Threshold of Life: The Death of Nadira Kadirova




AROUND 9:00 P.M. on the evening of September 23, 2019, the body of Nadira Kadirova was found behind a locked door in the house of Şirin Ünal, an Istanbul deputy in Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in the Çankaya district of Ankara. She had been shot five to six centimeters above her heart with a Beretta 9mm pistol belonging to Ünal. She was 23 years old.

Nadira was taken to Bilkent City Hospital, where she was pronounced dead shortly afterward. Her body was taken to the Forensic Medical Institute for a standard autopsy, including nail scrapings and anal, vaginal, blood, and other samples. The next evening, the body was transported to Istanbul, where a brief funeral was held at the morgue of the new Istanbul Airport. The following day, accompanied by her brother, Nadira’s body was flown to Uzbekistan, her home country, to be buried in family soil. On March 2, 2020, a court ruled that her death was a suicide.

Nadira had been working at the home of the AKP deputy in Ankara for the previous year as a caregiver for his wife, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. She had been saving money to study at university in Turkey and had future plans to marry. As such, she was one among the many women who cross borders to invest their physical and emotional labor in the service of future possibilities. In the case of Nadira, not only her labor but also her life was given up, or forcibly taken — questions surround the circumstances of her purported suicide, including suspicions of possible sexual harassment, and the judicial procedures of its investigation, including the breathless way her name and character have been sullied in Turkish and Uzbek public forums. The accumulated marginalizations of her attributed identities — as a migrant, as a caregiving worker, and as a (beautiful, and thus sexualized) woman — have been repeatedly on display in the media, alongside photographs in which she appears radiantly defiant of any attempt to subjugate her life or person.

Writing about Nadira’s fate — taking as a subject a life cruelly marked by an untimely and violent finality — confronts the limitations of language. It requires fixing certain identities that she may have considered peripheral or transitory and repeating intrusive details about her body, made clinical by forensic reports. It threatens to reduce her to the ugly circumstances of her death rather than seeing her as the “self-confident and beautiful woman” described in her family’s parting tribute. Such a treatment risks adding further debts to the cost of living she has already paid for with her life.

But, in telling her story, there is also the possibility of disrupting the different borders she was crossing, both before and after her death. A political outsider in Turkey during her life, she has now joined a wider political and juridical community: there have been calls for her death to be judged through the internationally recognized Istanbul Convention, currently under threat of revocation by the Turkish government. An isolated caregiver in Ankara, she is emblematic of a network of such invisible laborers across the world, whose work is marked by compassion and empathy.

The nature of Nadira’s pursuit of her dreams, and its brutal final closure, represents a striking political reality of our time. On the one hand, her entanglement with a powerful male politician, followed by the hasty removal of her body from Turkish sovereign space after her death, marks the threshold at which the state delineates political and legal order (and whose lives are included within that order). On the other hand, the various calls from individuals and groups within Turkey for her death to be further investigated mark her as belonging to a wider community of social relations — as a woman and a global citizen.

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On the night she died, Nadira’s brother, Muhammet Ali Kadirova, reportedly received a call from Şirin Ünal (as he outlined to Turkish media). “Your sister is crazy,” Ünal allegedly told him. “She’s taken my gun and locked herself in a room.”

Police, firefighters, and a first-aid team soon arrived and broke down the door. According to notes taken at the scene and published in Turkish media, Nadira’s body was lying against the heater (though no blood was reportedly found there), 150 centimeters away from the Beretta pistol (this distance was later disputed). There was a hole in the wall 80 centimeters above the ground (this distance was also contradicted by a video from the scene). Footage recorded by the investigation team on the day of her death, which was publicly released a few days ago by a Turkish newspaper, shows a flower pot fallen to the ground, an overturned coffee table and lampshade, and traces of blood in several places in the room.

By the time her brother arrived at the house, Nadira had been transported to Bilkent Hospital. From his account, he was refused entrance to the home — Şirin Ünal instructed the police to give him money for the taxi fare to take him to the hospital instead. At the hospital, he waited for an hour before being informed of his sister’s death. He asked to see her body but was refused permission to enter the morgue until a prosecutor could also be present. The following morning, the forensic procedures were carried out, and Muhammet, along with Şirin Ünal’s chauffeur and a friend of Nadira’s, signed off on the appropriate paperwork. That evening, her body was transported to Istanbul, and the following evening flown to Uzbekistan — its efficient banishment from the sovereign space of Turkey marking the literal disposability of Nadira’s status.

On October 11, Ünal gave his first public comments about the case. He had cooperated fully with the police investigation, he said, by providing a full statement and his fingerprints — despite his status of Deputy Minister granting him parliamentary immunity from such requirements. He attributed Nadira’s suicide to psychological instability. “In the last two or three months, since we noticed a deterioration in her psychological state, we took on a second helper [to assist with her duties], may God bless her,” he said in his statement.

