Interview with the Free Women’s Movement (TJA) in North Kurdistan

Kurdistan (OpenDemocracy) – After the Syrian Kurds’ fight for Kobane (a Kurdish city in northern Syria/Rojava) against ISIS in 2014-5, many across the world were suddenly made aware of the Kurdish women’s movement.

What has not reached us, however, is a much wider context that enabled the Kurdish women-fighters to confidently take up arms to defend themselves and their people. The unprecedented accomplishments of the Kurdish women predated Kobane and the war in Syria. They are rooted in the evolution of Turkey’s Kurdish liberation movement, as it is represented by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and in the ideological shift of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

In what is regarded as a departure from the Marxist-Leninist perspective of national liberation, Ocalan developed a theory of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy, making liberation of women into one of the central pillars of his struggle, alongside radical democracy and social ecology. The new ideology was first put into practice in Bakur (the Kurdish region in the southeast of Turkey) in the early 2000s and, despite continuing state oppression, the focus on and efforts towards women’s liberation within the movement brought visible results: a dramatic increase in women’s participation in the political and social life of the society, an evolution in their consciousness and the creation of various tools and spaces for their empowerment.

In Bakur, since the early 2000s, the Kurdish movement has been coordinating womens’ associations, women’s shelters, women’s local councils, cooperatives and academies, that have often functioned in cooperation with elected officials from the Kurdish parties in local government.

However, the military offenses that the Turkish state carried out against Kurdish cities in 2015-2016 were a heavy blow to the Kurdish movement. Besides irrevocable destruction to cities, including the UNESCO heritage site Sur (the ancient centre of Amed/Diyarbakir), displacement of up to half a million people and the inhumane murder of civilians (including burning people alive in their basements), this war was followed by the removal of elected officials, members of the Kurdish party DBP, from local government and the imposition of a so-called trusteeship system (kayyum), with the state’s appointees taking charge of local affairs.

The failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and the State of Emergency that was imposed in the aftermath meant an escalation of the state’s policies of reversing whatever the Kurdish movement had been able to accomplish in Bakur: shutting down any civil society initiatives and silencing its participants with fear of legal persecution and imprisonment.

YPJ Fighters, By BijiKurdistan – CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

During our trip to Amed (Diyarbakir) in August this year, we were only able to meet with a couple of the women’s cooperatives and academies that have continued their work despite the ongoing oppression. With the majority of initiatives shut down and many activists being tried on various charges – including for speaking out against Turkey’s military offensive in Sur – the majority of remaining initiatives prefer to stay underground in fear of being infiltrated or detected by the state.

Ayşe Gökkan and Gülcihan Şimşek, TJA-KJA representatives, who agreed to meet with us for an interview, were among the very few willing to publish an interview under their real names. The Free Women’s Congress (KJA) was established in 2015, replacing a previous coordinating body of the women’s movement in Bakur, as an umbrella for various women’s initiatives, as well as political parties, NGO’s, culture and faith groups, and local governments. It was renamed TJA (Free Women Movement) after having been shut down by a decree under the state of emergency rule in 2016.

Ayşe Gökkan, a former mayor of Nusaybin, a town in the southeastern province of Mardin, became famous after her hunger strike on the Turkish-Syrian border. She was protesting the building of a wall on the border with Rojava amidst the war in Syria by the Turkish state, trying to cut the ties between the populations on two sides of the border, while at the same time allowing the unchecked movement of fundamentalist groups – part of the anti-Assad opposition forces in Syria with connections to ISI – that were supported both financially and logistically.

Gülcihan Şimşek, a former mayor of a municipality in Van, introduced a contract for municipal workers according to which women received their husbands’ wages if domestic violence occurred and, if it persisted, the husbands lost their job.

In our conversation, Ayşe and Gülcihan shared with us their account of the ideological foundation of the women’s struggle in Kurdistan, the achievements of their movement, and the consequences of Turkey’s recent policies for women in Bakur. A detailed report on the catastrophic destruction of human life and civil society since 2015 – disproportionately affecting women – was published by the KJA in May, 2016, and is available here.


Mahir Kurtay (MK): Can you briefly introduce us to the Kurdish Free Women’s Movement (TJA) perspective and area of activities?

Gulcihan Şimşek (GS): We regard women’s issues as being central to life. We created a general ideological perspective on the relationship between women and men that questions 5,000 years of patriarchal society. We are starting with the fact that the woman was the first colony [Abdullah Ocalan’s idea ed.]. We know that the woman is treated as second class and we are fighting against this. That is why we examine problems not individually, but politically and ideologically.

We aim to reach all women. We organize young women. We are in solidarity with labour movements because you cannot separate the labor question from the woman’s question. We have women’s centres to combat violence against women. We have established women’s organizations in different social fields, for example, the economic field. We are setting up academies for women’s education. We are also in contact with international women’s organizations. As you see, we have a broad terrain in which we work.

