On the occasion of 8th March International Women’s Day, Meral Zin Çiçek from REPAK, Kurdish Women’s Relations Office, answered questions about perspectives of the Kurdish Women’s Movement and its expectations from the international solidarity movement. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity, without altering the interviewee’s ideas.
1) What kind of solidarity does the Kurdish Women’s Movement expect from women around the world?
Women around the world are going through a historical time, because today’s conditions and needs make it possible for them to realize the women’s liberation in the 21st century. Our leader Abdullah Öcalan said in his speech for 8th March in 1998 that the 19th century has been the century of bourgeois parties, the 20th century has been the century of workers’ parties, and the 21st century will be the century of parties putting women’s liberation at the center. We can see this reality becoming clearer and clearer today. Women’s liberation is determining the liberation of the entire society and of all parts of life. The contradictions between women and the ruling system or the patriarchal capitalist system are increasing, and this leads to increased resistance through which women more highly raise their voices against the system.
You can see that this is the case also in the centers of the capitalist world. For example this year in Europe, in a lot of countries, women went on strike. This is a very important development if you compare it to the situation of European women a couple of years ago. In places like the USA, often viewed as the center of capitalism, millions of women are raising their voices against Trump, saying that he is not their representative. Black women are organizing tirelessly. So it’s a phenomenon that women’s struggle for equality is rising all over the world.
But the main problem is that we need to turn this big potential into an organized form of struggle. We have millions of women all around the world standing up for their liberation against patriarchy, sexism, capitalism, exploitation and oppression in varied forms, but this resistance is not organized very well. We would say that this is the main problem. We need to develop some common mechanisms, common strategies, common goals, common tactics, to meet each other also during actions. We need to develop a new kind of women’s culture of politics. And also a new understanding of sisterhood. For this, we can refer to the concept of solidarity.
We also think that there is a need to develop further the notion of solidarity, and define what we mean by it. Often it is understood in the context of class struggle in a very Marxist-Leninist style, as in international worker’s solidarity, or for example as the unity of the proletarians of the world, as the sisterhood and brotherhood based on class. This understanding of solidarity was about common struggle. But in practice it has not been this way. One party usually believes that it is in a better position and has an opportunity to show solidarity with other people in less good situations. This is creating some kind of a hierarchy, reproducing certain power’s relations. We believe that in today’s world no woman has the luxury to say : “I’m in a better situation than others“. We are all under attack by the patriarchal system because this system is in crisis and tries to escape from it by increasing or concentrating its attacks on women. In Kurdistan, we are confronted with the most brutal forms, the most cruel expressions of patriarchy, whether Turkish state fascism or ISIS. We have to struggle together, we have to unite our forces to be able to overcome the system. Therefore we believe there is a need to rethink the concept of solidarity and internationalism especially when it comes to women. We have to come closer to the notion of common struggle to defend each other and not only show solidarity for each other.
2) Women are leading the revolution in Rojava. Almost 7 years after its beginning, what did the women’s movement learn from its experience in Rojava ?
We learned a lot of things. It is still an ongoing process, and it’s not without problems. We can’t look at it through rose-tinted glasses. When we talk about the leading role of women in the revolution, it does not mean we just increase numbers. It’s not an issue of quantity, what matters is quality. It’s about transforming roles and missions. Maybe the women in Rojava are not leading in terms of numbers. But if you look at the quality of their engagement, they are involved in a leading process because they are giving the revolutionary process a female characteristic. Women are at the center of all developments. They are participating and are represented in an equal way in all decision-making processes.
But this is not done by individual efforts alone. It’s really about representating the organized collective will of the women’s movement. I think this is a very important issue. You are not strong as a single individual. Even if, as a person, I’m empowered, this is because I’m part of an organized autonomous force. I think that’s the main lesson of Rojava’s revolution for our sister’s worldwide. There can’t be individual liberation. It must be always a collective process and there must be a dialectic between individual and social liberation. I think Rojava’s revolution is showing this to the whole world.