Muhammet disputes any imputation of mental illness to Nadira. “Without a [medical] report that confirms my sister is schizophrenic or mentally insane, how could an MP use those words [to identify her as one]?” His sister had never required drugs or complained of psychological problems, he told Turkish media. She had worked hard and sent most of her earnings back to her family in Uzbekistan.

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Nadira’s transit from Uzbekistan into the home of Şirin Ünal, his wife, and three children (one daughter was present in the house at the time of her death) traces the intimate global care chain that entangles a powerful Turkish politician with a young Uzbek woman seeking to improve her life chances. Such an entanglement is one of unpredictable mutuality — sometimes supportive, sometimes confrontational, always complicit.

The particular chain connecting Turkey to Uzbekistan is made up of links forged by the passage of thousands of workers from the former Soviet republics, who have entered Turkey since the neoliberal economic transformation of the country in the 1990s. These — often female — workers are the central agents in a criss-crossing political economy that marks the increased volatility, informality, and precariousness of global labor markets, their bodies subjected to the intense pressures of commodification and privatization. Many of these female laborers end up in Istanbul, working as domestics or caregivers in private homes, as informal textile workers in cramped basements, as traders in the suitcase trade shipping fabrics across borders, as cosmetic workers, as cleaners, as shop clerks, sometimes as sex workers. They are often invisible, their lives playing out in closed spaces, joined at the seams of city life with other urban dwellers but refused full (legal and political) access to its fabric.

After three years living in Istanbul, Nadira secured a position in the household of Şirin Ünal, a former NATO officer and high-ranking official in the party of the ruling government. In doing so, she gained the protection of a powerful man but also entered a space where she was both intimate insider and excluded stranger — an asymmetrical precarity rife with perilous potential. Nurtured and sustained by her family life in Uzbekistan, she carried the knowledge of how to give care — how to empathetically and selflessly surrender her emotional and physical energies to another person’s needs, even those of a complete stranger. Her charge, Şirin Ünal’s wife, had been suffering from multiple sclerosis for 20 years, a disease that makes visible the delicacy of connection between the mental and physical self — frail in their intertwinement and cruel in misalignment.

Caring for an MS sufferer is a relentless physical and emotional exercise that draws on all energies and capabilities of the caregiver and connects them intimately with the care-receiver. The two are arranged around each other, locked together in symbiotic responses, marked by the shared trauma of witnessing a body ravaged by pain and debility. The embedded relationship between the two constitutes care-work as a political occupation: it reminds us that there are no simple binaries between autonomy and dependency, but rather a complex interdependency.

The priority care-work is afforded in society is a political concern. Historically, care-work has been one of the most exploited and invisible forms of labor performed by women, largely unremunerated because seen as reproductive rather than productive. In today’s globalized and flattened world, where private needs can be outsourced, the role is often filled by women who are migrants or otherwise socially vulnerable. Giving care to a stranger transforms the act into a service, in the process rationalizing, categorizing, and reconstituting it as a value that can be measured in concrete financial terms. This process of commodification replaces the natural social fabric, in which care-work occurs within familial or communal settings, with contractual and transactional relations, in which caregivers sell their emotional labor as entrepreneurs, and bodies are slotted into a market of worth. In doing so, it blurs the boundary between the attention caregivers must give over to their patients and any privacy or autonomy they are able to retain for themselves.

Migrant caregivers, often living in the households of their employers, can find their emotional and physical energies entirely subsumed into their work — unable not only to determine the value of their labor but also to protect a part of themselves from the enormity of the tasks required of them. Yet their actions and decisions are not automated mechanisms or reflexes but essentially human forms of expression, mediated by and constitutive of power, in which existing arrangements can be tested or redrawn. Live-in domestic migrant workers must struggle to carve out a space in which their everyday movements are not merely coded by the dynamic of their labor but are collaborative in the rhythms of daily life — their own lives and the lives of those around them. But there remains a dissonance between their individual lives and the sociopolitical legal order of their migrant status (documented or undocumented), which dictates the range of their freedoms and their specific vulnerability to the monetizing and extraction of their labor.

When confronted with such a painful reality, the collapse of the mind (if indeed Nadira had been afflicted by mental illness, as claimed by her employer) might be a sign not of brokenness but of deep humanity. It would reflect the disparity between the humane energies Nadira contributed to her caregiving and the sterile terms in which this care was contracted, as well as the contradiction in the relationship between her and her patient — closely intertwined in a joint struggle against an unforgiving disease, yet also separated by starkly divergent positions in life.

