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Jordi Casamitjana, the vegan activist who helped to improve the rights of ethical vegans in the UK, reports on the struggles of students in Turkey to have access to vegan options in their universities’ canteens — which have culminated in unprecedented legal action.   

I knew it would have that effect.

When I left the Magistrate Court in Norwich, England, on 3rd of January 2020, and I had to face a row of media cameras waiting for my statement, I knew that the news of my legal victory would have an effect all over the world. Employment Judge Postle had just ruled that ethical veganism was a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, so my discrimination case for unlawful dismissal due to my veganism could continue. It did carry on a few weeks later, and I was successful in the end, but the pre-hearing that set the protection of vegans from discrimination, harassment, and victimisation was what caught the attention of media all over the world. For weeks, I kept seeing my name and face in article after article in newspapers, TV bulletins and websites of at least 67 different countries. And the reason they were excited about the news was the belief that, if it had happened in the UK, it could happen elsewhere too.

After my victory, vegans that had been victims of discrimination and who had been inspired by my case, started to speak up. Some got involved in their own local legal cases and were also victorious (such as the case of the Italian vegan teacher in Bologna who won her right to vegan food as her students already had). Others contacted me and asked me for advice, so they carried on with their struggles (such as the case of  Noelia Estraviz fighting for vegan options for her daughters in their school in the Basque Country). But others were aiming much higher.

In 2021 I was contacted by Deniz Kavur, Oyku Yagci, and Ebru Ariman from the Vegan Association of Turkey (Vegan Derneği Türkiye), or TVD,  with the following message: “We have previously met briefly during a call with Anita Krajnc from the Save Movement where we spoke about your success in securing the legal protection of ethical vegans as the Employment Tribunal proceeding ruled that ethical veganism is now a protected philosophical belief in Great Britain. We would like to take similar measures in Turkey. We have already succeeded in securing the availability of vegan food in the carceral system in Turkey, making it obligatory to provide plant-based options for inmates in the entire country. We would love to meet with you to discuss and learn more about your experience with your case and its success.”

We did meet during the pandemic (online, of course) to discuss the issue, and a few months later they contacted me again saying they decided to sue the government’s appointed education regulator for discriminating against vegan students.  In this article, I will report on what they have done so far, and which has been the struggles of such students which, unfortunately, are not dissimilar to those experienced by others around the globe. 

Discrimination Against Vegan Students 

Poor vegan option at Turkish university canteen.

As in many countries, the number of vegans in Turkey has been increasing. However, they remain a minority in a carnist world, and as such, they are victims of discrimination. Via TVD I managed to get the testimony of several students in Turkish universities, so they can report about what has been their experiences regarding discrimination and vegan options. Kamillo Erdem is studying at the Management Engineering Department of Istanbul Technical University. This is what he reported: 

“At Istanbul Technical University (ITU), students officially demanded a Vegan Food Menu in ITU’s Cafeterias. We gathered more than 2200 signatures for it. So far, only one of the four dishes on the lunch menu is served with a vegan alternative, and no vegan meal options are offered at breakfast and dinner, which absolutely does not meet the nutritional needs of the students.

A vegan menu option in dining halls/cafeterias can be found in many universities in Turkey, such as Boğaziçi University, Çanakkale 18 Mart University, Istanbul University, Hacettepe University, Koç University, MEF University, Middle Eastern Technical University, Yıldız Technical University and several more. However, there has not been a Vegan Food Menu served in ITU.

Vegan Students of ITU have been miserably waiting for a positive or negative answer from the rectorate for more than two months since March 18, 2022. Despite the fact that more than 2,000 students demanded a vegan menu at the campus, the ITU Rectorate has given no update at all up to this date.

Having a vegan Menu at university dining halls/cafeterias is necessary for students to live and study on more sustainable and environmental campuses, as well as for all animals who suffer immeasurably around the planet due to our eating habits.”

Currently, vegan students at ITU continue to collect electronic signatures from supporters at change.org/ituveganmenu after submitting 2,266 signatures they collected on campus so that their demands can be seen by the university management.

