Coops in the Kurdish Movement, an Emancipation Tool for Women. Two Testimonies.
Following the adoption of the democratic confederalism paradigm by the PKK in 2005 as a continuity in the political evolution begun in the nineties, the legal Kurdish movement in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey) began a process of autonomization from the Turkish State. Legal Kurdish Parties notably sought to organize governing structures parallel to those of the State. The first neighborhood councils were established at that time, tasked – among other things – with resolving conflicts outside the Turkish judiciary system. In 2007 the DTK (Demokratik Toplum Kongresi, Democratic Society Congress) was founded as a kind of proto-parliament, bringing together all political and associative initiatives in Northern Kurdistan. After 2015, State repression would target the DTK specifically.
The cooperatives as tools for a democratic economy
Cooperative structures play an important role in this autonomization process. Cooperatives have existed since 1860 in Turkey, where they now number some 84,000 in 25 different sectors. The structure itself is not an innovation. What is novel is the way the Kurdish movement has reappropriated the model for its initial attempts at setting up a “democratic economy”, as first established during the DTK conference organized in Van in 2014 (For a summary of the exchanges: Democratic Economy Conference An Introductory Note). The economic question is essential in the autonomization process, the Turkish State having voluntarily conducted a policy of under development in the Kurdish regions where there are few industries and pro-governmental villages benefit from the building of those infrastructures that do exist. The Kurdish women’s movement (KJA, then TJA following the Turkish State’s ban on KJA in 2016) in particular saw in the cooperative movement not only a tool for the economic emancipation of women whose domestic work is not recognized, but also as a way of opening spaces for social exchanges, education and political awareness, allowing escape from the pressure of an extremely patriarchal and conservative society.
Until 2015 the agricultural coops in the region of Van were the most developed and became experimental centers for this new economy, as did the textile coop in Diyarbakır [Amed]. Other women’s coops exist in the Kurdish regions, in Urfa, Mardin, Mersin. Several have linked up under the “ekojin” label for collective distribution of their production. An experimental cooperative boutique, Medya Market, was also set up in Van for the past two years. 60% of its sales are from local production, the salaries are shared equally and the margin covers operational costs only.
Despite particularly harsh repression since the attempted coup d’Etat of July 15th 2016, the sacking of the HDP mayoralties (Peoples’ Democratic Party whose leaders Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş were jailed in November 2016) which supported the Kurdish organizations’ cooperative projects, and the many arrests of political cadres, the women’s coops somehow manage to survive. Some, such as those in Van, have had to suspend their activities completely but others, in Diyarbakır or in Urfa, refuse to give up. For Sevim, the energetic organizational leader of the coops in Diyarbakır, the repression is nothing new.
“Kurdistan has been experiencing the coup d’Etat already, the situation existed prior to July 15 2016, but now it has been legalized. Our entire organization has changed, there have been arrests and daily raids. They have tried to prevent us from working and to block our markets. But it doesn’t matter, if 5 leave, 10 come back. They delay us, but instead of succeeding in one year, we’ll do it in three.”
Collective emancipatory work, without bosses
The Diyarbakır textile cooperative is established in an urban environment, but the women who work there have often come to Diyarbakır following rural exile caused by various periods of conflict in the nineties and again in 2015-2016. It’s urban implementation boosts the distribution of its products however, through greater proximity to its buyers and a greater social diversity than in the countryside. Only six women worked there in March 2017. The workshop had to be moved to an unidentified basement in a Diyarbakır neighborhood to protect it from a possible State attack. The space is small, windowless and, in order to reach the work stations, you must squeeze through the colorful clothing hanging from the ceiling under brutal neon lighting.
Vahide, a seamstress, describes : “The coop was established in 2007. We’ve worked here for 10 years, I’ve been here for 5. We grew progressively. But there’s been a hiatus with the recent process, the political conditions.”
She explains the functioning: “We start simply, for example: we take one sewing machine, we buy another and we increase the number of machines and of workers, and that way we move toward a cooperative. We buy them with the help of the Women’s Movement, we couldn’t continue without them. We keep monthly accounts, a friend takes care of them, everything is done internally; she figures out our costs and our income. We don’t work against a fixed salary, it varies every month. Usually, we work from 9 to 5 but we never leave at 5, we only leave when we’re finished. There is no boss, no one in charge. If someone can’t come in, another friend takes her place.”
For another worker, the absence of a hierarchy changes the whole working relationship:
“I worked for bosses before, there was a hierarchy. What I really like here is the fact there is none. Now I know how to work without a boss, before there was always superiors and workers at the bottom, it was a social question, but here everyone is equal. We don’t necessarily earn very much but it doesn’t matter, we work together and we’re not looking to make a profit.”