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Not long after her death, Nadira’s brother gave public voice in Turkish media to his suspicions that the event had not been adequately investigated. The forensic inquiry and other bureaucratic procedures, which should have taken up to two weeks, had been completed within two days. According to Uzbekistan police sources, reported in Turkish media, the woman who washed Kadirova’s body before it was buried claimed that she had seen a second bullet hole (this claim cannot be proved since the body now rests under the soil of a different sovereign country). The few witnesses all gave their statements under the supervision of Şirin Ünal’s lawyer. No fingerprints had been found on the pistol that fired the fatal shot.

In a statement made in the presence of Şirin Ünal’s lawyer by Nadira’s close friend, Leyla Niyazova, an Uzbek living in Istanbul, Nadira allegedly told her the day before her death that she was thinking about killing herself. “I’m so bored, I’m overwhelmed, I get tired from everything, I want to die,” Nadira reportedly said. Shortly afterward, Nadira appeared to suggest some form of personal embarrassment, perhaps sexual in nature — “How will I look at my brother’s face? I want to die.”

Leyla was later forced to reject unfounded allegations from the prosecution that she had engaged in sex work and had encouraged Nadira to do the same. According to Müjde Tozbey Erden, president of the Association of Children and Women First and one of a number of female lawyers working pro bono on the case, “prostitution has nothing to do with Nadira’s murder and sexual assault. Asking whether she is engaged in prostitution is an effort to defile the investigation process. It is an attempt to change the direction of the investigation.”

This explicit sexualization of Nadira (and her friend and supportive witness) is an intrusion made more flagrant when contrasted with the work her body was literally engaged in — the care for another woman who was too sick to care for herself. Yet both functions, the real (caregiver) and the accused (prostitute), reflect her gendered subjection to the Turkish state and capital market. Whether in the reproductive labor of care that sustained her life in the country, or in the muddying of the circumstances of her death through scandalous accusations designed to undermine attempts to seek justice for her, Nadira has been reduced to her most elementary bodily functions — either sexualized or reproductive, depending on which is most beneficial to the state or to capital at any given time.

In March 2020, the verdict of suicide by the Chief Public Prosecutor was challenged by lawyers for the Kadirova family, who claimed that the evidence had been carelessly collected and insufficiently analyzed. In the Forensic Medicine Report, for example, it was noted that Nadira’s blood had been found to contain ketamine, a knockout drug often used by rapists. The report also found prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a substance contained in semen, in Nadira’s anus, but this had not been taken into account in the final verdict. The court failed to acknowledge this forensic data suggesting that Nadira may have been sexually assaulted. This calculated ignorance highlights the trap in which all women in Turkey find themselves, unrelentingly and unforgivingly: men — and the patriarchal political-juridical system that encodes their social interests — are entitled to control when, how, and for whom women are sexual beings.

Members of Parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and Felicity Party (SP) put Nadira’s case on the Parliamentary agenda. Eren Keskin, the co-chair of the Human Rights Association (İHD); Ayşe Acar Başaran, the Women’s Assembly Spokesperson of the HDP; and a team of female lawyers added their voices to growing public concerns that a full investigation into the circumstances of Nadira’s death had not been carried out. The solidarity initiative Birlikte Yaşamak İstiyoruz İnisiyatifi (We Want to Live Together) demanded answers to a list of questions:

We, women, ask you:

Did Nadira commit suicide? Or was she killed?

Even if Nadira committed suicide, what drove her to take her life?

It is alleged that Şirin Ünal sexually assaulted Nadira. Is this allegation true?

Why was the body of Nadira hurriedly sent to her country?

What happened to Nadira?

Nadira’s champions claim that the forensic evidence of PSA in her body, and the suspicions of sexual harassment raised by her friend’s statement to the police, require that the case be judged a crime of sexual violence and taken to the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, the human rights treaty that aims to prevent and combat domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.

Eren Keskin commented to the Turkish media that the lawyers and human rights defenders working on Nadira’s case would not treat it differently from the cases of violence against women who are Turkish citizens. “The judges and prosecutors who made this decision have become partners in the violence against women because they didn’t make an accurate assessment of the evidence,” she said. “Turkey certainly does not act like a state governed by law. It never complies with the contracts it signs. The judiciary of a state that has signed the Istanbul Convention contract cannot make such a decision. […] Once again, it has emerged that those signatures were made as ornaments.”

On June 8, Nadira’s case was taken to the Constitutional Court, under an application by lawyer İlyas Doğan, on the grounds that the basic principles of effective investigation had not been complied with. The investigation is still ongoing.

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The Turkish government’s threats to withdraw completely from the Istanbul Convention are an expression of its desire to further strengthen its juridical grip on women’s bodies in the country. The Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, from marital rape to female genital mutilation, opened for signatures on May 11, 2011, in Istanbul, with Turkey as the first signatory. The world’s first such legally binding instrument, it entered into force in Turkey on August 1, 2014. In July of this year, AKP Deputy Chair Numan Kurtulmuş claimed that the Convention had “played into the hands of LGBT and marginal elements” in Turkish society. In the same month, President Recep Tayyip Erodğan gave instructions for a letter of official withdrawal.

