By Dilar Dirik
“Azadî”, freedom. A notion that has captured the collective imagination of the Kurdish people for a long time. “Free Kurdistan”, the seemingly unattainable ideal, has many shapes, depending on where one situates oneself in the broad spectrum of Kurdish politics. The increasing independence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in South Kurdistan (Bashur) from the central Iraqi government, as well as the immense gains of the Kurdish people in West Kurdistan (Rojava) in spite of the Syrian civil war over the last year, have revived the dream of a free life as Kurds in Kurdistan.
But what does freedom mean? Freedom for whom? The Kurdish question is often conceptualised as a matter of international relations, states, nationalism and territorial integrity. However, freedom is a question that transcends ethnicity and artificial borders. In order to be able to speak of a Kurdistan that deserves the attribute “free”, all members of the society must have equal access to this “freedom”, not just in the abstract legal sense. It is not the officiality of an entity named Kurdistan (be this an independent state, a federal state, a regional government or any other kind of Kurdish self-determination) that determines the welfare of its population. One indicator of a society’s understanding of democracy and freedom is the situation of women.
For what use is “a Kurdistan”, if it will end up oppressing half of its population?
Kurdish women face several layers of oppression as members of a stateless nation in a largely patriarchal feudal-Islamic context, and hence struggle on multiple fronts. While the four different states over which Kurdistan is divided display strong patriarchal characteristics, which oppress all women in their respective populations, Kurdish women are further ethnically discriminated against as Kurds and are usually members of the lowest socioeconomic class.
And of course, the feudal-patriarchal structures of Kurdistan’s internal society restrict women from living free and independent lives as well. Domestic abuse, child and forced adult marriage, rape, honor killings, polygamy, i.e. are often regarded as private issues, instead of problems that require societal engagement and active public policy. This odd distinction between the public and the private has cost many women their lives.
Kurdish men are often very outspoken against ethnic and class discrimination, but many return home from protests and don’t reflect on their own power abuse, their own despotism, when they issue violence against women and children in their “private” lives. The widespread prevalence of violence against Kurdish women, and frankly, women everywhere in the world, is a systemic problem — thus, the solution requires political measures.
The situation of women is not a “women’s issue” and therefore must not be dismissed as a specific, private issue that interests women only. The question of gender equality is in fact a matter of democracy and freedom of all of society; it is one (though not the only) standard by which the ethics of a community should be measured. Since capitalism, statism, and patriachy are interconnected, the struggle for freedom must be radical and revolutionary — it must regard women’s liberation as a central aim, not as a side issue.
Even though Kurdish women have a long history of fighting for national liberation, alongside with men, they have often been marginalised even in these liberation movements. While majoritarian feminists in the four states over which Kurdistan is divided often exclude Kurdish women from their struggle (by expecting them to adopt the nationalist state doctrines or by patronising them as victims of a primitive, backward culture), male-dominated chauvinist Kurdish parties with very feudal, patriarchal structures, whose understanding of freedom does not move beyond primitive, empty nationalism, often silence women’s voices as well.
Claiming that Kurdish women have always been stronger and more emancipated than their neighbours (and historical sources seem to imply this), should not be used as an excuse to stop fighting for Kurdish women’s rights. Though the remarkability of Kurdish women in history in all four parts deserves acknowledgement, the many terrible manifestations of cruel violence against women illustrate the realities on the ground and should serve as a reality check. If Kurdish women enjoy a relatively high political status nowadays, this is a result of constant, multi-front struggle on the Kurdish woman’s part, not a given condition, inherent to Kurdish society!
The participation of women in liberation struggles or revolutionary ambitions is not uniquely Kurdish. In all kinds of contexts, women have often played active parts in the fight for freedom. Wartime, uprisings, social unrest often provide women with space to assert themselves and to demand representation in ways that normal, civilian life would not permit. Their engagement in social responsibilities, whether this be participation in the labour force, political activism or active militantism, often legitimises their demands for emancipation. However, once the crisis situation is over, once “liberation” or “revolution” is perceived to be achieved, a return to previous antebellum normalcy and conservatism is often deemed necessary to reestablish civil life. This often constitutes the rearticulation of traditional gender roles, which are in turn detrimental to the newly gained status of women.
Unfortunately, it is quite a common phenomenon that women suffer a backlash in their rights “after liberation”, “after the revolution”, “once our land is free”, even if they were vibrant actors during the struggle. The hope that once the overarching goal of general “freedom” is achieved, everyone in the society will be free, has proven to be wishful thinking — women from the USA to Algeria to India to Vietnam can confirm that. The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon is the status of women in the so-called “Arab Spring” countries.
