A female Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighter works on her laptop after arriving in the southern Kurdistan city of Dohuk on May 14, 2013.
by Olivia Bryan
From within the American female progressive movement alone, historic strides in the recent decade come to mind. Leading examples range from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements against sexual misconduct, to the first Muslim and American indigenous women elected to Congress, and the traction of the nationwide Women’s March protests after United States President Donald Trump’s inauguration. While these are certainly no small feats, it should be noted that western women are not the only women at the cutting-edge of the feminist movement.
In the east of Turkey, Kurdish women prove remarkably successful in their establishment of a large feminist movement in which they aim to elevate the status of all Kurdish people amidst the repressive Turkish state, and brought about changes in Kurdish social norms and government structure.
A bit of context, Kurdistan is one of the largest nations in the world with no internationally-recognized state to call home. In 1978, revolutionary Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan established the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to advocate for Kurdish autonomy and independence; the Turkish government denounced the PKK as a terrorist organization and has continuously exercised state violence in Kurdish-majority areas in order to quell Kurdish activism. In Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian branch of the PKK, and the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), an organization of defense forces in Syrian Kurdistan, have also been denounced as terrorist organizations.
With no home and a hostile state of residence, it is shocking how Kurdish women have risen up inside of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Kurdish social movements, and the YPG to advocate for not only Kurdish rights, but for women’s rights. Dilsa Deniz, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and a Kurdish women’s activist in Turkey, details the astounding accomplishments of her people in the face of adversity. “[The] women’s movement has changed the whole of Kurdish society”, she said in reference to women’s political and social activism in Turkey.
In the 1990s, the Kurdish women’s movement followed in the footsteps of the independent Turkish women’s movement to establish itself without men and without non-Kurdish women. Deniz credited much of the movement’s success to this decision because it allowed the group to prioritize the most important issues in Kurdish society.
Although the movement appears separatist, Kurdish men and Kurdish society as a whole still benefit from Kurdish women’s activism. The Kurdish women’s movement, in cooperation with the Turkish women’s movement, were the first organizations in Turkey to use the Kurdish and Turkish languages equally in public demonstrations, where speaking Kurdish is banned. Deniz remarks that not even the labor or leftist movements attempted to use the Kurdish language in public. Because the women’s movement began giving speeches in both Kurdish and Turkish, both men and women alike saw that speaking Kurdish publicly in Turkey was something achievable.
The movement began by disseminating information through feminist journals and magazines, using this media as a means to change the public narrative on women’s issues. Instead of violence against women being framed as an act of a “jealous love affair”, the term “femicide” began being widely used to describe the murder of women at the hands of men. The movement encouraged changing common vernacular to reflect gender-equal diction; for instance, referring to women as “women” and not “girls”, because the Kurdish use of “girl” is meant to imply sexual purity, which denotes patriarchal control over women’s bodies.
In addition to improving vernacular to reflect female equality, Kurdish women have actively engaged in guerilla operations to fight both the oppressive Turkish state and ISIS; Syrian Kurdish women have joined in the arms struggle with the P.K.K. as agents of the Free Women’s Units (YJA-Star). The PKK’s guerilla organization prohibits sexual contact between its male and female soldiers, encouraging an environment where women could join an organization that challenges the traditional patriarchal Kurdish society.
Women’s increased activity in fighting both encouraged and contributed to the increased patriotism and a stronger national identity across multiple regions of Kurdistan. This has led to an increase in women’s social power and agency, while also lifting their status in the community. Deniz accounts that, “when this guerilla issue started… if any family forced one of their young girl[s] to marry by force, she would say, ‘if you do that, I am going to [join] guerilla’, and then they couldn’t do it”. Consequently, the patriarchal power held over women could now be limited by their ability to act freely and join the army.
In politics, Kurdish women established a co-chairship system of Kurdish political parties, in which one man and one woman would be elected to leadership roles in order to bring the under-represented women’s perspective into politics. The co-chair system facilitated greater women’s participation in politics, one of the factors contributing to 96 women being elected to Turkish parliament in 2015.
The Kurdish women in parliament, like women in the United States Congress, do not stay idle either. “They [are] so brave, they [are] facing huge number of oppression by the state, by… racist people, but still, they are so powerful, they [are] fighting, and whenever anything happens on the street, they are always there”, Deniz remarks in reference to female Kurdish MP’s.
Kurdish women involved in politics have become an exemplar of socio-political mobility for women across the Middle East. In Turkey, the large number of Kurdish women who demonstrate on the streets for International Women’s Day has bolstered the independent Turkish women’s movement; together, they enlarge and organize in order to spurn Turkish political participation with Kurdish women.
Prominent Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, who founded the White Wednesday movement to protest compulsory veiling, has praised the Kurdish women’s movement as an exemplar for the Middle East. Even Yazidi women escaping ISIS have found a safe-haven in Kurdish areas, Deniz says, where men are culturally forbidden from attacking women on the street.
The American women’s movement can learn from the extraordinary progress achieved by the Kurdish women’s movement, who have proliferated the face of numerous institutional obstacles. Many Americans have a habit of viewing Middle Eastern women through orientalist eyes, deeming them meek and passive, unable and unwilling to challenge their oppressors. However, in the face of oppression by both the state and by the patriarchal society, Kurdish women have emerged as strong leaders in politics and in the military, as role models to Kurdish men and Middle Eastern women. “I think Kurdish women are changing the world in a way”, Deniz reflects, “I’m really very proud of [them].” Similarly to the American feminist movement, there is still much work to be done in Kurdistan to achieve complete equality of the sexes. Today, Kurdish women continue to fight for ethnic and gender rights through their increasing roles in government institutions, in the military, and in the media to combat the patriarchal system that tries to confine them.