The Role of LGBT and Women’s Conscientious Objections in the Turkish Conscientious Objection Movement

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Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Doğu Durgun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Sabancı University in Istanbul, Turkey.  After finishing his B.A. in Economics at Hacettepe University, he pursued his M.A. in Political Science at Galatasaray University.  He is currently working on a comparative-historical analysis of conscientious objection in Turkey and Israel and gives us a discussion here of how women and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) people's conscientious objections have impacted on the conscientious objection movement in Turkey.

Compulsory military service for all male citizens is one of the processes through which militarisation is perpetuated in Turkey.  The state and military officials enforce military service by laws, regulations and disciplinary proceedings.  Although it has lost its hegemonic power over politics, the military is still promoted as a sacred institution.  People trust the military even more than democratic institutions.  This institutional praise goes hand in hand with the sociocultural perception of the military as an indispensable rite of passage.  Culturally, military service is conceptualised as a step towards attaining the hegemonic model of masculinity.  Male citizens pursue their obligation in order to find a decent job, to get married and to 'begin their lives'.  'Every Turk is born as a soldier' is a motto which summarises the importance of the military in the construction of Turkish identity.  However, there are many individuals who refuse to take part in the military due to personal, moral, political, and/ or religious motivations.  Individuals resist enlistment by evading the draft, deserting their units or by taking exemption reports.  They are labelled draft dodgers or deserters by Turkish military law and the general public.  However, from the 1990s onwards, certain men have put forth their objections in public declarations and refused to be labelled draft dodgers or deserters.  The term 'conscientious objector'  has thus come to be associated in the Turkish political lexicon with these men, who conceptualise their resistances as a form of civil disobedience.

 
This article questions the evolution of the objection phenomenon and the challenges that objectors encounter due to the high level of militarisation in Turkey.  The risk of imprisonment,  Article 318 of the penal code, which criminalises people who speak about objection for 'alienating the people from  military service', and the difficulty of accessing many citizens' rights – a state known as 'civil death', in which those subject to it have no access to social security, no passport, and so on – are some of the challenges to performing conscientious objection.  While these are significant obstacles for conscientious objectors however, they are relatively well known, thus the main aim of this chapter is to question the degree to which power dynamics within the Turkish conscientious objection movement are structured by militarism, and the ways in which these dynamics are being overcome by the objectors themselves in the course of the movement's evolution.  In particular, the focus will be on sex, gender and sexuality, while recognising the importance of other power differentials such as race, ethnicity, class, etc.

An Antimilitarist Interruption: Conscientious Objectors in the 1990s

During the 1990s, conscientious objectors were mostly Turkish men in their twenties or thirties, with a certain degree of socioeconomic and cultural capital.  Their refusal was an antimilitarist interruption which was mostly grounded in their anarchist ethics.  They wanted to create a Turkish anti-war movement and to find a nonviolent way to solve the ongoing civil war between the Turkish security forces and the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK).  To do so, from 1992 onwards, they attempted to institutionalise their contestation within war resisters' associations.  As antimilitarists, they sought to change the laws, regulations and policies of the Turkish government and the military.  Thus, these men conceptualised their refusals to serve in the military, and in any alternative national service, as acts of civil disobedience.  In doing so, they wanted to contribute to the broader collectivity to which they belonged – they wanted their refusals to set out their political responsibility to transform their society into a nonviolent and demilitarised one.

Although the predominant debates among the objectors were about just versus unjust wars, and pacifism/ antimilitarism with regard to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, there were also cases in which these men redefined the contours of the country's sex and gender regime.  They refused to recognise military service as a duty of all male citizens and deconstructed the link established between heterosexual masculinity, military service, and citizenship.  They refused to identify with a heroic and warrior masculinity which recognises internal/ external threats, protects the nation from them, and, if necessary, conquers other territories.  Yusuf Ergin, for instance, contested the perception of military service as a rite of passage to becoming a 'real man'.1 Some suggested that such declarations were an act of treason against the privileged nationality, ethnicity, sex/gender, and class positions which these men enjoyed thanks to their socioeconomic and cultural capital, considering the military to be an agent of domination which sustained sex/gender, class, ethnic and national hierarchies within and outside the country.2 Such declarations were refusals to become 'proper' middle-class Turkish male citizens who must be grateful to 'the father state'.