Though over the last years our TV screens were full of women, who protested against oppressive regimes, and who played core roles in the movements, the situation of women sometimes got even worse after the uprisings. This is due to the fact that while general dissent and disillusionment from the establishment often transcends gender, class, ethnicity and religion, it is clear that the ones who have the most to gain from rising up are women, the working class and oppressed minorities and groups. If social movements don’t pay attention to specificalities, new regimes may just form new elites that oppress vulnerable groups in their own ways. The need for autonomous, independent women’s organisations also resonates with the experience of struggling Kurdish women…
The region that has most commonly been termed as “free” is Southern Kurdistan. There, the Kurds enjoy semi-autonomy, have their own governance structures and are no longer oppressed or persecuted due to their ethnicity, as the Kurds in the other parts still are. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has in fact internationally been praised for having established an economically strong, relatively democratic entity, especially compared to the rest of the broken state of Iraq. By being contrasted to Iraq, the KRG establishment often finds legitimisation, in spite of its deeply undemocratic internal structures. While the dominant actors are extremely tribal, autocratic, and corrupt, dissent is silenced and journalists are murdered under dubious circumstances.
The pragmatic KRG is friendly with regimes such as Iran or Turkey, which brutally oppress their own Kurdish population and even marginalise autonomy ambitions of the Kurds in Syria. Interestingly enough, it is also seems to be the most unpleasant place for Kurdish women.
It is interesting that the Kurdish entity that is most state-like, most integrated into the capitalist system, and which complies with the requirements of the local powers such as Turkey and Iran, as well as the international system, displays the least interest in women’s rights and the challenge of patriarchy. This tells us a lot about the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect, but also about the question of what kind of Kurdistan can be tolerated by the international community.
Surely, one needs to take into account that South Kurdistan is a developing region, but though the government has many tools to somehow empower women, it doesn’t seem to be interested to do so. In theory, one would expect the women in South Kurdistan to have a higher status compared to those in other parts of Kurdistan, since they live in a prosperous region governed by Kurds, where they are no longer persecuted because of their ethnicity. Even though the women in South Kurdistan suffer fewer layers of oppression, they are victims of the tribalist feudalism of the dominant parties, which seem to regard empty nationalism and capitalist growth as an adequate understaning of “freedom”.
Women in South Kurdistan are very active in demanding their rights, but the KRG often fails to implement its laws. Violence against women is an epidemic, even on the rise, yet the government simply does not do enough to fight it. In 2011/12, almost 3000 cases of violence against women were recorded, but only 21 people were charged, leave alone all the unreported cases. The few men who do get persecuted are often released soon again. Sometimes the victims of male violence are even shamed and blamed for having “provoked” the men. Since punishment does not appear as a deterrent for male violence, the system perpetuates the oppression of women.
The lack of truly independent, non-partisan women’s organisations is also very problematic. Many women’s organisations in South Kurdistan are even chaired by men! Tribalist, feudalist politics undoubtedly encourage patriarchal attitudes that are immense obstacles to women’s liberation. While tackling the expressions of violence against women seems to be on the rise, there is no systematic challenge to the patriarchal system as a whole.
Autonomous women’s decision-making bodies are essential to achieving the representation of women’s specific interests. A top-down approach to women’s rights is often inadequate and reinforces patriarchy in passive ways. Grassroots projects seem to be much more effective to transform society: For instance, an independent documentary project on female genital mutilation (which only seems to occur in South Kurdistan) has achieved a change in the law of the KRG. Sadly, female genital mutilation is still widely practiced without punishment.
It is important to emphasise that this is in no way a condition that is somehow native to South Kurdistan. The situation of women there is in many ways due to the lack of interest of the political parties to engage with women’s liberation. It is a conscious political choice of the male-dominated parties. It does not have to be like that!
The notion of “Now that we have a ‘free Kurdistan’, let’s not criticise it too much” seems to be quite common, even though it is detrimental to a genuine understanding of democracy and freedom for all.
Demanding the persecution of violence against women and more representation of women’s interests in the public sphere does not mean that women are “not loyal to the state”. Such a patriarchal state seems hard to be loyal to. Women need to cross partisan affiliations and actually develop into a women’s movement, beyond small NGOs. Women of South Kurdistan should not settle for any less, especially since they have more tools, mechanisms, and resources to work towards a more egalitarian society than Kurdish women in other parts have available.
Even women in rather left-wing, socialist Kurdish parties have made the experience that, without autonomous women’s bodies, their voices will be silenced in the patriarchal Kurdish society. Though the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK, is prominent for the many powerful women within its ranks and its active commitment to women’s liberation, things were not always as easy for women in the PKK guerrilla movement. In the 1980s, the demographic make-up of the PKK, which initially started out within socialist university circles, was challenged, when many people from the less educated, rural, feudal areas of Kurdistan joined the mountains after their villages were destroyed by the Turkish state.
