How We Talk About Wars

Basak Gemici, University of Pittsburgh

Published on: March 31, 2022

Photo credit: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post

Thinking and talking about war often consists of more than real-time military moves and local tension. It is usually done in racial, gendered, and essentialist ways. Existing social forces structure war and conflict, and a sociological lens helps us understand how they shift individual life trajectories. Here I discuss these points with examples from Ukraine and Turkey.

Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine attracted global attention not only to its unjust and devastating civil consequences but also to White-supremacy and Orientalism as organizing principles of the false-constructed image of “European civilization.” Many newsagents, including CBS News and Al Jazeera English, slipped through their explicitly racist and Orientalist commentaries on live broadcasts, describing Ukraine as “a relatively civilized, relatively European” place where they would not expect conflict opposed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Orientalism, in Said’s description, is a Western discourse in the Foucauldian sense that imagines, constitutes, and dominates “the Orient” in the post-Enlightenment era, i.e., “for the Orientalist, the language speaks the Arab, not vice versa.” Racism and Orientalism as products of European colonialism are ways of learning and practice; therefore, discriminatory power relations not only surfaced in media commentaries on the war in Ukraine but also among Ukrainians, politicians, and ordinary people from neighboring countries when African residents were refused at border crossings, and white Ukrainian refugees were welcomed. At the same time, Syrians created a “refugee crisis.” Of course, racism and Orientalism are prevalent not only in Europe. Following the influx of Syrian migrants in the last decade, anti-Arab discourses surfaced in Turkey, abiding well with a nationwide and global political context where leaders across regions promulgate nativism. My field observations and interviews in Turkey also showcase similar attitudes towards Syrian refugees, labeling them—especially veiled women and Arabic-speaking men—as behaving “illiterate” and “uncivil” in public spaces.

Not surprisingly, women suffer the most from insecurities (Tripp et al., 2013). Women become more vulnerable to abuse in various forms. For instance, Turkish men flooded Twitter with sexualizing and objectifying comments about how they were excited and ready to “welcome” Ukrainian women immediately after the war erupted. Among Syrians in Turkey, adolescent girls and young women increasingly experience the risk of violence instead of stability and safety in their post-migration life trajectories. Researchers show that marriage is seen as a way out of social and economic insecurities as polygamist marriages between Turkish men and young Syrian women reached new heights. The state statistics show that 38% of the Syrian refugee women between the ages of 25-49 in Turkey get married before 18, and 12% do so before 15. There is also evidence of “trading” underage Syrian girls for marriage. Although gendered violence in the post-war contexts focuses more on women’s experiences, the Syrian refugee experience in Turkey provides cases of men being sold for marriage as well. Despite the increased number of underage marriages and pregnancies are documented, the Turkish judiciary does not follow or prosecute them. Mainstreaming exceptionalities perpetuates ethnic and gendered inequalities; impunity is “an aspect of power…embedded in the process of social differentiation that reinforces a highly unequal social order,” according to Lesley Gill.

These examples manifest the importance of sociological studies of wars as sites for investigating and understanding institutionalized power relations and gendered and racial violence at every level of social life.

Basak Gemici is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Considering the salience of ethnicity and gender in organizing both populism and daily life, she studies how populist authoritarianism is reproduced and challenged in ordinary people's social interactions over the case of Turkey.