is not themselves.

Deniz says that the most tragicomical part of the protest culture is the pre-protest preparations. Before attending a protest, they gather around and come up with tactics on what to do if the police raid the protest, if they take you into custody, how you will hide or what you will do.

“You need to plan these things. You think about lots of scenarios that you are not supposed to be thinking as a college student in their twenties. But after a certain point, our normal conversations started to circle around these topics and that was what I found the most interesting.” said Deniz, talking about her adaptation to the protest culture.

Deniz does not think that the Erdoğan administration will remove Melih Bulu from his position, but says that the students will continue to fight no matter how certain it is that Bulu is here to stay.

“They laid their hands on a very rooted school that represents lots of ideals. The focus is not Melih Bulu anymore, it is what he represents. And that is oppression, violence and bullying.” said Deniz.

 A protester holding LGBTQI+ flag and a poster that says “not my rector” in front of Boğaziçi campus entrance. (Retrieved from BBC)

Now, Yağmur, along with her flatmates, await the upcoming elections in 2023, and hopefully a change of government. Seeing it as the only way out for their voice to be fully heard, three young women turn their hopes towards the opposition parties to answer the Resistance’s requests for democracy.

Boğaziçi Resistance was unlikely to stay only about the rector since the very beginning. Because the reason behind the rector’s appointment is the government itself. And to fight against the government politics, students had to get political.

Boğaziçi Resistance has become the common denominator of the oppressed voices in Turkey.

Whether it be women’s rights, freedom of speech, LGBTQI+ rights, or any other minority rights. What connects them is that there is only one authority that stands against them all. Maybe the appointed-rector will not resign, but the Boğaziçi wave has created a loud conversation around the government oppression that only seems to ignite further.

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