Kurdish Liberation • The Free Women Movement

This is a report from a delegation visit to Bakur, North Kurdistan probably in early 2016. It was published in English by Kedistan on 6 September, 2017. Sadly, many of the organisations and co-operatives mentioned have now been lost through oppression of the Turkish State.

A delegation of women who went to Kurdistan testify… Presenting the women’s movement of Bakûr, as studied during our trip. (The first part of this article, published in Merhaba Hevalno 4 dealt with the counter-revolution by the Turkish State in Bakûr.)

The Free Women Movement, at the forefront of Kurdish liberation

Women occupy a central role in the political project of « democratic autonomy » defended by the Kurdish liberation movement for the past fifteen years. We often hear talk of the parity practiced in all its institutions and of the male-female co-presidencies. But the accomplishments and the strength of the women’s movement go well beyond that and manage to unite a great number of women.

In the spring of 2016, on the occasion of the March 8th celebrations (international woman’s day), a delegation of women left Paris for Kurdistan in Turkey (Bakûr). We were able to participate for a week in demonstrations and meetings, to meet with many women of the movement and to better understand how they organize. This text is inspired by that trip but also by information obtained in France, through books, films, articles and meetings.

Sakine Cansız, emblem of the history of Kurdish women’s struggles

In order to understand the Free Women’s Movement, we must step back some forty years to its roots in the workers and students’ revolts at the end of the seventies. Many women participated in these social movements, wishing to bring changes to the society of that time. It is impossible to ignore a mythical figure in the women’s movement, Sakine Cansız, who was assassinated in Paris in 2013. Through her life story, one can follow the main stages of this movement’s history.

Born in Dersim and raised in an Alevi family, Sakine quickly found herself refusing the roles tradition assigns to women. At a young age, she demanded space as a free woman, refused to stay closed in at home, did not want to marry nor to bear children. Close to marxist-leninist ideology, Sakine envisioned her life at the service of revolution. During a month-long stay in Germany she discovered the power and magnitude of the Kurdish cause. Inspired by this, she returned to Turkey and began to imagine a revolutionary movement based on Kurdish demands. At this time she worked in a factory in Izmir where she fought for better working conditions.

It was in Ankara, around the university, at the crossroads of student and worker demands, that she met Öcalan and the other activists with whom she founded the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party. At that time, with other activists, Sakine started visiting towns and villages in Bakûr, to spread the revolutionary ideas of this budding organization. In a society where non-mixity (segregation of the sexes) is practiced both inside and outside domestic spaces, she had a privileged access to other women. Like other PKK activists, she constantly moved from one home to another, sheltered by comrades, and working door to door, thus allowing for constant information on women’s needs. She organized discussions, lectures and meetings between women in order to intensify their solidarity. Shortly before the 1980 coup d’état, the wave of repression did not spare Sakine who spent several years in Diyarbakır prison. Even in this inferno of torments, she continued to fight and her example strengthened women’s solidarity both inside and outside prison thanks to the wives, sisters and mothers of prisoners. When she left jail, Sakine joined the PKK training camps which by then had taken up arms. She wanted to create a women’s army, convinced that in order to liberate Kurdistan there must be emancipation for all women, whether Kurdish or not. Officially born in 1995, the women’s army set up headquarters in the Qandil mountains in Iraki Kurdistan where the women trained, studied feminism, questioned themselves about democracy and fought against the Turkish army that attacked them regularly. Their organizational methods and principles « contaminated » civilian society where more and more women were inspired by them. According to Ayşe Gökkan (former mayor of Nusaybin –declared a “women’s town” – and present spokesperson for the women’s movement), the civilian women’s movement was born from the synergy experienced with the fighters : if those women could organize in the mountains, then it was possible to do the same in the towns.

This growing movement, Sakine Cansız’ proximity and her ideas profoundly inspired PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Imprisoned since 1999, he became interested in Murray Bookchin’s social ecology and developed the concept of democratic confederalism. It consists in a revolutionary proposal for self-organization where decisions are taken in a non-hierarchical fashion, horizontally and from bottom to top, through a system of neighborhood and village assemblies, multi-confessional and multi-ethnic, that choose the spokespersons who will express the wishes of the assemblies where the other spokespersons gather. In this new form of organization, anticapitalistic and anti Nation-State, a central role is devolved to ecology and to women. Men and patriarchy are responsible for this untenable world: by wanting to dominate the world, the masculine has created class, gender and people divisions opposing women one against the other, and perpetuating the wars destroying the planet. In recent years, the women’s movement has kept on growing in civilian society and women are present in all organizational structures. Their word can no longer be ignored, it is through the emancipation of women that we will change society and the world.