Eskişehir is a city in north-western Turkey and the capital of the Eskişehir Province. It has a large university called Eskisehir Anadolu University. A student there, who wants to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, sent me the following:

“Although it might seem difficult for some of our friends to be a vegan in a non-vegan world, it is, in fact, quite easy. What is really tough is fighting for VEGANISM, because, even though we know our rights, it is hard to reinstate them. I thought Eskisehir Anadolu University would be sensitive to our rights at the height of the recent mobilization of students demanding vegan menus in different universities. Despite the fact that I just have two classes a week, we started a movement. We gathered signed petitions with our vegan/vegetarian friends and delivered them to the university management on several occasions. 

When I went to the rectorate and university dining hall management, they told me that they understood me but never made any steps to address the issues I raised. When I told the cafeteria staff that I am a vegan, not a vegetarian — believing that a vegan diet is a basic right — I got different answers every time I wanted to learn the content of the same food at the university dining hall. As a result, I gave up using the dining hall, which I actually have the right to as a student. The meals we were forced to eat always had either yoghurt or eggs in the ingredients. 

I graduated during this struggle, and have experienced this even though there are still more than 50 vegans at the university. I lost my fundamental right to eat at the university dining hall. My right to ethical and healthy nutrition was ignored. 

When we talk about universities, we imagine a place where freedom and rights are consciously given to young people, but the actual situation is just the opposite. They go with the stream and implement ‘de facto’ rules. Let me tell you about one of the simple experiences I witnessed as a vegan: You are at the beginning of the queue waiting for the vegetarian meal, but then the cafeteria staff tell you that the vegetarian meal will be ready in half an hour. 

In addition to not having equal rights with other students, our demands do not receive equal attention. These are just a few examples of what we experience on a larger scale. I would expect all the university managements not to violate the rights of even a single person.” 

Positive Outcomes of Student’s Mobilisation 

Photo By Aykut OZKAN via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1718392957)

I am sure that many vegans all over the world can relate to the stories told by these two Turkish students, but there have been cases when student mobilisation has produced positive results. In Turkey — which has 205 universities in 81 cities— some students also managed to get what they needed. For instance, in Ege University, in the city of Izmir, a metropolitan city on the western side of Anatolia, the capital of the province of the same name. Melodi Zengin reports about the struggle of vegan students there who succeeded with their campaign:

“We went through a vegan menu request process at the University of Ege. Our demands were manipulated for months and rejected by the university rectorate. Finally, our consistent struggle paid off and we won our vegan menu rights. We think that during this process Ege University has tried to reject our request in every possible way. They may believe veganism is a political field because they insisted on not accepting our request despite being one of the universities with the highest budget in Turkey. 

Yes, veganism is political because, as we showed on May 1 at the International Workers’ Day rally, our struggle is the fight for the liberation of all species. Initially, as vegan students studying at Ege University, we held meetings with the university’s dining hall staff and the Health, Culture and Sports Department (SKS). We were verbally mocked every time we went. Finally, we decided to collect signatures and handed over the 75 petitions we gathered. While the petitions should be officially answered within 15 days, it was delayed four months with replies such as ‘We will accept your demand, we are just at the stage of completing the procedures.’ However, our rightful demand was rejected on the so-called grounds that ‘there is no possibility to create a new production line for the vegan menu.’ The funny thing is that Ege University does not prepare the food itself —it has a contract with a food company that prepares all of it.

Upon this negative response, we quickly got together and decided to get mobilised. In addition to increasing our visibility and demand on social media via tagging actions, we also increased our demand and visibility by organizing every Friday vegan picnics on campus. We continued our talks for four weeks, but we did not receive a positive response. Finally, we invited everyone (bar associations, professional chambers, associations) to make a press statement and write petitions to Ege University. Letters and petitions containing scientific data were sent to the rectorate focusing on the argument that what the university did was unlawful and that vegan nutrition was a fundamental right — that a plant-based diet is healthy and ecological. Meanwhile, we prepared ourselves for a press briefing. 

Some days before the press briefing, we were invited to an emergency meeting by the SKS. When we went, they told us that they ‘would take care of it, you don’t need to organize the briefing.’ We replied that we had been ignored for months and that we were determined to fight until an official positive response came. The next day, they called us to a meeting once again, but we did not go. A short time later, they called us again and said that our demand was accepted. We asked for an official announcement on the university website and once it was made, we made our press briefing about our achievement in front of the Ege University Rectorate. 

