Struggling against the system in ourselves: criticism and self-criticism

Many people are interested in the system of criticism and self-criticism and methods of personality development within the Kurdish liberation movement. The movement’s education is not only a way of accumulating knowledge, but also a practice of liberating personalities that have been shaped and formed by the dominant system of capitalist, patriarchal society. As freedom is only possible in a liberated community, free individuals must be developed to lead the struggle. Revolution cannot be lead by people, confined to traditional ideas around womanhood and manhood. Below, we publish an interview from the book “Widerstand und gelebte Utopien” (Resistance and Lived Utopias – Women’s Guerrilla, Women’s Liberation and Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan) of 2012.

Written in the German language, the book is based on numerous interviews conducted in 2010 with women fighters and other active women in the Kurdish women’s movement. They reflect the hopes and concerns of the interviewees at a time when the Kurdish movement was caught between the construction of an alternative society and resistance to the attempts of the Turkish state and its allies to exterminate them. Different women from Western Europe conducted these interviews during trips to Southern Kurdistan. Some visited the refugee camp Mexmûr and Southern Kurdish cities. Others travelled to the Qandil region or the Medya Defence Areas, held by the guerrillas. The book was published before the revolution of Rojava. Ever since, these concepts and methods have been further developed parallel to efforts of creating a democratic, ecological and women’s liberationist society.

 PAJK is the Kurdistan Women’s Liberation Party, the autonomous women’s party of the Kurdish freedom movement. KJB, the High Women’s Council was the former umbrella organization of the Kurdish women’s movement. In 2014, it was dissolved, when the Communities of Women in Kurdistan (KJK) was established as an umbrella organization for the establishment of women’s autonomous democratic confederal system.

Personality development – Tekmîl, assemblies, platforms and the system of criticism and self-criticism

 “On the one hand, there is a system that is based on values of freedom and that represents a perspective of freedom. On the other hand, there is the perspective of the state, which is based on exploitation and oppression. We’re in between for now.”

The discussion about personality development is understood as a process that takes place within the struggle. In the debate on the results of real socialism, the question of personality was discussed again and again. For in the course of these revolutions, attempts had been made to build up a new system, but too little question was asked about the extent to which a revolution is not only an upheaval, but also takes place in the personality of the people, said Hevala Çiçek. The point is to question and understand mechanisms of domination, for example concerning the socialization of women, specific class characteristics and patriarchal attitudes of men. Fighting against the system of domination and the effects of this system in a collective process is understood as a part of life and struggle.


There are several structures for this collective process. Tekmîls are short meetings, usually held daily, where difficulties in everyday life or criticism and self-criticism regarding an immediate situation are discussed. There are then regular meetings, about every one to six months, where topics are discussed in more depth. Another structure is formed by the platforms at congresses or after educational units, where each friend reads out his or her report individually in front of the assembly, in which the person analyses and self-critically reflects – on the evaluation and accomplishment of the work and the responsibility that one had taken on, what was understood by the lessons, where there were developments or standstills, on the evaluation of concrete mistakes in everyday life and in the struggle, the relationship to the gender question and to what extent she or he has internalized or practised certain characteristics of the system. This is complemented by the criticism and opinions of the other friends present. Criticism is not directed at the person as an individual, but at characteristics and behaviour in concrete terms. These structures also enable all fighters to criticize a wrong understanding and misbehavior of commanders and, if necessary, to demand their replacement.

How are the conflicts about personality development going?

Young female fighters of a unit in the Medya Defence Areas explain in a conversation:

It’s not like somebody’s going to come along and say, “Let’s analyze your personality.” This is a process that takes place within the struggle and it means being able to reflect on yourself and your life and helping each other. Especially women who grow up in society are prepared for a certain role at a young age as girls. The food they are given as well as the clothes and so on play a key role, i.e. how the socialization processes take place under the conditions of the prevailing society. This also always has an effect on the behaviour of friends [here in the guerrilla]. It influences what they like, what they don’t like, etc. We try to be aware of all these details, why we like something and why not, what is behind it. Just what animals or plants a person likes reflects criteria of how a person has been socialized. Especially in practice many characteristics come to light. It shows in the way which ones participate or which works they like to do. Then we try to discuss the contradiction, to become aware of the elements of our socialization, which are supposed to prepare us to live within a patriarchal society. What are the classic female characteristics that are taught to us? And what are the characteristics that we imagine in life as free women? We try to approach this slowly at the beginning. Later on we go into more detail and try to discuss, solve and develop this together. All in all, it is important not to make the distinction between a “good man” and a “bad man” in the gender struggle, because man is man. Everyone has gotten their share of the patriarchal attitude. It is important to understand patriarchy as part of the system we are fighting against. It cannot be reduced to a personal conflict. But the system of domination and the mechanisms of domination itself must be questioned. First of all, all friends who join the movement accept the analyses and principles of Abdullah Ocalan. At this point, especially among young friends, it is necessary that a real debate takes place. The principles of the gender struggle in particular contain important arguments or analyses that men have not yet internalised. At this point there are often superficial approaches. They say: “I’m not macho, I’m not a dominator.” That is why we try, through our gender struggle, to make it clear to what extent the system has influenced the personal development of each individual. At this point our struggle still continues.

