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Story Publication logo January 31, 2013

Kurdistan's Female Fighters

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Iraq's Kurds are in business while Turkey and its own Kurdish population are at war. Will success in...

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Kurdistan Workers’ Party soldiers. Image by james_gordon_losangeles/flickr.

On January 9, three Kurdish women were shot to death in the office of the Kurdish Information Center on a busy Paris street close to the Gare du Nord. The murders came at the beginning of fragile peace talks between Turkish officials and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), and it seemed clear that they were meant to disrupt negotiations. So far, they haven't. On the contrary, after the murders both sides adopted conciliatory rhetoric and mourners formed the largest pro-Kurdish public gathering permitted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The murders have energized those calling for peace between Turkey and the Kurds. For Kurdish women, the murders tell two intertwined and equally important stories.

For almost 30 years the PKK has been fighting the Turkish Army, a war that has resulted in the death of over 40,000 Kurdish and Turkish fighters and civilians. It has divided the country, hardened long-held prejudices, and filled Turkey's prisons. It has also brought the cultural and political demands of long-oppressed Kurds into focus, leading to some progress. The war has created Turkey's most organized and vocal protest movement, not just in the mountains, but on the streets, in the parliament and in the home.

Since the beginning, Kurdish women have played an integral role in the Kurdish movement. They fight and they protest, they vote and they get elected to office. And somewhere along the way they achieved a (very complicated, highly controversial, maybe lasting or even replicable) liberation.

Sakine Cansiz, one of the women killed on January 9, was a founding member of the PKK ( ed.-- all of the names in this story, except for those belonging to public figures, have been changed). Leyla Soylemez and Fidan Dogan were younger activists, working from Europe on the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Dogan was active in the Kurdish National Congress, and had just returned from meetings in Brussels. They were not holding guns or wearing the khaki uniform of a guerilla fighter, nor were they crouched in bunkers in the Qandil mountains. They were in a small office in Paris and their killer used a silencer. But still, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to them as "terrorists."

Some two decades have passed since female recruits to the PKK became a standard phenomenon. It's impossible to know how many have joined the group, but in her book, Blood and Belief, Aliza Marcus charts Kurdish society's reaction to the PKK's women fighters -- a mixture of shock and pride. Marcus' account shows how abruptly and remarkably the movement grew. By joining the women commit themselves to the harsh winters and bloody summers in Qandil. They will carry out attacks, and they will almost certainly die in the mountains. But they still go.

Women join the PKK to escape poverty. They flee a conservative society where domestic violence is common and there is little opportunity for women. Other female guerillas are university graduates. They study Kurdish history and Ocalan, as well as the Marxist theories at the root of the PKK, and consider fighting as much an intellectual exercise as a physical one. Many join because of relatives in prison, and others join to avoid prison. Fighting in the mountains, they argue, is less dangerous than protesting at home.

In the mountains, men and women study together, everything from Ocalan's writings to music to weapons training. They eat together and, when it comes time, fight together. They are forbidden from having sex, getting married, or having children -- a focus on chastity that both eliminates distraction and comforts those at home who, guerilla or not, attach a woman's purity to family honor. If they break these rules, they are expelled or arrested or, some say, executed. Ocalan's reasons for including women, whether for women's empowerment or for strength in numbers, are debatable. Few minorities have the luxury of alienating women from their cause entirely. But regardless of his motives, Ocalan's women have changed the Kurdish movement. "To understand feminism in Kurdish society you have to look less at the PKK and more at the BDP," Marcus told me on the phone last year. She's referring to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, founded in 2008, which mandates that 40 percent of its representatives be women. The connection between female PKK guerilla and BDP parliamentarian -- a more or less direct line that is both a triumph and a curse -- is the complicated foundation of Kurdish feminism.

Jiman, the commander of a 100-guerilla unit, confesses that she left a violent home. "There were a lot of honor killings," she says. But she insists that she joined the PKK to fight for victims of domestic violence, not just to escape. On a cool day last September, she sits on a low rock beside a double-decker teapot which has just come to a boil, in a wooded clearing in the PKK-occupied Qandil mountains. Recent fighting has been particularly bad and the road leading to the clearing is flanked by deep, black scars from bombs; small homes are crushed under caved-in roofs on which someone had painted a bright Kurdish flag. Jiman is tall and broad-shouldered with thick dark hair and a serious but kind face, dressed in the standard loose uniform. She's not carrying a weapon, and neither are the men who surround her. When Jiman talks, they are quiet.

