Turkish Women Awaken to Conscientious Objection

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By Ferda Ülker

Let us look at the current situation in Turkey before focusing upon the conscientious objector struggle and conscientious objector women.

Born to be Soldiers

The history of the Turkish Republic is the history of people who had come from an empire tradition and who later turned their faces to the West. All the reforms that followed the declaration of the Turkish Republic were targeting a bright future which would be more promising. The owners of this nation-(state)-building project were soldiers. However, this process beginning under the leadership of Ataturk in time has lost all its progressive qualities while the Turkish army has retained its unrivaled superiority. The recognition of the Turkish army's position as the saviour and defender of the political regime has almost gained a cultural character. The Turkish army has been regarded as an institution above of criticism, though its crushing effect has been felt on all the occasions it considered a threat to the regime, when it has undertaken frequent military coups which were “powerful” and “destructive”. The 12 September (1980) military coup has left heavy marks on all the Turkish people. These wounds are still waiting to be healed.

The basic thing we are taught in school is that we are an army-nation. As early as the first childhood years in school we swear to fight for this nation till the last drop of our blood. Every morning we promised to sacrifice ourselves as part of, and a gift to, the nation’s existence.

“Every Turk is a soldier by birth” has been drilled into us. No matter what we do or who we are, we had no other choice than to be soldiers — by birth. We might not know what we want to do when we are grown up, but it was clear that we were soldiers and would stay so. Boys were little soldiers and we were little Ayses from the lyric of a children’s song that goes like this:

“Little soldier, little soldier tell me what you are doing?

I am checking my gun, loading it with a bullet.

Little Ayse little Ayse, tell me what you are doing?

I am taking care of my baby. I am singing my baby a lullaby.”

So, their future is set: Ayse to be a mother and the little soldier to be an adult soldier. We are told that Turkey is surrounded by seas on three sides and surrounded by enemies on all four sides. The Turkish army produces enemies and threats and behaves in line with these scenarios to keep the Turkish people ready and aligned against all possible attacks. We, as Turkish people, are expected to have a military reflex. Any criticism of the army can result in an accusation of being a domestic enemy.

The history of the Turkish republic, during which all social life has been redesigned, has succeeded in injecting militarism into our daily lives as an indispensable part of our traditions. One of the direct results of this situation has been consideration of sexism as an almost natural and necessary part of social reality. Thus, militarism is an important element of sexism which stimulates and entrenches it.

Manhood and womanhood are described and codified in a way intrinsic to militarism, and any third possibility has been coded as sickness. The manhood of the Turkish army was saved when homosexuality was accepted as an incurable illness and homosexuals were exempted from military service on grounds of “disability”.

In Turkey, women are not recruited in the army. This is, unfortunately, not a result of a long struggle or something accepted as good because military service is a bad thing. Women are regarded as the second sex, not appropriate for this sacred duty. Rather, women’s place is considered to be at home, their duty taking care of children. The army is the place of real men and there is not a place for second or third sexes in the ranks. In this masculine world everything about women and womanhood is being used as an insult.

So in this case why are we, women who do not consider taking any position in the army whether invited or not, declaring ourselves as conscientious objectors and why do we say no to militarism?

Conscientious Objection in Turkey

In Turkey issues about the army are taboo and those taking up such issues are hurt badly. It would be unfair to neglect the role of the conscientious objector movement in the creation of today’s environment in which we can, though in a limited way, talk and discuss about the army and militarism. The Conscientious objector movement has been maintained under very difficult conditions by very few people who give all their time and energy. Being in this movement, we have long been considered as interesting but weird even by the leftist opposition. We had a style and discourse very different from theirs and this made conception of the inner meaning of our word difficult for them. The Kurdish movement, too, chose to stay distant when they realised that the motto of “neither army nor mountains (guerillas)” is not a tactical but a basic principle for us.

Being a conscientious objector, walking with the conscientious objector movement, and advocating the right to conscientious objection in such a militarist environment, involves many risks of legal sanctions. Conscientious objection is not a concept defined by law in Turkey. For Turkish society, objection by men is just another name for cowardice in evading their duty. Objection by women is thought to be incomprehensible and sometimes unnecessary, not only for the society but also for leftist opposition movements, feminists and even some conscientious objectors. Because conscientious objection is considered to mean only rejection of military service duty, it is difficult to find a meaning in women’s conscientious objection for many people and circles.

Conscientious objectors first appeared in the early 90s. A few years later, following the first objection declarations, Izmir War Resisters Association was founded. This association, consisting of a few activists who refused to see anti-militarism solely as a political line of thinking but also believing in the necessity of adopting it as a lifestyle, became the first meeting place for conscientious objectors. It has in a sense turned into “the centre” of any declaration of objection, any action or activity.

