The Life of Sakine Cansiz – “Realizing Utopias Here and Now”

“Our approach to socialism was never very utopian. For us, it has never been something that is very far away. Instead, we tried to see how we can concretely realize socialism, freedom and equality. How could we at least start with ourselves to realize these principles in our own lives? We always had hopes and utopias, which we did not want to project on future generations. Instead, we started to realize our utopias and hopes, here and now.”  

Sakine Cansız


On the morning of January 10th, 2013, millions of Kurdish people woke up to the horrible news of the murdering of Sakine Cansız (Sara), Leyla Şaylemez (Ronahî) and Fidan Doğan (Rojbîn) in the Kurdistan Information Centre on 147 Rue La Fayette in central Paris. Immediately, tens of thousands of people from all over Europe, Kurdish people and their friends, stormed to the crime scene to express their anger and rage. Three days later, hundreds of thousands of people from different cultures and nationalities poured down the streets of Paris, protesting against this cowardly act of political murder.

Sakine Cansız was one of the co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and leading figure of the Kurdish women’s movement. She was one of the few revolutionaries, who were legends in their lifetime, especially due to her historic role in the Diyarbakir prison resistance in the first years of the PKK. Fidan Doğan was a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) in France. She carried the political cause of the Kurdish people to international meetings and institutions such as the European Parliament. Leyla Şaylemez was a young activist of the Kurdish Youth Movement and the Kurdish Women’s Movement. The murder came at a time full of the promise of peace and freedom, mere days after a political delegation had visited Abdullah Öcalan on the prison island of Imrali.

What the cold-blooded murderers did not realize however is that the seeds sown by the spirit of Sakine Cansız and her comrades were to grow into flowers, trees and forests in the following years – in the Rojava revolution, in the solidarity of Middle Eastern women’s struggles, in the worldwide women’s liberation in the making…

Sakine Cansız was an Alevi Kurdish woman, born in 1958 in a village of Dersim, northern Kurdistan. A thorn in the eye of the nation-statist system of the Turkish Republic, the people of Dersim were subjected to genocide in 1938 after an uprising led by Seyit Riza. An estimated 70,000 people were killed in the bombardments ordered by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while tens of thousands were deported by the Turkish state. The name Dersim was erased from the maps and replaced with the name Tunceli, “iron fist” to impose assimilation and silence upon the region. Seyit Riza’s age – he was above 70 -, was lowered in the state records to legalize his execution.

Before he died, he is said to have said: “I could not compete with your tricks and lies. This came to me as trouble. But I did not submit to you. May this come as trouble to you.”

Sakine Cansız was thus a child of the rebellious mountains of Dersim, washed in the waters of the Munzur river. However, by the time she was born, silence and fear were creeping over her community. Similar to many young people at the time, who were raised with the official state ideology, she grew up unaware of her Kurdish identity. This changed, when Sakine Cansız met the interesting, young working-class Kurdish and Turkish students around Abdullah Öcalan, who called themselves “Kurdistan Revolutionaries” at the time.

Before joining the Kurdistan Revolutionaries, Cansız was deeply influenced by the great revolutionary leaders of Turkey, who were executed by the state, such as Deniz Gezmiş and Mahir Çayan.

Sakîne explained her first experience with revolutionary life as follows: “The idea of political and revolutionary struggle lead me on the path that changed my life completely. I met some young people living nearby. Their lifestyle, their debates and their approaches towards values and moral concepts deeply affected me. I realized that they were carrying the torch of freedom in their hands.”

Rebellious and emotional by nature, Sakine Cansız felt attracted to the Kurdistan Revolutionaries not only due to their revolutionary theory, but because she felt drawn to the ways in which the new group emerged out of the ability to “feel the people’s pain”. Her first contact with her future comrades was during her teenage years, when she sent food and other useful stuff to the poor students in the shabby hut-like house in the neighbourhood. In her own words, the Kurdistan revolutionaries were a clear, autonomous alternative to the two dominant options available to people like her at the time: the social chauvinism of the Turkish left, which denied the specific conditions of Kurdistan, or conservative Kurdish nationalism, which had little to offer in terms of social change and class struggle. Early on in her youth, she identified the primary contradiction that she experienced in her private life: the unfree condition of womanhood in Kurdistan.

In the 1970s, after leaving her home to refuse a traditional life she did not desire, she began working in factories to organize working women. Over the course of her agitations and actions, she was imprisoned several times. In the jails in different parts of Turkey, she witnessed a geography of forgotten, yet rebellious people: wretched factory workers, proud Roma women, strong-willed prostitutes and traumatized genocide survivors. In her memoirs, she paid tribute to these fascinating lives and asserted her belief in the ability to turn all of them into militants of revolution. Her decision to become a professional revolutionary coincided with her comrades’ decision to form a party.