Those women, who participate in the mixed structures of governance, self-defense, education, and all other parts of life, are at the same time natural members of the women’s movement and they have also been chosen by the women’s movement. It means that the women’s movement is deciding on all women that will be candidates for elections, or that participate in mixed structures. So, on one side women are organizing themselves autonomously and on the other side they are participating equally in all general developments and structures. This requires a very deep level of women’s consciousness, of gender consciousness. And this was not realized within one day. This was a very long process, which is still ongoing.
There is always a very strong reflection between practical developments, practical experiences, and theory. You are reflecting what is happening in practice and you are trying to develop some ideological thesis from it. And then you develop your ideology further and you implement practical solutions. There are parallel strings between theory and practice all the time. By developing this idea, we are always drawing new lessons from Rojava.
It’s not that for 40 years, secretly, the movement was educating or empowering women, waiting for this revolutionary moment and then, when the moment came, took all women out, telling them to go and play their role. That’s not how it works. These people are not perfect people, they are not perfect militants, revolutionaries. They are learning by doing, they are also self-reflecting all the time.
Therefore, it’s important for other people to know that we are confronted with a lot of problems. To create a communalist society itself, especially in Middle East and especially in Kurdish society, which is an oppressed and enslaved society that has not taken decisions on its own behalf for a long time… to go from such a society to create a communalist system is very hard work. But the important things are not the problems themselves because all kinds of problems can occur during a revolution. The important point is how you handle them. What are your solutions, how is your attitude towards these problems? Are you really solving the problem, or are you deepening it? I think the whole political process in Rojava, despite its difficulties, is moving, because it’s also developing its understanding of finding solutions to problems. This is also what revolution is about: to find solutions to the problems of society.
3) About Rojava… for the women’s movement, what would be any red lines during negotiations with the regime or other powers?
The aim of these negotiations would be on one side to create a status for the Kurdish people and on the other side to create a democratic system for the whole of Syria, because the issue really is not about developing a status for the Kurds only. We can see it here now [in southern Kurdistan]. After 2003, they created an internationaly recognized status here for the Kurdish region, but without creating in parallel a democratic system for the whole of Iraq. So there are still very problematic relationships between the Kurds and Baghdad. You can’t create solutions in the form of islands. Our formula is «free Rojava, democratic Syria». And that is the same for all parts of Kurdistan. It must be a process. Without it you would not be able to protect any of your gains. This is what we saw here in Iraqi Kurdistan after the referendum. We have to take lessons from these experiences.
For Syria, the issue is not about getting approval from Damascus, saying “Okay, you can have your own government there”, it’s not about merely creating an autonomy for the Kurds. We have to use this process, these negotiations for the democratization of the whole state to create a democratic Syria, where all the people that are living within these ts borders are able to live together and to govern themselves, for autonomous existences to come together under one umbrella, which might be something like a larger entity protecting these different identities. By doing this, you move towards finding a solution.
What would be red lines? The will of the people for instance. There is no possible return now. How could the people living in northern Syria, who are now governing themselves, accept the return to the status-quo before 2012? That appears to be impossible not only for the Kurds but also for all other communities living in that region. So I would say the red line is really autonomy. Autonomy is the rule of the people, it’s the organized form or expression of the will of the people. I’m not able to talk in the name of all people, but, theoretically, there could be coexistence if you have ways of discussing, finding and creating solutions. The important thing is that the people will be able to govern themselves within a democratic system. That would be a model for the whole region, because it would provide an opportunity to overcome nationalism and sectarianism.
4) What are your perspectives for the women’s movement ?
Our perspective is first to strengthen our autonomous organisation in order to be able to play our role in the revolution. What we have is something like a revolution inside the revolution. When I said that the women’s revolution was determining the liberation of the whole of society, the same applies to the relationships between the women’s movement and the general movement. If the women’s movement is strong, the general movement is also strong. If it is weak then the whole revolution will be weak. This is how it is. Because of this, for us it’s very important as a women’s movement to strengthen ourselves ideologically, practically, politically… to deepen the level of autonomous organisation, knowledge and consciousness, to be able to play our historical role inside our national liberation movement and also universally. We think we have some kind of a historical duty towards our sisters in the world, that we have responsibilities towards them. That we have a unique role to play in some aspects also. We have to live up to these responsibilities. We do not treat Kurdistan like an island, saying that we don’t care about what is happening around us. We have to fulfill our role in the Middle East and, by doing so, for women in the world.
