Women’s Liberation as the Measure of our Collective Freedom

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visAvis interview with Dilar Dirik • Video stills by Joen Vedel • From #11, 2015

Scholar and activist Dilar Dirik is currently a PhD student in sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the Kurdish women’s movement, specifically on the ways in which the idea of the nation-state is connected to capitalism and patriarchy, and how this is thrown into relief by the case of Kurdish women. Dirik has been active in writing and raising awareness about the recent events in Rojava. In February 2015, she visited Copenhagen for a public debate called “Kurdish Women on the Front Line”. The following day, VisAvis met Dirik for a talk about the experiences and developments of the Kurdish women’s movement, and its relation to the current revolution in Rojava.

The Kurdish women’s movement: historical development

What we call the Kurdish women’s movement has been a very fluid and constantly changing process. It is a geographical fact that the Kurdish population resides across the borders of four different states, namely Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Generally, collective action for Kurdish rights has been impossible due to the imposition of these borders. The politics of the Kurdish people inhabiting various regions have thus differed. In many cases, Kurdish groups have even been pitched against each other, since the separation of the Kurdish population has been used by the four states to create hostility. This is why one united Kurdish women’s movement was difficult to achieve, and why the women in most cases have organised within their own locally defined context.

What seems to be the strongest, radical, most collectively organised and mobilised movement right now is unfolding in and around the Kurdish regions in Turkey and Syria. That does not mean that there is no Kurdish movement elsewhere. There are various organisations and feminist groups, which are very active. For example, the women in Iraqi Kurdistan have many resources and are attempting to change their regional government’s approach to women, whereas the situation is more difficult in Iran due to the explicitly Islamic regime.

It is interesting to note that women’s liberation has often been a concern of Kurdish liberation movements. For instance, in the first and only republic of Kurdistan, in Mahabad in Iran (1946-1947), there was an explicit focus on women’s rights, the education of girls and so on. Even earlier, in the late 19th and early 20th century, at the same time when nationalism in general was introduced in the Middle East, a Kurdish national awakening took place. The Ottoman Empire was collapsing, and nation-building and state-building processes were initiated. Already back then, the Kurds would use the cause of women to prove their modernity and say: We are modern; our women are more liberated and freer than neighbouring women. Though that was not necessarily the case, it is in itself interesting that this terminology and reasoning was used.

Kurdish women have been parts of armed struggles for decades. Already during the Ottoman era, women were leading entire brigades; the first women to collectively take up arms were members of the armed wing of the Komala party, who did so in the late ’60s in order to fight the Iranian regime. However, it is safe to say that in most social movements, however leftist or militant, the role of women is often forgotten. It is a demonstrable pattern: women participate in the struggle, but as the movement reaches a bigger magnitude women’s issues are often pushed aside in favour of general social struggle, for example national liberation or socialist revolution. The Kurdish liberation movements were themselves not immune to this pattern.

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In March 2015 Kurdish students of the Mimar University of Fine Arts in Istanbul organized a memorial ceremony in honor of Leyla Doğan who fell in battle outside the city of Kobane. Leyla was the sixth female student from the university to join the fight for the defence of the Kurdish cities close to the Turkish border.

PKK and the liberation of women

The most grassroots-like movement we can observe in the Kurdish regions today is close to the ideology of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. It encompasses women from all social backgrounds and of different languages, cultural identities, religions, and so on. The PKK was founded in Turkey in 1978, a very tumultuous time, just two years before the military coup of 1980, when the left was almost completely wiped out. The aim of the party was creating an independent, united, socialist Kurdish state. In 1984, the PKK took up armed struggle against the Turkish state.
From the beginning, women were a part of the PKK. They were among the founders, and women’s liberation was always advocated, due to the socialist ideology of the party. But the women’s struggle in the PKK has changed a lot since its beginnings.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when more and more women took up arms against the state and joined the guerrilla, they faced a lot of difficulties. The women realised that they were not only oppressed due to their Kurdish ethnicity; they were also oppressed as women. They were oppressed by the Turkish state as well by their own community. The women realised that they had to create an autonomous organisation. This was actively encouraged by Abdullah Öcalan.