By the late 1970s, committees were organised by the “Apoists” in many regions of northern Kurdistan. Sakine Cansız was tasked by the leadership to build the women’s movement, a duty that she took very close to her heart. She single-handedly managed to gather large groups of young women, often students, for discussion and educations. On November, 27th 1978 only at the age of 20, Sakine Cansız became one of the two female co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, when she participated in the party’s founding congress.

At the time, the infamous coup d’état of September 12, 1980 was already foreshadowed by grim developments that targeted the revolutionary groups in the country, and in particular in Kurdistan. Shortly after the party formation, Sakine Cansız and several of her comrades, including PKK central committee members, were arrested in a raid in 1979 in Elazig. At the time of the coup, she was transported to the newly built Diyarbakir prison, a jail based on the USA prison system and where martial law suffocated human dignity. Until this day, the vast majority of the atrocious human rights violations and systematic torture inside the walls of Diyarbakir prison remain undocumented. They include rape and sexual violence, electric shocks, chocking prisoners in sewage water, and making them eat dog excrements. The Turkish state wanted to break the will of the prisoners so that they denounce their identity as Kurds and socialists. Even if Turkey has still not been held accountable for these unthinkable crimes, the happenings inside the prisons were carved deep into the memory of the Kurdish people. In those years, the PKK, similar to other revolutionary groups, was confronted with a total annihilation of its organizational structures due to the coup regime.

The torture by the state went so far that some leading members such as Şahin Dönmez did indeed turn into informants of the state. Others, who were struggling with the temptation to become snitches in the face of unbearable torture, were saved from the abyss of treason – precisely due to the atmosphere of friendship and solidarity created by people like Sakine Cansız. It is mainly owed to her spirit that none of the prisoners of the women’s ward became agents of the state.

Among the prisoners were leading PKK founding members such as Mazlum Doğan, Kemal Pir and Hayri Durmuş. By creating an atmosphere of constant rebellion through cultural activities and political ceremonies, their strategies to undo the state’s project included ideological defenses in the courts that thematised colonialism, educational and political work in the cells, physical self-defense, death fasts and self-immolations.

Mazlum Doğan launched the prison resistance on Newroz day of 1982 by lighting three matches, putting them on the table in his cell and taking his life with the message “Surrender is Betrayal, Resistance brings Victory”.

In her Sakine Cansız wrote on Mazlum Doğan’s action: “We tried to grasp the purpose of Mazlum’s action. Eventually, we understood that it stood in connection with Newroz. His message was clear, it proclaimed: Resistance is Life!”

Following Mazlum Doğan’s action, four inmates, Ferhat Kurtay, Eşref Anyık, Necmi Önen and Mahmut Zengin lit themselves on fire in protest. It was with the leadership of central PKK members Kemal Pir, Hayri Durmuş, Akif Yılmaz and Ali Çiçek, that on July 14th, 1982, the beginning of a death fast was announced to protest the conditions of Diyarbakır prison. All four of them died in the hunger strike. The Diyarbakir prison resistance however sparked popular support and triggered the PKK’s definite decision to take up guerrilla warfare against the state on August 15, 1984.

Women in particular were targeted by the prison authorities, which wanted to use traditional notions of honour to suppress women’s revolutionary identities and to evoke feudal patriarchal sentiments among the men. The most notorious director of the prison, Esat Oktay, was well-known as a sadist, who enjoyed the pain cries of his victims under heavy torture. A man without any respect for human dignity and honour, Oktay was later killed on the street by someone, who sent greetings from Kemal Pir, who had died in prison. Oktay was obsessed with the idea of sterilizing the female prisoners through fallopian tube infections and damage to their sexual organs. He explicitly stated that he wanted the Kurdish “race” to die out. In her memoirs, Sakine Cansız wrote: “As a sadist, he showed his love for women by beating us with a club between our legs until we bled, threatened to ‘shove up a club’ and used his fingers to pull our lips until they tore”. Sakine’s fearless stance in the face of the perverted torturer spread like a fire. Every sympathizer of the PKK knows the story of how she spat in Esat Oktay’s face during torture. Male PKK prisoners of the time have written about the ways in which Sakine Cansız’s struggle in prison encouraged them to resist amid despair.

The resistance of Sakine Cansız in Diyarbakir prison lead to a new approach towards women in Kurdish society. It encouraged women to join revolutionary structures in the cities and moved women towards politicization in the villages. Starting with her prison resistance, Kurdish women’s activism gained increasing respect and support among the popular masses.

