Reluctant heroine seems to encapsulate the Government's heavy-handed response to a civilised protest.

With her red cotton dress, white shoulder bag and flowing black hair, she has become the colour-coded emblem of Turkey's new people-power movement.

Caught on camera as she was sprayed head to toe in tear gas, Ceyda Sungur's treatment at the hands of Istanbul's riot police seemed the epitome of using a "sledgehammer to crack a nut" and encapsulated the Government's heavy-handed response to a civilised protest.

Pictures of the "Lady in the Red Dress" quickly spread around the world via the internet. Those who shared the pictures online joined protesters in demanding to know why a woman who looked dressed for a summer picnic had been treated like a masked, brick-throwing anarchist.

Sungur said she was a reluctant heroine, describing herself as just part of a wider grassroots movement, and pointing out in brief remarks to a Turkish newspaper that hundreds of others had been gassed in similar fashion.


Now, though, Sungur, an academic, has spoken briefly but vividly to the Sunday Telegraph about her involvement in what happened, and how she is now working in a makeshift clinic to help others hurt in demonstrations.

"For me this is about freedom of speech and the power of the people," said Sungur, who was left choking for breath after the gas attack.

"Now people have, for the first time, the self-confidence to reclaim their power. They have the self-confidence to change everything."

The photos of Sungur set off a major escalation of the protests.

As well as being shared via Facebook, Twitter and other social media, Sungur's image has become a permanent part of the protest landscape, appearing as a cartoon on posters, stickers and banners.

Protesters in the city of Izmir have even turned the image into a fairground-style billboard, where demonstrators can poke their head through a hole where her face is and pose for pictures.

Keen to keep out of the limelight, Sungur is volunteering at an improvised field hospital in Taksim Square, the epicentre of the Istanbul protests. "We have created field stations on Taksim Square where we look after people who have been injured," she said, declining to specify further details for fear that the volunteer doctors might be arrested.

Sungur works in the planning department of Istanbul's Technical University, a faculty not normally seen as a hotbed of radical politics.


She had little inkling of the anti-government revolt she was about to unleash when she and a group of architect friends joined a sit-in to stop bulldozers moving in on Gezi Park, a small patch of green in Taksim Square. "In Istanbul, I have watched people stop a Metro in its tracks when they need to get on it," Sungur said.

"That is like the power people feel now. They have the self-confidence to change everything."