September 26, 2013
By Heidi Basch-Harod

At our Saturday symposium, the founders of Saturday Mothers will join us and deliver a speech. The history of this brave organization began and the inspiring and determined group of women and men involved began 28 years ago.

Starting on May 27, 1995, mothers and other female relatives of “disappeared” Kurdish men, allegedly under police custody, gathered in the Galatasaray district of Istanbul, every Saturday. At the time, these women were calling on the state to recover the more than 300 lost sons and relatives who had been involved in some opposition or protest activity against the state. These Kurdish women (and their Turkish female supporters) came to be known as the “Saturday Mothers.” In 1996, the International League for Human Rights, a Paris-based NGO awarded the Carl von Ossietzsky Medal to this group of women for their nonviolent protest of anti-democratic practices in Turkey. As of 1998, these women sustained the longest protest in “Turkish civil life,” lasting 173 weeks. In September 1998, on accusation that militant PKK members infiltrated the ranks of the Saturday Mothers, police harassment and round-ups led the Saturday Mothers to disband from their meeting point in the Galatasaray High School.

According to scholar Yeşim Arat, these women, although neither linked to other women’s organizations nor feminists, exemplify “feminist modes of protest,” who use their “maternal role” to give legitimacy to a “radical act.” Their actions have revolutionized the traditional Kurdish maternal role and created a realm in which mothers have been politicized and able to represent themselves and their demands. In doing so, they have also contributed to the ongoing process of the redefinition of Turkish political culture, whereby the state is forced to become responsible to all of its citizens.

After a ten-year hiatus, in 2009, filmmaker Bijoyeta Das made a short film documenting the Saturday Mothers when she discovered the group had reconvened their protest in the Galatasaray district. Presently, the newest incarnation of Saturday Mothers includes men and women, Kurdish and non-Kurdish. According to Ayşe Yılmaz, a human rights activist interviewed in the film, she claims that one of the greatest achievements of the movement is that it is now a nation-wide effort, and mothers and family members of disappeared persons come from all over the country to join the sit-ins each Saturday.

A few months before the June 2011 national elections, Prime Minister Erdoğan met with representatives of Saturday Mothers, after which he called for an investigation of the 1980 disappearance of political activist Cemil Kırbayır. Undertaken by the Parliamentary Human Rights Investigative Commission, which interviewed witnesses to his arrest and torture, the Commission produced a report concluding he had “died under torture in custody, and referred the case to the prosecutor in the Kars region.” While it is easy to attribute this incident to the political trappings of an election season, it represents a significant moment in the history of the Saturday Mothers and the decades’ long struggle of the Kurds to have their grievances at the hands of Turkish authorities recognized and adjudicated.