Confronting Challenges: To Be an Armenian Feminist in Turkey
An Interview with Lerna Ekmekcioglu
Lerna Ekmekcioglu is McMillan-Stewart Associate Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She earned her bachelor’s degree at Boğaziçi University in Turkey and master’s and PhD degrees from New York University. Lerna has authored a range of articles about ethnic and religious minorities, genocide, Armenian community in post-genocide Turkey, concentrating on the gendered perspective. In 2006, she co-edited “A Cry for Justice: Five Armenian Feminist Writers from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic (1862-1933)” in Turkish, with Melissa Bilal. At the end of this year her second book, “Recovering Armenia: Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey” will be published.
In August, during her stay in Yerevan, Lerna participated in a panel organized by the AUA and presented her work on the Ottoman Turkish policies of transferring women and children from Armenian to Muslim contexts and the post-war Armenian policies in Constantinople towards retrieving the kidnapped women and their children born of rape. Hetq spoke with L. Ekmekcioglu about her work on genocides and feminism.
Your work is concerned mainly with the gendered aspect of genocides. Is this phenomenon peculiar to the Armenian genocide or is it the same with the other genocides too?
I teach a course called “Women and War”, and we do talk about different genocides. And I always have this question in my mind – what is different in the Armenian case? We study other genocides – Rwanda, the Holocaust, and Cambodia – and I don’t know any other genocide where the transfer of women and children is such an integral and conscious part of the plan to unmake a people. The target itself (or part of the target), in this case, is considered by the Young Turks to be changeable, recyclable, and reprogrammable into the perpetrator group. Yes, we see rape, abduction in the Rwandan case and others, but not this much.
The Holocaust is very different. It’s almost an exceptional one in the sense that rape is avoided, because it is illegal during the Nazi era from 1933 onwards. Not just marrying, but even having any sexual relationship with the Jews for the Aryan people is racial defilement. So for them it is unthinkable, it’s impossible to grab part of the Jewish population and turn them into Aryans.
Thinking about the Holocaust is actually very eye-opening. Even though they are both genocides, from a gendered perspective they work out very differently. Women, pregnant women and little children were the first targets during the Nazi regime. In the Armenian case, adult males are the main target. We should not of course generalize. In the eastern parts, what is historical Western Armenia, the deportation and the massacres are more whole scale and gender-blind. Women and children are also killed on the spot, but the more west we go, the more gender-aware it becomes.
Someone needs to do a systematic study of this.
In some areas women had to take weapons, fight, and survive on their own – all previously not considered female roles. How did the genocide change the notions of what it meant to be a woman?
I wish it had changed. I don’t think it had changed that part of Armenian female identity. What I studied is the Armenian public discourse; newspapers in the aftermath of the war, from 1918 on in Constantinople. People do talk about how women sacrificed themselves during the Medz Yeghern.
Yes, women fought against the enemy and maybe took up weapons, but there is not a big deal about it in that period that I’m talking about. But that they had to give into “the lust of the barbarian races”, that they were raped, dishonored, or that they succumbed to Turkish passion... This is how it is talked about. And this, in itself, is considered a sacrifice that they went through, and it is something that shouldn’t be held against them.
Across the board I see it. I looked at various different newspapers - those closer to the church or the political parties, and feminist press. There was the idea that the raped women should not be held accountable, should not be reprimanded, or regarded as committing shameful, disrespected acts. I did not see anything that excluded these women from the new, post-genocide Armenian community. And in this regard it is not unique. For instance, not genocide, but the India-Pakistan partition, or even the Bangladeshi separation from Pakistan in 1971, are similar. During the Indian partition too, a lot of mass abduction and rape happened, as people were moving from one side to the other. And then, in the aftermath, we see both Pakistan and India talking about these women who had been raped or remained on the other side as heroes, war heroes, that need to be brought back, that should be seen as goddesses, even virgin goddesses. We see the same thing in the Armenian case; of course years ago.
This is such a big crisis, and Armenians are so desperate, that they know their number shrunk, so they don’t have any other choice actually but to include these women as well. So it is inclusive.
And they were married off to Armenian men.
The patriarch himself, the patriarch’s employees, the newspapers, the elite, the Armenian Red Cross, the head of the hospitals, the doctors, professionals, those who are writing, who are deciding on the public agenda of Armenians at that moment, accepted the formerly kidnapped women and children back into the nation.
But it doesn’t mean that people on the ground accepted them as beautiful Armenian virgins and good brides for their kids. No. We see that there is definitely conflict there. The native Armenian population of Istanbul, which had not been deported, didn’t seem to want to take these daragirs (outcasts), who had gone through hell, as proper brides. There seems to be many people from abroad, coming from America, France and Iran, for example, who were not there during the genocide, lost their families, or were not married, who come and marry the orphans and the newly rescued women and girls. And those native Armenians (many of whom are women themselves and are feminists) organized around the journal that I worked on, and tried to do everything so that some people marry these girls. But members of their own community aren’t marrying them as often.
