Turkish Warrior Women Battle Gender Barriers

Felicia Whatley

Professor Ayse Gul Altinay from Sabanci University in Istanbul refused to identify as an obedient wife, sacrificing mother, or a proud warrior. “The Kurdish stigma that men must serve in the army while their supportive wives stay home must end”, she said in a recent lecture at UMB.

Her speech, hosted by the Consortium on Gender, Security, and Human Rights and Co-sponsored by UMass Women’s Studies Program and the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, strongly opposed militarism in Turkey.”Women are expected to be soldier wives and be obedient to their husbands. All kids are expected to sing this popular nursery rhyme, ‘little soldier, little soldier, Tell me what you are doing? I am looking after and putting a bayonet on my shoulder,’ ” said Altinay.During the Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922) women left their towns to fight for the first time. And women continued to serve, but have never been conscripted.

Altinay pointed out the importance of women warriors in Turkey’s history. Sabina Gokeen, Turkey’s first woman combat pilot, was also the first in the world. But she said an excessive focus on militarization is not helpful in our society.

“Do not bear arms and go to the military. Do not bear arms and go to the mountains. It is expected that every Kurd was born a guerilla. Until recently, militarism was not a concept,” said Altinay.

Not until May 1, 2003 did women in Turkey make their appearance as conscious objectors. Kurdish women were caught between being a warrior and being a mother.

“Women’s active role in the PKK represented a struggle with family [values]. The very liberation was a source of a threat to the government. Compulsory service was for men. More military consortium led to more deserters,” said Altinay.

She also criticized the Turkish military in their unfair treatment of gays in the military. Somebody took a box of apples to the military hospital and said, “You know how to sort them out.” Being gay meant you were ‘rotten’, she said.

Professor Cynthia Enloe from Clark University, a scholar on militarism, introduced Altinay, saying that the myth-like roll of the military in Turkish society works to subjugate women.”The myth of Turkey being a military nation is the best case study on how school systems get militarized. Ayse works with the Kurdish women in Turkey, who are conscious objectors,” Enloe said.

The Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights was founded in 2002 with the goal of integrating the study of gender and of women into work on human rights, security, and armed conflict.  Scholars from five leading academic centers and programs in the Boston area came together with the purpose of “changing the political and academic understanding of the security field so that the dynamics of gender become salient at all points in the conflict process, from prevention through post-conflict reconstruction.” “Ayse and I go way back. She really introduced me to Turkish feminism, which I knew nothing about. So if you are interested in militarism, listen up. If you are interested in feminism, listen up,” said Enloe.

Altinay received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. She unites young Turkey feminists. “I have learned to open new horizons working with Enloe. I want to counter the belief that every Turk is born a soldier. Where do women stand in this myth?” said Altinay.

In the fall of 2008, the Consortium on Gender, Security, and Human Rights moved to UMB. “It is good to work with the Consortium on Gender and Security. Ayse is a Turkey feminist who is making us aware of militarism,” said Enloe.

The Consortium’s goal is to bring knowledge about gender and security to bear on the quest to end armed conflicts and build sustainable peace. They see their role as twofold:  to foster the development of new knowledge about gender, armed conflict, and security; and to help bridge the gap between the scholarly research community on the one hand, and policy makers and practitioners on the other. Their programs are both international and local, posted by Genderandsecurity.org.

And Altinay brings a wealth of knowledge and compassion to her work. In her speech she showed how bold and persuasive her mission is to help other women and her fellow countrymen by spreading peace.

Altinay also spoke out about how the Turkish women were perceived by the Turkish men, and she stood her ground about why the military is wrong.

“Conscious objection is a women’s issue. It does not mean you are against compulsory service. Conscription is a form of slavery. Women are ignored and rendered invisible. I shall struggle against militarism with all my energy. I do not want to be someone’s property because I am a woman,” said Altinay.