By the time of her release in 1991, she had spent 12 years of her youth in the prisons of Elazig, Diyarbakir, Bursa, Canakkale and Malatya. Straight after breathing the air of freedom, she continued her active struggle in the ranks of the PKK. Thus, she went to the PKK’s Mahsum Korkmaz Academy in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, where she joined ideological educations lead by Abdullah Öcalan. Aspects of her willpower, struggle, and life were often taken as examples in Öcalan’s speeches. It was Öcalan, who encouraged her to write down her life. Her memoirs were written in 1996 and made available to the public post-mortem in three volumes. In the 1990s, she took over important tasks in organising the Kurdish movement in Palestine, Syria and Rojava.

She believed that it would be possible for women in Kurdistan to recreate themselves and their history by joining the militant struggle of the PKK. She described the struggle for freedom in the following way:

“This movement addresses the essence of being human. In all our debates, our educations and discourses, humanity and human values are the starting point. We are discussing the development of humans and society, and the historical stages and values of humanity.  Women, who wanted to understand these issues, identified themselves with the freedom movement. In the very beginning of the struggle for Kurdistan and the political struggle, the involvement of women in this revolutionary process was very difficult. Yet, we succeeded, and we gained the power to shape our movement.”

In her own words, the time she spent as a guerrilla in the mountains of Kurdistan were the most beautiful and meaningful moments of her life. Sakine Cansız’s involvement in the struggle for free Kurdistan parallels the chronology of the organized Kurdish women’s movement. She played a crucial role in the formation of the women’s autonomous army (today’s YJA Star) and the women’s party (today’s PAJK). She was not a person, who would wait for orders. Instead, she would take responsibility, even in the most difficult moments. Due to her strong-willed personality, she was known as a comrade, who would never accept male domination or other forms of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Her struggle was against social backwardness and injustice, and yet, she was attentive to the social realities and conditions of her people. She had a collective and communal personality that established solidarity with everyone around her, but she was also stubborn and fearless when it came to voicing her criticism and disagreement. Throughout her life, she was always encouraging her comrades to advance themselves, to be strong and persistent. As described by one of her first female comrades and lifetime friends: “Sara was always ready as if she was about to leave, but she always worked as if she was going to stay forever.”

In 1998, Abdullah Öcalan gave her the mission to take over tasks and responsibilities for the Kurdish freedom movement in Europe. Among other tasks, she organized and educated cadres of the movement in several European countries, as well as the Kurdish migrant community. Likewise, she built ties to different progressive movements outside Kurdistan, respecting diversities and emphasizing the importance of struggling for common human values as alternative, feminist, left and democratic movements to build up structures of democratic autonomy and a democratic, free, gender liberated society. She thus played an important role in creating solidarity for Kurdish cause. She was always recruiting, organizing, and educating her people, in particular young women, until her last breath.

In her eyes, struggle was the determining factor of freedom: “In my utopia, you must struggle for freedom all your life. In a liberated Kurdistan, the struggle must be glorious.”

In light of this remarkable, legendary life, nobody would have expected this hero to be killed in cold-blood in an insidious assassination in the heart of Paris. From the first day, the Kurdish women’s movement stressed the barbaric nature of the murder as an attempt to strike at the heart of the Kurdistan revolution: the liberated woman. Although the killer, Ömer Güney, was identified early on, it is known that the Turkish state’s intelligence service ordered the murder to sabotage the peace process. The French authorities have not exposed the political nature of this crime. The killer died under mysterious circumstances in prison, mere weeks before the trial was due to start. Every year, the Kurdish movement organizes a mass demonstration in Paris together with other women’s movements to demand “Justice et Verité!” – Justice and Truth. Kurdish women will not rest until the case of the Paris massacre is fully resolved in all its dimensions.

Sakine Cansız always wanted to return to Dersim as a guerrilla. And indeed, she did return to her homeland as a hero. Her grave becoming something like a shrine, a pilgrimage site for the oppressed, the young, the workers, the women. Millions of people bid farewell to her, carrying her coffin from Paris, to Amed, to Dersim.

In the revolution of Rojava, women’s liberation efforts pay tribute to Sakine Cansız and her comrades. The struggle begun by a small group of young people now reached a stage in which its philosophy and practice are being discussed by revolutionaries from Brazil to India. The women, who liberated the world from the rapist fascists of ISIS, did so by taking up noms-de-guerre such as Sara, Rojbîn, Ronahî. Today, new generations of Kurdish girls and boys are raised to have Sara-like features.

As the women’s movement often says: “They may cut our flowers, but they cannot stop the spring!”

Never forget – never forgive!


You can order the first volume of “SARA – My Whole Life Was a Struggle” in English from Pluto Press. German and Italian translations of all three volumes have been published by  Mezopotamien Verlag. The first volume is also available in Spanish by Descontrol.