by Güneş Daşlı
The public attention to motherhood and the maternal aspect of collective activism on the issue of enforced disappearances is not unique to Turkey. Similar to other victims’ movements globally, such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo or the Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace and Social Justice, motherhood and its traits traditionally ascribed to women shape the Saturday Mothers’ mobilization. The Saturday Mothers is one victims’ movement in Turkey that has been gathering at Taksim Square every week on Saturdays since 1995. As the longest civil disobedience activism, they hold sit-in protests, carrying photographs of their beloved ones, under the motto “Perpetrators Are Known, Where Are the Disappeared?” (Failler Belli Kayıplar Nerede?).
The 700.week protest at Galatasaray Square, İstanbul, 2018. Source: T24 newsletter
In this blog post, my attempt to interpret the Saturday Mothers’ activism from a feminist perspective. I point out the likely risk of overlooking or simplifying women’s agency, which diminishes our understanding of their powerful activism in seeking truth and demanding justice in an oppressive context. Feminist approaches to victims’ movements help us embrace the complexity of gendered agency beyond criticism of motherhood. For instance, in her research on three maternal movements in Turkey – the Saturday Mothers, Peace Mothers, and Mothers of Soldiers – Karaman explores how mothers created an alternative language and transformed the language of ethnic suffering into the language of maternal suffering. In examining the Peace Mothers in Turkey, Göksel argues that mothers constructed a political maternalism that challenges biological maternalism. These findings show us that gendered agency is constructed in various forms in maternal activism.
The crime of enforced disappearance is globally recognised since states and state-sponsored actors deploy the phenomena in many conflict zones. The relatives of the disappeared have organised counter-activism against the state’s violence. In those victims’ movements, women usually take on leading roles since the vast majority of disappeared people are men, and women seek their missing loved ones, whether as mothers or sisters. However, it is not necessary for activists in these groups to prioritize their roles as mothers normatively. In the Saturday Mothers, women activists emphasize the women’s leading role in the movement rather than their roles as mothers. The term “holy mothers” is generally used by male activists in the victims’ movement or outsiders such as journalists. In fact, the mothers initially referred to themselves as “Saturday People,” but the media reported their name as “Saturday Mothers” when they began gathering on Saturdays at Galatasaray Square. Göral notes that the feminist activists who supported the movement from its inception insisted on the name “Saturday People.” In recent years, activists and supporters of the movement have become more diverse and include human rights defenders, artists, rival politicians, lawyers, and leftist activists from different affiliations. Both names, Saturday People and Saturday Mothers, are currently used (Alıcı, 2021).
The Saturday Mothers as a Women’s Movement
A female relative participated into my PhD research clearly stated, “This is a women’s movement” since the initiators of the movement were all women, not necessarily mothers, who were at the forefront of the struggle. In the 1990s, when searching for a missing beloved one meant they were likely killed, families, largely women as wives, aunts, or sisters, insisted on seeking the truth, contradicting the naive image of being a mother. In fact, women played a significant role from initiating activism to sustaining the movement for 28 years, in which they became political actors.
Women in conflicts perform various forms of gendered agency by challenging traditional roles in patriarchal societies. In Sri Lanka, the Mothers Front utilized the image of holy mothers, according to traditional gendered traits in Sri Lankan culture, to moderate the ceasefire between the Tamil armed group and the Sri Lankan army as De Alwis discussed. Women become political actors in conflict and post-conflict periods. In the Saturday Mothers, many women became transformed political actors who resist state violence. Before they were only housewives. Both examples illustrate how women convert traits conventionally assigned to them, politicize their traditional roles, and utilize them to pursue peace and justice. To put it more clearly, when women use their mother identities in collective activism, it does not mean that their agency can be fixed and reduced to only one role. On the contrary, within the complexity of the negotiation between contested and traditional roles, gendered agency is relationally constructed. We should consider what a woman activist in the
Saturday Mothers said:
You ask me questions about how my life transformed with my husband’s disappearance. But… you don’t ask me if I’ve ever fallen in love after I lost him 23 years ago. I was 25, you know… Aren’t you curious about it?… I know it isn’t easy to ask me or a Peace Mother or a soldier’s wife this question. No, it isn’t easy… because they give us a sacred meaning… Yes, the image of the mothers helped us to maintain our struggle, but it has some restrictions too (Birsen Gülünay, interviewed with Karaman, January 14, 2016).
This quote itself urges us to see how researchers selectively focus on activists’ agency and alienate their different forms of identity as a woman, mother, citizen, employee, and so on. I define identity as Goffman describes it, as performances that we practice in daily life. Switching our performances, and thus our identities, can increase our autonomy. Put simply, a woman can be a mother, but she also performs her employee identity as an independent woman at work. We should keep in mind that we perform various identities, sometimes conflicting, but they are not necessarily exclusive. when we do not embrace these different roles of women victims, we fail to embrace the complex features of agency in terms of constructing autonomy, having control over their paths, and being actors to address their needs.
When we reduce activists women’s agency into being “holy mothers”, it automatically becomes invisible that those women are the ones who have dreams, desires and wishes like all of us. They did not only lose their husbands and economic supports, but also their social life that they had. Many of them did not get married again due to their loyalty to their beloved ones. However, this is not an easy choose for them, they remain single mothers who are stuck not being widows (officially) but also not having a partner.
Embracing the complexity of gendered agency with a feminist quest
As a feminist researcher, it is important to reflect on the complexity of gendered agency. Many feminist scholars in the field of human rights identify a general tendency to label women as “innocent victims” (Simic, 2016), in this case, “crying/holy mothers.” In addition to the problematic production of this dichotomy, which suggests innocent mothers/victims and non-innocent mothers/victims, it creates simple dichotomies. A large body of research shows that women are entitled to play multiple roles, and they do play them as autonomous political actors in collective movements.
The Saturday Mothers in Turkey demonstrate a powerful example of how women can actively participate in victims’ movements and challenge traditional gender roles in the pursuit of truth and justice. By acknowledging the complexity of their agency and embracing their multiple identities, we can better understand and support their efforts. This feminist critique serves as a reminder to avoid simplifying or diminishing women’s agency within the framework of motherhood, and instead recognize the diverse ways in which they assert their power and resilience. The Saturday Mothers’ struggle continues, and their activism serves as an inspiration for ongoing movements worldwide.
Güneş Daşlı recently completed her PhD project titled “Localising Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: An Agency-Centered Analysis” at the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies (JCRS) in Germany. She is an associate member of the Sussex Center for Human Rights at Sussex University and a founding member of the DEMOS Research Association in Turkey. Her research interests lie in the field of transitional justice, critical justice theory, reconciliation, peace and gender. She can be contacted at: email@example.com