A Feminist Perspective on Conscientious Objection in Turkey

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By Hilal Demir, War Resisters' International

Why did we, Turkish women, declare conscientious objection though we are not subject to compulsory military service in Turkey? Here I record some problems and dynamics of conscientious objection, the contributions of women’s conscientious objection declarations to the movement, and the resulting discussions.

Living in a patriarchal culture, I think that all the opposition movements, including feminism, have the continuous risk of becoming “masculinized”. This is a risk so strong as to cause the fading away of most movements.

In my opinion, when the feminist perspective is overlooked in a movement against patriarchy and its practices, the process will fail. In a movement like antimilitarism, anti-sexism should be regarded as one of the most fundamental elements of the struggle against militarism. For, leaving this “attention” out of account, insidious mechanisms of the patriarchal system will not only leak into the movement but will also trivialise it. I would like to quote from an essay by Pınar Selek for the feminist theoretical magazine Amargi:

While this is a very important issue with regards to militarisation and the reproduction of masculinity, it remains as one agenda item among many in the struggle that needs to be waged against militarism. Especially here in Turkey we have an abundance of militarism issues to be dealt with. There is a need to settle accounts with history, with the republic, with the dominant approach, even with the opposition itself. There is a need to develop politics against the militarization of policies and the economy, against the rapid institutionalization of militarism. But from the outset, the anti-militarist movement has failed to go beyond the issues of “compulsory military service” and “alienation from military service”. The contribution of the feminist movement will save the anti-militarist movement from this agenda and the patriarchal attitude it is stuck with. To the extent that they fail to produce a feminist agenda and public debate against militarism, nationalism and politics that organise war through integration with micro powers, anti-war and anti-militarist attempts will always go back to square one. In order to prevent going back to square one, the anti-militarist movement needs to integrate with the feminist movement. It always has. [1]

As women who have participated actively in antimilitarist, antiwar and conscientious objection movements, we have been looking for alternative ways to express our resistance to militarism. We have struggled to find a space for ourself in existing movements due to the lack of a gender perspective in those movements. In 1999 we were a group of activist women working in the Izmir War Resisters’ Association who formed the independent women's group “Antimilitarist Feminists”. This group was the first to establish itself in order to overcome the problems women were facing in the movements due to the simple fact that they were women. Similar groups have been formed in various cities in the following years.

In Turkey, as in most other places in the world, it is common to define conscientious objection as objection to performing compulsory military service. Since women do not have to perform military service, their declaration of conscientious objection is considered a deviation. My prime motivation in declaring my objection was calling attention to the risk of this movement becoming some kind of forum for male politics and reminding us that militarism can’t be confined to military service. That women have no “place” in the Turkish army is due to the perception that we are not deemed worthy of such a “noble” institution. This means that compulsory service is not just a practice of “national defence”, but also serves to differentiate between men’s and women’s citizenship and their place in society.

When I was thinking about what to write in my declaration, the points which I wanted to explore in the text were very obvious for me. Reasons for wars, how people are used in wars, how daily militarism prepares us mentally for wars and for violence, how the structured social life with gender roles makes their system long-lived. So in my declaration I simply reject all of these points. One of the women who did research on women's conscientious objection in Turkey is Esra Gedik. Some of her evaluation of our situation follows.

Women who declare their objection though they are not recruited, do it as a confrontation against militarism, against all forms of war, violence and discrimination. Besides, the addressees of this attitude are the armed forces and war itself. It is the war economy and war mentality. The most oppressed by militarism are women, as militarism is meshed with sexism, patriarchy, heterosexism and all kinds of discrimination. For that reason, women’s confrontation is significant. It is the rejection of the armies, of all the wars caused and led by them, of armaments and all kinds of arms and violence as a whole, by a woman as a mother, a peace advocate, an antimilitarist and a human. And it is the evidence of women having more to say and do in this movement in spite of being “supporters”. Although women are not recruited, they are sometimes part and generally victims of this phenomenon. They therefore raise their voice against all kinds of authoritarian, hierarchical, nationalist, sexist and militarist structures as they don’t want to die or kill or be oppressed and exploited. Remaining silent would be supporting war. There is a will for a world without armaments, racial, religious or sexist discrimination [2].

I made my declaration on 15 May 2004 during the “mili-tourism festival” we had organised. With the emphasis we have in our declarations, we run the same risk as male objectors of being tried under the same legislation. This is a political strategy to try to force the government of the Turkish Republic to adopt a definite position on conscientious objection. Women’s conscientious objection declarations contribute to this strategy. A common point of the women’s declarations is a feminist attitude towards militarism. Most definitions of conscientious objection include the human right to freedom of conscience and conscientious objection as a personal expression of this conscience. As a feminist I don’t think it problematic to declare myself as a conscientious objector.