"We live in a patriarchal society," she says. "Women are not respected. Here I enjoy my life. I have more rights." We eat from a communal dish of peppers stuffed with rice. When I leave, Jiman apologizes for the simple meal, which she cooked herself.

The image of the female guerilla is exploited in the propaganda of both sides. In Western Turkey, Jiman is portrayed as a gun-toting baby-killer, a threat to national security and the Turkish family. In the Kurdish southeast, she is a hero, sacrificing her life for a better Kurdish future. In mainstream Turkish media, she is scowling and masculine; in Kurdish papers, she is proud and strong. Even those Kurdish women who reject violence -- which the vast majority do -- are still likely to credit their freedoms to Jiman, her convictions, and her near-certain death.

When Erdogan called Cansiz, Soylemez, and Dogan "terrorists" he was holding tight to a rusty, divisive narrative. He also unwittingly pointed out the evolution of the Kurdish women's movement, a "movement within a movement" that, because of its roots in women like Jiman, links that Paris office to the Qandil mountains, and to every place in between.

Diyarbakir, a few hundred miles northwest of Jiman's post, is the de-facto capital of an imagined Kurdistan, and frequent protests routinely pull thousands onto the streets. There, Lale sweats in her small restaurant, serving dumplings and lentil soup to hungry locals while complaining about her husband who sits idly in view of the soccer match. Lale is a 42-year-old Diyarbakir native who attributes her liberation as a woman -- her small business, her daughter in university -- to the protests. She recalls her first protest vividly because it was also the first time she left home by herself. "I remember feeling like if I stepped forward I would get a bullet from the police, but if I went home my father would kill me," she says.

In the 1990s, when military campaigns forcibly relocated and imprisoned thousands of Kurds and peace seemed impossible, demonstrations drew women out of their homes. Today the country has moved from the 1990s by hurried and terrified leaps, but there is still plenty to protest. A massive court case targeting Kurdish activists for links to the PKK has put thousands of men and women in prison; language and education rights are remote; Ocalan is in solitary confinement; and Kurds reject assimilation into Turkish society even when it brings economic and social relief. Lale continues to protest; her daughter admires friends who join the PKK. Both take pride in their participation.

A revolution holds much promise, particularly for women. They participate for two reasons -- as a member of an oppressed society, and as oppressed people within that society. When the Arab Spring began over two years ago, Kurdish women noticed. In places like Egypt and Tunisia, women risked their lives to join the men on the street, but although those movements successfully shook the political structures, they failed to create a permanent place for women in the new system. It made Kurdish women nervous. Should their own revolution end, perhaps with these new talks, what would happen to them?

For Kurds in Turkey, the duration of the fighting is a cause for frustration and anger. But for Kurdish women, it may be the key to a lasting liberation. In the thirty years since Kurdish women like Jiman have been fighting in the mountains, organizations focusing on the women have had time to take root in the southeast and beyond. The women's movement is no longer simply hitchhiking alongside a greater Kurdish movement; it is its own issue.

The Diyarbakir office of KADEM, a women's organization, is often the site of heated debates. Diyarbakir can be a difficult place for women -- conservative and even violent -- and helping those women is KADEM's priority along with protesting for Kurdish rights. The Kurdish women of KADEM, like most of the Kurdish women I spoke to, see their organization as battling two dominant powers: the state and Kurdish men. They consider themselves evidence of their own progress. "It is important to know that we've been fighting the Kurdish man's mentality, and we have broken that," a member told me during a meeting one weekend. "In this region, women have more power than Kurdish men."

The most striking evidence of the progress Kurdish women have made in Turkey is, as Marcus said, the BDP. When two BDP officials were allowed to visit Ocalan at the beginning of the recent talks, one of them was a woman -- Ayla Akat, the representative from Batman.

The women of the BDP in Diyarbakir -- who I met last year in their office -- echo KADEM. "The state and the men's mentality is the same thing: to oppress a woman," Sultan, a member, says. "We believe that when the woman has freedom to think then the Kurdish question will be solved." Sultan works on women's issues within the BDP, providing shelter for battered women, combating prostitution in Diyarbakir, and lobbying for women's rights with local politicians.

