The Cleaning of Mountains and Homes: a critical military studies video analysis of the representation of female personnel in the Turkish Armed Forces (1/2)

1. Introduction

The Turkish army is an inherently gendered institution, in which the compulsory military service for Turkish men serves as a “key rite of passage into hegemonic masculinity in Turkey” (Açiksöz, 2017, p.178). Women, on the other hand, were from the start of the Republic excluded from conscription in the Turkish army. Instead, the Turkish leadership considered that women served the nation through motherhood, wifehood, and civil work. It was in 1992 that female cadets started to be accepted at the Naval, Air and Army Academies, enabling women to become commissioned and non-commissioned officers in all army branches except armor, infantry, submarines, within Special Forces and as enlisted personnel (Toktaş, 2004). Until today, however, women amount only to a marginal percentage of the Turkish army. Overall up-to-date numbers are lacking, but in November 2014, female officers constituted 3.3% of the total number of officers of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) (Gurcan, 2016), and until June 2018, only 1% of the coastguard and 2.7% of the total personnel of the gendarmerie are women (Atkins, 2018).

However, in recent years, the TAF has put more focus on the role of women in its operations. Recruitment of women for officer and non-commissioned officer (NCO) positions has obtained increased attention, and more women have been assigned to active field duties instead of their usual placement at headquarters (Atkins, 2018; Gurcan, 2014). Concretely, the TAF aims to augment the percentage of women in the gendarmerie to 10% at the end of 2018, and female forces have been deployed in the Turkish Olive Branch operation in Afrin in 2018 (Kilinç, 2018; “Number of female ” 2017). The attention paid to females in the TAF comes at a time when the Turkish army is experiencing profound changes, as a result of the failed military coup in July 2016 and a general attempt by the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) to place the military under civilian control. The decision to include more women in the army remains, however, surprising, and has raised the question whether the current developments in the Turkish army challenge the masculine nature of the Turkish military.

The effort to recruit more women has, amongst others, resulted in the release of a dozen videos on the work of women in the Turkish army. In this paper, I will investigate the representation and role of women in the Turkish army through analyzing 11 of such recently released videos, portraying the work and motivation of these women. By looking at how the women are represented in the videos, it becomes possible to analyze the dominant ideas about (the relation between) gender and the military, and whether traditional ideas about the gendered division of roles with regards to the Turkish military are reinforced or challenged. Taking a feminist critical military studies approach to a discursive analysis of the representation of the female officers in these videos, I aim to question “the gendered boundaries routinely drawn in our analyses of war and militarism, showing where they fail, are negotiated or resisted” (Basham & Bulmer, 2017). Such analysis can help understand the interlinkages between gender, military, as well as the imaginary of the nation-state, while avoiding the reproduction of artificial boundaries and essentialist notions of gender, too often used as cognitive shortcuts. Moreover, through intertextuality, the videos’ place within a larger discourse on women, the nation-state and the military will be ensured, as military institutions are part of wider context of identities.

The paper is structured in the following manner. Section 2 looks at the relationship between masculinity, the military, and the Turkish nation. The rest of this section then analyses the role of women in the TAF throughout the Republic’s history. Section 3 discusses the recent importance placed on female military personnel and places them within the broader changes with regard to the TAF. Section 4 outlines the methodology of the video analysis. Section 5 presents the findings, discussing that the women are portrayed as real fighters, but are nevertheless still set apart from men, on the one hand, due to the fact that their participation requires a justification, and on the other hand because they have to justify their role of fighters alongside their other obligations of being a wife or mother. This is followed by a discussion and conclusion in section 6.

