Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Understanding the role of the motherhood in the Saturday Mothers movement[1]

This blog entry is part of the series "Gendered Aspects of Peace and War in Turkey".

Published onOct 20, 2022
Understanding the role of the motherhood in the Saturday Mothers movement[1]

Understanding the role of the motherhood in the Saturday Mothers movement[1]


Various atrocities, military coups, and widespread human rights abuses have marked the history of modern Turkey. However, long-lived impunity and denial have dominated the state’s official stance towards human rights violations, which resulted in a deficiency of truth, justice, and accountability. Enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings were among the most widespread human rights violations in the 1990s under the state of emergency rule (between 1984 and 2012) in the Kurdish region. Against this backdrop, Saturday Mothers/People started mobilising in 1995 in Istanbul to stand against enforced disappearances, one of the most systemic practices of state violence during the Kurdish conflict, primarily with the suggestion of mostly women and feminist activists alongside the families of the disappeared.[2] The Saturday Mothers movement has gradually become a broad social movement that seeks and demands truth, justice, accountability, and recognition. In this blog post, I focus on the role of the motherhood in the movement specifically examining the tension between the two different names that are referred to as: Saturday People and Saturday Mothers. 

The Beginning of the Movement                                                 

On 17 May 1995, Hasan Ocak’s family and the Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği, İHD) found his tortured body in an unmarked grave after a 55-days search. Families and human rights activists, the majority of whom were women human rights activists or feminists, made a call to gather regularly in silent actions for the missing persons in custody to be found and the responsible persons tried. Their started their silent sit-ins in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul on 27 May 1995. This first sit-in marked the beginning of a decades-long human rights movement that demands truth, justice a

The emergence of the Saturday Mothers movement took place in the context of the 1990s’ vibrant political movements. There was a broader human rights movement that was campaigning against the human rights crimes committed in prisons in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. The activists who attended the sit-ins alongside families of the disappeared had already been involved in the “Don’t Touch My Friend (Arkadaşıma Dokunma)”[3]campaign against racism and nationalism in the country, especially the increasing oppression against Kurds. Initially, the group of women from the Don’t Touch My Friend campaign penned the press statements read weakly during sit-ins in coordination with the İHD Commission Against Enforced Disappearances Under Custody. The same group held meetings after each sit-in to evaluate that week’s gathering and to determine the next week’s agenda. [4]

From People to Mothers, Mothers to People

The names Saturday Mothers and Saturday People have been used either interchangeably or together as Saturday Mothers/People. My findings show that there is a hidden tension between the use of the names Saturday Mothers and Saturday People. This tension reflects the role of gender in the way the Saturday Mothers movement is perceived from within and outside. Mothers have been at the forefront of the movement, and they have quickly started to symbolise the group. But it was not only the mothers who signify its gendered dimensions. As described earlier, feminist activists and women human rights defenders constituted the main group who decided to start a movement against disappearances alongside the families. In contrast to the feminist activists’ desire to identify as Saturday People, the name Saturday Mothers has come to be associated with the movement. This was fostered by both media and public but has also been increasingly accepted by the activists inside in the movement. 

When the first group of activists came together to initiate the sit-ins, they wanted to identify as Saturday People to reflect the variety of individuals involved in the gatherings. They had not come together as mothers, wives, or simply as female relatives, but as a group of human rights defenders, feminists, left-wing activists, and the relatives of the disappeared. The starting point was an urgent action taken by a diverse group of people who were concerned about the disappearances and wanted to react collectively. Motherhood quickly became the essence of the movement, but the movement has not originated from a common motherhood experience. However, many people, including those mobilised in the movement, believe that the Saturday Mothers movement emerged around a shared motherhood experience and named itself as Saturday Mothers from the beginning. Among the activists involved in Saturday People today, there is a common understanding that it has increasingly and organically become more popular because the protests expanded into a broader network and attracted new supporters. This perception is interesting especially because the feminist participants did not foresee it as a mothers’ movement and insisted on using the name Saturday People.[5] It was not done for the purpose of reflecting a newly-gained diversity, but rather to avoid being associated solely with motherhood. Besides, the diversity of the movement has always been there from the beginning, and the use of “people” was a conscious choice to reflect that already existing diversity.

The Role of the Motherhood

It was primarily the press that attributed the term Saturday Mothers, and then it was embraced rapidly by many people within and outside the movement.[6] Towards the end of the first year of Galatasaray sit-ins, the gatherings had become known as Saturday Mothers in Turkey and around the world. It happened despite the efforts of the activists such as using the Saturday People signature in the press statement at the end of the sit-ins.[7] This was, at least to some extent, due to the powerful connotations of the image of mothers searching for their children, and because of the internationally well-known experiences such as the Plaza de Mayo Mothers.[8] The emphasis on motherhood was therefore largely attributed from the outside.         

Motherhood, despite the initial claims to be a diverse group and not limited to a “mothers” movement, seems to have played a central role in the expanding support to the movement. My findings show that among the activists there is a shared understanding that the movement emerged primarily as a motherhood-based movement. The urge to maintain the conception of victimhood that is primarily based on mothers’ experiences derives from this thought that the essence of the movement revolves around the mothers searching for their truth and justice for their children. This understanding naturally results in the fear of a shift from the mothers’ experiences to something broader, that might lose the well-focused attention on their cause. It also implies that from within the movement as well, mothers are seen as innocent victims with whom the public can easily empathise. 

