By Alexis Herr, PhD
In a course I teach on the Armenian Genocide to college students, we always end up spending a few classes talking about the victims who chose to commit suicide rather than face further dehumanization and sexual assault. While I intentionally plan to raise this topic, it usually emerges organically in conversation when my students read Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate.
Peter spends a chapter retelling the story of Dovey [Aghavni in Armenian], his great aunt. Dovey’s story helps personalize the experiences of nearly all female survivors and victims of the Armenian Genocide. Throughout Black Dog of Fate, readers encounter sexual trauma in countless forms. After hearing such brutal testimony of observed and experienced assault, we learn that Dovey was raped. “One night I was raped. I prayed every night to the Virgin Mary and to Jesus and to God. And they answered my prayers. After this I felt some mindless will to survive.” In the next paragraph, Dovey recalled passing the Euphrates River and seeing the banks swollen with bodies. “Many women and girls threw themselves into the river rather than be abducted or raped,” she explained. “At several spots there were clusters of girls who had tied their hands together and drowned themselves. On the bank they were washed up and their blue bodies were still tied to each other’s. Their tongues were black, half-eaten, and their hair was muddy and dry like old grass.” The juxtaposition between Dovey’s “mindless will to survive” after she was raped and the stories of women who committed suicide rather than be abducted or raped helps my students and myself grapple with a burdensome question: During genocide, is suicide a form of resistance?
The question of what constitutes resistance during genocide is an old one, but suicide complicates our understanding of defiance. Common conceptions of resistance typically take the form of armed resistance. The most famous instance of armed resistance during the Holocaust was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. From April 19 to May 16, 1943, 750 ghetto fighters used weapons smuggled into the Polish ghetto to combat heavily armed and well-organized German soldiers. Resistance, however, did not always require bullets. Some contend, myself included, that a Jew’s choice to pray while trapped in a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, in a transit camp, or a ghetto is also a form of resistance. The simple act of praying defied the Nazis’ attempt to suffocate Jewish religious and cultural identity. But what about suicide? What is suicide resisting?
These questions have once again jumped to the forefront of my mind after reading Michael Weiss, Roy Gutman, and Alex Rowell’s article “Women in Aleppo Choose Suicide Over Rape, Rebels Report,” in The Daily Beast (December 13, 2016). The authors quote Abdullah Othman, the head of the Consultative Council in the Levant Front, one of the largest rebel groups in Aleppo. He explains that “this morning 20 women committed suicide in order not to be raped.” Once again, in the context of genocide (which is absolutely the case in Syria), we find another example of women deciding to commit suicide to avoid sexual assault. What are we to make of this?
While some might be prejudiced against suicide in general and associate it with escapism or cowardice, suicide in the context of genocide is even more complicated. In the simplest sense, admitting that victims in Syria and in the Ottoman Empire have committed suicide speaks volumes to the horrors of those atrocities. And, the fact that an individual is so desperate to avoid the violence burning around her that she decides to kill herself elucidates the moral ambiguities and ethical breakdown in genocidal societies. By viewing suicide as form of resistance—an act made to rob a perpetrator of an opportunity to kill and allow a victim to meet death on her own terms—we gain a better appreciation of the horrors victims of genocide face.
Is suicide a form of resistance during genocide? In my opinion, yes. I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge the weight of this conclusion. What does it mean if we are living in a time when a victim views suicide as her or his best option? I wonder if people 100 years ago asked themselves this same question when they heard about mass rape during the Armenian Genocide.
Sometimes I struggle to explain what genocide is to my students. It is not easy to communicate using sweeping facts or numbers. And for this, I am grateful to authors like Peter Balakian who help me and my students ask the tough questions that sit at the heart of genocide. Genocide is never black or white. It is never simple. Nothing can make this clearer than admitting that during genocide, even suicide can become a form of resistance.