2. Serving the nation, becoming a man: masculinity and the TAF

As stated in the introduction, the military is a highly gendered institution, which, as Sasson-Levy (2011) states, is “closely bound-up with essentialist and hierarchal conceptions of gender, and in particular with concepts of men and masculinities”(p.392). This finds its expression not only in the fact that often military service is limited to men and the percentage of women working in military posts is marginal but also in the fact that combat is presented as a masculine activity in which female traits are undesired (Rones & Fasting, 2017). At the same time, the military is also the ultimate guardian of the nation-state and the national identity of a country (Belkin & Carver, 2012). Toktas (2004) describes,

sacrificing one’s life for the nation and contributing to the national defense being the ultimate citizenship duty that legitimizes the claim for full citizenship shows in a way the essentiality of militarism for the nation-state (p.248).

Thus, it is in the military institution that the question of national citizenship and masculinity come together, providing a gendered conception not only of the military duties but also the nation and its citizens (Sasson-Levy, 2011).

In Turkey, the link between masculinity, the military, and the nation is found in the mandatory military service for every Turkish man, introduced in 1927. In fact, military service “has been constructed as an essential characteristic of the Turkish nation” (Altinay, 2004, p. 32) which roots lie in the Turkish proverb that ‘every Turk is born a soldier’. Through military service, men become full Turkish citizens, as it is during this military service that he can prove that he incorporates the characteristics of the ideal citizen, who is brave, patriotic, and most of all protects his nation (Sakallı, Uğurlu & Özdemir, 2017). However, since women are excluded from conscription in Turkey, military service as a citizen-formative institution is highly gendered. Through the exclusion of women, men have obtained a privileged position, in which the “barracks have been a major site for the ‘imagining of the nation’ and of masculine national identity” (Altinay, 2004, p. 82). Moreover, military service does not only give access to full citizenship – thus rendering Turkish women as second class citizens – but also serves as a rite of passage to male adulthood and hegemonic masculinity (Altinay, 2004; Kaya, 2013; Dagtas, 2016; Sakallı Uğurlu & Özdemir, 2017). This strengthens the idea that military service is more than a civic duty: the time in the military marks the turning point which confirms their manliness and turns them into masculine men (Karacagil, 2017). Consequently, the Turkish military has become strongly associated with masculine characteristics, as it prepares boys for manhood, and excludes women from this rite of passage into adulthood and full citizenship.

3. Women and the military: motherhood, honor and the fighter

Women as mothers, wives, and daughters

While men were expected to serve their nation through military service, Turkish women obtained an important modernization and secularization role in the Kemalist Turkish Republic. Their active participation in society and their way of dressing were considered as central parts of the nationalist ideology, and women themselves as central to the nationalist mission (Toktaş, 2004). At the same time, the religious norms of sexual morality in which the honor of women had to be protected remained present in the secular republic, and combined with the ideas of Western modernity, led to the

construction of the modern-but-modest female body as the normative category, which became ingrained into the socio-cultural scripture of Turkish modernity (Arik, 2016, p. 643).

This image of the nation-carrying, modest woman, was reflected in the roles women were expected to fulfill with regards to the military. While there had been relatively many female fighters in the Turkish war of Independence, and Turkey was the first country to accept women in military academies, the process of women integration into the military came to a halt soon after the founding of the Turkish Republic (Kuloglu, 2005). Instead, as Altinay (2004) argues, there were three different roles for women with regards to the military nation: mothers, wives, and daughters. Motherhood was considered essential to the continuation of the nation; as women were the carriers of the nation’s military force, their life had to be protected, which excluded them from becoming soldiers. The worship of the motherly role, which makes women rather passive parts of the national ideal, is also reflected in the way mothers of martyrs were celebrated (White, 2010). It is this motherly role that was used by Marshall Fevzi Çakmak in 1937 when he said to Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Atatürk and the world’s first woman combat pilot after she had asked about women’s participation in the army:

I am also aware of the fact that Turkish girls want to be soldiers and wear this honorable uniform. But, please child, don’t ask me [to let that happen]. Because I do not at all agree that our girls and women should become soldiers. For a nation to exist, its women need to live (In Altinay, 2004, p. 46).