The role of Öcalan, the ideological leader of the PKK, was key to the self-liberation of women. In my research, I interview women in the liberation movement, and they always state that without Öcalan and his ideas, it would not have been possible to establish such an autonomous and radical women’s struggle. He claimed that women are the oppressed of the oppressed, and, their freedom has to be the measure of the freedom of a society. Freedom cannot be achieved without the freedom of women; his texts are always explicitly oriented towards women’s liberation.

Increasing autonomy and paradigm shift

Ever since its founding in 1993, the women’s army of the PKK has been organised autonomously from the wider movement. They conduct their own military education as well as military operations. A women’s party was founded to be in charge of issues related to women. Their aim was to never let women’s decisions be compromised or overruled by men. Many people who joined the PKK guerrilla at that time were people whose villages had been destroyed by the Turkish army. They had little feminist or social awareness, and for some it was the first time they spoke with women that were not part of their family. Some of them did not believe in equality for women.

In the ’90s, Öcalan encouraged the women to organise themselves more and more autonomously. Öcalan argued that women’s liberation had to begin here and now, within the movement. It could not be postponed until after the revolution; it was part of the revolutionary movement. He hereby tried to avoid the mistake, which many liberation movements have made; relegating women’s issues to second place by ignoring the layers of oppression and internal contradictions within the movement. Along with this encouragement of women’s autonomous organising, a general paradigm shift away from the nation-state and towards grassroots mobilisation took place in the Kurdish movement. It is very interesting that these two tendencies – the increasingly autonomous organisation of women, and the increasing shift towards the grassroots, away from a hegemonic structure such as the state – went hand in hand and developed during the same period. It says a lot about the ways in which power structures, such as state and patriarchy, are related to each other.

The women engaged in more and more autonomous organisation. In the villages, women were leading uprisings, which also legitimised their role in the eyes of the local population. Women were starting to become politicians as well. One of them is Leyla Zana, one of the only Kurdish women known outside of Kurdistan. In the ’90s, she was elected to the Turkish parliament. When she took her oath, she added a sentence in Kurdish: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people”. Speaking Kurdish in parliament was illegal: for uttering that sentence, she was sentenced to 15 years in jail, of which she served ten. Later on, she was arrested again. Actions like Zana’s did a lot for people’s perception of women: they demonstrated that women could do much more than stay at home oppressed by family structures and society. When women take up arms in a patriarchal society, they actively change the role of women, as well as the perception of women.

Democratic confederalism

In 2005, the PKK officially announced it espoused the idea of democratic confederalism, which indicated PKK’s paradigm shift away from the nation-state as a goal and towards a critique of the state and of the ways in which it concentrates and monopolises power. Women’s liberation was put at the centre of this new paradigm structured around democratic autonomy, that is to say radical democracy organised in local councils on city, town, village and neighbourhood levels. Through a grassroots structure, people make decisions about issues directly related to their lives. One example could be the problem of how to get rid of the garbage in a neighbourhood in a sustainable way. People can take these decisions better on a local level, because they know their own neighbourhood better than the state does.
The pillars of this new paradigm became ecology, gender equality, liberation, and radical grassroots democracy. The movement was no longer only concerned with militant struggle; it became a social movement.

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Rojava and the hypocrisy of the West

At the 2013 municipal elections in Turkey, the majority of the elected female mayors were Kurdish, despite the fact that Kurdish women constitute a minority. The women I interviewed state that this is directly linked with an appreciation for the ideology of the PKK. Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this ideology is the current revolution in Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. This revolution has to be considered in relation to the Kurdish women’s movement that started in Turkey. Rojava should be seen as a continuation of this ideological process.

At the moment, there is a lot of talk about Kurdish women fighting Daesh (the acronym used in Syria for the Islamic State). There is a historical context to this. For a long time, women have been fighting in the guerrilla and in the mountains; they have been leading prison and popular uprisings and so forth. All this has paved the way for the current women’s fight against Daesh.
Right now, we can speak of two different worldviews fighting in Rojava. The one represented by Daesh is endorsing the enslaving, raping, torturing and selling of women. The one represented by the PKK attempts to create an alternative political life by centering liberation on women. War and conflict affects women more due to the double oppression they face: internal as well as external. The women’s fight is not only a question of gaining equal rights – it is about systematically changing the mentality of society. That is why one of the slogans of the Kurdish women’s movement in Rojava is: “We will defeat the attacks of Daesh by securing the liberation of women in the Middle East”. Daesh actively exploits the patriarchal currents in the region by sexually assaulting women, because they know that these women will not be accepted by society after having been raped. Changing the mentality of your own community is therefore crucial. In that sense, we also have to liberate ourselves from those aspects of Daesh ideology that can be found in our own communities.