The emergence of these objections created a divide between conscientious objection as a purely individual act, and conscientious objection as both an individual act and an act of civil disobedience.3  Those men who lived as draft dodgers and deserters, as well as those who avoided the military via medical 'rotten reports', were not considered conscientious objectors since their refusals did not entail civil disobedience vis-à-vis the state, military and society.

The politics of 'coming out' as objectors entailed a series of confrontations with the state, military, and society.  These confrontational politics reached a peak in the military trials and long period of military imprisonment of Osman Murat Ülke (Ossi).  The vicious circle between military courts, military units, and military prisons gave the objectors a voice.  Paradoxically, the conscientious objection struggle thereby came to be widely known in Turkish society, and even perceived to be a heroic enterprise, associating conscientious objection with a masculine act of civil disobedience.

Gendering the Resistance: Women & (other) LGBT Objectors in the 2000s

The masculine and heterosexual character of conscientious objection began to be deconstructed at the beginning of the 2000s when Turkish society witnessed the public declarations of gay men and women objectors.  These newly emerging objectors proclaimed their sex/gender and sexual differences vis-à-vis the state and military authorities as well as other objectors.  Several women and one openly gay man publicly voiced their objections to military service and militarism in 2004 and in 2001 respectively.  Gendering the resistance was a challenging process for the objectors and antimilitarists since the objection had so far been associated with heterosexual men.  There were, however, doubts about where in the struggle to situate women and gay or bisexual men, given that women were not obliged to complete military service in the first place, and gay or bisexual men could be exempted via 'rotten reports', though only if they could 'prove' their sexual orientation to the military authorities, often at great personal cost to their privacy and perceived dignity – same sex attraction is still officially considered a disease or disability by the Turkish military and medical authorities.  It is also worth noting here that though trans men face being called up in Turkey, like cis men (i.e. men who were called boys from when they were born), none are known to have served – very much unlike cis men, thus creating ambiguity around their situation also.  Trans women are not called up.

These newly emerging objectors have similar pacifist and/or antimilitarist agendas to those who went before them. However, they also politicise their sex/gender and sexual differences by deconstructing and exposing the patriarchal, masculinist and heterosexist discourses and practices of the state, military, society, and some other objectors.  Although women do not face compulsory military service in Turkey, they conceptualise their acts as a form of antimilitarist resistance to the hidden effects of militarism in their everyday lives.  They reject militarism as an ideology which perpetuates patriarchy and refuse to be either its victims or perpetrators.  Their public declarations are also a critique of patriarchal and masculinist discourses and practices among the objectors.  Although women have been active agents of the anti-war movement from the very beginning, they were predominantly defined as supporters.  Such an understanding resulted from the lack of compulsory military service for women. Accordingly, women objectors have not been imprisoned due to their refusals.

Women do, however, risk trials on the basis of Article 155 (now Article 318) of the Turkish Penal Code4, though this has yet to be pursued against them by the military officials.  Charges have only been made against them due to their participation in demonstrations, not due to their declarations.  In contrast, male objectors face civil death and the risk of imprisonment due to their deserter or draft dodger status. For instance, Mehmet Tarhan received consecutive penalties of imprisonment and disciplinary proceedings.  He remembers that his objection was received with more attention and enthusiasm when he was imprisoned as a gay man.  His refusal of both military service and a 'rotten report' was followed by an imprisonment which paradoxically gave him a voice among and beyond other objectors.  Women’s lack of military obligation goes hand in hand with their non-recognition by the state and military authorities as agents in the conscientious objection struggle.  It further relegated them to their supporter status within the objection movement.  Their refusals challenged the meaning of resistance, in that 'paying the price' no longer meant imprisonment.  Women claimed that they still paid the price, as women, mothers, and daughters in society.  They didn't want to play the game in accordance with the rules defined by militarism, which allows women to have a voice only when they become 'sacred and sacrificing' wives and mothers, or if they are imprisoned due to their refusals.

The state and military authorities further silence objectors and their supporters.  On the basis of Article 318, objectors, intellectuals, journalists and artists have also been tried due to speeches they have given, targeting the military institution.  Halil Savda, an objector, was sentenced to five months' imprisonment; public figures such as Perihan Mağden, writer and columnist, and Bülent Ersoy, a well known trans singer, and many journalists have been tried.  The article is criticised as a tool to impede  freedom of expression by intimidating and criminalising those who declare their opinions against the military in Turkey.

