The Kurdish women’s movement is the most organised, widespread and dynamic women’s movement in the Middle East. Kurdish women fighting colonial oppression and fascism as well as organising the struggle for women’s liberation have drawn attention worldwide.
How have women from one of the most oppressed and denied societies in the world today become a source of hope and inspiration for women and people fighting for freedom all across the world?
To understand this we need to have a closer look at history and the conditions in which the seeds of the Kurdish Women’s Movement were planted and have been growing for four decades…
Women in the footsteps of Ishtar and the Neolithic Revolution
The roots of the Kurds are deep in the ancient history of Mesopotamia, known as the cradle of humanity. In this region there were goddesses long before the gods. Inanna – also known as Îştar or Astarte – was one of these goddesses who symbolize the important role of women in the ancient societies of Mesopotamia. The native peoples of Mesopotamia; the Kurds, Persians, Syriacs, Arameans, Chaldeans, Armenians, Arabs and Hebrews, worshipped goddesses as creators and protectors of life. Sculptures of mother goddesses, myths, ancient architecture and temples show us the crucial role that women played in this period of time, building up life and society, creating knowledge, and sharing material and immaterial values. Women laid the foundation for a settled, village lifestyle based on farming while appreciating nature and communal values. This Neolithic Revolution, which started around 12,000 BC, was a women’s revolution.
Around 5000 years ago a process started which caused a deep rupture in human history and culture: Male elites of priests, kings and soldiers started to confiscate and seize women’s creations and knowledge. Instead of using resources for the benefit of society they accumulated them and used them to gain power. Male domination created hierarchies, class systems, and the state. Women became the property and the so-called honour of men in the patriarchal state and family structures.
Abdullah Öcalan describes this as a “counter revolution” against women and the values of the Neolithic Revolution. He sums up the severe destruction and alienation imposed by saying women are “the first and last colony”.
In the patriarchal feudal system, women’s identities were reduced to their relation to men; daughter, wife, mother, sister… an object, or a machine to give birth. They were deprived of their rights. Kurds were mostly of the Zoroastrian faith with strong connections to the traditions of mother goddess culture. But particularly with the emerge of monotheistic religions, expansions of Arab dynasties and the enforcement of Islam on Kurdish society from the 8th century onwards, patriarchal codes imposed on women were reinforced.
Who are the Kurds?
Today most Kurds are Muslim but there also Kurds of Alevite, Ezidi, Kakei, Zoroastrian, Faili, Shabak, Jewish and Christian faith. The Kurdish language is Indo-European and has several dialects such as Kurmanci, Sorani, Zazaki, Kelhuri and Hewrami/Gorani.
With a population of over 40 Million the Kurds are one of the world’s largest peoples with no nation-state. Until World War I the Kurds mostly lived under the rule of the Ottoman and Persian Empire and other empires. The history of Kurdish tribes is one of resistance, often joined or led by women. They managed to preserve their language, culture and a certain degree of local autonomy.
After World War I, in 1923 the international powers drew up the Treaty of Lausanne. Kurdistan was divided into 4 parts. Since then the Kurds have been forced to live under the rule of the newly created nation-states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Kurds as a nation were left with no legal status or rights. Kurdish resistance continued, but was cruelly oppressed with massacres and genocides. As part of their program of homogenisation, the colonial nation states launched a cultural genocide: The Kurdish language and Kurdish names were banned; the existence of the Kurdish people was denied; Kurdish people were deported from their places of origin. It even became a crime to talk, write or sing about the Kurds and Kurdish culture. Kurdish women have suffered these oppressions as a people as well as that of women under patriarchy.
Economical neglect, national and political oppression in all 4 parts of Kurdistan lead to displacement and migration. This is why today there is a 4 million strong Kurdish Diaspora; 2,5 Million of them living in European countries.
The Kurdish Freedom Movement Led by the PKK and the Struggle for Women’s Liberation in Kurdistan
As socialist youth movements and struggles for national liberation spread around the world in the late 60’s, a strong revolutionary youth movement evolved in Turkey. Against this backdrop Abdullah Öcalan rallied the Kurdish liberation movement with the cry “Kurdistan is a Colony”. Together with other revolutionary Kurdish and Turkish students he established the revolutionary Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978 for the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination. Inspired by Marxist-Leninist and Maoist theories the aim of the PKK was to reach an independent, united, socialist Kurdistan.