The point is not to make the analysis based on artificial contradictions. We are not interested in trivialities, but in making it easier to understand the extent to which mechanisms of domination are reproduced. Fighting against this must also be perceived as part of our life and struggle. Nevertheless, there are still difficulties, both in finding the right methodology and in organizing a collective process in which, so to speak, male domination is broken in the minds. There is still a long way to go.

Criticism and self-criticism – so that we can free ourselves from the system in which we were socialized

“As much as we succeed in self-critically questioning ourselves and analysing the system in our own personality, we also succeed in criticising other friends when they reproduce the characteristics of the system.” Hevala Narîn, 2010 

Hevala Narîn in a conversation:

Criticism and self-criticism or the struggle with the question of personality are important elements in freeing ourselves from the system in which we have been socialized. Indeed, the system has crept into all our ways of thinking and behaving. That is why criticism and self-criticism play an extremely central role. We see this as a comprehensive approach to freeing ourselves from this system. Only then is a holistic rebuilding possible, only then can we create a new mentality. If a person thinks in the ways of the system, often the actions of this person also serve the system. If we do not re-create ourselves outside of this system, we are not really in opposition to it and cannot fight it successfully. When we join a revolutionary movement, we first come into that movement with all the qualities that have been taught to us by the system. Of course, there are some things in us that make us decide to join. There are certain sides of the system that we reject, or we are in search of humanity, or we want to do something for our people – these are all reasons that have played a role for us. But very few of us have completely analysed the system and rejected it. Every single one of us is actually a system of our own, a personality. In order to create free will and to be able to think freely, it is necessary that we understand how the system works. And we must understand ourselves. The more intensively we deal with what the ideology of liberation is, the more we succeed in rejecting the system. On the one hand there is a model based on values of freedom, which is a perspective of freedom, and on the other hand there is the perspective of the state, which is based on exploitation and oppression. For now we find ourselves between the two. The weapon of criticism and self-criticism starts at this point. So, on the one hand there is the system you want to build, what you are fighting for, and on the other hand there is the system that wants to keep you in captivity. In order for us to criticize something, we have to know what is wrong. We have to understand in which way the system has occupied our soul, our thoughts. We have to be clear about that, so that we know where we can start with our criticism.

For us, self-criticism means exposing the effects of the system on ourselves and fighting against them. It is first of all a fundamental attitude for all militants in the movement. Especially for women, this usually acquires even more depth. As much as we succeed in self-critically questioning ourselves and analysing the system in our own personality, we also succeed in criticising other friends when they reproduce characteristics of the system.

We see ourselves as a “movement of criticism and self-criticism” and we have evolved on this basis. If we did not question ourselves, we would not succeed in constituting ourselves anew. This is not something that we only manifest theoretically, but something that finds its expression in everyday life, for example in the way we deal with each other, in our relationships. We criticize this as class characteristics; for example, “the behavior is petty bourgeois”, “this approach comes from the influence of capitalist modernity”, or this is “exaggerated villagery” or these are “feudal characteristics”. We criticize the sides of the system that are expressed in certain behavior and certain approaches. If we did not practice this criticism and self-criticism among ourselves, there would be no difference between us and the system. As a movement we refer to this basis. It is not just a matter of words, but of condemning the system in our own personality. It is a very radical approach. It is a criterion and a principle by which militants in the movement educate themselves. The personality development of the militants is thus realized.

Abdullah Ocalan, too, in [Prison Island] Imralı, has self-critically questioned certain practices of the movement and examined his own personal role within the whole. In doing so, he analyses how he grew up, where the roots and causes of certain attitudes lie and how this has affected the practice. His strength is that he constantly questions himself through the mechanism of self-criticism and criticism in his person and uses this as a force for change and renewal. In this way he also succeeds in shielding himself from outside influences, even under the conditions of captivity. It is also a fundamental principle for us as a women’s movement, which we apply in our fight against patriarchal dominant attitudes in the guerrilla. Criticism and self-criticism are an important source of strength for us.

