In Turkey, when you start first grade you learn a few important things; reading, writing, and the student oath. One morning a teacher comes up to you and gives the exciting news: “In a few days you will be making the whole school repeat after yourself as you read the oath during the morning assembly.” What is the oath one may ask. Don’t worry, we will get to that.
I remember being very excited for this opportunity. After all, it was the moment which I would gain prestige among my peers as a first grader. It had to be perfect, all eyes were going to be on me. I felt like my success with this task was going to determine my future life. Just to remind everyone, I was at the age of 7. I went home and started memorizing:
I am a Turk
I am honest
I am hardworking…
Some background information: Turkey is a multi-ethnic country, not everyone is a Turk. The morning assembly happens every weekday before classes start. Which means that I have been on that assembly saying the same oath approximately 1512 times in my lifetime. I am used to how it goes. You walk up to the stage in front of 700 students and continue:
…My principle is to protect the younger
to respect the elder,
to love my homeland and my nation more than myself.
My ideal is to rise, to progress…
The day I was supposed to read the oath came, I could not contain my excitement. I was walking up to the stage when one of the teachers stopped me. “You can’t go up the stage wearing the phys ed uniform, where is your skirt?” I had PE that day, how could I know that this would happen? They didn’t let me on the stage. I remember crying of rage that day because some other kid got to read the oath. I had lost my chance at proving myself. She said:
…O Great Atatürk !
On the path that you have paved,
I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set…
Time passed, I probably forgot about all that. I was in 6th grade this time. As always, we read the student oath every morning repeating after the lucky student who got to be on the stage that day. I remember clearly. Someone came near me and whispered the sweet temptation into my ear: “I am not saying some parts of the student oath because I don’t want to. I just move my mouth. Do you agree with what we say every morning?” I thought about his question all day and also decided not to say some parts the next time. There is a certain excitement in defiance even when you don’t fully grasp what you are doing. Is it even considered resistance if you have not yet built the critical thinking skills to understand that the student oath is cultural genocide? I am not sure.
The next morning I am moving my mouth without making a sound. For some parts, I feel brave and don’t move my mouth at all. My heart is beating because I am afraid someone will realize and call me out. 700 children shout beside me:
…My existence shall be a gift to the Turkish existence.
How happy is the one who says “I am a Turk!”.
The student on the stage ends the oath by saying: “Have a nice day of classes my friends.”
We reply: “Thank you!”
Students start walking towards classes in army formation because that is exactly how all kids should start their day -with a healthy dose of militarization.
I am proud of my decision as I prepare to go into the school. The PE teacher shouts ‘Ayse walk to the side!’.
Let me explain one thing here. One’s struggle with authority starts at an early age in Turkey. The first enemy is the school administration because they do their best to kill all kinds of individuality. Wearing accessories or colourful shoes with school uniforms is not allowed. Letting your hair down is also a big no. They make sure to check every student each morning before we enter the school building. But there I am, thinking that my uniform is in great condition. I don’t know what is happening nor why I was pulled to the side. This has never happened before.
The PE teacher comes next to me and says: “You weren’t saying the student oath”
My voice trembles as I mutter “what?”. How did he even see?
“I will write a discipline report if this happens one more time.”
Let me tell you right here. I loved keeping a good relationship with the administration and the teachers in elementary school. They knew my parents, that is a good enough reason to be proper. I was also highly afraid of being punished. I did not say a word against the PE teacher and probably continued saying the oath afterwards. Sadly, this is not a story of my bravery.
Also to reclaim myself as I am writing this, I can proudly say that I lost the trait of respecting authority once I got to jump the fence at high school to skip classes (I definitely was not hyperventilating at the thought of getting caught). I think I realized that schools put some of the rules to teach you how to question and defy them. It is a learning moment.
So where is this long story about the student oath going towards?
I just wanted to share my experience with the oath as an ethnically Turkish person. I am leaving it to you to think about the effects of this oath on for example the Kurdish population of Turkey.
I am thinking how much it must have hurt them to see their presence erased as they were forced to repeat every morning “I am Turkish”.
Did those children even realize what was happening right in front of our eyes? Or were they just as excited as Turkish students to be on the stage?
Why were our 7 year old existences gifted to the Turkish nation?
Did the nation state have to remind us every morning that we were their property?
I would like to finish by saying that I am sorry that I repeated this oath 1512 times in my lifetime, I did not know any better. I have a complicated relationship with my nationality, I am not sure if I want to dedicate my entire existence to it.
As always, if my friends who grew up in Turkey have a different experience about this topic, you are welcome to comment under this post. I accept that there might be differences between cities or even schools. But also consider if you were too young to understand what was going on around you instead of quickly refuting my claim. The oath might not have had a huge effect on you therefore the memories might not be as sharp in your mind as it is in mine.
A note on the history of the Student Oath: It was implemented in 1933 and was abolished in 2013, since then it has been reinstated in 2018. The person who wrote the student oath in 1933, Dr. Resit Galip also implemented the Turkish adhan (Muslim call to prayer). And yes, I do not have any respect for either of these reforms.