Moreover, the Armenian administration in Istanbul also accepted the rape babies as full-fledged Armenians. Despite the patrilineal tradition, at this point the fathers are Muslim or if they are rapists or legitimate husbands, what they care about is that the nation needs people, and anyone with an Armenian mother is considered full Armenian…
It is easy to read these inclusive policies as “progressive” but in fact it did not change any patriarchal rules. These refugee women, those who went through violence and then come to Istanbul, some of them didn’t want to have a baby with them especially because the baby had been conceived in such bad conditions. They want to get rid of the baby, but the Armenian administration won’t let them do that. They actually take the babies. They say - just give the baby to our orphanage and you go, you don’t have to look after the baby any more.
“Hay Gin” argues at that time that tradition and equality could co-exist. How were they trying to make this happen?
"Hay Gin" is the journal that Hayganush Mark edited from 1919 to 1933 and it was the initial basis of my study. The writing cadre of Hay Gin is mostly feminists. They try to come up with different arguments, saying that ok, as Armenian women we are going to pay our dues to the nation, perform our duties. We’ll do whatever is necessary for us to do at this point. Especially after the genocide there is need for everyone’s contribution to this huge mechanism of finding a way to shelter these people, to feed them. So they turned schools, churches into shelters for these people.
From the 1870-80s on in Istanbul there is an organized philanthropic movement of women who came together to help other women, thus to help the Armenian nation. After the 1909 Adana massacres, for instance, they were very organized, they sent help to Adana, they wrote about what happened in Cilicia. These are people who are experienced in what to do in response to mass violence, in terms of providing care and fundraising. So they do whatever is expected from them at this moment of crisis for the nation (Jknajamayin bah).
And then they also want to be part of the decision-making mechanisms, so they want more political power. In 1919 they establish an organization called the Armenian Women’s Association. “Hay Gin” (Armenian Woman) is the publication of that organization. In the very first issue of “Hay Gin”, at the end, you see the program of the Armenian Women’s Association, and one of their goals was to work for the equality of Armenian men and women. But they add that, given the fact that this is a critical moment, their first goal is to promote the Armenian cause (Hay Dat) along with the Patriarchate in front of the whole international community.
But these women will never get equality, for various reasons. “Hay Gin”, for instance, campaigned for the women to be in the Armenian Patriarchate commissions or to be a yerespokhan (deputy) (there was an Armenian National Assembly inside Armenian Patriarchate since late 1860’s). In 1919 there was a suggestion that women too should be part of this assembly which is the decision-making body of the nation. So they try to be in that big parliament, but it doesn’t happen, because they argued that it’s not the right time to make such big changes. Now the nation is concerned with something else, now we have to save ourselves, recover Mets Hayastan and then in that United Armenia we’ll have equality.
What women claim at this moment is that the Republic here, the Yerevanian Hanrapetoutyun, has already women members in their parliament (there were 3 women members in the first parliament here and women had the right to vote).
Then, in 1922-23, Constantinopolitan Armenian feminists organize for women’s participation in Judicial Commission of the Armenian government in Istanbul. This Commission decided who can get an inheritance, marriage, but mostly divorce. Through “Hay Gin” (editor – Hayganoush Mark) they argue that women are the ones who suffer in this marriages, they are beaten, abused, they want divorce, so their voices should be represented in the Datastanagan Khorhurd (Judicial Commission) so that they can support other women who are vulnerable. It doesn’t work also, because the argument is that they need juridical diploma. Women could not be lawyers at that moment, so if you are not a lawyer or in legal business, you can’t partake in that Commission.
During all these processes (there were other campaigns too) what Armenian feminists say is that if we have equality, the nation will not lose anything, it is going to gain a lot. If women are doing whatever the nation asks us to do, then we need to receive our due, respect, and we need to be political subjects who have a voice and who have the capability to make decisions on behalf of our group. We are not just mothers, we are doing whatever mothers do, but we are also thinking subjects. The fear is that if women get equality, the society will disintegrate, degenerate (ailaserum bid ella), and then we lose our Armenianness. So what can the feminist say, no, we are very Armenian. If we are feminist women (this is what they argue) we are better Armenian mothers, because one knows what to pass to one’s children.
Were there Turkish feminists during this period and what were the relations between them and Armenian feminists? The issue seems to concern the power relations between majority and minority, the victimizer and the victim.
I like that you’re putting it like this, because sometimes people think of them as parallels, compare Turkish and Armenian as if they are on the same ground. Even though they are both speaking about equality, how they can speak about it is already framed inside the larger political framework in which they had to act.
It’s different, it changes. From 1918 to 1922 Turkish-Armenians in Istanbul are able to express themselves freely, because they think that the British and the French will protect them, they will give them the new Armenia and will punish the Turks. At that time Armenian feminist women are writing explicitly about Turkish women and accusing them of complicity. For instance, in “Hay Gin” there is a piece I translated into Turkish, in which Gohar Mazlmyan writes about how the wives of the Young Turk Ittihadists could have stopped their husbands, or even if they were not able to stop them, they could have protested or rejected sharing the spoils of the disappeared Armenians. She says these Turkish women have blood on their hands because Armenian jewelry is now on their hands.