What did you create structurally to continuously develop the process of self-reflection in the guerrilla?

There is a system called Tekmîl and Assembly. The Tekmîl is daily or every two or three days. At this short meeting, things that concern everyday life, difficulties in everyday life or criticism and self-criticism regarding an immediate situation are brought up. There are also meeting cycles of one week, one month or, in the larger period, six months. At the meetings topics are discussed in a deeper way, for example how a friend takes her responsibilities. For example, if a friend thinks that I have certain class characteristics such as petty bourgeois approaches, or if a friend thinks that I do not involve other friends enough in my work, then these things are criticised at the meetings. Depending on the responsibility a friend has, she may be criticised for not living up to that responsibility, or for relying too much on men’s strength and not developing her own strength enough. Such things are questioned and discussed at the regular meetings in a certain period. Another characteristic of criticism and self-criticism is that at congresses or after educational units, each one prepares his or her report. A self-criticism report is written in which everyone analyses and self-critically reflects on the extent to which certain system characteristics have been internalised or practised. For such characteristics are an obstacle to putting the ideology into practice in everyday life. The sides which one does not see in oneself but which are perceived by the environment are then brought up by the other friends through criticism. There are some things that people do not notice themselves or do not want to admit to themselves. If you only try to question yourself, it is less effective than if a hundred other people express their opinion. This helps to overcome the characteristics of the system more easily.

Are these self-criticism reports part of the reports that the cadres send to the PAJK every 6 months?

The half-yearly reports are not primarily about criticism and self-criticism. They can contain general suggestions or opinions on the work of the women’s movement as a whole, or each can evaluate their own work or share views on the political situation or other topics. It is more about getting an overall impression of the situation of the cadres, the organisation and the work. So that the opinions of as many people as possible are taken into account. Self-criticism is practiced more within the framework of platforms. Each friend reads her report individually in front of the assembly, which is supplemented by criticism and the opinions of the other friends present.

Are these then the friends from the same units who express criticism?

So in general, at these meetings there are always friends with whom you have been in practice and who know you very well, and they can evaluate you even more accurately. But overall, everyone knows each other quite well and gets to know each other, even if you haven’t been in the same unit. When you read out your report, a friend can also use the report to tell whether or not it is consistent with the ideology. Everyone has the opportunity to express their opinion. But most of the reviews already come from the friends with whom you have shared a common practice. There is also the right to defend yourself against false criticism. If a friend thinks that criticism is not appropriate at all, she will say so. She can then also demand that the critic explains how the criticism is meant and in what context it stands. You also have the right to say, well, you see it that way, but I don’t see it with me. But in general it is an important principle that you ask yourself why a friend comes to such a criticism. Even if you say it has nothing to do with me, I don’t see it in me. Instead of taking it personally or interpreting it as a personal antipathy, you should think about what gave a friend reason to express this criticism at a meeting and what part you played in this. This questioning process is sometimes very deep. Especially when criticism triggers a reflex not to accept it. This often leads to a very serious discussion afterwards about what about yourself and your actions meant another friend could experience you in this way.

Are the criticised ones then left to deal with it on their own?

If there is hard criticism or things one cannot cope with, then mutual support is very important. Friends in particular often feel responsible for discussing the points of criticism again with friends with whom they work and who have problems, to make the problems more comprehensible and to find solutions. So, they not only condemn, but also look how they can work on it, i.e. approach each other again after the criticism, ask each other why and when someone withdraws. That is a really fundamental form of behavior.

Critique and self-criticism can also be transformed into the opposite of what is to be achieved, into an instrument of power. What are the ways to prevent this?

On the one hand, it is the case that not only one person is present on these platforms, but that if something goes wrong, the others also take the initiative and say, no, that is not true – I don’t see it that way. In situations like this, they also intervene. If someone has the feeling that something is being done destructively or that some kind of plot is being made with serious accusations, then it is often the case that the person demands an investigation of himself. They say that the accusation is not true and demand that it be investigated by an independent commission. This is then not limited to the platform of the friends present. Such a proposal can then be accepted.

What is done in the event of serious accusations? What tasks are there? What leads to exclusion? And what structures are there for this?

If, for example, one member of the YJA Star is very individualistic, makes a mess of everything, disrupts collective life and causes friends to fall or be endangered, this can lead to exclusion. If there are such incidents, then action is taken. The sooner, the better. Then the leadership of the unit will write a report about the mistakes and fault. On the other hand, the person concerned can then prepare his or her own report, in which he or she defends himself or herself against accusations or deals with them self-critically.Then there is a platform in her unit where at least 25-30 friends gather. And the unit then comes to a decision with the friend.