A worker from a mushroom coop that opened in March in Diyarbakır but has shut down since, adds:
“We want good, fresh, organic products. We don’t use fertilizers, everything is natural. We sell to the groceries or in the buildings. What we want is to get rid of the middle men because they are the ones who rake in the biggest benefits. From the producer to the consumer, that’s our goal. The relationship with the neighborhood is important for this. We don’t work elsewhere. We want to create another culture in our coops, another mentality, the coops aren’t just a way to pass the time, to drop in when we can.”
For Vahide as for the other workers, working in a coop has changed her way of life and her place in the home as well as in society.
“I didn’t work before the coop. A friend suggested it to me, I like textiles. I had attended a course eight months ago, but I also learned a bit on my own. Before, I was always at home, working feels good.”
“Being married or single makes no difference”, adds another worker. “There’s no question of responsibility, of more or of less work, here, everyone is busy. Kurdish women always have a lot of responsibilities. The home is a lot of work, it’s true. We do most of our housework at night, we warm up the dishes. My husband isn’t against the fact I work, he doesn’t say I should either, it’s my decision. I have two children, but I manage to do everything. I tell him I’m going to the coop, he doesn’t say anything, I’ve been here for two years. Before that, I did nothing, I was bored.”
The closing down of the Ekojin boutique hasn’t stopped the women’s movement. “We don’t have a boutique anymore, but we sell our clothes by word of mouth, people know us, they call. Having a boutique is important for visibility, that’s true, but it doesn’t matter, we’ll open another. We’re afraid of nothing because we know we are right, jin jiyan azadi!” [Woman, Life, Freedom: the slogan of the Kurdish Women’s Movement] Sevim exclaims. “We have beaten the stereotypes. In history, everything began with women. They try to lock us up in the home because they know women can do what they set their minds to doing. We will never bow down. We wanted a communal life and economy, we analyzed cooperatives in the world and in Turkey, we gathered information. We made mistakes but we learned a lot. We shared our experiences with other women who want to set up the same kind of project. For example, there is a milk coop, Tire Sut kooperatif. When it’s paytime, the women call their husbands. We don’t do that. We don’t have the salary paid off to the men, the one who works, gets the money. We are a small coop for now but we have big dreams.”
These days, the textile coop is attempting to grow by creating international contacts for the distribution of its production.
“We mustn’t think only about the production and sale aspects”, Sevim concludes. “What counts is that the women here learn to be independent. We discuss, there are also classes in geography and history of our region. Being a woman is hard in the world, but in Kurdistan, it is very hard, we are in a partriarchal region, it’s important for women to understand this and discuss around it. We want them to learn communal living. For centuries, people lived in solidarity, we want to return to that. You can spend hours telling people how to live but that’s not enough, it must become part of daily living.”
The cooperative, an important place of socialization
In Bozova, Urfa province, a women’s coop has been in existence for seven years. Conditions are harsh in this extremely rural region of cereal, pistachio and cotton crops with a bit of animal husbandry. The coop has managed to maintain itself despite governmental repression. Although independent from the Ekojin network, it was part of the initiatives supported by the Kurdish movement but at a greater distance in this conservative region where many villages are pro-AKP. Six months after the sacking of the HDP mayors, the administrators appointed by the State reclaimed the agricultural lands leased at a favorable price to the coop, causing heavy additional costs in rental and other bills.
In May, the coop’s premises are empty. Work hasn’t begun, the season runs from June to October. Aygün is project coordinator. The mother of five children, she discovered coops when her husband left and she moved closer to the women’s movement. Hedibe has lived all her life in Bozova. They talk of their experience with the coop.
Hedibe : “We made bread, dolmas, nar ekşisi, pekmez, dried tomatoes… We made everything.” [Dolma: dried vegetable for stuffing, nar ekşisi: pomegranate molasses, pekmez: grape molasses]
Aygün : “There are seven of us. Before the coup d’Etat, we were comfortable, we paid the taxes even if we didn’t earn much for ourselves. But the rent is very expensive now, we pay the water, the bills, it has demotivated the friends. Some worked for a whole year and got nothing out of it.”
Setting up was difficult.
Aygün : “We worked on the women’s wants and wishes. Finances are the biggest problems for them. Money is very problematic here, the rich live in Urfa, do their shopping over there, the poor stay here. Everyone wants some work. But there are no investments. The population’s sympathy for the HDP plays against projects and financing. There are lots of investments in Siverek, it’s feudal and Sunni, so it’s well supported by the State. But here in Bozova, there’s nothing. We opened as an association. Women in need came, we wanted to support some ten people or so. At first, we were in the countryside then we came here to Bozova to reach more women. City council helped us for two years.”