The AKP are now reportedly working to amend various parts of the Convention, including those that ensure the legal rights of LGBTI+ communities and that recognize gender as a socially constructed category. These provisions are deemed a threat to the patriarchal family structure. The Convention is also currently under attack from the governments in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, which are all seeking a reduction in the opportunities of justice for women and a return to the situation where they are primarily defined not as equal legal subjects but as dependents of men.

This is happening in the bitter climate of a devastating wave of femicides across the country.

In 2015, Özgecan Aslan, a 19-year-old student, was murdered for resisting rape. In May 2018, the body of 23-year-old Şule Çet was found on a street in Ankara, after she allegedly fell from the 20th floor of a high-rise building; a court later found two men guilty of her rape and murder. This past July, the remains of Pınar Gültekin, a 27-year-old Kurdish student, were found five days after she went missing in the Aegean province of Muğla. According to Turkish media, she had been beaten and strangled to death by her former partner, Cemal Metin Avci, who allegedly killed her because she rejected his attempts to restart their relationship (in other words, he blamed her for his actions). These victims join others in a long list of women and girls who have been killed or who have died in suspicious circumstances in recent years — 474 women were murdered in 2019 alone, the highest number in a decade, and 235 women have reportedly been killed thus far this year, according to We Will Stop Femicide Platform’s records. Removing Turkey from the Istanbul Convention is a de facto legitimation of this sexual violence and a protection for all those who commit it, relegating women to secondary status within the Turkish state.

Since the announcement of the government’s intention to withdraw from the Convention, and amid a horrifying rise in femicide in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, groups of Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, and Arab women have gathered on the streets of cities across Turkey in anger and defiance. They have also mobilized social media campaigns and attended femicide trials and funerals, bringing to life the spirits of the murdered and brutalized women, whose voices mingle with their calls for justice, and whose names are now etched in the collective memory.

These demonstrations are a testament that the boundaries being erected and legislated to exclude women from juridico-political equality in Turkey will be resisted. They recall the struggle women’s rights advocates waged in the 1980s and ’90s, which paved the way for a reform of the penal code in 2005, recognizing women as individuals under the law for the first time. Sexual crimes committed against them could thus be prosecuted not merely as “crimes against society” or “crimes against public morality and the family.” New laws at that time also criminalized marital rape and sexual harassment, increased punishment for so-called honor killings, and reversed legal discrimination against unmarried women.

Yet these laws designed to protect women’s rights were never fully implemented in practice. President Erdoğan proudly stated as much in 2010, when he announced that “Women are women and men are men. Is it possible for them to be equal?” His public comments, and the rhetoric of other high-profile politicians and public figures, continue to degrade women and consign them to the status of second-class citizens.

The increasingly corrosive state intrusion into the lives of women in Turkey, combined with the ongoing suppression of LGBTQI+ communities in the country, goes hand in hand with a resurgent nationalism that is seeking to tighten the borders around who is allowed to participate in Turkish society, and under what terms. Nadira Kadirova was the subject of a double exclusion — as a woman and a migrant — and, as a result, her death has been juridically and politically elided. As a migrant, she has been subjected to the physical removal of her body, and any key evidence it may hold, from Turkish sovereign space. As a woman, she has been subjected to unfounded accusations of sexual “deviance” and possible madness. The borders governing her body are both highly rigid and elastic enough to serve whatever purpose is beneficial to those in power.

But those fighting for justice for Nadira remind us of her complex implication in the textures of that power and her deeply embedded entanglement with all the lives around her — as a worker in the global economy, as a caregiver to another woman, as an employee of a Turkish politician, and as a legal subject who at least nominally bears full equal rights. It was precisely to uphold this latter position that the Istanbul Convention was established — to inscribe in law the rights of women beyond national juridical borders, recognizing the racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious differences that exacerbate women’s vulnerability.

According to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “bare life” defines the “threshold” where the relation between the living human being and the sociopolitical order is articulated. On this threshold, sovereign power inscribes the humanity of women and men living within its boundaries. In this juridical-political order of the patriarchal nation-state, the life and death of Nadira — a woman who gave care to a stranger far from home, within an unforgiving socioeconomic system, who loved and was loved in return — is a reminder that our individual mortality and personal traumas are part of a complex network of collective life.

“As women lawyers who are human rights defenders, we will be the followers of her file,” Eren Keskin has affirmed. “As women, we will continue to protect Nadira’s right to the fullest.” The search for justice for Nadira, as well as for all the recently murdered women in Turkey and the countless others who remain legally and socially vulnerable, is a continuing struggle. Their voices will not be silenced.

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Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank.

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Banner image: “Istanbul skyline at night” by Hakan Sarıtaş is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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