Zubeyde Zumrut, the president of the BDP in Diyarbakir, takes this further. In spite of everything, Zumrut thinks, Kurdish women are better off than Turkish women. She mentions Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- his Islamic AKP party, his likening of abortion to a massacre, and his imploring of Turkish women to have at least three children. Meanwhile, Kurdish politicians, she says, share the stage with their female counterparts, both at rallies and in parliament. "The Kurdish woman is luckier than the Turkish woman," she tells me. "Kurdish women know that there's an organization to help them."

Still, I have never met a Turkish woman -- even an activist working on Kurdish women's issues -- who confesses to envy the status of Kurdish women. Why would they? Kurdish women may find equal footing with men in some cases, but they still know where they stand. These women can end up in jail or the mountains or, like the women in Paris, dead. They lose children to the PKK. Their future is determined by their ethnicity. They live amid violence. And no matter the strides they make for women's rights, they are marginalized from mainstream feminism. To most everyone outside the Kurdish community, the women are not feminists; they are terrorists. The "organization" that Zumrut referred to was not the BDP, it was the PKK.

Perhaps no population of Kurdish women is as simultaneously punished and lifted up by the PKK as the women in Iraq's Makhmour Refugee Camp. Walking through the camp's sandy streets, they tell me stories of lost villages, of children killed by snake bites, of searching for water and building homes first of mud and eventually of concrete. The centerpiece of the camp is a memorial to Makhmour residents killed in the PKK. The walls of the memorial are tiled with photos of guerillas, posing triumphantly in the mountains or superimposed over poems of remembrance. A large portrait of Ocalan at the front of the room is given its female counterpart: a young girl who self-immolated to protest his imprisonment. One of the women begins to weep. She points to a photo of a teenage girl with a reddish-brown braid swept across one shoulder, an AK-47 on the other, the low trees of Qandil framing her body. "This is the problem of the women," she says sadly; the girl was her relative.

Still, she was proud, one of four women democratically elected as camp leaders, mimicking the power-sharing structure of the BDP in the shadow of the PKK's mountains. "You see women in the PKK in positions of power," she says. "Our system should be translated all over the world."

Istanbul, in Western Turkey, seems a universe away from Jiman's mountain or Lale's Diyarbakir or the dry streets of Makhmour camp. It also has Turkey's largest Kurdish population, although activism in Istanbul is better contained. It's here that I met Sebahat Tuncel, one of the BDP's most outspoken MPs, famous partly because she was elected to parliament in 2007 while in prison on terrorism charges.

The week before, Tuncel was sentenced to eight years, again accused of being a member of the PKK. As a result, Galatasaray University canceled her upcoming lecture on women in politics. She was banned from leaving the country. Awaiting a Supreme Court ruling -- if they uphold it, she will be stripped of her position with the BDP and sent to prison -- she delivered a speech, the essence of which was "come and get me."

Tuncel is striking, with long black curls and sharp cheekbones. When I didn't recognize her, she joked, "The press never publish photos of Kurdish MPs smiling."

Kurdish women, Tuncel says, have added pressures in Turkey. "The AKP wants to put women in their traditional roles," she says. "But the struggle of the Kurdish woman and especially the Kurdish parliamentarians dissolves this perception of women." She sighs. "AKP politicians refer to Kurdish MPs as violent. They cannot bear that Kurdish women would become free by taking an equal role with the men."

In spite of her terrorism charges, Tuncel refuses to distance herself from the PKK. She gives them credit for all her achievements, and considers Ocalan a feminist; her favorite of his texts is a 200-page interview called "Killing the Man." She has family and friends in the mountains. "They ask me to call my aunt a terrorist," she says. "But our women's movement started with the female guerilla."

Tuncel didn't follow her aunt; she went into politics. She's privy now to the historic negotiations -- negotiations which will hopefully lead to a ceasefire followed by political compromise. Then Jiman will give up her weapon and be granted amnesty to return to Turkey. Lale will no longer have to attend protests or worry about her daughter going to the mountains. The women of Makhmour Camp will go home.

Tuncel will work without fear of arrest, and without fear that her work will be unacknowledged by men who today proclaim her their equal. "Kurdish women are aware of what usually happens to women after a revolution," she says. "Women in politics try to transform society so that we can prevent any kind of reverse movement that would send women back home."


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