A radical approach to the liberation of all women

The orientalist and racist visions often found in Europe – including in institutional feminist quarters – render difficult an understanding of the potential of the women’s struggle in Kurdistan; the image of the young armed fighter comes in opposition to that of the mother of 10 children or of the veiled student… Well, all those women are part of this same movement, share their experiences and their knowledge, help one another in dealing with daily problems and patriarchal violence, and give one another strength to continue resisting against State violence. This movement fights in order to break the image of the « liberated » woman sold to us by « capitalist modernity » and attempts to bring confidence and solidarity to women so that they will free themselves in their own ways. It is by attempting to break down the prejudices and the barriers set up between women by the patriarchal mentality conveyed by capitalism and the Nation-State that this movement manages to unite a broad cross section of women of all ages, creeds and social classes.

Contrary to the gains made in Europe by feminist movements in the realm of individual freedoms, the Kurdish women’s movement gives priority to collective freedoms, in other words to the liberation of their communities and of all women within them. This rests on the notion that if a single woman in the world is not free, then no woman can feel free. This is what underlies the fierce struggle for the global liberation of women. « If women are under attack somewhere, all women should react as if they were being attacked », this was one of the conclusions of the 1st Conference of Middle Eastern Women in May 2013. In order to illustrate the starting point to their struggle, we reproduce an introductory text from the flyer presenting the Congress of Free Women. « The Nation-State of capitalistic modernity has developed all kinds of destructive policies against women in order to empty social life of all content. Diversity being a part of the very nature of social life has been considered threatening, and women do not have the possibility of living with their own cultures and identities. Woman is ignored in society and enclosed within the smallest power cell of masculine domination, which is none other than the family. In an economy resting on profit and exploitation, women have been placed in the position of a free work force, dispossessed and even merchandized. A vulgar scientism insures the constant reproduction of the dominant masculine mentality. No matter how much womanhood may be discussed as a notion, women’s originality, their freedom and their socialization have been ignored. Violence, massacres, abuse and rapes perpetuated against women essentially in this capitalistic modernity are not just a coincidence. Rape, transformed into a culture, a system and a policy, has been legitimized in all economic, social, political and ideological areas of society. While considering man as nature’s dominator and institutionalizing the ruling mentality, a merciless war has been launched against society, women and nature. In the end, instrumentalized women have been kept away from all social organizations and from all mechanisms dealing with decisions regarding their development. This power, through every means and tool, aims at the founding of a system completely enslaving women. »

Here is another illustration of the approach to women’s struggles in Bakûr through the lens of an association that works there on the local level. In the town of Amed, we were able to meet members of the Ceren Women’s Association, founded in 2008, that works on several fronts and that now has a multifunctional space for its activities (a large wooden house the women built in an environnment of multi-storied appartement buildings !) : library and study space, language classes (in Kurdish), writing classes to record their history, letter writing to prisoners (since not everyone knows how to write in Turkish, the only language allowed in jail), classes in new technologies, accompaniment for reproductive health, discussions and conferences. In their presentation brochure, the association’s women explain why they are leading this struggle. Here are some excerpts :

« For thousands of years, women have been the target of ideological attacks. Therefore we consider that our struggle as women must also be ideological. […] We have been excluded from politics, from science, from philosophy and from literature. […] We are organizing because we refuse to be enslaved, because we want to highlight our strength of initiative and put it at the service of society. »

Coordination of women’s struggles and collective self-defense

During our first exchange with Ayşe Gökkan – the KJA spokesperson who accompanied us throughout our trip – she told us that « after 40 years of struggle, the women’s movement is powerful. It intervenes in the family, in society, at State level, because we must change mentalities everywhere. Men know the power of the movement and pay attention. Sometimes, some men have used scandals and slander against politically powerful women. But the women’s organization helps in stopping that. »

