The following article includes information from my academic research for my Master’s dissertation. I do not endorse any partisanship or make claims about the ethical implications of violence. The sole purpose of this text is to examine the PKK’s stand on gender equality. I therefore refrain from apologizing that my topic falls within a violent framework, acknowledge the case as a military conflict, and proceed to focus on women’s liberation in the Kurdistan Workers Party.
Military culture goes hand in hand with patriarchy. National service in the form of military action traditionally guaranteed men an entitlement to first-class citizenship in all kinds of societies. In armies all over the world, the ideal of a soldier is measured by his ability to live up to socially implemented concepts of aggressive masculinity. Militaries gain psychological reinforcement by relying on overly idealized masculine concepts and by feminizing weakness. Rape and sexual abuse against women are often used as systematic tools of warfare in order to demoralize the enemy and to assert one’s will and power over the other by attacking women’s integrity.
Patriarchy constructs women as submissive parts of the property that men need to protect, especially in wartime. In cases where women do play a role in war, they only become relevant for reconciliatory peace purposes in the discourse, but their agency is never seen as meaningful or as active during war as men’s. Women who take up arms against the male-dominated system are perceived as threats. And when women from traditionally ultra-patriarchal societies mobilize as active combatants, things become even more interesting…
The woman’s importance in the struggle for freedom was manifested in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)’s ideology from the very beginning. Instead of evolving as a side branch of the party ideology, women’s liberation is a central part of the PKK’s theory and practice. Party leader Abdullah Öcalan refers to the enslavement of women as the worst condition of the Middle East and claims that national freedom will never be possible without women’s liberation. The Kurdish woman is subject to double-oppression: the nationalist Turkish system excludes her on ethnic terms, while the patriarchal features of society oppress her based on gender discrimination. Turkish feminism ignored the specific needs of Kurdish women, and regarded all women as Turks, while other Kurdish national movements prior to the PKK enforced sexist structures that oppress women and exclude their agency in the national struggle. Kurdish men are furthermore more able to participate in the Turkish system than women, who do not enjoy the same social mobility and remain further excluded. The overriding discrimination on multiple layers is perhaps the trigger for the Kurdish woman’s freedom manifesto.
The ideology of the PKK presumes a pre-historic state of matriarchy in Mesopotamia, in which people largely practiced goddess worship, and where women had strong leadership roles in society. Historical sources outside of the PKK’s ideology also suggest that Kurdish women have always been more emancipated than their Arab, Turkish, and Persian neighbors. The re-establishment of women’s authority positions is therefore somehow a return to the state of nature, according to the PKK. Women receive the same education and also the same weapons as men, when they join the party’s ranks. Despite the resistance of some feudal-minded men who joined the guerrilla from rural villages in the 1980s and who stood in contrast with the initial intellectual make-up of the PKK, the guerrilla women established themselves in order to make the partisan ideal a reality.
Today, the population respects the women in the guerrilla highly; their status as combatants for national and gender liberation is seen as a more revolutionary step than Kurdish men’s fight by many. PAJK (Party of Free Women in Kurdistan), which is the independently organized ideological branch of women in the PKK, conducts theoretical discussions and educational seminars on women’s issues in the subject “jineology” (Kurd.: jin – woman) to re-examine history from a female perspective. YJA Star (Union of Free Women) forms the autonomous military organization of women in the PKK to establish women’s military independence within the party – “Star” stands for the ancient goddess Ishtar.
Turkish soldiers have often willfully attacked and abused female guerrilla fighters especially because they are women. The already aggressive and traumatizing affair of war attains yet another unbearable and stressful dimension for Turkish men, when they are confronted with the threat of armed Kurdish women. ‘While official nationalism labeled the males as “terrorists”, its patriarchal politics reduced the women to “prostitutes”’ (Mojab, 2001, p.5). The feudal reasoning that perpetuates the notion that men are perpetrators and women are victims faces an embarrassing challenge when women are aggressors and thus exposes the sexualized face of warfare. As Cynthia Enloe explains: “[m]ale warriors have imagined Amazon women as a military challenge and a sexual challenge –or better, as a sexual challenge because they dare to present a military challenge” (Enloe, 1988, p.117).
So – thinking of the PKK as a military case and putting aside ethical implications of violence or one’s political views on the PKK for a moment- what does the emergence of strong, fighting women who come from a traditionally conservative, patriarchal culture mean for society?
The guerrilla women’s radical break with traditions that keep Kurdish women in a passive state is in many ways a revolutionary move. A former female guerrilla fighter, who studied sociology and art history before joining the PKK, explains: “Kurdish women expressed a positive reflex to the PKK from the start. The women realize that they have nothing to gain from the nationalist and patriarchal system of the Turkish state. They have already lost everything to it”. By challenging patriarchy, the guerrilla women not only emancipate themselves in their militant ranks, their impact further influences the general Kurdish population.