Zaruhi Kalemkiarian asks Turkish women why you don’t cry with us, why you don’t help our orphans now. Now that we have the orphan problem, why don’t you come contribute to our efforts? Maybe someone will one day bring it to light, I don’t know, but there doesn’t seem to be any Turkish feminist who cares about Armenian orphans in the aftermath of the war. What is women’s solidarity if you fall short of doing this, if you fall victim to this kind of political clash?
After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, Hayganoush Mark seems to have a relationship with the Turkish Women’s Association of the time. She writes explicitly in her autobiography about these relationships, but in the Turkish Women’s Association’s records we don’t see that. According to Hayganoush Mark, she was invited to become a member of the Turkish Women’s Association but it didn’t materialize because she wasn’t invited personally, but through a Belgian feminist who was in Istanbul at that time. So there is no big cooperation. But the same Gohar Mazlmyan, for instance, who was accusing Turkish women of perpetration, now, in 1926, writes another piece and congratulates Turkish women, who went to a western dance competition.
This is an instant where Armenians are happy that Turks are finally getting civilized, because they like that part of Kemalist secularism. In the 1920s, Islam is taken out of the constitution, the calendar changes, the letters change from Arabic to Latin alphabet. Armenians, especially the elite, in Turkey interpret all these changes as a good thing. They think that finally the Turks are coming into terms with the western civilized nations.
It is western modernity that connects these Turkish and Armenian feminist women. For example, Hayganoush Mark is in the jury of these beauty pageants. In 1932, Keriman Halis (Ece), the Miss Universe of the year, comes to the “Hay Gin” office with her father and visits Hayganoush Mark, says thank you and says we have always been friend with Armenians, and then they take a picture. The picture is published in Hay Gin and is also archived in Hayganush Mark’s papers which are here in the Art and Literature Museum dedicated to Yeghishe Charents. In short, they connect not as feminists, but as modern, Western oriented women.
One of the paradoxes that you encountered was that it was difficult to be an Armenian feminist in post-genocide Turkey, when maintaining identity was through traditions, which themselves meant inequality and patriarchal relations. Is it the same reason that hinders the progress of feminism in Armenia?
After ten years, this is my first time in Armenia. I have been living in America busy with a lot of things and I did not follow what’s going on inside Armenia from this perspective. So I’m not very qualified to talk about it.
But now that I’ve been here for more than a month, I’ve been thinking about this question - why? When I’m thinking about Turkish context, Armenians in Turkey, this paradox is understandable, because in a country that doesn’t want you, you need to be conservative as a group. Conservatism is resistance. Turkish Armenians lack other ways of sustaining themselves than hanging onto tradition –marrying Armenians, naming their kids Armenian names, sending them to Armenian schools (even if they will not learn good Armenian there and will not learn Armenian history, they’ll meet other Armenians, for instance). So, for them, patriarchal tradition is almost a survival kit, because there is the danger of the Turkish state under which they lived and they have to abide by its rules. So in that sense it is to a certain extent understandable that feminism might be seen as threatening for this small community of 60,000 people in a 70 million Turkey and that they would have to hold on to patriarchy.
But for Armenia I don’t understand that, because in my mind it is a regular legitimate country. Ok, it is small and surrounded by countries that are not necessarily friendly, but it is an independent country. Why should patriarchy be so dominant here? There is no reason. Why is this fear?
For instance, I am here to do research for my second book. I go to libraries and archives during the day. The librarians and archivists on the ground are all women (worked there for 35-40 years). But then, when you go up, the dnoren (director) is a man, always. It cannot be a coincidence that all institutions are like this. It means that there is some kind of systematic hierarchical organization of the society along gender lines that disadvantage women. At the end, the society, the Armenian society is losing because of this inequality because many capable women are not going to be put to good public use while average men –because they are men—will hold good positions. This is exactly what Hayganush Mark argued in Hay Gin and I think it is applicable to Armenia today. This is the main feminist criticism everywhere.
Your upcoming book, Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging to post-genocide Turkey will soon be published. Can you please outline some questions you raise there?
I was interested in trying to understand the worldview of Armenian intellectuals and political and religious leaders, who remained in Istanbul or returned to Istanbul after the Great War, who lived through the occupation years when hopes were high, and then they had to go through that disappointment when Kemalists won everything and Armenians lost all. How could they stay there and what did they do to be able to fit into this new country of unapologetic perpetrators? How did they change, because some of them are the same people who were “anti-Turkish” during Istanbul’s Allied occupation years and then, after 1923 these Armenian leaders have to assume a pro-Turkish discourse? How did they make that change in their discourses? This was one of the main drives of the book.
The other motive was to understand how and why Armenian feminism lived its most vigorous moment in the aftermath of a national existential crisis in the Ottoman capital. After a decade of research and thinking I answered these questions in the form of a book which will come out at the end of this year.