Women seem to have managed in making non-mixity acceptable at all levels of the Kurdish liberation movement. Nowadays, there is no discussion on women’s right to settle their own problems and find the best solutions to them. In the same way, they encourage women who need it to organize in chosen non-mixity (relative to their beliefs, for instance) and to choose delegates in the women’s groups to carry their voice. A woman from the DBP party tells us that society is changing, even people who aren’t particularly politicized demonstrate this; as an example, the number of feminicides is falling in Kurdistan. « Women have started to face up to men at home and at work. Men have started to accept women as leaders and to live their political involvement along with that of women. »

Since the years 2000, the women’s movement in Bakûr has structured itself in an attempt to assemble the different components of the women’s struggles and to promote locally women’s councils beyond those of the political parties. Since 2003, the DÖKH (Democratic Free Women’s Movement) had regrouped women’s organizations : associations, academies, cooperatives, women’s shelters and 25 local councils. In February 2015, the movement restructured and gave birth to the Congress of Free Women (KJA) with 501 delegates at its first assembly. The KJA now structures the movement. All women who participate in the Kurdish liberation movement belong, first of all, to the KJA. According to Ayşe, « the KJA is a woman’s first identity, no matter her creed or her political affiliation. » In the 1980s and ‘90s, the movement was still quite patriotic – Kurdish nationalist – but has not ceased evolving since; now, the KJA attempts to encompass all women of different cultures living in Kurdistan. In their own words : « The KJA is the democratic and confederative umbrella of women against a unitary and centralized, capitalistic and modernist Nation-State. The KJA is the organ of common solidarity, of self-empowerment and of autonomy for women of all creeds, cultures and societies of peoples living in Mesopotamia. »

The Congress is based on the principle that « society will liberate itself only if woman liberates herself ». KJA’s objective is « unifying the power of women’s struggles in all organized structures and all parts of society against the dominant masculine system. » To this aim, the KJA regroups towns and women’s councils (local structures in neighborhoods and towns), women’s organizations (that do not abide by the diktats of the State), elected women (of the DBP in the town halls, as well as deputies of the HDP), and persons having accepted the principles of the Congress. Thus are assembled women who discuss their problems within the communes in their neighborhoods as well as civilian organization activists, politicians, lawyers, teachers, etc. A 20 % quota is reserved for youth : « the young women’s movement is important for it is the one best positioned to change the system », Ayşe tells us.

The KJA’s structure follows a confederal model starting at the local level called a « commune » where delegates are elected. They meet in « neighborhood councils », where some representatives are elected to form the town council and, finally, the General Assembly at Congress. The seat of the movement is in Amed (that one can consider as the capital of Bakûr), just as is the « diplomacy » commission responsible for all external communications and who thus greeted our delegation.

The work of the Free Women’s Congress is carried out in three commissions handling economy, politics, social issues, diplomacy, justice and human rights, ecology, media, peoples and religious beliefs, language and education, culture, local governments, the fight against violence, and self-defense. Indeed, the commissions attempt to cover all the needs identified by the different structures. A good part of their efforts center on the fight against domestic violence as well as family and State violence against children; on communal economy (making women’s work visible); on education (starting with literacy classes for women who have not had access to schooling); and on political education and jineology (we will return to this concept later). As pertains to state politics, women have organized to impose a peace process on the Turkish State: perhaps for the first time in the world, a woman, Ceylan Bağrıyanık, was involved in a peace process as representative of the Council for Peace where Kurdish and Turkish women discussed together. In the same manner, they provide themselves with means for a solid representation within the Turkish Parliament. By radically questioning the systems of oppression, the Free Women’s Movement has recently included the issue of vegetarianism, bringing to light the supremacy of the male profile as dominant warrior (which would have begun in the Neolithic period with the figure of the hunter who perfected the tools for hunting prior to using them as war weapons against other humans). Thus the women’s movement casts a critical appraisal on the capitalistic evolution of relations between humans and all that surrounds humanity and gives it the means of survival, and thus shares an awareness for « an ecologial society opposing the oppression of nature by humanity. »

The concept of self-defense is undoubtedly the central point of the women’s movement, self-defense understood as a collective measure. A first aspect consists in reacting to sexist aggressions. When a woman is attacked – in most cases, by her husband – she can rely on the true solidarity of a local group of women to seek solutions and implement them. In this case, the victim decides what she needs as reparation (including in terms of reprisals against the agressor), and the group supporting her implements her decision. The fight against feminicides is also very present, especially since the AKP government has encouraged extreme violence against women. Regular mobilization campaigns raise the issue of rape as a structural policy; here are a few of their slogans: «We are women, we are no one else’s honor, our honor is our freedom », « Let us overcome the culture of rape, let us create a free democratic society », « the massacre of women is the massacre of society ».