Now, for the four parts of Kurdistan, it is important to strengthen the leading role and participation of women in the revolution, not just in Rojava, but also in northern Kurdistan in the struggle against fascism. One of the main characteristics of fascism is that it’s an enemy of women. If we look at what happened in the 1930s in Spain, Germany, Italy, we have very concrete examples of how the first thing that fascism did was to force women to return to their traditional roles. They treated women just as birth machines to make new fascist soldiers for the regime. You can find misogyny in the very nature of fascism. Because of this, in Turkey and in northern Kurdistan today the most important and most dynamic force is the women’s movement. It’s not just the Kurdish women’s movement. The Turkish feminist movement is also very strong. But now it’s important for us to unite, to form a women’s front to be able to defeat the fascist regime which is really anti-women. In southern Kurdistan (Iraq), we are undergoing a deep crisis. It’s very important to strengthen women here because if you look at the roots of the crisis itself you see that it was made by men. Here, unfortunately, we have no strong representation of women in politics. For example, there have been a lot of political talks last week to form the government. But you would not see one woman at the table. They were just men. The style of politics in southern Kurdistan is very male and does not find any solutions to the problems. In fact, this mode of politics is further deepening them. We believe that here change is only possible by developing a democratic culture of politics. We don’t think it can be done by men. It can just be done by women, just by the excluded, the marginalized.
The deeply-rooted problems that we are facing here are also present in general in Iraq, which is a state that is not natural, one that does not reflect the cultural, ethnic or religious realities of the region and therefore always produces new crises, conflicts and contradictions between sects, religions, and ethnicities. And if there is a lot of crisis, then it is very easy for external forces to rule, to control the whole region, because it’s an inferno. So in order to be able to overcome this situation, which has been repeating itself for one century already, it’s very important to establish and strengthen women’s leading position. This is the main need here. I would say the same for Iran and eastern Kurdistan because there is a very historical process over there as well. There are a lot of opportunities. The last time that women in Iran were able to celebrate 8th March was 40 years ago, in 1979. So many women are in prison and are facing death penalty today. It’s a very dangerous situation over there. Yet, we still see that more and more women are raising their voices, that they are protesting, and expressing that they are not accepting of this system. This gives hope.
Evidently, we have important developments in all parts of Kurdistan. The states occupying different parts of Kurdistan are putting very big risks on our lives because these fascist male-dominated regimes want to ensure their power positions. But you see everywhere that women are the main hope, determining the revolutionary struggle in all parts. So because of this, I would say that on this year’s 8th March of this year, we also have a lot of reasons to be hopeful.
5) Could one say that the women movement is somehow watching that the whole organisation is sticking to Öcalan’s theory ?