This women’s movement’s ideological connectedness to the PKK has led to widespread marginalization. In Turkey and Iran, both media and governmental bodies have tried to delegitimise the women’s struggle by accusing them of being prostitutes, sex slaves, confused victims, evil women against our “holy” family values and so on. All these accusations are very sexist and racist. The states outside the region have a similar approach, which is demonstrated by the international criminalisation of the PKK, the EU terrorist ban on the PKK, and the fact that the Kurdish women’s movement has been completely ignored until recently. These women that are now praised for fighting Daesh have been called terrorists by the European governments. Everyone ought to ask how these two antagonists can be on the same terror list.

It seems to benefit the “West” to portray the forces fighting Daesh as sympathetic towards it. Often this is represented as a question of civilisation versus barbarism: these beautiful, smiling women represent civilisation, and Daesh represents barbarism. But it is not as simple as that. The international society is actually trying to ignore the fact that the women fighting Daesh subscribe to the PKK ideology; these women are also calling Western imperialism and capitalism barbaric. The same actors that are now forming coalitions against Daesh have put these Kurdish women on the same terror lists as Daesh, even though these women are building a new perspective for the Middle East in an era of darkness.

KJK and the autonomous organisation of Kurdish women

The way the Kurdish women’s movement is organised is directly linked to a general understanding of how society and politics should be organised. The focus is specifically on autonomy. Autonomy is not intended in the sense of attempting to create a separate state or separate enclaves that monopolise power, but as specific forms of autonomous organisation and specific attention required by certain issues. That is why there are different labour groups that organise autonomously, and specific ethnic, linguistic, or religious women’s group that also organise autonomously. For example, there is an increasing democratic Islam movement inside of the Kurdish movement, with people trying to democratise their own religion and to mobilise Muslims around democratic values, in order to construct a counterforce to Daesh. But the group remains completely secular, like the general Kurdish movement. The same goes for other religious communities such as the Alevis or the Ezidis. They believe in secularism, but also assess the social realities of their movement and consider religion an important part of life for many people, also culturally. They try to look at how they can democratise their communities without rejecting their own cultural values, with close attachment to values such as women’s liberation and grassroots democracy.

The KJK, which is the “Communities of Women in Kurdistan”, is the general umbrella movement under which several different movements, groups and organisations are organised. It is similar to a confederacy. It is called the Communities of Women in Kurdistan because they want to signal that it is for all women in Kurdistan, and not just Kurdish women, as in Kurdistan there are also women who are not Kurds. They still include Kurdistan in their name, though, as Kurdistan – unlike the four nation-states whose rule the Kurdish people have been subject to – is exactly not a majoritarian nation-state that suppresses minorities. Under the umbrella of the KJK there are both legal parties and militant organisations, such as the PKK women’s army. In this sense, it is a very loose but principled confederation of ideas.

The movement honours the principle of co-presidency, which means that in all areas of representation – for example HDP, which is the People’s Democracy Party in Turkey, basically representing the Turkish-Kurdish movement and the Turkish left together – two people hold the presidency, one woman and one man. There are also co-presidents in local neighbourhood councils in the city of Qamishlo in Rojava and in military affairs, as well as all areas where the organising is inspired by the PKK. The idea is not tokenism, as in “Oh, look, there is one woman and one man – this is equality”; the idea is rather to de-monopolise power and promote consensus. Whenever one person is in charge, that person has immediate power. If you have two people, they have to come to an agreement and to compromise. Power is decentralised. The important aspect is that in the case of the co-presidencies, it is the women’s organisations that appoint the woman co-president. Many men have tried to run for president for something and then used a symbolic woman figure as a token for that purpose. In order for that not to happen, the women’s movement decides who the female co-chair is, so it is not just a puppet who will do whatever the men says. The women’s movement makes sure that it will be a woman that has the political consciousness to do this job.