As wives, Turkish women were expected to take up the role of supporting their military men, through the performance of support or home front activities such as the provision of clothes, food etc. (Altinay, 2004). Furthermore, as wives of those serving in a secular Muslim nation in which the military played a central role in protecting the secular nature of the nation, Turkish military wives were expected to actively participate in the co-construction of secularism (Dagtas, 2016). This meant that as wives, women were expected to negotiate their religiosity as a national duty (Arik, 2016; Dagtas, 2016).

Only in the last role, Altinay describes, were women invited to participate directly in military activities: as the ‘daughter’, in other words, unmarried women like Gökçen. However, while these women were celebrated for their bravery and devotion to the nation, female participation in the army was rather an exception than a rule. In 1995, a number of women were accepted in the military academy of the Army, Navy and Air Force, after they had won a court case demanding access based on an article in the law that specified that Turkish students, not male students, had access to the military academy. However, in the early 1960s, ‘male’ was added to the requirements for application eligibility. This changed again in the early 1980s, when women obtained access to civilian personnel positions in the army. In 1992, women were furthermore accepted to the Air, Navel and Army Academies, and in the early 2000s at the staff colleges, thus granting women access to work in the army beyond civil positions.

Although women were admitted to the military colleges in 1992, the number of women in the TAF remains limited. Moreover, albeit in both the 1950s and after 1992 women were trained for combat roles, they were hardly utilized as such. Instead of assigning them to operational duties, women were generally selected for posts at headquarters (Colakoglu, 1998; Gurcan, 2014). Moreover, some areas of service, being armor, infantry, submarines, Special Forces and enlisted positions, remain unavailable to women. Thus, while women were not fully excluded from active roles in the military, the military remained mostly the domain of men.

Women’s participation in the new military era

Despite the continuous male domination in the TAF, recent years have seen an increase in female personnel, as well as in the attention paid by the TAF to the recruitment of women. As Gurcan (2014) states based on interviews with military personnel conducted, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) aimed to increase the number of female officers and NCOs in the TAF to 5% in 20171, at that moment respectively 3.3% and 0.9%. The TAF furthermore intends to ensure that 10% of the total personnel of the gendarmerie is female at the end of 2018 (Atkins, 2018). One of the mechanisms to attract more women has been the adoption of legal changes, amongst others with regards to pregnancy and maternity leave duration rights (“Anne askerin izindeki,” 2012). Moreover, the army started to adopt more female-friendly recruitment campaigns, targeting women directly (Gurcan, 2016). The TAF does not only aim to increase the number of women, but has also started to recruit women for operation duties, such as piloting or, rather recently, as commanding officers in the Olive Branch operation in Syria. Thus, while the number of women in the TAF remains limited, there seems to be a change in the perception of which roles Turkish women can play when it comes to their national army.

In one of the interviews with Gurcan (2014), a TGSs colonel from the personnel department stated three reasons for the change in the TAFs approach to female personnel:

There are two practical reasons and one ideological one. The first practical reason is the relative reduction in the number of personnel called up for compulsory military service; as the Turkish military is moving toward becoming a professional entity, increasing the number of females in the Army makes up for this loss in manpower. The second practical reason is a need for female personnel because of a change in security issues the Turkish military is dealing with, notably, the shift from rural to urban areas of the PKK violence in the southeast of Turkey. In addition, there is a need for female personnel in international missions that the Turkish Armed Forces are undertaking in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia, among others. To have ranking female officers provides significant advantages in communicating with the local population, especially with women, and carrying out civil-military cooperation projects effectively in the healthcare and education sectors. Thus, the Turkish Army is determined to establish more effective links with local populations in low-intensity conflict areas and peace support missions. The ideological reason for increasing the number of females in the Turkish military is that the latter has always been the leading cause of modernization and westernization of the Republic. The military sees itself as a pioneer in all transformation processes in society, and more females and an increase in the visibility of their presence in the Turkish military deliver crucial messages — especially to the rural population — on equality for women and a more active participation of women in society.

