Why you should care
Because the myth of Sabiha Gökçen is central to the myth of modern Turkey.
The official account of Sabiha Gökçen’s life is something out of a fairy-tale. As a 12-year-old, Gökçen brazenly approached Turkey’s founder and first president, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, for help attending boarding school when he visited the orphanage where she lived in 1925. Kemal Pasha was so impressed by the girl’s ambition and spark that he adopted her and brought her back to Ankara.
Nine years later saw the Surname Act require all Turkish citizens to choose a family name. Kemal Pasha became Kemal Atatürk, meaning “father of the Turks.” His eight adopted children needed names too, and on Sabiha, Atatürk bestowed “Gökçen,” meaning “of the skies.” At the time, neither Sabiha nor anyone else could know that she would become the world’s first female fighter pilot.
“Sabiha was the daughter of a great leader and the symbol of modern Turkish women,” says Gülsah Çeliker, a Turkish nationalist and producer of the documentary The Legendary Girl of the Skies: Sabiha Gökçen. “She was my role model.”
She had to partake in the operation to prove that she could do all the missions that male fighter pilots could do.
Gülsah Çeliker, producer
During his 15-year rule, Atatürk transformed Turkish society, particularly for women. He granted women the right to vote, in 1934, and recognized the rights of women to divorce. But Atatürk’s vision for Turkey was borne on the backs of Kurds and the extermination of Armenians in 1915. And while Gökçen became a symbol of Turkey’s empowered women, her life — just like the country to which she belonged — has dark episodes often omitted in historical accounts.
Gökçen was drawn to aviation when she attended the opening ceremony of Turkey’s first flight school in May 1935. Atatürk noticed that Gökçen was mesmerized by the skydivers, so he asked her if she would like to learn how to parachute. Soon afterward, Gökçen became the flight school’s first female student, and she quickly pivoted from learning to jump out of a plane to learning how to fly one.
Gökçen later traveled to the Soviet Union for additional training, before expressing interest in becoming a fighter pilot in 1936 — a stark contrast to countries like the United States and Britain, which didn’t allow women to serve as fighter pilots until the 1990s. Atatürk gave his blessing, the story goes, after testing Gökçen’s resolve by ordering her to press a gun against her temple and pull the trigger. In Gökçen’s memoir, published in 1981, she claims that she did so without flinching.
The following year, in March 1937, Gökçen was called on to bomb a Kurdish revolt in Dersim province (now known as Tunceli). Military officers referred to the mission as a campaign to “civilize” the Kurds, many of whom resisted the state’s authoritarian attempts to repress their language and customs and impose Turkish secularism on them. The bombing was also framed as a necessary response to a Kurdish uprising. But documents from Turkey’s military archives prove that the operation was a carefully planned massacre, personally endorsed by Atatürk, to bring Dersim under state control.
Gökçen maintained the state’s narrative up until her death in March 2001. She claimed that the Dersim mission was merely a reconnaissance operation and that she had only bombed specific rebel targets. The truth was more harrowing: More than 13,000 civilians — men, women and children — were killed in the campaign.
“For Kurds, Sabiha Gökçen is a notorious figure and an emblem of Turkish state violence,” says Mustafa Gurbuz, an expert on Turkish and Kurdish politics and a fellow at the Arab Center Washington.
“She was just taking orders,” argues Çeliker. “She had to partake in the operation to prove that she could do all the missions that male fighter pilots could do.”
In November 2011, 10 years after Gökçen died, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized for the Dersim massacre. A deputy from Erdoğan’s party also suggested that an Istanbul-area airport named for Gökçen should be rechristened (his suggestion has not been implemented). At the time, Erdoğan had good relations with the Kurds, which have since gone steeply downhill.
For many Turks, the bigger controversy had already erupted, in February 2004. That’s when the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos published an article that said Gökçen wasn’t of Bosnian origin as originally claimed. The more likely scenario, the newspaper suggested, was that her parents were murdered during the Armenian genocide. The article was based on a claim by an Armenian woman that Gökçen was her aunt.
The article triggered a storm. Hrant Dink, then the chief editor of Agos, received dozens of death threats after a major Turkish newspaper republished quotes from his piece (a few years later, Dink would be assassinated by a far-right teenager). Pars Tuğlac, a historian and close friend of Gökçen’s, told the same newspaper that Gökçen was indeed Armenian, but that she was ignorant of her origins until relatives visited her in the 1930s. Tuğlac maintained that Gökçen, fearing a nationwide backlash, had concealed her heritage.
Unlike the Dersim massacre, which many Turks justify to defend their national icons, the mere suggestion that Gökçen was Armenian robs them of a national hero. Others believe that it insinuates that Atatürk — a man still afforded God-like status — had lied.
“In the eyes of the army,” says Yetvart Danzikyan, a close friend of Dink’s and current chief editor of Agos, “anyone who says Sabiha is Armenian is saying that the Armenian genocide is real and that their heroic figure is a lie.”