Conscientious objection has always been on the agenda on varying levels in different time periods. Even now there is no clarity on what sort of strategy is to be pursued. The struggle usually consists of reaction to the imprisonment of male conscientious objectors. Through the campaigns organised upon these imprisonments, we are trying to reach as many people as possible. However, it cannot be said that we truly qualify as a movement yet. The conscientious objector Working Group, which was formed inside the association, somehow failed in becoming functional. Till now, we still only come together to campaign when a conscientious objector faces an imprisonment threat.

Actions, activities and declarations are made within this framework. But, because of the heavy demands upon participants, only a few people end up able to go on. The campaign becomes weaker and dies. What are left are fatigue, with people hurt and distancing themselves. But there is a point not to be missed here: we are not the ones who determine the course of events. The imprisonment process is something that the military authorities control, perhaps this is an explanation why the campaigns fade away.

Personally, I don’t believe that this not very brilliant picture is all that negative. Against all the odds, there is an ongoing process, and the possibility of evolution of this process into a much stronger movement in the future is always there. Even though we are few in number we haven’t lost our hope. In Turkey, conscientious objection has been understood within an anti-militarism framework. Conscientious objection is an open area of struggle which takes its power from individuals and which is intrinsically antimilitarist. It is extremely important that the struggle rejects all militarism in all its components.

Women in the Conscientious Objector Struggle

Conscientious objection has been associated with men who declare themselves as conscientious objectors. The issue put by these conscientious objectors has been moulded and defined by them, most importantly by the compulsory military service duty. We women were seeing ourselves not as the agents but supporters of the struggle. As we got involved, we have started to see the crucial importance of inclusion of women in the conscientious objector struggle. On the other hand, we still could not show the courage to say “yes, here we are in the struggle” for a long time. One of the reasons for this can be the militarist culture which had its effect on us. Having been raised in this cultural environment, even when we participate in oppositional movements, we may fail to get rid of the marks of it. We get fearful as women even when we are a part of oppositional movement gatherings. When we come up with an idea and need to express it, we wait to make our point fully, clearly enough not to leave room for debate. But time passes by while we wait.

We failed to argue that conscientious objection is not an area limited and peculiar to men, that if accepted as such this might lead us into sexism, and that conscientious objection, though it relates to army and military duty, still necessitates a broader perspective. It has taken a considerable amount of time for women to pluck up courage and come out with their views. On 15 May 2004, in the first Militourism Festivity gathering, our five friends declared their conscientious objection. Their courage, despite the criticisms implying “OK what is it to do with you?”, encouraged us to declare our conscientious objection later on. Currently there are 62 conscientious objectors in Turkey and 13 of them are women. These numbers may seem small but when the short history of this struggle and the effect of militarist culture are taken into account, it is not to be underestimated.

What happened to make women pluck up their courage to come out? In my opinion the main reason for this was that we reached a point where we had to decide to be counted. What we were fighting for was more than to be associated solely with demanding exemptions from military service for conscientious objector men. It would be possible to broaden the agenda of conscientious objection only through the appearance of women in the struggle, and questions being asked. Yet we were expecting a difficult process and we were waiting for a suitable time. For me the right time would come when some pioneering women appeared and come out before me. For the five friends of us, on the other hand, the right time was the National Tourism Festivity preparations which had taken a great deal of time and which had excited all of us. That all five women had decided to acknowledge their objection together can be accounted for by their being encouraged by being together. We knew that there would be many “why” questions, but we had raised and matured our answers to such questions during the past years and the time had come.

Declarations by Women Conscientious Objectors

These short quotations from the declarations of the conscientious objector women make the point better than I can, since they express our approach clearly. Inci Aglagul, the first woman conscientious objector:

I will consider myself complicit as long as I stay silent. But by no means do I want any complicity with war and militarism, or to watch passively the imprisonment of our lives, our minds and our dreams. I will not take part in any mechanism undermining the living. Because of these views, I refuse military service, militarism, and this compulsion as a lifestyle.

Nazan Askeran (recently deceased): “I refuse any type of violence regardless of its being organised/unorganised. I don’t want to die or kill in wars. I object to being a threat too, a terminator of the living/inorganic life that will exist on this planet after us. I refuse the militarist approach which introduces and legitimises it to oppress, to be oppressed; to give orders, to take orders; to die, to kill; the war, the military service, the violence in all fields of our lives.

Let’s listen to the voice of Ceylan Ozerengin: “Let all live and act as they want and think right. In my opinion, human life is the only sacred concept on the earth. I reject all the other ‘holy duties’ forced upon us, totally.