Anya Briy (AB): Are there differences between the Kurdish women’s movement and the western feminist movement?

By Kurdishstruggle – CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ayşe Gökkan (AG): There are those who, by connecting Turkey to Europe, see us as a western movement. But we live in Kurdistan and we are a Kurdish movement in the Middle East. We define ourselves through concrete experiences that we live through. Our activities are defined by our unique needs. Gender, regional and socio-cultural structures are very different here. There are also different beliefs and ethnicities within Kurdistan. Basically, we define ourselves as a socialist movement of women who have been oppressed and started a rebellion.

We are not like other movements around the world. For example, women’s struggles in the world usually started in cities. March 8 was started in factories in New York. But our women’s struggle started in villages. Sakine Cansız was one of the co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) and her resistance to the military coup in prison in the 1980s opened up the front of the women’s struggle. Peasant women when they came to towns taught urban women to fight. Our first female guerrillas were organizing peasants. And they influenced each other.

We base ourselves on the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan who says, “The society is not free unless women are free.” We have a parallel perspective on the issue of women and the national question, and this makes our perspective rather unique in the Middle East. People with different identities live together. We call this coexistence, ‘democratic autonomy’.

We have benefited from the experience of feminist movements. But we decided to establish our own theory – jineology. Jineology is a science of women and life. It includes ethics, aesthetics, self-defense, organization, history, demography. We are sharing this concept with the whole world. However, we still have not decided what it is exactly. We are still debating and learning.

Unusually, we also independently organize young women. Because if there are no young women in the movement, the struggle loses momentum. So we have a quota of 20%  in our organizations reserved for them.

AB: The Kurdish movement stresses the need for self-organization, that is, building structures outside the state and organizing locally. Why have state institutions proved ineffective in improving women’s situation? What has been the relationship of the women’s movement in Kurdish cities with local governments?

AG: When we say local government, we actually do not refer to the municipality, we mean all the decision-making mechanisms outside the state. We determine our needs ourselves and work towards resolving them.

For example, the Kurdish movement established the co-chair system (every organization must have two chairs, one female, one male.) We implemented this in municipal governments as well. The state regarded this as illegal, but, in fact, we were not breaking the law. We just implemented the system before the state accepted it. Eventually the state was forced to legalize it.

We do not stick to what the state says. We know that a centrist ideology does not solve women’s problems. We know, for example, that the state’s “Alo Şiddet” [Hello, violence] domestic violence hotline has not been working. We know that it is possible to intervene earlier, before the violence occurs, by establishing neighborhood assemblies. Such problems have to be solved locally.

We are trying to prevent violence against women through local communes and councils. We make campaigns and provide education. For example, we recently organized a campaign entitled “Kimsenin Namusu Değiliz” [“I am no man’s honour”]. We also carry out joint activities with Turkish women. We do training, organizing and campaigning. Our movement is a revolution in mentality. We are trying to change the culture rather than changing the laws on paper. We are a stateless people and stateless women. That is why our revolution must be about changing the mentality and about self-defense. We will struggle until the last woman is organized because unorganized women have to face violence.

GS: In 1999, our 3 female activists became mayors for the first time. Already before that, we had female activists who held positions in public office. Institutions after Ocalan introduced the paradigm change into the Kurdish movement were organized from the woman’s point of view. Women’s tables were set up in municipalities. The municipalities thus became the places where most of work in regards to women’s issues was done.

Local politics is one of the spheres of women’s organizing. But it does not mean just working with municipal governments. We are confronted with male-dominated systems everywhere,so we attach great importance to organizing women locally. Women’s support and shelters are important, for example.

MK: There are various interconnected organizations within the Kurdish movement that work within the same framework of Ocalan’s ideas. What is the relationship of the TJA as a women’s movement with other civil society organizations in North Kurdistan?

AG: As a women’s movement, we are organized in an independent and democratic-confederal way. We identify ourselves first as women and we have separate women’s organizations. In addition, in our mixed gender organizations, men cannot take any decisions that primarily concern women. There are special women’s councils for that.

For example, our ties with the DTK (the Democratic Society Congress). We are an independent organization but 50% of our members are at the same time DTK activists. This is the case throughout the Kurdish movement. If the DTK does not accept our rules, we will not participate there. If the HDP (the People’s Democratic Party) does not accept our rules, we will leave. So we build alliances with other organizations. We are connected to them: but if they do not recognize our rights we can always depart.

MK: You mentioned the importance of self-defense. Why is it central to your understanding of women’s struggle?  

AG: We don’t regard the concept of self-defense as militaristic. When our words are backed up by force – this is what we call self-defense. But if our self-organization is less powerful than our weapons, then even weapons will not save us. That is, we evaluate the need for self-defense according to specific circumstances.