Most of these people were not exposed to ideals such as socialism and feminism and hence pursued nationalism as primary motivators in their national liberation fight. At that time, many women in the guerrilla movement struggled to convince their male comrades that they are equal comrades. The negative experience of the fierce war of the 1980s also neglected educational elements of the guerrilla training, since the war was more urgent, but it made these women realise one thing: We need autonomous women’s organisations!
The PKK and parties that share the same ideology managed to create mechanisms that guarantee women’s participation in the political sphere and further challenge the patriarchal culture itself. The PKK ideology is explicitly feminist and makes no compromise when it comes to women’s liberation. Different from other Kurdish political parties, the PKK did not appeal to feudal, tribal landlords to achieve its aims, but mobilised the rural areas, the working class, youth and women.
The strength of the resulting women’s movement illustrates that the point in establishing structures such as co-presidency (one woman and one man sharing the chair) and 50-50 gender shares in committees on all administrative levels is no mere tokenism to make women more visible. The officialisation of women’s participation gives women an organisational back-up to make sure that their voice will not be compromised and it has actually challenged and transformed Kurdish society in many ways.
This in turn led to the vast popularisation of feminism in North Kurdistan. The women’s struggle is no longer an ideal in high-ranking elite activist circles, but a prerequisite for the national liberation struggle. Male dominance is not accepted in these political circles, from the top administrative levels, down to local communities on the grassroots. This was achieved through the establishment of autonomous women’s bodies within the movement.
Even though there are still many issues regarding violence against women in North Kurdistan, the focus on gender equality as a measure for society’s freedom has in fact politicised women from young to old and has established an incredibly popular women’s movement. Many Turkish women now seek advice from the rich treasure of Kurdish women’s experience. While Turkey now has a prime minister who encourages women to marry young, cover up and make at least four babies, and the three major parties in Turkey all have less than 5% women in their ranks, the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (BDP) as well as the newly established People’s Democratic Party (HDP) proudly represent at least 40% women among their parties, explicitly focusing on women’s and LGBT issues. The Kurdish women’s movement itself criticises patriarchy in Kurdistan most, while emphasising that their achievements so far in no way indicate an end to the struggle.
Influenced by this stance on women’s liberation, the dominant parties in West Kurdistan, Rojava, have adopted the PKK ideology and also enforce co-presidency as well as a 50-50 split in their political bodies. By enshrining women’s liberation in all legal, organisational and ideological mechanisms of their governance structures from the very start, including the defence forces, they make sure that women’s rights will not be compromised.
Men with a history of domestic violence or polygamy are excluded from organiations. Violence against women and child marriage are outlawed and criminalised. International observers who visit West Kurdistan express that they are deeply impressed by the woman’s revolution that emerged in spite of the terrible Syrian civil war.
At the same time, the recently established cantons in West Kurdistan firmly incorporate other ethnic and religious groups into their system as well. In the spirit of the “democratic confederalism” paradigm, as proposed by the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, they moved away from seeking a state as a solution, since they believe states to be inherently hegemonic establishments that don’t represent the people. The dominant parties stress that they do not want to secede from Syria, but seek a democratic solution within existing borders, while including minorities in the government and giving women an equal voice in the construction of a “gender-equal, ecological, radical grass-roots democratic system”, where different ethnic and religious groups can live as equals.
The gains of the people in West Kurdistan have repeatedly been attacked by Syria’s Assad regime as well as al Qaeda linked jihadist groups, that seem to be funded and supported partly by Turkey.
It is interesting to observe that the most state-like, wealthy, established and accepted Kurdish entity, the KRG, is so inadequate at observing women’s rights, while West Kurdistan, in spite of economic and political embargoes and the horrid war situation, does not seek nationalism or a state, but democratic confederalism as a solution and has already created so many structures to guarantee women’s representation. The international community’s preferences are highly interesting in this regard! While the KRG is often praised as a role model for democracy in the region, West Kurdistan is completely discarded.
If the international actors that advocate themselves as believers in freedom and democracy in the Middle East would genuinely be interested in peace in Syria, they would have probably supported the progressive, secular governance project in West Kurdistan. But on the contrary, the Kurds were excluded from the Geneva II Conference in January 2014. Moreover, this partly happened with the support of the KRG, which helped marginalise the gains in West Kurdistan, mostly because the dominant parties there are – though not organisationally, but ideologically – affiliated to the PKK, the traditional rival of the governing party of the KRG.
The KRG’s framework of progress, democracy, freedom and modernity does not challenge the global capitalist, statist, nationalist, patriarchal system. That is why it seems to be the kind of Kurdistan that can be tolerated by the international community, while parties with the potential of upsetting the system are marginalized.