It is often the case that the first time a chance is given when a self-critical discussion takes place. This means that she says that this and that is true, I did wrong and she must promise not to repeat it. In the case of repetition there are sometimes sanctions, i.e. that she has to work more in the production area, take over kitchen work or logistical tasks [e.g. carrying supplies from one place to another or setting up storage facilities] for a certain time. Or in the case of those who have collaborated with men, it has happened that the unit has said that as a punishment it should not talk to men for six months. Or if a man has behaved wrongly towards female friends, then we collectively as women decide that we no longer greet this man and no longer speak to him. These are decisions that we make within the women’s movement. These are our autonomous decisions. We can decide on sanctions in this area ourselves. We have the right to suspend commanders for up to three or six months. But there are also more severe penalties. In more serious incidents, if a mistake is repeated several times or leads to the death of friends, we can decide to freeze membership for one year. But we must then pass this on to the PAJK.

The minutes, results and decisions of the platform, together with the report and the assessments of the respective PAJK committee, which the friend in question knows in practice, are sent to the PAJK headquarters. There the final decision is then taken. They decide whether or not they agree with the Platform’s decision. In most cases, the assessment is supported by local people, but there is also a monitoring body to which appeals can be submitted. If, for example, some have left and come back, they cannot be taken up again without the agreement of the PAJK. First of all, a commission of investigation is set up. Then it is looked into why, under what circumstances the person had left and what the reasons are that they came back to the movement. This has to be investigated in detail, because there may be other things at play. Then we write a report on how we assess the situation of those people. And the PAJK coordination has the possibility of obtaining information from other sources. That is how the decision is finally taken as to whether or not a person is to be admitted to membership again.

But also those who are exposed to accusations have the right to write to the PAJK or the KJB with their personal opinion, presentation, point of view and to state their own position. If it comes out that a local leadership has made a wrong assessment of the situation, has come to a wrong decision, the PAJK or the KJB can also interfere and demand accountability from the respective leadership. Recently, a board wanted a self-critical report from a friend. But it turned out that in this case he had come to a false judgement. This friend had been accused without any reason. She then sent her report to the KJB. There the matter was investigated again. The KJB came to the conclusion that the local board had taken a wrong approach, and then demanded something like reparation. We then demanded a self-criticism report from all members of this leadership as to why they had come to such a decision without first carrying out an investigation and obtaining information, without first clarifying the facts of the case in more detail.

The state also uses methods such as infiltrating agents, which leads to uncertainty and mistrust. How do you deal with this, so that no collective mistrust arises?

During the training of the new fighters, there are always those who are found to have been introduced as agents. But often this comes out quite quickly, because our lives are aimed at achieving a change [in people]. Because when we see that someone, instead of acting collectively or becoming productively involved, is deliberately destructive, then this is followed up. In such cases it has often been shown that there were other forces at work.

But there are also others who, after a month, when they have got to know life and friends here, arrive themselves and admit that the state has sent them.

There had been a group which was sent to infiltrate in the last two years. This has been established because an investigation has been started. One of the group had admitted this. He then exercised self-criticism and finally decided that he wanted to join the movement. He was then admitted and is currently fighting in the Zagros area. Now in the last training period at the Şehîd-Bêrîtan Academy was also a young woman who had been sent by the enemy. She has confessed this and then made the decision to join herself. Many of those who were sent by the state are now aware of the contradictions and understand that they were cheated by the system. There were some who were kicked out and sent back home, they came from poor families that had been baited with money and made dependent by the enemy. They had not been able to defend themselves. But our system exposes that, brings reality to light. It’s not only about agents, but also about the qualities that we have acquired, the class characteristics that we have been taught, all these things come to light. We have guidelines about what offences are, what their weighting is and what possible punishments for them can be. We don’t have the death penalty because we are against the death penalty. The most severe punishment is to be expelled from the organisation or to be disqualified from membership of the ideological party, the PAJK or the PKK. In the case of very serious offences, those concerned can also be imprisoned. In this phase, the details of what happened are clarified. Agents are not thrown out immediately, but captured. They are then investigated to find out how they got here and all the details of what happened. We do not have the conditions to build prisons, and it contradicts our ideology to keep someone imprisoned for years. But in order to prevent agents from harming the population, for example, we once captured someone who turned out to be an agent and had been involved in trafficking in women and prostitution. We recorded and filmed all his confessions on tape. We then distributed the recordings among the population so that he could no longer find a place to settle down. One or two years ago, for example, statements and confessions of infiltrating agents were broadcast on Kurdish television and when the population was informed about it, they were sent away.