Since the beginning women revolutionaries like Sakine Cansiz joined the party as militants. For women this struggle meant not only to oppose the colonial state but also the patriarchal restrictions of family and society. Looking back at the early times of the movement, Sakine Cansiz describes her excitement to join the revolutionary struggle for Kurdistan with the words:
“This movement has addressed the essence of humanity. All our debates, our educations and discourses start with humanity and human values. We were talking about the human situation in the past, in different historical stages and discussing the values of humanity. Women who wanted to understand, they were finding themselves within this movement. In the very beginning of the struggle for Kurdistan and political struggle the involvement of women was very difficult. Yet, we have succeeded and this gave us the strength to shape our movement.”
After the NATO-orchestrated fascist military coup of 1980, the well organised leftist movement in Turkey was nearly wiped out. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands imprisoned and cruelly tortured by Turkish state forces. Political prisoners of the PKK opened a new front of resistance in the prison of Diyarbakir with the call “Berxwedan jiyan e!” – Resistance is life! Sakine Cansiz was one of the leading figures of this historical resistance that mobilised Kurdish society, especially Kurdish women, worldwide. She and her comrades demonstrated women’s revolutionary will and ability to struggle under any conditions, challenging perceptions of women in Kurdish society.
In 1984 the guerrilla forces of the PKK fired the first bullet of the armed struggle. In doing so they struck back not only against the Turkish state but against hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. In the same period, people from all parts of Kurdish society, especially workers and poor people from the rural areas, identified themselves with the struggle and became organised, under the banner of the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK). Kurdish women established the Union of Patriotic Women of Kurdistan YJWK in 1987.
Kurdish women’s organising drew huge inspiration from the analyses of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. His theory that “liberation of Kurdistan and Kurdish society cannot be reached without the liberation of women” gave women more and more confidence to participate actively in organising and resistance. Women militants and Kurdish society were also inspired by women guerilla fighters like Hevala Azîme Demirtaş and Hevala Bese Anuş sacrificing their lives for liberation, and by the women who, by the example of their revolutionary personalities, became vanguards of organising Kurdish society like Hevala Bêrîvan (Binevş Agal).
Women became the main force of the Kurdish people’s uprisings of the late 1980’s. Hundred of thousands of women in the towns and villages of North Kurdistan left their homes and took to the streets. Driven by the will for freedom, and with rocks in hand, they resisted the Turkish Army’s massacres and destruction of their villages.
These uprisings left important marks in history. By the beginning of 1990s the PKK had turned into a mass movement. Thousands of women took up arms and joined the guerrilla forces, challenging patriarchal gender roles in the movement and in society. Women militants had to struggle with the feudal and patriarchal attitudes of their male comrades, perceiving women as ‘weaker’ and ‘more vulnerable’. Many women fighters and commanders like Hevala Bêrîtan (Gulnas Karataş) took up this struggle, insisting on their will and their rightful place on all fronts of the resistance by saying:
“Fight my dear, fight strong! By fighting we exist. By fighting we become free and beautiful and more. By fighting we love.”
The perspectives of Abdullah Ocalan was the greatest support to the establishment of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the mountains of Kurdistan. In his analyses on how to overcome the impact of patriarchy and colonialism on Kurdish society, he developed methods of ‘personality analysis’: deeply questioning the mentality of oppressed woman and dominant man, and the family structures and gender roles underlying it. The most essential step was for women to develop love and respect towards their own gender and identity; overcoming alienation and gaining self-confidence as well as trust in other women.
In 1993 Abdullah Ocalan proposed creating a Women’s Army within the guerrilla forces. Women who took up this initiative describe this as the biggest challenge of their lives. From now on they had to self-organise and decide about all aspects of life and guerrilla warfare. Women were confronted with their own internalised patriarchal patterns, whilst also analysing male domination. They gained ideological, military, political and social knowledge and experiences. Sexist attitudes of men were also transformed as women united and grew in self-confidence. Revolutionary changes took place in the mindset, in comrade relationships between men and women as as well as in Kurdish society. This was nothing less than a revolution within the revolution.
