Women and the Kurdish Movement in Turkey: ‘There will be no turning back’

By Eva Bernard:

First published by Women’s Voices Now

BDP Women’s Congress, Ankara, April 2013; Photo by Eva Bernard

BDP Women’s Congress, Ankara, April 2013;     Photo by Eva Bernard

In Turkish public opinion and media, and according to certain studies, the Kurdish regions of Turkey are often deemed the most patriarchal and traditional.  Yet, since the late 1970s, the Kurdish guerrilla movement and Kurdish political parties have been the most openly progressive proponents of women’s rights. This paradox became evident to me during the year I spent in Turkey in 2010, and led me to explore the impact of the denial of minority rights by the Turkish state on women’s lives within that minority group, and the potential influences of the Kurdish nationalist movement on Kurdish women’s rights.

In situations of conflict, women are seen as the main victims, or as those whose motherly love is capable of bringing peace. While it is important to recognize the negative consequences of conflict on women’s opportunities for emancipation, the most sustainable way to defend women’s rights is to acknowledge that they are more than victims suffering in silence or those who mourn the dead. They are also actors with powerful voices. So, for once, let’s reverse the question: How has women’s participation shaped the Kurdish movement?

Background on the Conflict

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, in committing mass violations of Kurds’ internationally recognized human rights the Turkish state has repressed Kurdish demands for self-determination, including recognition of their collective cultural rights. With these ongoing challenges, Kurdish nationalism has evolved considerably since its birth at the end of the Ottoman Empire.  After decades of forced silence at the hands of Turkish authorities, Kurdish nationalism was revived in 1978 by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party; a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization), and by the creation of a legal pro-Kurdish political party in 1990. The latter has been outlawed many times; its present form is the BDP, the Peace and Democracy Party. In terms of votes received in legislative elections, it is now the fourth largest party in Turkey. Hereafter, the expression “Kurdish movement” will refer to the PKK as well as the consecutive Kurdish political parties and Kurdish civil society, given that they mutually influence each other.

The current peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement, which officially began in December 2012, has thus far focused on ending the armed conflict. Indeed, the main achievements of the process, to date, have been the PKK’s ceasefire and the partial removal of its combatants from Turkey.  At present, however, the process is stalled as the principle sticking points of the conflict persist: recognition of Kurdish people’s rights and Turkey’s democratization.

From the Liberation of Women to Women Liberating Kurdistan

Given the traditional social context of the early 1980s in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, it was impossible to imagine women fighting alongside men, away from their families. Men’s honor (namus), the main pillar of the tribal social structure, relied on the safeguarding of women’s bodies. This inevitably deprived the Kurdish liberation movement of women’s involvement. In this context, there can be no full understanding of the impact and participation of women on the Kurdish movement without taking into account the influence of Abdullah Öcalan, one of the original founders of the PKK and its main leader.

In Kadın ve Aile Sorunu (The Woman and Family Question), and Kürt Aşkı (Kurdish Love), two of the essays that he wrote, Öcalan called upon men to destroy the traditional conception of namus: “Women’s liberation is Kurdistan’s liberation; it is also men’s liberation.”  The “honor,” Öcalan declared, now lay in fighting for the nation. In order to free women, Öcalan called upon men to kill the dominating patriarch within them and create the New Man.

As of the mid-1980s, significant numbers of women engaged in the Kurdish guerrilla movement. With the gradual fading of Marxist references, the Kurdish struggle continued to develop. The increasing importance given to the freedom of women can therefore be partially understood as an answer to the need for a renewed ideological discourse and a new source of universal values. By 1994, it is said that 30 percent of PKK rebels were women. In this same time period, women became the direct addressees of Öcalan’s speeches and writings. He insisted that they needed to destroy any sign of weakness, to kill the oppressed woman within them and let the free woman live. Women were put forward as the guardians of cultural resistance and of Kurdish identity through their participation in the nationalist struggle.

This call to women was accompanied by a historiographical discourse,  which referred to a “golden age” when Kurdish men and women were supposedly equal. In Öcalan’s writings, this period corresponds to the presumed matriarchal social organization of the Sumerian, pre-Kurdish society (fifth millennium B.C.E.). He wrote that the patriarchal system brought by the Turkish, Persian, and Arab invasions subordinated women, leading to the subordination of the Kurdish people as a whole.  With the increasing participation of women in the struggle, Öcalan also feminized the founding myths of Kurdish identity. Alongside the myth of Kawa the Blacksmith, he revived the myth of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, thus comparing women who engaged in the struggle to goddesses.