Recent events illustrate the gendered ways in which feminist ideologies of some Kurdish parties are being attacked. In his attempt to show that the is a friend of the Kurds, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan invited the KRG’s president Masoud Barzanî to the unofficial Kurdish capital Amed (Diyarbekir). Accompanied by singers such as Sivan Perwer and Ibrahim Tatlises, known for their opportunism and sexist feudalism themselves, a comedy of a series of events was launched in Amed. The meeting was overall an odd attempt to marginalise the Kurds within Turkey, especially the PKK and the legal Northern Kurdish parties such as the Democratic Regions Party (BDP).
In a wedding ceremony, the two rulers blessed the marriage of a few hundred couples, all of which represented women in the image of the mentality of both, Erdogan and Barzanî. Almost all of the brides wore headscarfs, all the couples were very young. This assertion of conservatism in the name of “peace” illustrated the similarity of the patriarchal, feudal mentalities of the two rulers and their company. In attempting to marginalise the PKK, the two rulers in fact ended up marginalising all Kurdish women. In this sense, this extremely conservative wedding ceremony was more of a conscious insult to the Kurdish women’s movement than a display of happy coexistence of the peoples.
But is the business-like partnership between Barzanî and Erdogan even surprising? Turkey does not have a problem with the KRG or with just Kurds in general. The problem is one of ideology.
In the words of Selahattin Demirtas, co-president of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party: “If we had wanted to, we could have created ten Kurdistans already. It is not important to have a state called Kurdistan, what matters is that we have a Kurdistan with principles, with ideals.”
The attitudes of local powers such as Iran and Turkey, who have traditions of oppressing their own Kurdish populations, as well as the behaviours of international powers show: a Kurdistan that is willing to cooperate with these regimes, which maintains economic business ties to these states and which is willing to marginalise more radical Kurdish parties for its own opportunism can very well be tolerated by the international community. A structure such as the KRG’s, which is compatible with the framework of the dominant system is accepted, while political parties that challenge the capitalist, feudal-patriarchal statist system are ostracised. This asymmetrical preference of the international community exposes its true undemocratic face. And Kurdish women experience all of this on their own bodies.
In order for Kurdistan to be a genuinely free society, women’s liberation must under no circumstances be compromised. Criticising the Kurdistan Regional Government’s failure on the part of women, freedom of the press, etc. does not mean that one “divides” the Kurds. What kind of society will South Kurdistan be if people are taught not to be critical for fear of losing what has been achieved through so much loss? Shouldn’t people be critical, even if that means standing up against one’s own government? Isn’t that the very essence of democracy? Don’t we owe that to all the people who died to construct a society worth living in? Settling for less, for the sake of maintaining the status quo, is freedom in the most abstract sense possible. Certainly, the women of Kurdistan, who struggle on a daily basis, deserve more than that.
Nationalism, capitalism, statism have been the supporting pillars of patriarchy and often used women’s bodies and behaviours to control societies. The bar of freedom has become quite low in the global capitalist, statist system in which we live in. Hence, it seems to be rather tempting to be satisfied with the KRG, given that it has become a fortress of capitalist modernity. Though, in copying the flaws and shortcomings of the rest of the world, the KRG limits its understanding of freedom immensely.
Therefore, women should not expect liberation through a state-like hegemonic structure. The moment we start to define the fact that there is a Miss Kurdistan beauty pageant in South Kurdistan as progress and modernity, we fall for the exact same mechanisms that have enslaved humanity in the first place. Is this what we understand as freedom? Unlimited consumerism? Primitive nationalism? Copying elements of global patriarchy and capitalism, labelling them with Kurdish flags in order to praise ourselves as modern?
Freedom is not to be found in Turkish hotels, Iranian investments, US food-chains, foreign-sponsored beauty pageants or in traditional Kurdish clothes. Freedom does not come once we can freely say the word Kurdistan. Freedom is a never-ending struggle, a process of building an ethical, equal society. The real work starts after “liberation” has been achieved. “Azadî” must be measured by the liberation of women. What use is a Kurdish state, if it will perpetuate rape culture, feminicide, the age-old disease of patriarchy? Are rape apologist, sexist Kurdish governors and official bodies really that much different from oppressive state structures, even if they wear our traditional clothes?
“Kurdistan” itself does not equal freedom. A patriarchal Kurdistan is a more insidious tyrant than the usual oppressors. Colonising and subjugating half of one’s own community in a sexualised manner, one’s intimate partners can be a much more shameful and violent act than foreign invasion.
Hence, Kurdistan’s women must be the vanguards of a free society. It takes courage to fight oppressive states, but sometimes it takes even more courage to stand up against one’s own community. For, it really isn’t a mere Kurdish governance, even a state, that is dangerous to the dominant system. A much bigger threat to the hegemonic structures is a politically active, conscious Kurdish woman.