By Cass Doherty
Gonca Sönmez-Poole, founder of the group Turkish-Armenian Women’s Alliance (TAWA), didn’t start the organization with feminism in mind.
“However,” said Sönmez-Poole, “I am so very glad that the way, organically, this group made its way through its journey and became something where the commonality of being a woman actually made us friends at the end.”
She asked, “If it wasn’t feminism, what idea did I have?”
At the time she was starting TAWA, Sönmez-Poole felt the topic of the Armenian Genocide was a male-dominated field. She believed “women should be doing something,” and said she created TAWA to give women a voice on the matter.
Sönmez-Poole was one of four panelists at the “Change the Conversation, Change the World” event, “Changing the Conversation: One Woman at a Time,” on April 6 in the Forum.
The four panelists were all former members of TAWA, which officially met between September 2012 and May 2014.
The panel included Sönmez-Poole, McMillan-Stewart Professor of History Lerna Ekmekcioglu, Associate Director of ProjectSAVE Armenian Photograph Archives Tsoleen Sarian, and writer Zeren Earls.
Ekmekcioglu provided a background on the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915 and continued through 1917, she said.
She explained this was the reason for the tension between Armenians and Turks. Ekmekcioglu said there was historically no violence between the Turks and Armenians until the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire began to shrink and anxiety grew among Turks.
“All the groups that leave the Ottoman Empire at this time were Christian groups. And they leave the Ottoman Empire by using their identity of being Christian,” she said.
She added after World War I, Armenians were the last “significant and well-organized Christian community in the Ottoman Empire” to desire self-governance. She said the Turks eliminated Armenians in 1915 out of fear and anxiety.
“The Ottoman state decided every Armenian must go,” said Ekmekcioglu. “But this doesn’t mean that everyone must be killed for this goal to be achieved.”
She said in a lot of places, women and children were spared, but were forcibly converted to Islam.
Ekmekcioglu added the Armenians in Turkey were given minority status, and are still discriminated against today.
Sönmez-Poole said TAWA was partially created to give both Turkish and Armenian women a space to talk.
She said it was also about bringing “three concentric circles of what I was interested in” together. Sönmez-Poole said it had to do with “broadcast journalism, human rights and international conflict resolution.
“Somewhere in there is the importance of truth,” said Sönmez-Poole.
She said while trying to decide how to give her presentation, she looked at her calendar and saw April 6 in Turkey is “commemoration of murdered journalists day.”
She said since 1992 there have been 22 journalists killed in Turkey. “As of today, there are about 166 journalists in jail,” she added.
“Facts like those piss me off,” said Sönmez-Poole. “So I got involved in the topic of genocide. I spent a lot of years reading and immersing myself in this topic and talking to a lot of Armenians in the area.”
She said her anger was what she thought had brought her to the idea of having a “dialogue group.”
Sönmez-Poole said while TAWA has stopped meeting officially, they are a loose alliance of “women who have been able to make some connections beyond the 1915 Armenian Genocide.”
She added they started with about 13 members, though they lost a few over their year and a half of official meetings due to conbict among some of the women.
“Some of the women would refuse to say and accept the word ‘genocide,’ and a lot of us just couldn’t stand that,” said Sarian, who added she was able to ignore this from some of the Turkish women, even though it angered her that they would dance around the topic.
Sarian said while she was grateful for TAWA, “genocide, for me, was the hard line – sitting around a table and knowing some of the women couldn’t verify the genocide, couldn’t say, ‘Yes, it happened.’”
Sönmez-Poole shared clips from the documentary she is working on about TAWA. They featured six women who Sönmez-Poole said signed releases to be interviewed weekly about the group, and their lives as Turkish and Armenian women.
Sarian said she doesn’t “know what justice means. I don’t know what I want, what my community wants. We don’t have a unified voice. But I am grateful for being able to meet in a safe space, and have meaningful relationships and friendships, and being able to grow.”