Founders of Radical Democracy: Experiences of Women Liberation Movements

As the people who are fighting against and resisting capitalist modernity and for freedom, democracy, equality; in short, life, I believe we are experiencing a period of historical importance. This is a time when Capitalist Modernity, the last representative of state-class and power based civilisation is not only being questioned, but alternative systems are being developed and practised. The forces of capitalist modernity have now begun another wave of attacks to find ways out of the systemic, social, economic, ecological, political and moral problems it has created; some are calling this ‘World War III.’ At the foundations of this quest for a way out are attacks against and suppression of movements struggling for freedom and democracy — they also propose alternatives. One of the most important searches for an alternative system is being carried out by Women’s Freedom Movements. The Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement is carrying out this role in Kurdistan.

The roots of capitalist modernity can be found in the 5000 year old stateclass and power based civilisation. The initial formation, configuration and permeation of this civilisation was in the Middle East. Furthermore this formation, configuration and permeation was based on the fragmentation, suppression and appropriation of the (previous) civilisation formed around women. The saying ‘History begins with Sumer’ is correct from the perspective of state-class-power based civilisation, however this is also the beginning of the history of slavery and exploitation of women, peoples, ethnic-cultural structures and the ecological world. State-class and power based civilisation is founded on the distortion or perversion of the relationship between women and men and the mentality created by this. At the root of the strengthened state structure — the administration tool of the elites — and the approach to this as being ‘a law,’ even by those seeking alternative systems, turning some into ‘rulers’ and others ‘the ruled’ lies the reality of woman being turned into the first slave person and first exploited class. An analysis of this reality and the disclosure of the secret history of woman, has now become more important than ever.

If we look at contemporary society we can see that Capitalist Modernity is the most abysmal system for the enslavement of the sexes and can safely say that it is an enemy of women. The Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement views capitalist modernity as the dominant social formation which began its rise in Western Europe from the 16th century onwards and finds its roots in Middle Eastern (Sumerian) civilisation. It is organised in the military-political-cultural spheres to extort all the material accumulation and social values of society. The capitalist system was constructed with the decimation of the societal values, wisdom and life model of the women of this region. History has witnessed the burning of countless women until the 18th century, when women who carried this wisdom and social power, were burnt as ‘witches.’ In this sense capitalist modernity is ‘the modern circle of the tradition of extortion of the societal values of women by the plunderers organised around the first strong man.’

The gender identity of woman has never been made as vulnerable to exploitation as it is in the current system. Woman’s thought, body, spirit and labour has been fragmented and put on the market fearlessly in the name of ‘freedom.’ The biggest market of this system is based on the marketing of woman’s body. Capitalism, in a most systematic fashion, has impoverished woman, occupied her body-spirit using rape culture and eradicated her natural and ecological habitat. Woman has been turned into a worker in and outside the home and a material for advertising and popular culture. The changes made in the ‘law’ have not created equality in practice and are always being kept open-ended to serve the interests of the status quo.

Power relations are constantly deepened in the name of either feudalism or capitalism. Despite all its liberal rhetoric, capitalism condemns woman to its own sphere of disposal and does this deceptively under the banner of ‘destroying tradition.’ In this sense ‘classic slavery’ has been replaced by ‘modern-civilised slavery. This system has determined values for every part of a woman’s body, from her hair to her eyes; and turned her into a vehicle for pleasure in the home and the brothel, as well as the creator of workers-soldiers for the capitalist system. Furthermore woman, under the guise of love-affection, has been turned into an object for slaughter. The types of women who are deemed most ‘acceptable’ for the system, are only allowed to exist as such as long they sustain and perpetuate this system. Therefore the existence and sustainment of capitalism is founded fundamentally on the exploitation of woman. The institutions of family and marriage are kept alive as substitute cells of the mini-state, and are sanctified accordingly. This system rests on a mentality that denies societal morality and deems it as being meaningless.

In this sense women’s freedom movements are the most important forces for the formation of an alternative system against capitalist modernity, because they are organised with the intention of overcoming sexism. Feminist movements that have developed within capitalist modernity in the past 200 years have made the experiences of women visible. These feminist movements have taken their place amongst movements that have struggled against the system from the end of the 18th century onwards. Furthermore feminism has played an important role in developing consciousness, enlightening and organising women, especially in Europe; and developed a consciousness about gender, history and patriarchal mentality, leading to a questioning of the system. This struggle has gained victories for women in the legal sphere as well, showing great resistance and sacrificing much to gain these. The mentality of the system, its policies and instruments have been questioned from an ideological perspective. Important research has been conducted to shed light on the history of humanity. Women’s movements organised within national or class freedom movements have gained important resistant and struggle experiences. However there have also been inadequacies dimensions in these struggles. For example an alternative modernity to the current system has not been developed in practice. Furthermore they have not been able to extract women fully from the control and influence of the power-state system and male-domination.