The first legal case for the conscientious objection movement in Turkey was that of Osman Murat Ülke in 1996. There were many problems in relation to this man’s case, due to the length of the process, uncertainties, burn-outs, material insufficiencies, lack of activism, marginalisation, and lack of support from other political movements. This led to exhaustion, and created problems that would continue to haunt the conscientious objection movement in the years that followed. The impact of the culture we live in, continuing exhaustion, and deficiencies led the movement to limit itself to conscientious objection declarations made by men who refuse to serve in the army. Consequently, “hero worship” was inevitable, since the men were running a risk of long prison terms in a country without any legal provision for conscientious objection in the constitution.

Refusal of military service by men and their subsequent elevation to “heroism” status may accelerate the movement to some degree, but subsequent strategies should aim to devalue this “heroism”. Otherwise the movement would become a men-only movement. In fact, the conscientious objection movement has gained such characteristics lately. “Heroism” is both a male and a militarist concept we should criticise. It is obvious that we need to develop new strategies and attitudes. The only action we have thought of so far is conscientious objection activism, and we women have our share of the responsibility here. We fail to make priorities that give us the time to raise the points that we find important. I don’t intend to be too harsh in my criticism, but I think that what we have neglected most of all is the subject of the problems we face as women.

Recently we have started to discuss an important question: “Although we are sure that we want to implement antimilitarist and feminist perspectives and action as women on any problem, is the conscientious objection platform the right place for it?” The background for this question is that we use the concept of “women objector” in a way that most people, including women in the conscientious objection movement and anti-militarist movement, do not. They think that the term “objection” was created for a legal situation, and that it should be restricted to this use. They are against the declaration of women's conscientious objection. They argue that women can create changes on their own terms developed by them. Since we as women have our own power, we can create our own words against militarism, rather than change the “conscientious objection” term.

I think that the conscientious objection declarations of 12 women have led to greater gender sensitivity within the movement. The declarations have challenged the discussions on this concept and encouraged us to search for a path for new perspectives. Women’s objection declarations keep us awake, help us grow stronger, and prevent our movement from being focused only on men being judged.

The one and only activism practice I can see within the antimilitarist movement is conscientious objection. And if women who are made invisible by militarism are also ignored in their activism we will be trapped in the very militarist pitfall itself. But there are still important questions to consider: should women’s efforts to become visible be made in the field of conscientious objection in order to become “equalised” with men? And how should anti-sexist attitudes be encouraged within the movement? On the other hand, women’s declarations have brought up the following questions mentioned by Ayşegül Altınay in Amargi:

  • Who and which processes give birth to “Soldier Turks” (and their “militant” counterparts)? How come we believe we are “born” soldiers as a society and think that the most meaningful contribution to the society is military service?
  • Where do men and women stand in the “soldier-nation” thesis?
  • If we take militarism in its broadest definition as glorification of military assets and practices and “civil” life becoming shaped by them, what is our contribution to militarism as “civil” people?
  • What is the contribution of women?
  • What is the contribution of us, feminists? Can we sustain our declarations and practice against all kinds of violence and militarism?
  • To summarise, when will we truly confront the processes of “being” and “making” soldiers and militarism? If we are not born soldiers what can we do to resist becoming soldiers? [3]

Recently we had a gathering with women from different cities to engage in these discussions. We continue to discuss conscientious objection and are preparing strategies for new extensions. Our common needs led us to establish a women’s network. We have started discussing various conceptions and ways of developing antimilitarist women's activism. And I see that we begin to have results in the process which began in practice with women objectors. Thanks to Balam Kenter for translating the quotes from Turkish to English.

Footnotes

[1] Pınar Selek, “Feminizme ve anti-militarizme ihtiyacımız var (We need feminism and anti-militarism” Amargi, S.2, Autumn Issue 2006, p27. [2] Esra Gedik, “Kadınlık ve Vicdani Red Üzerine” (About Femininity and Conscientious Objection) Amargi, S.2, Autumn Issue 2006, p38. [3] Ayşe Gül Altınay “'Asker Türk'leri Ve Onların Asker Kardeşlerini Kim Doğuruyor?” (Who is giving birth to “Soldier Turks” and their soldier brothers?) Amargi, S.2, Autumn Issue 2006, p18.

Published in Women Conscientious Objectors - An Anthology