Women’s participation in the Kurdish struggle, however, is also the consequence of their own experience of the denial of Kurdish identity and of state-perpetrated violence. They encountered this violence when the Turkish army burned their villages and when they participated in violently repressed mass demonstrations or celebrations of Newroz, the Kurdish and Persian New Year.  Women joined the guerrilla movement to take revenge against this violence and to fight for the nationalist cause, but also to flee the traditional social roles within the family and the tribe. In theory, the PKK aspired to fight patriarchal relations within its own structure, which appealed to Kurdish women. Sexual contact among fighters was absolutely forbidden and strict equality was to be respected. The rebels became asexual combatants, devoted to the cause.  Whether this authoritarian structure could actually change patriarchal mentalities and defend individual liberation is a subject of debate, however.

We do know that the PKK’s shortcomings in promoting real change in the attitude toward women pushed them to create their own organizations. In 1987, a group of women in the PKK created the Kurdistan Union of Patriotic Women and, later, the Kurdish Women’s Liberation Movement. In 1995 and 1999, the Kurdistan Free Women’s Union and the Kurdistan Women Worker’s Party were also created; the latter was dissolved by the PKK in 2000.

Nevertheless, considering that most men and women who engaged in the PKK were required to cut ties with their families and rarely returned to civilian life, they were not able to influence Kurdish civil society with their new social outlook. In this respect, the legal political branch of the Kurdish movement, which also draws from Öcalan’s teachings on gender equality, is much more influential. Although one could criticize Öcalan’s authoritarian method, his discourse made many women politically conscious and “created the context in which feminism emerged” among Kurdish women in Turkey.  From the 1990s to the present day, however, women’s involvement in Kurdish politics has surpassed Öcalan’s expectations.

Women and the Project of Radical Democracy

As women’s participation in the guerrilla movement, in demonstrations, and in pro-Kurdish associations steadily increased, in 1990 they were also involved in the creation of the HEP (People’s Labor Party, a predecessor of the BDP), the first legal Kurdish political party. Feminist ideas took a while to disseminate in the party’s structure and program because of men’s resistance. Despite this and in contrast with the authoritarian Kemalist state-promoted feminism, in which women were to be the passive receivers of “progressive” state policies, Kurdish women were at the forefront of the HEP’s evolution. For example, they pushed for a 25 percent quota reserved for women to hold party decision-making positions and for candidates in local and general elections. Presently, this quota is 40 percent (a decision adopted in 2005), and may soon increase to 50 percent. They also established a Women’s Assembly within the party at the national and local levels. Since 2005, a man and a woman share party leadership; in the March 2014 local elections this practice spread to most BDP local races. The Kurdish party also has the highest proportion and number of female mayors. In the pro-Kurdish group in the Turkish Parliament, 30.5 percent are women, whereas women represent only 14.2 percent of the entire Turkish Parliament.

Through its efforts to instate affirmative action measures, the Kurdish movement believes that current gender inequalities will gradually disappear. Yet it also considers that this goal can only be reached if it is accompanied by a much deeper democratization of both public and private spheres. Thus, as of the year 2000, under the title “Democratization of State and Society,” the Kurdish party listed the goal of “women’s liberation” immediately after the objective of solving the Kurdish issue. The Kurdish movement argues that the Turkish system’s nationalist authoritarianism is based on one language, one culture, and one dominating sex. It is seen as the cause of both patriarchal domination and of the violation of Kurdish people’s rights. A general reform of the Turkish political system is therefore deemed necessary in order to fight patriarchy and to solve the Kurdish issue. In this sense, the Kurdish party has gradually developed a relatively progressive agenda, which includes defending women’s rights as well as LGBTI rights, and protecting the environment through a grassroots approach referred to as “radical democracy.” By building this wider view of the problem, the Kurdish movement appears to be distancing itself from its original nationalist discourse in its suggestion of a new progressive social project and political system for Turkey.