Feminism has become a prerequisite in the Kurdish resistance against oppression: circles affiliated with the PKK do not tolerate violence against women and actively fight child marriage, polygamy, domestic abuse, rape culture, and honor killings. Even people who are not even sympathetic to the Kurdish cause admit that Kurdish women are the most vibrant fighters against patriarchy. Turkish media discourse often characterizes Kurds as backward people and makes it seem like honor killings, for instance, are inherent to Kurdish culture – in fact, with the agency of Kurdish feminist struggles, violence against women has been brought to public attention and the number of honor killings has gone back.
In local and national administration, the pro-Kurdish party BDP applies a minimum 40% women’s quota and upholds the principle of co-presidency, guaranteeing one woman and one man to share the party presidency. The first pictures of the “Rojava Revolts”, the seizures of Kurdish-populated cities in West Kurdistan (Syrian Kurdistan) were of armed women. The co-president of the PYD (Democratic Union Party), Asya Abdullah, is a woman, and the Kurdish people’s council in Syria ruled that male members of the council cannot marry a second woman. Refugee camps that are close to the PKK exclude men who beat their wives from the camp. Kurdish feminist organizations are also highly liberal on otherwise tabooed topics such as birth control and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the PKK’s gender discourse is the challenge to male privilege that society has taken for granted. Arwa Damon, a CNN reporter who talked to some guerrilla fighters in the Qandil mountains claims that “Macho” is seen as the greatest insult among the male warriors, who are very “soft-spoken, despite being hardened fighters” (Damon, 2008). One male guerrilla fighter states: “I had seen men baking bread once. I was shocked. Men that do ‘women’s work’! In the PKK, we learned to destroy this taboo. We learned to do our own work and to take care of ourselves” (Flach, 2007, p.107). In some camps of the PKK, men had to do more chores so that women could focus on their education. The argument was that women needed affirmative action for their educational development and that they had done the household chores in 5000 years of patriarchy anyways (Flach)!
The progressive gender equality of the PKK not only challenges the Kurdish society’s patriarchal norms, but further poses a critique of Western forms of feminism as well. A bourgeois understanding of feminism typical to Second Wave feminism that focuses solely on patriarchy is criticized- a more holistic concept of social justice, in which all people live in harmony with nature and equally distributed resources is a more desirable aim for the women and men in the PKK. It is therefore striking, but not surprising, that women from all kinds of backgrounds, including Turks, Arabs, Germans, Italians, Russians, and many more, join the PKK. Many outside spectators that meet the female fighters in the PKK are often surprised at the femininity of these warrior women. The anticipation of women as combatants entails a vision of masculinized women – but one of the PAJK’s main aims is to reject pre-set concepts of womanhood and manhood, in order to create a free self.
Regardless of one’s political affiliation, ethnic background, or gender, it is undeniable that the female guerrilla fighters of the PKK are revolutionary women who fight a war on two fronts: one for a national cause, and one for women’s liberation from patriarchy. These women force the patriarchal society to understand that women can do and be anything, and thus impact the wider community to challenge its sexism and to accept gender equality as a natural fact. As Arshem Kurman explains: “When a woman leaves her home and picks up a rifle, it is no small thing – it is a social revolution” (AFP, 2006). The women in the PKK succeeded at moving themselves from the most passive, objectified, and silenced beings to autonomous political actors. The genuineness of the PKK’s gender egalitarianism manifests itself in ideology and organizational practice. Had women only been conceptualized as equals in ideology without equal participation in war, or had women only been armed without a theoretical confrontation of patriarchy, male privilege, misogyny, and sexism, the gender equality paradigm would have been mere lip-service.
However, the agency of these Amazons of Mesopotamia, who have consciously stepped out of a dead end to become actors for their own autonomy, for gender equality, and their national cause, is an indicator of a striking social challenge. Only with the equal participation of women, will national liberation be possible. The female guerrilla fighters in the mountains of Kurdistan therefore form an avant-garde for a free society.
Damon, Arwa, 2008, Female fighters: We won’t stand for male dominance. Available from: CNN Online http://articles.cnn.com/2008-10-06/world/iraq.pkk_1_turkish-troops-pkk- positions-turkish-forces?_s=PM:WORLD.
Enloe, Cynthia H., 1988, Does Khaki become you? The Militarization of Women’s Lives (London: Pandora).
Flach, Anja, 2007, Frauen in der kurdischen Guerilla: Motivation, Identität und Geschlechterverhältnis in der Frauenarmee der PKK (Cologne: PapyRossa).
Mojab, Shahrzad (ed.), 2001, Women of a Non-State Nation: The Kurds (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers).
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