If there is an attack that violates the women’s right to life, then we need to defend ourselves. We saw this in the fight against ISİS: if women do not defend themselves, no one will defend them. We also view organizing against and exposing male violence as self-defense. Abandoning spaces imposed by men and establishing our own spaces is also self-defense.

We resurrected this self-defense logic because the state and men abandoned women when ISIS attacked. For example, in Shingal, when the Peşmergaforces escaped, women were left alone to confront ISIS. That’s why self-defense is important.

MK: What impact did the most recent military offensive by the Turkish state on Sur, and other Kurdish cities have specifically on women?

AG: Regarding the resistance in Sur, the state usually tries to play the role of a victim. But the state attacked Sur with artillery, guns, airplanes. Sur went through 103 days of resistance against NATO weapons with insurgents defending themselves only with individual weapons. 70% of those who resided in Sur were women; 30% were young women and children. Yet, these women remained in the city throughout the fighting.

GS: 12 residential areas were destroyed. Part of the attack against women was pure sexism. Police forces were entering women’s houses and going through their clothes. On many occasions women‘s bodies were thrown naked into the streets. [The best known case was that of Kevser Elturk, a commander in the PKK, killed by the Turkish security forces in 2015. AB.].

AG: The state attacked women in particular. They wrote racist phrases and phrases denigrating women on the walls of women’s homes. Their goal was to break women’s will. But in the whole process, as Sur was being demolished, they could not do it. Women did not flee. They didn’t leave the region.

For example, one woman [Remziye Tosun] who was resisting displacement till the end was sent to prison with her baby. While she was in prison, they wanted to give her children to the Child Protection Agency. But she resisted, went to prison, and took back her children when she was released. This is very important. Now, she is an  HDP MP. So they attacked you with NATO weapons, but you go up there and say, “You attacked me, but I’m still here.”

AB: The Sur attacks were followed by the imposition of a trusteeship system (kayyum) on Kurdish municipalities. How did this affect the situation of women and women’s organizations?

AG: Women were one of the first targets of the kayyumKayyum closed 53 women’s institutions. The TJA was previously in an association called the KJA; we had to change the name because our association was closed down by the state. The kayyum system closed every organization that had to do with women because women were active in every field. When trustees took over the administration, municipality buildings were turned into police stations.

The kayyum has removed the co-chair system. The municipalities’ doors became closed to women. The trustees also prevented our municipalities from mobilizing our own local resources for our own needs.

Before the kayyum system, if women experienced violence, they would not go to a police station. Instead, they would go to one of our institutions. Now, there’s nowhere for women to go. This is a serious setback. As an  institution, we are committed to trying to solve women’s problems in the TJA. In general women who experience problems, come to us. But we cannot do enough for them from here.

GS: In most places, before the kayyum, we were able to create cooperatives. They were supported in some places by local governments. We did a lot of work in textile and soap production, for example. We currently have only three women’s cooperatives that continue working – the majority have been closed down after the imposition of the kayyum. We have experience now, but we cannot say that it is enough because we were not able to mobilize the entire society. Yet, we can say that our people support the system of local councils and cooperatives.

In the past, the KJA used to be an official association. In fact, during the peace process, in the negotiations in İmralı between the Turkish state and the PKK , we organized to ensure that our delegation was at the negotiations table, because we knew that if women were not present, the peace would not last. When all our institutions were closed down, we formed the TJA as an independent organization. They can close governmental organizations with their laws but we are working without a statute now.

AB: Why is setting up cooperatives one of the main foci of your activities? How does it relate to the movement’s view of capitalism?

AG: Kurdistan is not a poor country; it is a country that is being made poor. The lack of Coca Cola does not make us poor. Capitalist modernity, as Ocalan defines it, makes us poor. It wants to belittle people’s own production and to impose on the society capitalist mass production. That’s why the co-operatives and the communes that we have been establishing made the state feel uncomfortable. Because this represents a logic of rupture from mass production and a move towards the use of our own resources. The state was losing its market in Kurdistan.

GS:  The chambers of commerce were very worried about the emergence of our cooperatives because this meant shaking the system and fighting against capitalism. The fact that people accepted our system, made them feel uncomfortable. This is also a reason for the 2015-6 conflicts: they strengthened capitalism and the state. The war began when we started creating alternatives.

That’s why Rojava is important today. The reality of people’s self-rule makes everyone uncomfortable. The nation state is not effective in the Middle East. Capitalism is being imposed, but it is not working. That’s why there is war. We interpret this as a conflict between and within capitalist modernity.

MK: Western feminists do not necessarily oppose capitalism. According to your understanding of women’s oppression, can gender equality be achieved within the capitalist system?

