Kurdistan's Female Fighters


For Kurdish women in Turkey, guerrilla politics can offer a way out.

RTR3CJCE-615.jpg (Stringer/Reuters)

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.

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Jenna Krajeski is a journalist based in Istanbul. Her previous work has appeared in  Al-Masry Al-Youm, The New Yorker, Slate, The World Policy Journal, Bidoun, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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