In 1995 the first National Women’s Congress of 300 women was held in the mountains. The Kurdistan Women’s Freedom Union YAJK was established. This was a crucial stage, implementing autonomous women’s organising based on women’s own will and political and social perspective.
In the 1990s Abdullah Öcalan was developing radical new ideology for the liberation of gender and society. He saw that neither freedom nor love can be realised in the relationships and gender identities of dominant power relations. The Theory of Separation laid out the path for women to overcome their enslaved identities; by separating themselves mentally, emotionally and culturally from the male dominated system. His theory of “Killing the man” encouraged men in turn to subvert and struggle against the dominant masculinity that is not just a gender but a huge system of power and exploitation.
The Women’s Liberation Ideology announced on March 8th 1998 took the women’s freedom struggle to a new level. Its framework includes the principles of loving and defending the homeland against colonialism; to think freely and build up free will as women; to organise and struggle for liberation as well as to build up a life with a free understanding of aesthetics.
A year later, in March 1999 the first Kurdish Women’s Party was established under the name of Kurdistan Women Workers’ Party PJKK, on the basis of this ideology, and declared itself under the name Women’s Freedom Party (PJA) at a conference in the year 2000. Restructured since 2004 as the Women’s Freedom Party of Kurdistan (PAJK), militants of the women’s party continue to play a vanguard role in the liberation struggle in all four parts of Kurdistan.
The kidnapping and imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan on 15 February 1999 in a NATO operation was as an attack on the very existence of the Kurdish people, especially Kurdish women. Against this attempt to eliminate the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Kurdish people and women have intensified resistance. And even in conditions of total isolation on the Turkish prison island of Imrali Abdullah Ocalan has found a way to resist, advancing and elaborating his new paradigm for the freedom struggle.
Based on years of historical and social analysis, this new paradigm goes beyond the solution of the Kurdish problem and proposes a society based on democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. Hierarchical-power structures based on state and patriarchy are identified as the core of all humanity’s problems. The state, invented as a tool of power and patriarchal domination, cannot be a means of liberation. Further, power and hierarchy do not only reproduce themselves in terms of structures and institutions but also ideologically; in nationalism, religious fundamentalism, sexism and scientism. Against this, the model of natural societies based on communal egalitarian values and central role of women is the reference for transformation for the liberation of women and society.
- As an alternative to state structures and mentality Öcalan develops the concept of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic Democratic Nation. The spirit and meaning of the Democratic Nation embodies itself in the structures of Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism. This means the self-administration of society around the principles of democracy, ecology, women’s freedom, communal economy and self-defence.
- Power and hierarchies are not merely political and military; they are based on the oppressive relationship of men over women and reproduce themselves in every aspect of life. Starting from rebuilding free gender relations, all the parts of life must be reconsidered on the basis of democratic principles, solidarity and respect. Ocalan’s proposal is for a radical democracy with equal representation of all identities including minorities, and direct participation of all.
- Against the devastation of war and violence Abdullah Ocalan promotes the essential need for legitimate self-defence. A society without self-defence is condemned to exploitation and oppression. In his Theory of the Rose he illustrates especially the spirit of women’s self-defence: the powerful defence of spines existing in harmony with the essence of its own beauty.
Since 2005 women from all four parts of Kurdistan as well as Kurdish women in exile and women from other countries have been organised under the confederation of the Communities of Women of Kurdistan (KJK). KJK has established various groups and organisations according to the situation in different places, with a common goal: social transformation based on women-centred egalitarian values that recognises the needs of all social and ethnic groups. Women’s communes, councils, academies and cooperatives have been established from the grass-roots as an alternative way to organise life and society. KJK organises in every field: from politics to social organising, from ecology and communal economy to health, from education and media works to culture and arts, to building up structures of local administration, women’s justice, and diplomacy. Women’s self-defence has been organised in various ways according to the situation in different regions.
Since 2011 research works and discussions started to establish Jineolojî as an alternative science of women, life and society. The Jineolojî Academy identifies challenges of the women’s revolution and strengthens understanding of the democratic, ecological paradigm of women’s liberation.