Diversifying Conscientious Objector Profiles: Alternative Forms of Refusal

Gay, lesbian and heterosexual women objectors have transformed the gender dynamics of the Turkish conscientious objection movement.  There is no doubt about the validity of their claims among  other objectors.  However, although the feminist critique of conscientious objection politics has been recognised as legitimate among objectors, the heritage of objection as an act of civil disobedience is yet to be deconstructed.  There remain conscientious objectors who define themsellves as such – draft dodgers in the language of objectors in the 1990s – who do not see their refusal as an act of civil disobedience, yet conscientiously refuse to serve in the military out of personal, political, moral and/ or religious reasons. Such examples point to the grey area of refusal.  Some of them do not identify themselves as objectors because they associate objection with an act of civil disobedience through which someone publicly puts forth their objection and confronts all the penalties which follow.  Others do not call themselves objectors simply because they do not have sufficient knowledge about objection.  Moreover, there are individuals who do not have the privilege, i.e. socioeconomic and/ or cultural capital, to take such a political stance due to the high levels of militarisation surrounding them.  Finally, there have recently been some gay, bisexual and trans objectors who have put forth their declarations on the basis of their sexual and/ or gender identity, even though they have not refused to take 'rotten reports'.  Many objectors refuse to serve in the military on conscientious terms but fear to uphold the consequences, i.e. civil death, so they find legal ways to avoid the service.  In addition, although there are very few examples, reservists – those who have completed their military service – can declare public objections too.  With these declarations, objection has begun to be associated not only with those men who refuse to serve in the military but with those who have served and become reservists according to military law. All these examples blur the heritage of confronting the state, military, and society in one particular way, and put forth alternative ways of forming an objection.

Conclusion

The historical trajectory of conscientious objection and the evolution of the profiles of objectors in Turkey indicate a transformation of the ways in which people resist the draft.  Conscientious objection as a concept is becoming a site of negotiation in wider society. It is arguable that one of the reasons for the confusion about the meanings of objection is the high degree of militarisation which is intertwined with hegemonic masculinity in Turkey.  Militarism is an ideology which praises sacrifice, courage, and confrontation; notions which are strongly associated with hegemonic masculinity.  When 'paying the price' of objection signifies a confrontational politics of civil disobedience, imprisonment, and so on, many individuals who refuse to take part in the military for conscientious reasons do not identify themselves with objectors.  On the other hand, either imprisoned, exempted, or not, each objector pays the price in different ways.  The association of refusal with civil disobedience impedes it, to a certain degree, from being embraced across society.  The widening of the meaning of objection may pave the way to increasing the significance of refusal for the Turkish public.

To conclude, let me briefly state one point which I believe to be important for the widening of conscientious objection.  One of the most important assets of the phenomenon is its dynamism. The individual character of refusals creates space for newly emerging agents who put forth their own political projects through their objections.  This poses some challenges to the activists who are working in the field since it becomes difficult to create solidarity and collaboration among agents with diverging social, cultural and political affiliations.  Activists should be attentive to establishing and strengthening their links to other social movements.  Thereby, objection may become a place from which to spark discussion among people who have different claims and values, but who nevertheless unite at the point of refusing to serve in the military.  Furthermore, international institutions may be helpful in mitigating the burdens on individual objectors, as has recently happened to some extent in Turkey, although this is a topic for a different chapter.

1. Ergin, Yusuf 1993, 'Niçin Reddediyoruz?', in Bakaya [magazine], 1993, (5): 4
2. Öğünç, Pinar. 2013, Asker Doğmayanlar,, (İstanbul: Hrant Dink Vakfı Yayınları), p 28.
3. Kılınç, N.T. 2009, 'The Morals and Politics of Conscientious Objection, Civil Disobedience and Anti-militarism', in Conscientious Objection: Resisting Militarized Society, eds. OH Çınar and C. Üsterci, (London and New York: Zed Books).
4. Objectors and their supporters who express opinions against the military risk trials on the basis of Article 155. The speeches and acts against the military are assumed to 'alienate people from the military service'. Amended in 2004, these acts and speeches are penalised under Article 318. Although it is slightly more difficult to penalise the acts and speeches, the content of the Article did not change significantly.

Go to next chapter: Disability and Conscription: masculinity, (dis)ableism, and the militarised body in Turkey

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