Ayse Girgin: “As a woman, although I don’t relate to militarism through the army, I face up to it in every field of my life. I struggle against militarism as much as possible, in this world involving all sorts of relations based on hegemony-oppression, sexist discrimination and any type of violence, bloody or non-bloody. I refuse all faces of militarism.” Figen: “… Even though they are not drafted, women are the most oppressed group under militarism. As a patriarchal ideology, militarism defines our whole lives and causes women to be perceived in the society as property, servants, slaves, objects to be silenced and harassed/raped. In Turkey, with traces of the military coup, military rule and an ongoing war, women’s liberation is possible through the struggle against militarism. I declare my objection in the name of millions of children whose lives were divided into two after the military coup of the September 12 of 1980. We witnessed and lived the terror during and after the 12th of September. People we loved got killed, got lost, sent into exile or made so frightened that we learned what fear is very well. We figured out what armies are for on the September 12 coup. The army is fear, the army exists to give fear. The army is terror…

The common point in the women’s declarations is that their views are based on a critique of militarism from a feminist point of view. The main point is the making clear and the refusal of militarism, regardless of the form in which it manifests itself. Traditionally, the relation of women to military service is thought to be within the context of their being mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends of would-be-soldiers. However, women conscientious objectors, most of them being feminist and antimilitarist, talk in their declarations about ways of relating to the army other than those mentioned above.

Men try to explain women’s role in the conscientious objector movement as her being a wife, sister or mother of a male conscientious objector. This view has been accepted. If no such connection exists, men say, maybe the woman has a close friend among male conscientious objectors. But obviously all these reasons for women’s involvement in the conscientious objection movement assume a men-bounded existence for women. Our declarations elaborate why we are here, inside. Of course we are supporting the stand of male conscientious objectors refusing to comply with compulsory military service, as everybody else sensitive to the issue does. But what we do primarily is to make visible the militarism which penetrates all sectors of social life, all social relations. We want it to be clearly seen, so that we will be able to fight against it.

Doubtlessly, those types of relations called “traditional” of themselves are also objectionable, but when we consider the existing profile, in our declarations, these contexts are appropriated. Women conscientious objectors construct their relation to militarism through their own existence and own “problems”, rather than through “men” in their lives. As clearly put in our declarations, we do not consider conscientious objection as just a rejection of “obligatory military service”, but instead as a confrontation with militarism.

What Do Women’s and Men’s Objections Mean?

The common point in the declarations of women and men objectors is their antimilitarist standing and the harsh criticism directed against militarism without hesitation. The target is to detect and display militarism in every sense of the term and within all contexts and to declare that in no way will the objectors engage with militarism. No conscientious objector declaration, without regard to whether men’s or women’s, limits itself to demanding just the abolition of compulsory military service. Rather, they are geared to the aim of revealing militarism as a vicious, criminal practice and a declaration that this crime will never be condoned.

At this point, a different process is put into motion which results in differentiation of the objections of men and women conscientious objectors. Men may face forced recruitment and imprisonment. This risk imposes on men conscientious objectors their accepting a “civil death”.

For women, such a risk of detention or imprisonment has not yet arisen. But this does not mean that such a thing will never happen. Presently, usually neither men nor women face prosecution. However, some men are prosecuted and punished for not complying with orders. For women, the only judicial risk stems from the article criminalising “deterring public from fulfilling their military service duty”. Until now no woman has been prosecuted in this way. I believe this partly stems from not being taken seriously.

The military has many tools to counteract men’s conscientious objector declarations. As a movement, we try to get into a process which is already determined by others. When it comes to women conscientious objectors, the military does not seem to have a policy. Women’s conscientious objection has a potential which shows that the militarist culture of society is not inevitable or eternal. The key to save the conscientious objection struggle from the fires of criticisms — seeing men’s conscientious objection as cowardice or treason — is the declarations of woman conscientious objectors. Women’s involvement in the conscientious objector movement promises to carry the movement to another stage. In this sense it is desirable to see an increase in the number of the questions “why” and “what are you trying to say”. The answers to these questions may open the door of a new world. Maybe it is too soon to say such a thing, but when I imagine street demonstration of thousands of woman conscientious objectors I can also dream of a chance to reach people’s consciousness, getting through the dust and corruption of the ages. But for such a fantastic dream to become true there are tasks for all of us. The first and foremost is to undertake the responsibility of fulfilling the requirements of being a movement.

Needs of Women Conscientious Objectors

Despite all the criticisms against being a woman conscientious objector, we are here as women conscientious objectors and will keep on existing. Being in this struggle for three years, our first need is to get to know each other better and create a common language explaining our political stance. I do not know what the needs are for women conscientious objectors in the world, but what we need first here is to work out this common ground. We still have a short history.

As woman conscientious objectors living in Turkey, our most urgent need is to ascertain the points where we have shared and differed in views and to create a language which reflects the widest consensus possible among us. We all share the criticism of militarism in our declarations but the arguments behind these criticisms differ. However, a point constantly overlooked is that we are a component of the antimilitarist struggle. And certainly we are aware of the wide spectrum of antimilitarism. When we look at the relation of conscientious objection to women, apparently we are still at the very beginning of the road. In fact it is an important opportunity for the antimilitarist struggle that we are in the position of reinforcing these questions. Because the stronger the questions are, the more solid the answers will be. In this context, it is a fact that international communication and sharing of experiences will contribute to us both morally and practically.

Thanks to Alp, Ash, Cuneyt and Ulku for help with translation and editing.

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology