Kurdistan’s Women’s Revolution: How to Write our History of Struggle?

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The Kurdish women’s movement has recently become a subject of interest, research and fascination. Zîlan Diyar has witnessed and participated in the development of Kurdistan’s radical women’s revolution for nearly three decades and shares the movement’s own analysis of its history.


At a time of historic resistance struggles in Afrin and in all four parts of Kurdistan, of such immense sacrifices in the name of freedom, it is hard to find the words to describe our struggle history without commemorating all of those, who lost their lives on the way. It makes me think of the words of Kezban Mavi (Leyla), a Turkish woman guerrila from Kayseri, who lost her life in our Zagros mountains in 1999:

“Truly, the war in Kurdistan is a novel that has not been written and it cannot be written. It can only be lived. But, nevertheless, how can we put this legacy down in history?”

We are currently seeking an answer to Leyla’s question. Without a doubt, every Kurdish woman has an answer this question. However, I will try to refer to our collective, social memory in the attempt to describe our story.

Our struggle history can be tracked from Fis village in Amed (Diyarbakir) to Raqqa in Syria, a long path, paved by unbelievable sacrifices and difficulties. We paid high prices when we walked on this road; we led historic resistances, created beauties, and witnessed unbearable sufferings that we still have not fully confronted. Women have always been in the “yeast” of our freedom struggle, even before Fis, the village where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in a mud house. From the very beginning since the group that later formed the PKK came together, women were among those attracted to and curious about revolution. However, it is possible to say that national liberation and class struggle were their primary motivations at the time. Not freedom, but equality were the priorities. Of course, this notion of equality is one that was determined by patriarchal structures and mentalities. For this reason, women’s existence and successes in the revolution were determined by the standards and measures of men. Lifting heavy items like men, fighting like men, walking like men. What I am trying to say is that we experienced the same obstacles and shortcomings of all other Marxist-theory inspired struggles. But this did not lost as long in our case.

After the shooting of the first bullet of the PKK’s guerrillas, the beginning of the armed struggle on August 15, 1984, we saw a quantitative increase of women’s participation in the peope’s uprisings (serhildan in Kurdish) in rural Kurdistan in the early 1990s. More than the reasons, we need to consider the results of this flooding of women to the struggle. In a sphere of male privilege, woman was saying “I, too, exist”. Women in Kurdistan thus rejected their social status. The woman, who was constantly put on reserve by men was trying to assert her being. This was met by resistance and backlash, because the Kurdish man was content with his privileged position in society. Therefore, women’s quest for freedom often did not transgress the frameworks of patriarchy and remained limited to demanding rights. Moreover, due to the influence of religion, colonialism, and the most corrupt forms of capitalism in Kurdistan, society was not ready for great change. There were however women, who tried to break these frameworks and taboos. There were women, who resisted, questioned, searched and created. Sakine Cansiz (nom-de-guerre Sara), one of the co-founders of the PKK, who led the historic resistance in Diyarbakir prison in the early 1980s and fundamentally shaped the women’s liberationist character of the PKK and who was murdered alongside Fidan Doğan and Leyla Şaylemez on January 9th, 2013 in Paris or Zeynep Erdem (nom-de-guerre Jiyan), who led the people’s struggles in Mexmûr refugee camp, but was murdered by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s security forces in the 1990s, are just two examples out of many. However, due to a lack of sufficient organized struggle at the time, many such efforts withered away quickly. Without organized-ness, it is not possible to reflect the freedom levels that emerge in individuals’ personages in the general, wider society.

This is where our leader Apo (Abdullah Öcalan) saw the transformative power of women’s labour. Taking women’s liberation as a starting point, he began to develop approaches to solve societal issues. For the conditions of the time, he developed very progressive analyses. His book “The Woman and Family Problem in Kurdistan” was first published in 1987 and dealt with these questions.

This is from his analysis on 8th March, International Women’s Day:

“It is claimed that to the extent to which the revolution enables societal transformation, women’s transformation will take place. It has always been written and analyzed in this way. However, because this is expected to happen spontaneously, it does not bring about the desired outcomes. In this sense, it is not possible to claim that “in socialism, the one, who works the most, wins and the one, who thinks the most, works the most” and to thus remove oneself from obligations.”

From that time onward, women-centred analyses developed increasingly. This was an intervention to transform dominant mentalities. At the same time, there was progress to cultivate new mentalities in the form of new ways of organizing. So theory and practice always developed hand-in-hand in our movement. Sometimes practical steps resulted in our development of new aspects of theory. Sometimes our theoretical conclusions changed the modes and contents of our organizing. With increased organization, our ideological struggle developed. With our first women’s structure, the Union of Patriotic Women in Kurdistan (YJWK) in 1987, a consciousness emerged that encouraged and empowered the women’s ideological struggle. From this point of departure, the decision was taken to organize autonomous units in the realm of self-defence, in the war. This decision, taken at the end of 1993, led to women asserting their presence in all the spheres where they had previously been pushed to the back: in the war, in ideological leadership, in administration and education. These steps illustrated women’s potential and power. The Women’s Freedom Union of Kurdistan (YAJK), formed in 1995, stands for women’s participation in all realms with their autonomous identity. It emerged as a need, but at the same time, it constituted an evolution towards the aim of women’s freedom. YAJK’s emergence also laid the foundation for our “Women’s Liberation Ideology” and women’s party-fication (“partîbuyin”, becoming party) towards the end of the 1990s. From that period onward, strong analyses developed in the movement. As a result, questions of class and gender were treated in more productive ways. Rather than running from these issues or delaying them as other contexts had, we confronted them. We developed a method of looking at occurences and phenomena in individuals to examine society. Leader Apo called this “analyzing not the individual, but society; not the moment but history”. Alongside this, to widen the scope of this consciousness that at the beginning did not penetrate the entirety of our sociality, individual efforts and struggles were highlighted to help us make sense of life philosophies and to render them meaningful. At the same time, new steps were taken to enable women to move beyond the spheres where patriarchy was institutionalized.

This is why it is so fundamental to understand the bold claim that women’s liberation is more valuable than a country’s freedom. As we marched towards forming our own autonomous women’s party, this became obvious. Every theory and model for women’s liberation in Kurdistan found its appropriate response for its time. Unmatched struggles were led to not surrender one’s will to the enemy or to male domination. It was truly the woman, who enabled the concept of freeedom to take on genuine meaning. And this is when it became obvious that a society in which women are not free, cannot be free, either. The standard for freedom is set by the situation of the most oppressed.

“If we want to attribute validity and meaning to terms such as equality, freedom, democracy and socialism that will not lead to disappointment, it is important to loosen and break with ancient relational bonds”.

How can these old social bonds be destroyed? By breaking with memorized, internalized habits, by reading things in a reversed manner. For example, the habit of clear division of labour. Suddenly, women were shouldering their wounded male comrades. In the past, mothers were teaching their daughters how to crochet and embroider, but now young women in Rojava teach their mothers how to use weapons to defend themselves. While bravery was a male concept in Kurdish society, it now increasingly encompasses women as well. It becomes more and more evident that terms such as honour and beauty, which were determined by patriarchal meaning-giving practices, are in fact connected to the extent to which we manage to create an ethical-political society.

Our claim to solve history’s main contradiction has only increased since the foundation of YAJK.

In 1996, in an interview with a journalist, Öcalan came up with the expression “killing the man”, which later on lent itself to the theoretical discussions. This launched the “killing the man” discussions from 1996 onwards, but it was not easy to convince and draw Kurdish men into these discussions however.

“Our men do not approach themselves with the intention of self-analysis. Since the men don’t seem to feel this need, women must develop goddess-like attributes. What is meant by this? Woman must become will-power, consciousness, in fact, a force of creation and construction. Unless women like this emerge, it will be difficult to expect our men to pull themselves together” (Abdullah Öcalan).

Later on, these discussions attained a more concrete character. Between 2002 and 2004, educational formations for men in our women’s academies were very important. The men learned about women’s knowledgeability, their methods and means of solving social issues. The outcomes of these educations were published as books. We no longer hold such educations, because this critical engagement with patirarchy is now prevalent in all of our academies.

For a new life, it is necessary for man to question his relationship to himself, to woman, to all other sections of society, and to nature. The completion of the process of societies’ transformation that began with women will be possible with the transformation of men. Our historical reality demonstrated to us in a painful manner that with the dominant identity and understanding of masculinity, which does not suffice for an equal and free life and is therefore unable to build right relationships of love and respect with women, our duties to humanity cannot be fulfilled.

The “separation theory”, “total divorce” and later the “women’s liberation ideology” were all theoretical concepts and efforts of ours to overcome habitualized aspects of our mental life-worlds. These theoretical considerations at the same time led to the practical step of forming our women’s party, today’s PAJK. This was an important milestone for us, as it constituted the most urgent need to enter the 21st century with an anti-sytem ideological struggle on a higher level, one which also has the power of proposing new, alternative and autonomous systems. It was important to re-new our form, deepen our ideology, concretize our practical struggle. After the eras of class and nations, we were prepared to launch an era of women’s revolutions. With the party formation, the women’s struggle in Kurdistan obtained a more universal quality. The women’s liberation ideology and party formation are strongly tied to each other. The women’s liberation ideology must be universal. It can only be an ideology, if it grows on its roots and builds a connection with the universe.

It is true that all of the progress up to the formation of the women’s party broke with the dominant relationship forms between women and men in society. But this was not enough. It is vital to re-weave these broken bonds in a different manner. Our concept of “free co-life” consitutes a response to this need. If we were to explain it, it means to re-create relationships between women and men rid off notions of ownership and property. Re-defining notions of reproduction and love so as to not understand reproduction as procreation, but in the sense of adding meaning to life in a variety of ways, so as to understand love as the focusing of one’s energy in one place for a purpose. For this to happen, we must define standards for liberated women and men.

Due to our efforts, people around us no longer associate the coming together of women and men immediately with domination or sexuality. Such get-togethers now involve political, economic and cultural creations. While our notion of free co-life defines the philosophical dimensions, our confederal system, including the co-presidency principle that we implement in all spheres of our system, constitute the concrete aspects of these new ways of relating to each other.

There is one single reason for why our struggle became so broad and popular: namely, because we did not delay women’s freedom to a time after the revolution, but in fact turned it into the stem cell of our revolution. For example, women are the foundation for our notion of “democratic nation”, which foresees the peaceful and solidarity co-life among different cultures, ethnicities, faith groups and societal sections. This is because our priority is to liberate woman as the most deeply oppressed among the oppressed. For the “democratic modernity” which we want to re-vive against the age of capitalist modernity, to re-flow and re-flourish (Öcalan describes them like two rivers), it is crucial to render visible women’s resistance in history and in the present. Realizing the existence of so many individual and collective women’s struggles around the world as we tried to render our own struggle visible and powerful did not merely encourage us. It revealed the pillars of “democratic modernity” at the same time. Although we started from our own needs, we helped render the world women’s struggle visible.

Öcalan’s notion of a “sociology of freedom” is another important concept for us as women. In an era in which capitalism attributes womanhood with a crisis-ridden identity, we are in a constant effort to solve these crisis in favour of potentialities for freedom.

Every day, our women say no to so-called domestic violence and go to our community centres, they refuse forced marriages and join the mountain’s fight against the system, they trust their female comrades with their experiences with rape and sexual violence, they decide to learn how to read and write, they join political meetings and speak up in gatherings for the first time.

Revolution is a continuous stream. And naturally, this stream is not always pure and clear or able to flush away all sorts of rust and dirt. We may have reduced violence against women in our community, but we have not yet successfully ended its occurence. The crisis-ridden relationship between the genders often leads to social corruption. As stated by leader Apo, the illness of power and hierarchy sneaks through social cracks and can sometimes hinder the operation of our democratic confederal system. Therefore, securing some sort of rough equality between women and men is not sufficient in itself. Unless all of the areas that women find themselves in are filled with freedom, approaches of power and force will reproduce and reinforce themselves on the backs of women.

But how can we remove these risks? Put differently, will we be able to express the entirety of all of these values and the freedom potential of our 40-year-old struggle (for example our institutions, theory and consciousness, the legacy of our martyrs, etc.) in an ethical and aesthetical language so that it be in the service of social transformation?

This is where jineolojî comes in. Jineolojî is there to research the conditions and possibilities of enlightening and liberating women as both, the essence and residue of society, beyond the patriarchy-imposed identity of women as sexual objects. It is the name for the mentality transformation that we try to induce (even if conditions of war and violence often do not permit this to happen adequately), due to our belief that before any system can materialize, it is first established in the realm of mentality. Jineolojî is weaving the mentality-world to accomplish the following three tasks:

Firstly, to expose the history of women’s colonization. To exmine the methods through which the dominant man has subjugated woman and the ways of women’s resistance in response to this violence, including tracing and digging up the remnants of matricentric cultures that could not be erased despite these colonizing efforts. In other words, to reach the root cells to heal the ill organism, to define the dynamics of the women’s revolution.

Secondly, to secure women’s freedom. For this, we built the necessary organization and institutions, such as our self-defence structures, our co-presidency system, our academies, our women’s party, as well as separate and autonomous women’s organized-ness in the realm of culture, faith, diplomacy, economy and others. Jineolojî will help these obtain meaning and content. It will secure the continuation of our revolution. And thirdly, to reach a women’s social contract for a free life.

Let us return to Leyla’s question: How can we put our legacy down in the pages of history? By defining that which we have created. There were distances between existence and consciousness in the past. There were periods where our consciousness was insufficient or where our consciousness was high, but our power was lacking. Jineolojî will close this gap. It will strengthen the pillars of the women’s revolution.

I want to finish with a quote by Sakine Cansız:

“Probably no other revolution has undergone such long-term, painful but successful single revolutions within its individuals in this degree. And this is where we find the guarantee for victory. The humanization of socialism, the effort, labor and patience to concretize it in every living cell, is crystalizing in our sublime fight. For this reason, our fight is marvelous, attractive and unifying. I am in love with this fight