The University of Arizona

Fierce Fighters, Caring Mothers: State-Sponsored Feminism in Early Republican Turkey and the Dersim Question

Myrsini Manney-Kalogera


Discussions of gender in early Republican Turkey have traditionally been dominated by the Kemalist approach, which posits that Atatürk’s reforms emancipated Turkish women from the patriarchal norms of Ottoman society. This view has been disputed by Turkish feminist scholars like Şirin Tekeli, and continues to be challenged, among others, by Deniz Kandiyoti Nilüfer Göle, Zeynep Türkyılmaz, and Hale Yılmaz. Recent scholarship re-assesses Kemalist reforms, examining their wider effects and connecting them to the regime’s authoritarianism and the historical legacies of the Ottoman Empire. Nationalism is of key importance to this conversation, and was linked to the idea that embracing Turkishness was the road to modernity and the resulting violent suppression of identities that contradicted it. In this context, the Kurdish populations of Southeastern Anatolia gained symbolic significance as an internal “other”, a pre-modern remnant of the Empire that needed to be subdued in order for the Young Republic to advance. This paper examines how state-sponsored feminism was applied to Kurdish women, exerting both symbolic and literal violence on them in the name of modernity. In doing so, it juxtaposes Sabiha Gökçen, known as the Turkish Amelia Earhart, who participated in the quelling of the 1937 Dersim Rebellion by bombing Kurdish civilians, against Sıdıka Avar, an Istanbulite teacher who became the director of the Elazığ Girls’ Institutes, one of the new regime’s tribal schools for girls. By reading Gökçen as a symbol of Kemalist feminism and Avar as its literal agent, and by considering the very real violence carried out against tribal populations by both women, I argue that state feminism became a tool of domination and pacification within the new Republic’s contested provinces.

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