But self-defense also involves political self-defense and for that, particular emphasis is placed on political education. Women learn together and become aware of their identity as women, learn about the revolutionary movements in history, re-write a women’s history that has always been ignored. These studies occur within the Women’s Academies and, in particular, in the jineology workshops that aim at building a science made by and for women. According to a document inviting to a conference on jineology in June 2016 in Paris, « jineology wishes to reinterpret – in the perspective and with the intelligence of women – the values, experiences, life events and blocages of women from all social classes accumulated in the course of their history of struggles. This in order for a society of free beings to flourish. Taking possession of unsuspected feminine treasures from the past in the spirit of the XXIst century will provide a strong impetus to the feminine revolution. If we isolated it from the resistance movement, jineology would be valueless. »

Still another section of self-defense consists of armed defense of course, notably against attacks from the army and the police against villages and towns with Kurdish majorities. This is how exclusively feminine self-defense groups were created, among youngsters in the towns (the recently created YPS-Jin) as well as guerillas (the YJA-Star). Women warriors, numerous in the ranks of the guerillas, first gathered together within mixed guerilla groups before creating their own army, the YJA-Star. Within it, the combatants do not only receive training in the military, but they also learn communal living in the mountains, train together in women’s liberation. In brief, they both study and practice jineology.

An organization outside the State, based on solidarity

The theory of democratic confederalism rests on the principle that one cannot destroy capitalism without fighting against the State, just as one cannot fight against the State without destroying patriarchy. In order to undo patriarchy, it is not sufficient to question relationships between men and women. There is also need to deconstruct imposed patriarchal domination and for women to reconstruct their own identity while honoring notions of community, of active solidarity while breaking down the barriers of domination imposed on women.

The women of Bakûr meet together more and more around common struggles for rights to self-determination as Kurdish people and above all as women, in a world that attempts to isolate and individualize them. This lesson in real solidarity greatly inspires the militant women we met during our limited trip. This spirit of fierce struggle is present at all levels, the refusal to give up while faced with the worst difficulties, standing elbow to elbow and giving each other strength to continue resisting as have done so many before them, without taking the time to grieve over close ones and killed comrades, and gathering strength in order to continue the struggle for lost lives. The perseverance of these women is also reflected in their persistence in organizing, in multiplying areas where they can congregate and find the required means to meet their ambitious objectives.

Since the 1990’s, women of Bakûr have equiped themselves with a number of structures and tools responsive to their needs and created a balance of power in society. In summary: they do everything they can to find the means of advancing and constructing little by little that of which they dream. The strategy of the women’s movement consists at once in promoting the non-mixed organization of women at all levels, and insuring in parallel an equalitarian participation in mixed structures.

Our delegation was greeted in each town by co-mayors and other women of the movement; we were able to hear the vision of responsible members of different structures, but always from the women’s points of view. These were activists from the PKK of course, but also from legally-recognized parties inspired by the same ideals for which their comrades fought in establishing a dynamic domination. They are the ones who gathered in the Women’s Union in 1994 to create a balance of power and force a women’s quota within the party: the quota was then of 25% which was raised with each election, until it reached 40% in 2005 and the introduction of co-presidency of a woman and a man in the party. Since 2014 the application of these two last tools was widened to all structures within the Kurdish liberation movement (thus reaching beyond the parties). When the quota is not respected, the assembly is annulled or women are not obliged to respect the decisions taken there. Seeing that women organize in non-mixed meetings in order to discuss and reach decisions that concern them, quota positions are taken up in mixed organizations by spokespersons of the women’s movements. This is how women apply their own rules men are obliged to accept. Ayşe gave us the example of men working in DBP city halls: if a man beats his companion or forbids his daughter access to school, women will put everything in place to put an end to these behaviors, going as far as excluding the man from the movement or turning over his salary to the woman.

Here are the main structures of the Free Women of Bakur of which we are aware.