Ongoing Challenges to Kurdish Women’s Emancipation

The Kurdish party’s platform and policies, designed by both men and women, aim to guarantee sustainable women’s participation and a more equal society. Yet, years of conflict and state repression in Turkey’s Kurdish regions have made local political action a great challenge. Women in particular endure the consequences of discrimination and of the restrictions on the use of Kurdish language. In traditional patriarchal structures, generally, women have decreased access to education. Many Kurdish families also refuse to send their daughters to school arguing that if they cannot be educated in Kurdish they will not be able to transmit the Kurdish language to their children in the future.  Kurdish women’s overall lesser knowledge of Turkish and high levels of illiteracy mean they are not able to benefit from state programs such as health care, social security, and police protection, and cannot access employment. On average, 38 percent of women in Turkey’s Kurdish regions are illiterate, while in other areas of the country the percentages range from zero to eight percent.

In the past few years, however, to garner political support from the Kurds, the current AKP-led (Justice and Development Party) government has aimed at economically developing the Southeast. Indeed, political measures directed toward women should now be understood in the context of an ongoing political battle between pro-Kurdish municipalities and the conservative pro-AKP governorships in the Southeast.  Consequently, the BDP-led municipalities face a dilemma in choosing their strategy to increase women’s empowerment: They can either encourage women to take advantage of the current Turkish state framework and its attention to women’s issues, or, at the risk of further marginalizing women, they can refuse this system hoping to create other means of emancipation. While the Kurdish municipalities, in theory, want to resist cultural assimilation, they have nonetheless resorted to establishing community centers and public laundries where women can learn Turkish, be informed of their rights, and how to assert them within the current Turkish system. The aim of these Kurdish municipality-sponsored initiatives is for women to become independent citizens. Arguably, this tactic also supports a pro-Kurdish agenda as it is a way of politicizing women and mobilizing them for political means.

Further Emancipation through Peace?

For years now, Kurdish women’s groups have played a major role in promoting peace. The Women’s Initiative for Peace (Bariş Için Kadınlar), the Saturday Mothers (Cumartesi Anneleri), and the Mothers of Peace (Bariş Anneleri) are but three examples of such organizations. Aside from these, the Free Women’s Democratic Movement (Demokratik Özgür Kadın Hareketi, DÖKH), created in 2003, unites hundreds of activist Kurdish women from civil society, women’s organizations, youth groups, political parties, and local government bodies. It has created Women’s Assemblies in 25 cities, women’s shelters for victims of gender-based violence, 17 women’s cooperatives, six women’s associations and three women’s academies that provide training for academics from all disciplines in gender equality. Furthermore, DÖKH established the organization Women’s Initiative for Peace in 12 towns and cities, and a women’s press agency (JINHA). The movement also oversees the Kurdish political party to ensure that it promotes gender equality in its structure as well as its programs.

Although Kurdish and Turkish societies have suffered immensely from the conflict, Kurdish women have channeled this experience into political and social organization to articulate their demands. Now they are positioned to participate in building an egalitarian and democratic society. One of the remaining challenges, however, is to get the government to see women as more than loving and suffering mothers. This is an opportune moment to deconstruct the images of “femininity” and “masculinity,” which generate inequality and violence. In this view, perpetuating gendered stereotypes in the peace process and, thus, in the post-conflict society emerging from it, jeopardizes peace building. This is why it is also a dangerous period: If women are kept away from the peace process, society will not change. Kurdish women’s groups with which I have spoken are quite conscious of this risk. But with a proud and confident tone they declare: “There will be no turning back.”

I have perhaps portrayed most Kurdish women as active feminists. This image of course needs to be put into perspective: As shown by the accounts and statistics on discrimination and violence against women in the Kurdish regions, Kurdish society is far from being egalitarian. Even though most women who support the BDP are immensely proud of its feminist stance, it is hard for many of them to translate this into a fight against inequalities in their own daily lives. Even so, I want to convey the extent of Kurdish women’s activism, which has extended far beyond initial participation in the guerrilla movement. Whether the original appeal to women was limited to their participation in the national struggle or whether it was a genuine call for a social revolution in gender roles no longer matters. Kurdish feminist consciousness has risen within the Kurdish struggle. Therefore, my optimism lies in the determination of the women I met, and in a possible resolution of the Kurdish issue. As a woman in the city of Diyarbakir told me, “After peace, for us women, the fight only begins.”

Eva Bernard holds a master’s degree in human rights law with a specialization in minority rights from Strasbourg University. She wrote her master’s thesis on the Kurdish movement and women’s rights in Turkey, after having spent a year working with asylum seekers in Istanbul. She now lives in Paris.


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