The women’s movement today across Kurdistan and the world; women’s revolution in Rojava
Even whilst constantly fighting against fascist dictatorships and femicides Kurdish women have continued to organise autonomously as well as as part of the general liberation movement.
Since the foundation of the first pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey in 1991, many Kurdish women have been elected as mayors and Members of Parliament by the vote of the Kurdish people and progressive forces in Turkey. In 2014 the co-chair system of gender equal representation was implemented in all municipalities run by the People’s Democracy Party HDP. The AKP dictatorship has especially targeted women, their democratic gains and institutions. Thousands of Kurdish women activists, including mayors and MPs have been locked up and hundreds of women’s associations and organisations banned. But the Kurdish women’s movement continues to turn every attack into a new step forward in the struggle.
Despite cruel state repression and executions, and often invisible to the outside world, in Iran the Free Women’s Community of East Kurdistan KJAR has been clandestinely organising and educating women. Kurdish women in Iran and East Kurdistan have been running remarkable campaigns against the death penalty, stoning, and national and gender oppression.
After the military intervention against Iraq in 2003, South Kurdistan attained an autonomous status as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. While some women took part in party politics, a strong autonomous grass-roots women’s movement did not develop. Since 2002 the Organisation of Freedom-Seeking Women of Kurdistan RJAK has been working to establish local women’s associations and academies, organising education programmes and campaigns to empower women and their status in society and politics.
Kurdish women’s organising in the European diaspora has its foundation in the 1980’s and 90’s. They have made Kurdistan Liberation and Kurdish Women’s Movements known worldwide, and connected with other freedom movements, creating important networks of solidarity and alliances. They have been contributing to the struggle in their homeland as well as fighting for their rights as Kurdish migrant women. Europe is not a safe place for Kurdish women either. On 9 January 2013 the pioneer of the Kurdish Women’s Movement Sakine Cansız assassinated in Paris by the Turkish intelligence service together with her comrades Fidan Dogan and Leyla Şaylemez. Kurdish women in Europe continued to organise, in 2014 creating the umbrella of the Kurdish Women’s Movement in Europe TJK-E.
The Rojava Revolution brought the Kurdish Women’s Movement to international prominence. In the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, Kurds in Western Kurdistan – known as Rojava – started to establish their system of Democratic Autonomy. The Women’s Defence Units YPJ caught the attention of the world through their determined fight against the Islamic State. From the liberation of Kobanê 2015, to the resistance against the Turkish occupation of Efrin in 2018, and Serekaniye and Giresipî in 2019, women fighters and commanders played a leading role. The sacrifice of the YPJ fighters became symbolised in the personality of women revolutionaries like Arîn Mirkan and Avesta Xabur. Internationalist women revolutionaries like Ivana Hoffmann from Germany, Alina Sanchez from Argentina and Anna Campbell from Britain also joined the defence of the women’s revolution in Rojava.
Women’s councils, communes and organisation are the beating heart of all fields of life in Rojava. Women of all different national, religious and cultural communities are organised in the Women’s Movement Kongra Star.
Kongra Star and the women’s revolution
Kongra Star empowers, mobilises and educates women to self-organisation in order to make sure that the Rojava revolution will become and stay a women’s revolution. An autonomous women’s system has been developed in the fields of economy, politics, democratic alliances and diplomatic relations, social organising, health, education, young women’s organising, justice, self-defence, media, municipality and ecology, culture and arts. Tens of thousands of women who were restricted to the role of mother and housewife have reclaimed their rights and are participating in community organising, women’s cooperatives and institutions. Many women describe their personal development within the revolution as a “difference between night and day” and “opening a new chapter in life”.
North and East Syria’s “women’s laws” promote women’s freedom and equality. They also prohibit discrimination and violence against women in family and marriage relationships. For example: patriarchal customs like polygamous marriage, marriage of minors or without the consent of women have been forbidden. Women and men have the same rights to heritage and divorce.
The co-chair system of gender equal representation is in place at all levels in all political and administrative structures of the Self-Administration in North and East Syria. Political life is no longer a male dominated domain.