Jineology – the women’s academies and education as revolution

The Kurdish women’s movement has come to the conclusion that feminism in itself has not been adequate to change the mentality of their society. Different strands of feminism have failed to acknowledge the intersection of different forms of oppression. Kurdish women have suffered from several layers of oppressions, as women as well as members of a stateless group. So they are proposing ways of systematizing a radical multi-front struggle, and coming up with their own ideology: ideas, ideals and principles they subscribe to.

One of the achievements of the Kurdish women’s movement has been, and is, and will be – it is a process – the articulation of what they call jineology. Jin means woman in Kurdish, but jineology does not just mean “the study of women”: it is more about the wisdom or knowledges of women. It is, first of all, a fundamental critique of the social sciences, and specifically of the sexism and racism underlying the social sciences; a critique of the ways in which science has been instrumentalised to perpetuate oppression, violence and systemic discrimination. They criticise the explicit male-dominated character of sciences, the ways in which it has contributed to the destruction of nature and legitimised wars and racism; not least, how it has completely erased women from history. Jineology is a rewriting of women’s history from a very critical perspective, not only explaining and categorising and giving names to phenomena, but also coming up with solutions for different problems.
In Rojava, several autonomously organised academies have been founded, among them specific women’s academies. Women’s separate organisation was deemed necessary in order to strengthen women and the solidarity among women. The capitalist system has a way, in Europe as well, to make women constantly compete with each other. In order to counterforce that and to actually give women the strength that has been taken away from us, we need ways of organising ourselves.

The Kurdish women’s movement has realized that women have to reach a certain level of consciousness before they can continue the struggle. In Rojava, the soldiers fighting against Daesh – women and men – all have to go through gender equality training first.
In the women’s academies, the women have intensive discussions. It is not just about teachers teaching students, but also about changing the hierarchical ways in which we educate. The Mesopotamia Academy of Social Sciences in Qamishlo was created in September 2014. When I visited it together with a research group, they told us how once a week a 70-year-old woman goes there and tells folktales. This is one form of knowledge, one form of wisdom, which has before been delegitimized, as if it was not valid, or not true, because it is not based on facts. But telling tales is just a different way to make sense of the world. This kind of knowledge has been silenced by the state and by patriarchy. Now this woman, with no formal education, educates younger people. Young people can educate older people as well, and after every session the students criticise the teacher. Furthermore, the people do not refer to each other as student or teacher; they call each other “friend” instead.

We have to understand that the state has denied the Kurds their language and their rights. Now people are recovering and reclaiming the many things they have lost, for example through these academies that attempt to challenge every kind of hierarchical structure. The education system in Rojava is basically in that sense grassroots-like. It is open to all and free of charge, and all the teachers are volunteers. They attempt to create alternatives by asking how we can teach each other outside of the classroom, or how we can turn every street corner into an educational academy.

The experience of oppression is a huge source of knowledge, it is an experience, and a platform for struggle. In many ways it is uncomfortable for people to keep referring to Öcalan, since the accusation of Öcalan being a Stalinist leader is always hovering. But many prejudices can be overcome when actually reading him. He is very self-critical and self-reflexive, and his perhaps harshest critique is of his own mistakes in the past. When it comes to education, Öcalan calls for a confederation of academies around the world. These kind of alternative grassroots academies should form and articulate a sociology of freedom, so that people with different forms of experiences of oppression can articulate their new ways of knowledge and truth-seeking on a global scale. It sounds utopian, but this is what Öcalan proposes, and this process is already being initiated in Rojava amidst war and embargo. People across the entire world are now interested in the Rojava revolution.

This revolution is about overcoming decades, perhaps centuries of internalised oppression. In Syria, when a Kurd just wanted to open a shop, they had to get approval all the way from Damascus to give their shop a certain name. Now people who cannot even read or write get to decide about issues that directly affect them. When we talk about Rojava as a revolution, we have to consider the development and compare the current situation to the previous conditions. Not long ago, power was monopolised and centralised in very few hands. Now people from many different backgrounds, not only Kurds, but Assyrians, Arabs etc., attempt to decentralise and actually re-communalise the area in a collective struggle for freedom. The Rojava revolution has not only liberated people from state structures, or from different structures and doctrines imposed on them, but also from their own internalised oppression and dogmas. This is inextricably linked to women’s liberation. Those who want to understand the resistance in Kobane against Daesh need to understand the politics behind this struggle; and the fact that this movement is so harshly criminalized should raise many questions.

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