AG: We do not think that gender inequality can be changed within capitalism. Capitalist modernity has been changing shape. For example, we fought with the kuma culture under feudalism in which a husband could have many wives. Having overcome this, we are faced now with the maitresse culture. We fought against honor killings, but we are faced with love killings now. So it is the same thing under different guises. In fact, the problem of women cannot be solved without struggling against capitalism. Capitalism makes gender inequality invisible. Under the banner of modernity, capitalism sells the woman, saying that there is nothing that cannot be sold. You can see female bodies in advertisements, in the capitalist spaces, art, cinema, porn. Capitalism commodifies the woman.

Capitalism is the most dangerous ideology for women. Past ideologies are simpler and more transparent. We think that women’s exploitation is worse amidst the freedom of capitalism than amidst naked violence. Women were serfs in the feudal system. But capitalism introduced a fake freedom. We are anti-capitalists as a way of life. In fact, for us, fascism means modern-day capitalism. We defend what we call a democratic nation against the nation state. We defend democratic modernity against capitalist modernity. It is not equality if women commit the same violations of rights as men do. This is the society that the state wants to produce. We think that the state system is bankrupt. So we propose a democratic confederal system with a consensus of differing worldviews where every identity is equal.

We actually see the woman as a class. The woman was the first exploited and the first rebel. So the first construction of democratic socialism starts with women.

AB: Considering all women as one class implies that they experience the same kind of oppression. Wouldn’t you say that women face different problems depending on their socio-economic status?

AG: We are a classless movement. Women are stateless and propertyless. They do not have a class in socio-economic terms. The social class of women is determined by men. If the woman’s husband or father is a bourgeois, the woman is a bourgeoise. But when the man leaves the woman, the class to which the woman belongs disappears. For that reason, we say that women are classless and should be organized separately. It does not matter which class we are tied to. Because whatever class your father or husband are in, you are in that class. But at the same time, if the man is a boss, we do not say that the woman should also be a boss. This just leads to more exploitation of labour.

We welcome women from different segments: our women’s living conditions are ultimately not very different.

MK: You said that what the women’s movement in Kurdistan is carrying out is a ‘revolution in mentality’, that is, it focuses on raising women’s consciousness. To which extent has the Kurdish movement succeeded in bringing women to the forefront of the struggle? Have you seen an increase in women’s involvement in political and social life?

AG: We have women academies. At the academies we tell the woman’s history. We also form workshops and various programs. Besides this, our meetings also have an educational function. We provide education to women in every field. As the woman’s consciousness develops, her self-defense develops as well. We are proving ourselves against the mentality that up till today has been insisting that women are not capable of anything.

GS: We offer solutions outside the state to the problems that women are facing. We had 91 women institutions. We had 45 women’s centres. There were 16 independent women’s councils only in Amed. We already have 50% rate of women in both mixed gender organizations. We have mixed and women-specific organizations in the political, legal, educational, and social fields. We think that we first have to raise women’s consciousness and then raise the society’s consciousness in regards to women.

AB: Why is women’s liberation so central to the ideology and practice of the Kurdish movement?

AG:  We owe this first and foremost to Abdullah Öcalan. There are probably few leaders in the world who care so much about women. Women are involved in many movements around the world, but there is no other organization in which women are so prominent. Our leader did not give up even though there have been so many libellous and other attacks against him, with the mainstream media saying that he was a rapist and that he had set up a harem. Normally, if someone attacks you, you pull yourself back a little. But when Öcalan heard the slander, he brought his women even more to the fore.

Our civilization has lived through major stages of discrimination against women. If the Kurdish women had not been so organized, ISIS would have taken over and further violated women’s rights. ISIS is an imperialist explosion of male-dominated mentality. ISIS is an imperialist explosion of male-dominated mentality. They deploy all the forms of violence that have been routinely applied against women for the last 5,000 years. If women’s self-defense had not existed, another major discrimination would have occurred. But the self-organization of women in Rojava broke this male-dominated mentality. The AKP is so aggressive today because of the same logic. Because it is afraid of being humiliated in a face-off with women. And Öcalan’s position on women has proved to be very effective. Why does it disturb the state that we are thinking about women’s problems? Because the state is dominated by men. After shutting them down, the Turkish state turned our women’s institutions into wedding salons. This was a special message to us women. The state wanted us to get married and have children. After shutting them down, the Turkish state turned our women’s institutions into wedding salons. This was a special message to us women.

The women of Bakur were particularly dynamic and they forced the state to change. We cannot cry because we are victims. We will take back our gains. We are organizing against the attacks of the state. Boko Haram, ISIS, AKP –  their mentality is the same. They attack women as a united front. Actually we have been calling our experience World War III. This is a war of destruction. The state does not call it a war, but this is the experience of those affected by it.

This report prepared by AYŞE GÖKKANGÜLCIHAN ŞIMŞEKMAHIR KURTAY, and ANYA BRIY for OpenDemocracy

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