Even though they are not members of the ekojin network, relations exist with the other coops.
Aygün : “We don’t know the coop in Mardin very well, but we know the one in Van, we met them. They are stronger than we are. There’s a big difference between them and us, because there’s less demand here, less of a network. We have a dialogue with the ones in Diyarbakır, if there’s a problem, they support us. A week ago, I went to see them and asked for help, they said they would help us find a spot to sell on the marketplace, that’s great.”
In this conservative region, the coop has mostly a social significance for the women. They can meet there, work together and forge links, exchanges, all things that are not obvious on a daily basis.
Aygün : “Nowadays, these are places where we can sit together, discuss, drink tea among women. Before, this was something that was reserved for men. It is very conservative here, patriarcal. A lawyer friend came to talk to us about the law, we had a course on finances, on gender, a sociologist came, we had a course on how to run a coop. We had an aşure [Important feast day for the Alevis, a religious minority in Turkey and Kurdistan, commemorating the death of Ali]; there were 30-40 people.”
Hedibe : “We’re among friends, we’re together. We discuss. It is good when a women can bring home some money. I didn’t work before.”
Aygün : “Women helped us for the nar eksisi, we were able to pay them, we were happy. We discussed our problems, our concerns, we learned to know each other. We touch one another. I can tell them everything. It might seem odd to you but people can’t stand each other here, sisters-in-law don’t like each other, we can’t tell each other our problems. We talk about them with women from the outside and that’s great.”
“We have no problem with the production, it’s the sales that are blocked.”
If the social aspect is a success, the coop has trouble selling its production in a poor region where everyone has the same financial problems.
Aygün : “We’ve understood that we won’t be able to hold out with nothing but our work in the future, it’s too hard. It’s been seven years and we haven’t really been able to help the women financially here. We would like to get financing from the European Union or elsewhere, assemble some fifty women and make our cooperative known. We have precious little publicity. Besides, in Bozova, the women work at home still, they make salça, dolmas, they resell them but it’s not recognized as real work. We want to make women’s domestic work visible. It is real work. Not only in Bozova but also in the villages. There’s need to do everything for women here, it’s important. There are many women victims of violence, young women forced into marriage, or married to old men. There’s a whole job of education needed, this is fundamental. I hope we can get such projects. The basic idea was to work for ourselves and make some money without paying middle men.
Honestly, we haven’t succeeded because we don’t have a space on the market. We have no problem with production, it’s the sales that are blocked. We wanted to open a website, print brochures but all that costs money.”
Hedibe : “We do something that’s good and beautiful, and that’s enough for us. But we would like to have more women and really help one another. The economic situation is difficult, they work a lot at home, but receive nothing for it. We are in the shadow of Urfa. There is nothing here, no work, neither for the women nor for the men. And yet, Bozova is very beautiful. I grew up here, I can’t live elsewhere. My son has no work, he left for Istanbul and couldn’t stand the separation. There are many poor people here, for example, people go out to work in the fields for 30TL [Approximately 7,50€ at current rates] per day, even ten-year old children. My dream is to be a business woman, to help people, to buy things for the children; to help them study.
But here, our aim isn’t to make money, we wanted to meet together as women, between friends. The women must endure the husbands, work in the fields, take care of the children… I raised my children with a lot of difficulty, without eating at times. I couldn’t give them pocket money, some of them studied but they have no work. Myself, I am tired, we have suffered a lot. I told myself, I will work too, I’ll become a business woman but it’s hard. But we must go on. I’m glad of what we’ve done.”
In Diyarbakır as in Urfa, the economic aspect isn’t what gives strength to the women’s cooperatives in the Kurdish movement but rather the fact of having women work together who were isolated before, allowing them to have exchanges, to organize, to give value to their work.
If the cooperatives were a place for economic experimentation in the Kurdish movement and a place of emancipation for women, their growth in Northern Kurdistan was brutally stopped by the violent repression that bore down on the region starting in 2015, despite the resistance of certain projects that survive nonetheless. But the experience acquired in over 10 years of development will not have been lost.
Democratic economy is now being implemented in another part of Kurdistan: Rojava. In the difficult context of an economy under embargo, the cooperatives have been a tool through which the autonomous administration has relaunched economic development and met the people’s needs. It has chosen not to expropriate the large landowners, preferring to create initiatives on leased lands or on lands belonging to the collectivities.