Updated: May 22, 2021
By Kirthi Jayakumar
They arrive every Saturday. They sit silently in protest, seeking a clarification, or some insight on their missing relatives. This journey began in the 1980s when they first came together to protest against the enforced disappearances and political murders that were common in Turkey during the military coup era in the 1980s, and subsequently in the OHAL-era in the 1990s. The gathering comprises women, most of whom are mothers of victims who are missing with no news of their whereabouts.
Known as Cumartesi Anneleri, the group continues to meet every Saturday at around noon at Galatasaray, in Istanbul, and disperse after half an hour of silent sitting-in and keeping communal vigil.
The Cumartesi Anneleri began on May 27, 1995, with their first sit-in. They were inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and were responding to the enforced disappearance of their sons. Through their peaceful protests, the women congregated in the pursuit of information on the whereabouts of their sons who were missing. Since then, the protests continued every Saturday, crossing their 777th vigil most recently. The protest began with all of 30 women looking for their sons, and now has over a thousand participants engaging each week, looking for their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands.
On March 13, 1999, the women were forced to put their protests on hold because of brutal and violent attacks from the police, leaving the peaceful protestors with great trauma. The protests resumed after a gap of ten years, on January 31, 2009. Close to a decade after that, on August 25, 2018, the Turkish governorship banned the peaceful protest. In the protest that followed, their 700th vigil witnessed brutal violence again, and several participants were detained. The government claimed that the protest was hijacked by terrorist groups, on the ground that the details of their upcoming vigil had been posted on social media by a group that was sympathetic to a terrorist group.
Mobilizing for change
Although the initial mobilization was in pursuit of information, the demands of the Saturday Mothers have grown beyond immediate and direct needs to addressing structural violence and deeper needs for larger Turkish society. They began to raise awareness on state-sponsored violence, militarization, and militarism in Turkey, and called for the state documents archives to be open for public review so that state-sponsored violence and political murders would be exposed. They also called for an amendment of the Turkish Penal Code, so that the statute of limitation on political murders and forced disappearances could be dispensed with. Further, they also call for Turkey to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
In February 2011, the Saturday Mothers were invited by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan so that he could listen to their requests. After giving them an audience, he promised to do all he could to alleviate their and their families’ suffering.
Acts of subversion
Persistent, dedicated, and unyielding, the Saturday Mothers represent one of the world’s longet-running peaceful protest movements. Today, the founding members continue to stay engaged, while several of their daughters and nieces continue their legacy. Back when the movement began, several hundreds of Kurds disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s, when Turkey was in the throes of its armed conflict with the Kurdish minority. Sympathizing with Kurdish separatists meant that they would be targeted by the government. Even as they have had a long run with their weekly protests, the Saturday Mothers are taking structures head on, successive governments have oscillated between being unyielding and brutal in their response – with a ban in place currently, prohibiting the Saturday Mothers from gathering at Galatasaray, on the ground that the Kurdish militia group PKK was allegedly using them as propaganda on social media, although the mothers are vehement in their opposition and affirm that they have no connection to the PKK whatsoever.
In an interview to Reuters and PRI, one of the women, Hanim Tosun, said: “The world heard about our struggle from Galatasaray. We want to return there. It’s like a sacred ground, for us.”
Unaffected by the ban in place, the Saturday Mothers have shifted their protest to the human rights office, where they continue to meet each week, on Saturday. Nothing about this activism is easy – and the challenges are not only from the opposition. The fatigue of repetitively having to share one’s story, and of having to go through the retraumatization that each such recounting brings up, as well as the general discomfort for some of the mothers to discuss their stories in front of their children are difficult to deal with, as well. As Hanim Tosun noted in the interview, “The hardest thing for me has been hiding the pain from my kids and enduring it in silence when I’m with them. Our government doesn’t hear our voice. Somewhere far away, they hear us. Our struggle is not in vain. I am happy to see that. Despite the pain, I will continue my activism. It’s still important for the world to hear them, so more people don’t disappear like my husband did.”
Who are Turkey’s Saturday Mothers? (PRI)
“Saturday Mothers” of Turkey: in the pursuit of justice (OBCT)