Necdet Budak, the ‘appointed’ rectorate of Ege University, has been trying to publicly appear student-friendly on the one hand, but act just the opposite on the other. 

What really motivated us was the fact that they did not accept even the most basic students’ rights: the right to nutrition. But, because we were always in solidarity with other groups and determined to get our rights, we knew that our demands would eventually be accepted.”

Legal Action Against the Turkish Council of Higher Education

Turkish Council of Higher Education and legal claim made by TVD against them.

It should not be that hard. Access to nutritious vegan food should not be something that you gain through a long battle. It should not be a matter of luck and geographical lottery. This is why the Vegan Association of Turkey decided to take this a step further and initiate legal action against the government’s appointed education regulator. In particular, on 16th May 2022, they sued the Council of Higher Education Board of the country (Yükseköğretim Kurulu – YÖK) for ignoring vegan students’ right to healthy nutrition. TVD had engaged YÖK but received a negative written reply to their official petition submitted on 7th April 2022 — which is what prompted the legal action.

The Council of Higher Education (YÖK) was established with Law No. 2547 on 6th November 1981. Is an autonomous institution which is responsible for the planning, coordination and governance of the higher education system in Turkey following the Turkish Constitution and the Higher Education Laws. All higher education institutions are under the scope of YÖK (academies, universities, educational institutions transformed into the faculties of education, conservatories and vocational higher schools (VHS) affiliated with universities). The Council of Higher Education has twenty-one members: one-third of its members are directly appointed by the President of the Republic of Turkey by giving priority to the former rectors and successful professors; one-third are selected by the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) from among distinguished, high ranking civil servants; one-third are selected by the Inter-University Council from among professors who are not members of YÖK.

In a meeting held with the YÖK in November 2021, and with the petition submitted to the institution in April 2022, TVD asked for making necessary regulatory amendments so that vegan menu demands by the students should not be seen as a “privilege” and be subjected to the arbitrary practices of decision-makers at the institution level, and that all vegan students should access the right to vegan food without any exception. TVD also demanded the recognition of the rights of vegan students to healthy, balanced and adequate nutrition on campus in light of liberty of conscience, which is already protected by the Turkish Constitution. 

The statement of claim reads as follows: “The suggestion brought by YÖK through their written official response is to ‘apply to relevant institutions’, meaning applying to universities one by one. This answer is not a solution, and it is clear that such a recommendation is not an answer to the lack of regulation that should be implemented throughout the country. This attitude of the defendant administration means ignoring the obligations imposed on the state by constitutional and international agreements. (…) Leaving a problem that concerns the whole country to the initiative of each university one by one will cause disorder rather than a resolution, and will damage the balance of equal opportunity that should be established among students.”

The petition also refers to the national legislation and the international conventions that Turkey is a party to: “The fact that vegan alternatives are not provided to individuals who refuse to consume animal-sourced products ethically and/or within the scope of the right to healthy nutrition leaves vegan individuals constantly subjected to inadequate and unbalanced nutrition. This means a violation of their fundamental rights, which are protected by the Turkish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

TVD Founding President Ebru Arıman said, “Despite all efforts, we could not get positive responses from the rectors and SKS units of some universities, such as ITU, Gazi and Bakırçay. This arbitrary practice and violations of rights must come to an end immediately. YÖK should materialize and implement the regulation that will make vegan menus compulsory, consistent and accessible throughout the country without any further grievances.”

Stating that the rights of vegan and vegetarian prisoners have been legally protected in Turkey since 2012, Arıman said that excluding universities is a violation of economic rights too: “While the right to food and freedom of conscience are protected by the legislation of penitentiary institutions, it is unacceptable to deprive students of their rights to benefit from the collective nutrition system in their universities due to their ethical and philosophical stance. Especially when the only option that can access affordable food is the university cafeteria; it is against equity to deprive vegan students of this option.”

If my legal case inspired Turkish vegans to stand up for their rights, I hope that now their legal case inspires other vegans to do the same. And if vegans don’t have to struggle facing discrimination, they will stay vegan for life and be able to spend more energy and time fighting for the animals.

Vegans’ rights are animal rights.