Why is the women’s liberation so central to the PKK? This did not start with the paradigm shift. At the end of the 1980s, Abdullah Öcalan started developing his own analysis on the question of patriarchy. One of the main dynamics that led to this was his own marriage with Fatma, that was her nom-de-guerre. She was a founding member of the PKK, who left the movement in 1986. She was sent to Europe after the 3rd congress of the PKK to organize the movement there. Some time after she arrived there, she left the movement. Ever since, there has been no contact with her. It was not a usual marriage, it was full of struggles. It was a love marriage also. For a long time, it was described as something else, as if though she had been an agent sent by the Turkish state to control the PKK and things like that. Öcalan later wrote about it and said he really loved her, but that it has been a very big struggle, and that at the end this struggle led him to think about the women’s liberation issue. He arrived there coming from his own practical experience. It started in the late 1980s. Then, at the beginning of the 90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, he was putting the women’s issue more and more at the center of socialism, attributing female characteristics to socialism. He was also providing answers to protect the heritage of socialism in this way. While criticizing Marx, he was also saying that he is not rejecting him, but trying to take new steps forward. In the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet system, he developed a lot of analyses on democratic socialism, on why it is important to lead a democratic struggle inside the revolutionary movement and why the revoluionary struggle must be democratised. You can’t be a socialist if you are not a democrat. He analysed the collapse of the Soviet Union as having lacked democracy. There was a lack of freedom, there was no particular women’s perspective. That is how he came to the paradigm shift. It was later, you can say 2005 or even earlier, since the book « In Defense of a People » was published in 2004. But then, in 2005, the congress happened after which the movement itself started to organize according to Democratic Confederalism. This was taken as a structure for the organisation. The paradigm shift started earlier, but this is the point where they started to put it into praxis. That was the time when all militants of the PKK where reading new literature. Abdullah Öcalan communicated with the militants through his meetings with his lawyers, he was telling them which books he was reading and recommended other people should read them, too. I remember that he mentioned Murray Bookchin’s « Ecology of freedom » in 2002 or 2003. That was when people were starting to read about ecology and things like that.
Why can we call the women’s movement the protector of the ideology? The paradigm itself puts women’s liberation at its center. As I said, it can be only realized by the leading role of women. They must be the subjects of the revolutionary process. They’re organizing themselves also according to this paradigm. And they are also those who are realizing this paradigm by themselves. This gives them this historical role. And this has always been the case, because they are the oppressed, they are the marginalized. They are struggling together with their comrades, but at the end of the day, they are women and that makes things different for them, giving them a special role in the revolution.
6) Are you in touch with other women organisations in the Middle East? Did they learn from you, did you learn from them ?
Yes, since the very beginning. It is also important to keep in mind that the PKK could start its guerrilla struggle because of peoples’ solidarity and internationalism in the Middle East. In 1979, when Abdullah Öcalan crossed the border to Kobane with another ID and from there went to Syria to made contact with revolutionary Lebanese and Palestinian movements, the PKK was not known at the time. A lot of leading cadres had been jailed in Diyarbakir prison and the Turkish military coup of September 12th, 1980 was about to happen. So under such difficult conditions, without speaking Arabic, without any material opportunities, simply through the notion of peoples’s solidarity, it was possible for them to create the ground for August 15th, 1984 when they started the guerrilla struggle. This was made possible by revolutionary movements in the Middle East. This is how they went first to the military camps of the Palestinian liberation movement. Later, they were able to build their own camps where they were providing military, political and ideological training, educating the cadres of the movement. They had no money in their pockets. A lot of militants of the PKK died also in the struggle against Israeli attacks, as they stood in solidarity with the Palestinians. This is where they’re coming from, this happened 40 years ago. From the beginning, the PKK was always a Middle Eastern movement with a very strong understanding of internationalism, which prevented it from becoming a nationalist movement. This was the case for 40 years. It’s not the case that the movement, the general movement or the women’s movement, is only now establishing relationships or that this started after the Rojava’s revolution, after Kobane. There have always been offices or representatives according to existing conditions and opportunities, or any other tools for cooperation, for a common struggle in solidarity.
But for the Kurdish women’s movement, it’s especially very important to improve its relationships with the women’s movement in the Middle East. Or let’s rather say women’s organisations, because if we look at today’s situation we are not able to talk about other big women’s movements. This is also an issue we have to analyze – why is this the case? Yet, we see a lot of women’s struggles in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt where women have been playing a very important role against the regime of Moubarak, although they faced sexual assaults, attacks and so on. Also, places like Tunisia where women were able to gain a lot. I was mentioning Iran and Afghanistan earlier, where our sisters there, despite all the attacks by warlords and imperialists, are organizing themselves. So, there is a very big potential.