The Saturday Mothers movement consists of a variety of actors such as the female and male relatives of the disappeared of different generations, lawyers, human rights advocates, politicians, and activists from different backgrounds. Women, as mothers, sisters, daughters and activists have been at the forefront of the movement. However, the emphasis on motherhood has come to be a key feature of the identity of the Saturday Mothers movement. Indeed, the mothers of the disappeared have been the driving force, but that is not the only reason why motherhood has been the most central and visible component. Since mothers are seen as innocent victims, it has been easier to gain legitimacy, visibility, and credibility by emphasising the category of motherhood. The term Saturday Mothers provided a fruitful tool to pursue their goals drawing on the identity of motherhood. The notion of mothers as innocent victims searching for their children developed over time, based on the reaction received from the public, and motherhood ended up a key element shaping the following years of the movement.[9]

As motherhood is usually seen as something beyond politics, relating to, and emphasising with, the mothers’ suffering is easier for society. Karaman argues that mothers are assumed to have political neutrality, and this assumption helps them gain access to public forums.[10] Especially in countries like Turkey, Chile, and Argentina, where the opposition is oppressed by violent means, the assumed political neutrality grants the mothers a certain level of ease when sharing their anger and pain publicly.       

The problem however with motherhood label as useful as it is for the group is threefold. First, the emphasis on the motherhood category runs the risk of silencing other victims whose identities or experiences could be deemed less legitimate. The usual tendency is to consider mothers as innocent victims who are politically neutral, and whose pain is legitimate and relatable.[11] However, this tendency runs the risk of creating a binary understanding of ideal victims who deserve to be heard, seen, and taken seriously, and those whose demands could be rendered invisible as they do not conform to the ideal victim perceptions. In conflict and post-conflict societies, the victimhood category is usually associated with innocence, blamelessness, and moral purity. Therefore, innocent victims are considered entitled to rights and support. Recognising certain victims as the innocent or legitimate ones means to create hierarchies within the victimhood categories and, ultimately, to exclude those who are not considered as legitimate victims. Breen-Smyth argues that among others, media decides who are the legitimate victims and, therefore, whose suffering should be grieved.[12] In the Saturday Mothers case, as well, media has been a key actor in marking a social movement of a variety of actors as a movement of motherhood identity, thus fostering an understanding that mothers are legitimate victims, and their loss is grievable.[13] Third, focusing on motherhood runs the risk of decontextualising the political context of violations and reduces it to individual suffering. 

The Saturday Mothers movement made sense of their victimisation experience in political terms and built one of the longest-lasting and most visible social movements in Turkey. Despite continuous police violence, criminalisation efforts, and an ongoing conflict, they worked to achieve a country where enforced disappearances have stopped, and the perpetrators are prosecuted. Through a persistent struggle that puts mothers at the centre, they established a public space where the concepts of truth, justice, and memorialisation have gained visibility and support from a variety of actors.



[1] This blog post is based on the findings of my PhD research. See Alici, N. (2022) Imagining Transitional Justice in the Ongoing Kurdish Conflict: A Victim-Centred Analysis, Thesis (PhD), Ulster University. 

[2] See my previous blog post on the gendered aspects of enforced disappearances as one of the most systematic human rights violations during the Kurdish conflict: 

[3] This slogan was initially used in the anti-racist movements of Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany in early 1980s. The same slogan was then used in different political campaigns in Turkey. 

[4] Karakuş, F. (2021) 27 Mayıs 1995: Cumartesi İnsanları/Anneleri Galatasaray’da! Available at: [Accessed 15 August 2021]. 

[5] Göral, Ö. (2021) Memory as experience in times of perpetual violence: the challenge of Saturday Mothers vis-à-vis cultural aphasia. Kurdish Studies, 9(1), 77-95. 

[6]  Pişkin, T. (2018) Cumartesi Anneleri/İnsanları'nın devletin "gücüyle" 700 haftalık imtihanı. Available at: nin-devletin-gucuyle-700-haftalik-imtihani [Accessed 17 May 2021]. 

[7] Supra n. 4

[8] Can, B. (2014) State-Making, Evidence-Making, and Claim-Making: The Cases of Torture and Enforced Disappearances in Post-1980 Turkey. Thesis (PhD), University of Pennsylvania. 

[9] The perception of mothers as innocent victims does not mean that they have not transformed the traditional understandings of motherhood and challenged the assumed division between the private and public realm. For a thorough analysis of the construction of motherhood as a form of political agency, see Karaman, E. R. (2016) Remember, s/he was here once: Mothers call for justice and peace in Turkey. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 12(3), 382–410. 

[10] Supra n. 9

[11] For detailed analyses on the binary understandings of victimhood, innocent victims, and ideal victims, see Christie, N. (1986) The ideal victim. In: Ezzat A. Fattah, ed. From crime policy to victim policy. New York: Palgrave, 17-30.; Bouris, E. (2007) Complex Political Victims. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press.; Moffett, L. (2016). Reparations for ‘guilty victims’: Navigating complex identities of victim- perpetrators in reparation mechanisms. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 10(1), 146-167.; Hearty, K. (2018) Victims of human rights abuses in transitional justice: Hierarchies, perpetrators and the struggle for peace. International Journal of Human Rights, (7), 888.

[12] Breen-Smyth, M. (2009) Hierarchies of pain and responsibility: Victims and war by other means in Northern Ireland. Tripodos, 25, 27-40.

[13] For a detailed discussion on the concept of grievable, see Butler, Judith P. Frames of war: When is life grievable? Verso Books, 2009. 

*Finanziert von der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung mit Mitteln des Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Diese Veröffentlichung kann von anderen kostenlos genutzt werden, solange auf die originale Publikation verwiesen wird. Der Inhalt dieser Veröffentlichung ist die Verantwortung von Off-University.Organisation für den Frieden e.V. und gibt nicht notwendigerweise eine Position von RLS wieder. 

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?