“Iron Woman” is the name given to Mutlu Kaya by her almost two million TikTok followers, due to the bullet in her brain. She is a social media star, a heroic figure to her followers. But this isn’t how she wanted to find fame.
In May 2015, aged 20, Mutlu was a finalist on the Turkish equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent. As a little girl, she used to sing into her hairbrush in front of the mirror, pretending to be a popstar, and now it looked as if her dream might come true. “I was so excited I could hear my heart,” she recalls.
But, days after appearing on the TV show, the future she had imagined was brutally snatched from her when a jilted suitor tried to kill her. Mutlu was shot in the head and spent just under two months in intensive care, her family camping in the hospital car park outside to stay near her.
Her story made headlines around the world. Eight years on, she is unable to use her hands and uses a wheelchair, and the little walking she can manage is slow and stilted. The bullet remains lodged inside her brain, a permanent reminder of her ordeal, too risky to remove.
In a cruel twist of fate, her older sister, Dilek was murdered three years ago by a man claiming to be her boyfriend. According to the Turkish campaign group We Will Stop Femicide, some 334 women lost their lives as a result of gender violence in 2022, and 245 died suspiciously.
Dilek was shot and killed the day after her 35th birthday, in March 2020. “It hit me harder than the bullet,” Mutlu says.
Today, she still wants her voice to be heard but she is no longer singing traditional Turkish folk. Instead, she has recorded a protest track, Resurrection, a Turkish trap song in which she sings of her hope that “the cruel ones will pay the price one day”. On TikTok, she is fighting for change; for harsher penalties and for violence against women in Turkey to be taken more seriously.
Mutlu is one of eight siblings, six girls and two boys, and her family comes from the small Ergani district of Diyarbakir, a conservative, Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey. She speaks no English, so we communicate through a translator on a video call. Dressed in a brown spotted blouse, she looks more formal than in the TikToks in which she is often beautifully made-up, wearing bright colours. Her long, dark hair, which reaches to the backs of her knees, is pulled loosely behind her.
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She first met Veysi Ercan, “the man who messed up all my life”, when she was 14 and he was in his 20s. She thought he was a gentleman at first, but over time her opinion changed. When he asked her to marry him, she said no, sending him “crazy”.
When she filmed the TV show in Istanbul, some 1,400km (869 miles) from her home, he also made the journey. “He came to the studios and said, ‘if you let her join the show, I will kill you all’. He was always calling and threatening me. ‘You are mine or you will be dead’. After I took part in the contest, he became more jealous. I think he felt like if she is successful on TV, [he] won’t be able to control her.”
With just a few days until the final, Mutlu had been rehearsing when Ercan turned up to find her at Dilek’s home, after bombarding her with messages. Outside, he pulled out a gun and shot her through a glass door. The next thing she remembers is waking up in hospital. “I opened my eyes and I was in bed, totally immobile. I had to use nappies, which was very hard.”
In 2016, Ercan was convicted over the shooting and sentenced to 15 years in jail. There have been reports of his release under surveillance, but it is unclear exactly when that may be. With time served before his sentencing – which counts for double – it could be in the next few years.
Mutlu says this is one of the hardest things to deal with. “This man took my hands and feet from me. He should have got a life sentence. The penalties are not strong enough. I want to keep the topic of violence against women on the agenda. I always get positive feedback, especially from women. They tell me, ‘Mutlu, you are our hope’.”
According to the World Health Organisation, almost a third (32%) of women and girls in Turkey aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime, based on data collated between 2000 and 2018. This is the highest percentage in Europe and West Asia, for countries where data is available. By contrast, the average for Europe is 23%.
Incidents of femicide and violence against women are said to have risen in recent years. In 2021, there were protests after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulled out of the Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women from domestic violence.
Mutlu is sharing her story in a new documentary, My Name Is Happy, so-called because “mutlu” means “happy” in English. In one extraordinary scene, she sits and watches as a doctor shows her a scan of the bullet inside her. She has made peace with it. It sounds strange, she says, but sometimes she talks to the foreign object inside her head. “Often I have strong headaches. I ask her not to make me feel so bad and cause so much pain.”
Since the shooting, the support Mutlu has found on social media has sustained her in her darkest moments. She shares everything from updates on her treatment to touching family moments and singing clips. In the documentary, we see footage of her speaking to other women sharing their stories of violence and femicide.
In 2022, her sister’s killer received a life sentence, which he is appealing, according to the programme. Despite her disabilities, Mutlu made sure she was at the court for the hearing.
She still loves singing but it is campaigning that helps her cope. “In Turkey, many people play the three monkeys: deaf, blind and mute,” she says. “I want other countries and communities to hear what happened. I want everyone in England to hear my voice – and I ask them to add theirs.”
Her name may mean “happy”, but for her it now has a different meaning, as she says in the documentary. “When I say Mutlu now, it means to be mature, to be a woman who has suffered a lot.”