For the Kurdish movement, history has always been a very important element and we say that the Middle East once has been the ground for the first social revolution which is the Neolithic revolution. For the first time in the history of humanity, people started to settle, to live in new forms of society. This was also led by women at that time. What we are talking about now is creating the ground for a second big women’s revolution in Middle East because we think that this is the only possibility to find a solution to end the big crisis in Middle East, against all the wars and conflicts that are ongoing and to create real democracy and freedom. This can only be done through women’s revolution and therefore it has a strategical importance for us – not a pragmatic one, we are not at it looking in a pragmatist way – but it’s a big strategic goal for us to improve our relations with our sisters here in the Middle East. And by doing so, we must also engage in a very effective struggle against capitalist modernity.
We have always believed that this can only be done with the leading role of women because capitalist modernity, or let’s say the capitalist system, is trying to organize itself in the Middle East especially over the last hundred years, since World War I. These borders that we have today are not natural. They were created by these imperialist forces. These exisiting states do not fit to the realities here. They are continuisly reproducing conflicts, wars, crisis to the benefit of these capitalist states’ system. For this, the system is using three main tools: nationalism or chauvinism, sectarianism, and sexism. These are issues which are really dividing the people, preventing them from unity. These are tools with which you can split people, really. The Kurdish reality is split through nationalism for example. If we really want to find a solution for the problems we have here, we have to overcome nationalism, sectarianism and sexism. And this can only be done by women. Therefore it’s so important for us to create something like a union of Middle Eastern women, not along nationalist, ethnic or sectarian lines, but primarily as women. We have more reasons to come together as women.
7) Any final words ?
Since you’re coming from France I will say that our understanding of international solidarity should also include a quest for further ideas. We need to establish some mechanisms with which we could develop some common strategy, tactics or, let’s say, also a common language, a common culture. What are our principles as women? Based on which principles can we come to together? Things like that. We have the need for theoretical and intellectual production – and that should be done commonly.
This is an important issue for women in France and I think there is a very big lack at the moment. Maybe I’m wrong but looking at the current situation, there seems to be a disconnect between a more radical past and what we see at the moment. So I think that for the people in France it’s very important to rethink some concepts like socialism – What do we mean when we talk about internationalism? What is feminism, what is women’s liberation? What is liberalism? What about middle class ideology? Or more generally, understanding things that are taking the radical aspects of our struggles away from us and turning our struggles into something very liberal. I think something like that might have happened in France, if you look at the potential that France has – and I’m talking about the struggling people, not the state. Such a big potential and yet such a weak position now. It seems to be a contradiction to us, considering the existence of such an important tradition, such a valuable heritage, including the Paris Commune. Today, people should be protecting revolutionary movements all over the world. It is crucial to protect revolutionary struggles and their heritage inside France against ideological and political attacks, which have been happening especially after the election of Macron. I think a lot of things are changing. Sometimes the capitalist system is launching attacks in a very subtle way. Often we only realize things after they happened. I think because the society of France has been radical on a lot of issues, it’s important to protect this culture, to defend it against all kinds of attacks and especially ideological attacks which are absorbing our consciousness.
If I return to your first question when you asked what can people do if they want to show solidarity, I think first of all they should protect their own revolutionary heritage. They should defend their revolutionary history first because if they are defending it in France they are defending the revolution in Rojava at the same time. If the radical women’s movement is protecting its 250 years of struggle for women’s liberation, this means it is at the same time making the most valuable contribution to our struggle and to the international women’s struggle. It’s not so much the case that we have to go outside and show support. We have to do it in a dialectical way. Defending these legacies at home but also defending them outside. If we do these things together I think that demonstrated the solidarity of the 21st century. If we look back at the French revolution, to the march of women throughout history – not just Olympe de Gouges but also many other radical women that were killed because of their radical positions, then later, the leading role of the women in the Commune of Paris – we can see that this constitutes a great heritage. We know that women have also always been struggling against their male comrades because we know that inside the French socialist movement and the left in general, patriarchal approaches have been always very strong. Maybe they would not believe that themselves, but I think this has also been an important reason for why revolutions have failed: the patriarchal approaches of the male so-called socialists or revolutionaries towards their female comrades. We should take these lessons from history and I think that by doing so the movements in France today could play an important role for the international women’s liberation struggle.