In the history of the Kurdish women’s movement, tens of thousands of women have dedicated their lives to liberate their gender, their land and their people from colonial rule and to build a free society. Thousands of women have been imprisoned for long years, have been subjected to torture and cruelty. Women from the political movements as well as self-defence forces have been martyred. All the achievements of the Rojava revolution are the result of a long, difficult fight and great sacrifices.
The reason these women have been willing to sacrifice so much is because they could see the path to change, to love and to beauty. Every woman fallen in struggle lives on in the mothers, fighters, and young women of Rojava, reclaiming their lives and futures. The Kurdish Women’s Movement is still an embodiment of the slogan from the beginning: Resistance is Life! And the goal of life is freedom. Without women’s freedom there will be no free life and so another cry that has echoed around the world from the Kurdish Women’s Movement is Jin! Jiyan! Azadi! Women! Life! Freedom!….
Some of the women revolutionaries who have become symbols in the struggle of the Kurdish Women’s Movement:
Sakine Cansız (Sara) was assassinated on 09.01.2013 in Paris by the Turkish intelligence service MIT
Zeynep Kınacı (Zilan) carried out a self sacrifice attack during a parade of the Turkish army on 30.06.1996 in Dersim
Binevş Agal (Bêrîvan) lost her life in a fight with the Turkish army on 16.01.1989 in Cizîre Botan,
Zekiye Alkan set herself on fire on 31.03.1990 in Amed to protest against Turkish state oppression
Gülnaz Karataş (Bêrîtan) threw herself off a rock hillside in order to not to get captured after intense fightings with Turkish army and collaborating KDP Peshmergas on 25.10.1992 in Xakurke / South Kurdistan
Sanem Bertan (Canda, Turkish internationalist) lost her live in resistance against Turkish invasion in the Zap region of South Kurdistan on 5.10.1997
Sema Yüce (Serhildan) set herself on fire in a prison cell on 21.03.1998 at Çanakkale Prison in Turkey
Nermîn Akkuş (Hêlîn, Circassian internationalist) fell in resistance against joint operation of KDP and Turkey in the region Garê of South Kurdistan on 13.10.1998
Andrea Wolf (Ronahi, internationalist from Germany) captured and executed by the Turkish soldiers during fightings in Catak / North Kurdistan on 23.10.1998
Fatma Özen (Rojbîn, Arab internationalist) sacrificed her life in an attack against a Turkish military station on 20.11.1998 in Gever / North Kurdistan
Uta Schneiderbanger (Nûdem, internationalist from Germany) and Ekin Ceren Doruak (Amara, internationalist from Turkey) lost their lives in car accident on 30.05.2005 in Qendil mountains
Leyla Wali Hasan (Viyan Soran) set herself on fire on 01.02.2006 in Haftanin region / South Kurdistan to protest of total isolation of Abdullah Ocalan
Şirin Elemhûlî (from East Kurdistan) was executed by the Iranian regime on 09.05.2010 in Evin prison of Theran
Dilar Gencxemîs (Arîn Mîrkan; from Rojava) sacrificed her life on 05.10.2014 in the resistance of Kobane against ISIS attacks
Seve Demir (Member of the DBP Council), Fatma Uyar (Member of KJA) and Pakize Nayır (Co-chair of People’s Council of Silopi) were executed by Turkish state forces 4.10.2016 in Silopi / North Kurdistan
Zalûx Hemo (Avesta Xabûr) sacrificed her life on 27.01. 2018 in resistance against Turkish occupation of Efrîn / Rojava
Anna Campbell (Hêlin, internationalist from Britain) lost her life on 15.03.2018 in Turkish army’s air-strikes on Efrîn / Rojava
Alina Sanches (Lêgerîn, internationalist from Argentine) lost her life in an car accident on 17.03.2018 in Rojava while carrying out her revolutionary duties
Sarah Handelmann (Dorşîn, internationalist from Germany), fell in Turkish air strike at Qandil region on 07.04.2019
Hevrin Xelef (Secretary-General of the Syrian Future Party) was executed on 12.10.2019 in Rojava by the jihadist groups related to Turkish occupation forces