  • The Women’s Academies are places where women can meet in order to learn together, in an approach similar to that of popular education, based on the experiences and knowledge of each person serving the acquisition of literacy and of political training. A politician of the DBP talked to us about the financing of these academies: no one is paid, everyone is a volunteer; if there is need of money, it is collected through solidarity from neighbors, with calls to funds, and one way or another, people pay dues to the party: « it is an anti-capitalistic movement that refuses money from the government or the exchange of money against education ». Jineology is developed within these academies. There are four women’s academies in Bakûr, and several others are in development.
  • Cooperatives (presently in Amed, Hakkâri, Van and Mardin) allow women to obtain a revenue and develop economic independence; it often consists of gathering together to produce and sell local arts and crafts women used to produce by themselves with no access to points of sale. We visited several in Mardin, among them where the DBP city has attempted the promotion of women’s cooperatives in its province as well as in other towns.
  • JINHA, a press agency exclusively composed of women, created on March 8th 2012 in order to counter extremely mysogynous articles in the official press. To our knowledge, it is the first entirely feminine press agency in the world. (An interview with Jinha journalists is available in Merhaba Hevalno N°4.)
  • Women also organize at an extremely local level. Street, village and neighborhood councils have their own non-mixed structures. They deal with topics of concern to women, put commissions into place to find solutions to the problems they bring up, these spaces acting as first refuge for women victims of violence.
  • A number of women’s associations have been set up, independant of State authorities. One of their main activities is support for women victims of domestic violence. For this purpose, several shelters in the main towns greet women who have dared leave their husband, who are at risk of being rejected by their relatives and who are in need of support. In most cases, the women do not call on the tribunal, for they do not trust that they will find justice there, and prefer to call upon the women’s movement.
  • The (incredibly persistent !) Mothers for Peace, active since 1999, unites mothers of martyrs who fight for peace, while having a profound respect for the struggles of their relatives and for fallen fighters. In other words, it is not because they demand peace that they oppose the taking of arms to obtain it.

In conclusion, a few words on what moved us in all our meetings…

We want to speak of certain moments that will stay with us after our trip as a delegation.

We had the opportunity of meeting many women of the movement in different towns, and to share a few days with them, despite the context of war. Before anything else, we wish to speak of their hospitality. Everywhere we went, the women opened up their homes to us, told us their stories, spoke about politics, and answered our questions. It was not only a Kurdish tradition, it was a true militant commitment. They were at our disposal even when it required cancelling meetings.

Sara Kaya, co-mayor of Nusaybin, spent a day with us. She told us that she was the mother of four children, was committed to the movement and fought so that her children would not need to do the same and could live in a better world. She told us about the repression to which she was subjected for months and of her time in jail. The date of the trial that would decide her fate was on… March 8th, two days later! Sara was well aware that she would go to jail for a long time, but instead of spending these last moments of freedom with her children, her friends, her close ones, she spent them with a group of women who had come from Europe, whom she did not know and probably would never see again. The struggle and the dream of solidarity between women went beyond boundaries stronger than personal desires and aspirations.

On two occasions we heard that buddies were encouraged by their family to join the women’s army because as young people, it was up to them to join the defense of their people. In that struggle each one had a role and the individual was often called upon to join the collective.

We wish to testify to the incredible courage of these women. During these demonstrations of festivities on March 8th, the Turkish army exerted pressure by spreading rumors of a probable terrorist bombing attack. The atmosphere was tense and fear palpable, but women of all ages, sometimes with their children, took to the streets anyway to demonstrate, aware of putting themselves in harm’s way (tanks and water canons were everywhere as were snipers on the rooftops). In Turkey, it has happened that the army has fired on the crowd and caused carnage, but our fear disappeared when confronted by the contagious courage of these women.

To conclude, their reaction impressed us in the face of pain and death. Marching through the rubble in Cizre, we met a Mother for Peace who had come to console women of the town who had lost their close ones and their belongings. This mother had lost seven children in armed combat or because of the repression. She did not cry, did not let herself be discouraged, and came to express solidarity and support with other women. This is also the story of many other women we met who lost close ones and did not give into despair. There is a kind of dignity in their suffering, a strong will to overthrow it, to dance and to sing through harsh times. To fight death with life! Humor and joy are always present with these women: yes, the war will be long and filled with losses, but they must go on fighting!

An especially big thank you to all the women who greeted us during our stay: Ayşe, Sara, Leyla, Gülser, Selma, Sultan, Elif, and all the others whose names we forgot, unfortunately – but not their faces!