The first reason the TSG colonel describes, dealing with the loss in manpower due to a professionalization of the army, relates to one of the results of the recent military reforms. These reforms started under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, and have intensified after the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016. In an attempt to shift the power balance from the army – traditionally the watchdog of Turkish secular politics – to the civilian leadership, in the years before the 2016 coup d’état, more than 200 Turkish military officers, and 68 generals and admirals, lost their job based on alleged coup-plots known as the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases(Eldem, 2017; Gürsoy, 2012). The failed coup attempt of the summer of 2016 led to a much more profound purge of the army, in which within a year thousands of military personnel were fired. For example, around 50% of the fighter pilots lost their job (Kaya, 2017). The government has put into place different strategies to fill these positions again, amongst others, by attracting those who left for the private sector, but it is not unlikely that the recruitment of women is also partly informed by a need for more personnel.

The change in the civil-military power balance also changed the way in which the recruitment of women could take place. Until the AKP came to power, recruitment to the military was considered a security issue which was hence in the hands of the TAF (Toktaş, 2004). The military reforms that took place under the AKP changed this considerably; after the coup, the air, navy and army forces came under direct control of the Turkish Ministry of Defence, and the promotion of top officers is now decided by the President (El Amraoui & Edroos, 2018; “Turkey’s new top soldier,” 2018). With regard to women, the stronger influence of the civilian decision makers on recruitment is mostly felt regarding the decision to allow women wearing headscarf to enter the military. The military has traditionally treated the headscarf as a sign of backwardness (Dagtas, 2016) and allowing women with a headscarf to take up roles in the military was considered unthinkable for a long time. The recent decision to admit veiled women has opened up the military for a larger part of the Turkish female population. At the same time, the decision has also led to a lot of criticism, and is amongst others seen as a way to humiliate the traditionally Kemalist military (Kingsley, 2017).

            The colonel’s last point, which links to both the ideological and practical reasons, is the fight against the Kurdish militant groups, which has intensified in recent years, amongst others recently with the Olive Branch operation in Afrin. Much emphasis has been placed on the fact that the newly trained women, mostly part of the Gendarmerie General Command, will participate in the fight against terrorism, and will thus be assigned to Turkey’s southeast regions. Recruiting more women can thereby help to increase the forces in a region where conscripts prefer not to go (Açiksöz, 2017), and might even be preferred in response to the large percentage of female fighters in the Kurdish forces.

The current policies towards female participation in the army, although a good first step, do not necessarily mean a reduction of the military masculinity of the TAF. In fact, authors like Açiksöz (2017) have argued after the coup that the “religiously inflected masculinist fetishization of the military will only intensify in the forthcoming days” (p.180). Gökanksel (2017) has argued along the same lines, stating that the failed coup attempt should be considered as routed in a masculinist military tradition and culture, in which both sides “preformed masculine bravado” (p.174). When talking about the role of women in the army, looking at the numbers is thus not enough; the number of women only tells us about the inclusion of the actors, but not necessarily about a change in the (masculine) attitudes or behavior. Indeed, as the results of a recent study by Sakallı Uğurlu & Özdemir (2017) show, until now the dominance of the masculine military ideal did not fundamentally change: both men and women who participated in the study supported the superiority of men in the military.  It is therefore essential to take a more in-depth look at how the female personnel is represented. An analysis of the videos portraying women in the TAF as will be presented in the next sections is hence an important step to understand in how far the dominant ideas about (the relation between) gender and the military are challenged or reinforced.

Citer ce billet
Laura Meijer (2018, 24 octobre). The Cleaning of Mountains and Homes: a critical military studies video analysis of the representation of female personnel in the Turkish Armed Forces (1/2). Observatoire de la vie politique turque. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

  1. Due to the lack of up-to-date numbers of the amount of male and female officers, it is unfortunately not possible to check whether this was achieved. []

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