Despite all their inadequacies and deficiencies, women’s freedom movements and resistances represent an alternative against capitalist modernity just due to their ontological reality. It would be beneficial at this point to present the experiences of the Kurdish women’s freedom struggle and state some results:

Problems of societal freedom should not be appraised separately and detached from one another. The issue of gender freedom cannot be handled separately from other societal problems. The issue of gender is not just an issue for woman. It is the most important problem for men and the rest of society as well. If power-relations have been constructed around the male then a resolution to the problem of freedom must tackle the issue of emancipating man as much as woman.

It is as important to illuminate the history of woman as the history of oppressed and exploited nations, classes and the natural world. As the how and why of the mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, social, political and economic exploitation of woman is comprehended, the male-dominated colonialist mentality which perpetrates this will also be understood. Therefore it is important to note and reject the status’ of ‘mother, partner, lover, honour’ which are enforced on women. Freeing woman from being a sexual object-thing will also mean freeing sexuality from it being used as an instrument of the power-structures in colonising the whole society.

Another important point from the perspective of social struggles is to comprehend correctly the necessity for women’s organisations to develop their own unique and independent women’s systems. It is imperative for oppressed peoples and classes to develop free and independent organisations in overcoming the capitalist system, which has accumulated great

internal problems and contradictions regarding equality and freedom. Furthermore these movements and organisations must struggle for the supersession of sexism and the transformation of this into an equal and free relationship between the sexes and view the unique and independent organisation of women as the sine qua non of their struggle. To say ‘we are all being oppressed, we will struggle collectively and defeat the system,’ is not sufficient. The experiences of reel socialism has shown that problems of social freedom are not resolved following the ‘revolution.’

Women’s freedom struggles have a multifarious character. On one hand they struggle against capitalist modernity and state-class based civilisation; and are at the same time the vanguard of the freedom movement of the sexes against the effects of this civilisation on society and its brand of modernity. The important characteristic of the Kurdish woman’s freedom struggle in forming an alternative to capitalist modernity, is its desire to realise a democratic, ecological and gender-emancipatory society. On one hand the struggle is against capitalist modernity in the Middle East to form Democratic Confederalism (KCK) in Kurdistan and on the other, it is to form the democratic confederalism of women (KJB) within this alternative system.

The Kurdistan freedom struggle led by the PKK has a 35 year history. In the beginning the PKK had the aim of determining the existence of the Kurds based on national and class perspectives. Reel socialist influences were evident during the party’s formation. These influences were overcome mainly due to the different social classes that joined the PKK and the positive, determinant and important effect Öcalan had on their change and transformation of character.

Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of PKK and Kurdistan Freedom Movement, experienced national, societal and class conflict along with conflicts based around gender issues since he was a child. By witnessing the reality of his mother and sisters, and watching the relations between men and women in the village, he realised how people’s identities were eroded and how they were enslaved. This is why he says; ‘I did not want to live in a society like that, but I didn’t have a society in which I could live freely. In this sense my struggle is to create a society in which I can live in freedom.’ In the years ensuing the formation of the PKK, Öcalan alongside national, class and societal issues and conflict, also viewed, experienced and resolved the issue of gender; resulting in the issue of women’s freedom being an important part of the struggle for freedom and socialism.

At this point Öcalan made an important distinction in his approach to the issue of woman within the PKK and Kurdish struggle for freedom. He said; ‘The level of a society’s freedom can be measured by the freedom of the women in that society. Without the freedom of woman, society cannot be free.’ Following the 1980s this issue took up an important place in especially Abdullah Öcalan›s analysis. A male militant’s socialist stance was measured fundamentally by his approach to woman and the women’s freedom struggle.

Such analysis and praxis opened the path for Kurdish women to join Kurdish Freedom Movement in large numbers. For most of the women who joined they initially experienced conflict and contradictions regarding the national question alone, but later they also began realising conflict and contradictions in the gender issue, leading to the resolution of these and the development of the woman’s freedom ideology and organisation. In question was the system’s slave woman-sovereign man mentality and behavioural patterns and how this became a characteristic of man and woman. An answer to the question ‘How should one live’ was searched for. This search which began in the second half of the 1980s ended in the 1990s with the separate organisation of women, a women’s army, the women’s emancipation ideology, a project to transform man and to form a women’s political party.

After 1999 Abdullah Öcalan developed the Democratic modernity alternative and placed at its centre the democratic-ecological-gender emancipatory society paradigm and women’s freedom. Öcalan based the rise of power, state and exploitation on man appropriating the values created by woman, and therefore assessed that the freedom of society lay with the freedom of woman so that the power-state structure, exploitation and slavery could be overcome. All problems of class, sect, nation, nature have its roots in the male system created against woman. While developing this paradigm Öcalan initially looked to his own personality and questioned himself to overcome the effects of the system on his character. He has, in this sense, defeated the positivist, orientalist view-point, the hierarchical-state and sovereign mentality and philosophy in his own persona. Following this he has developed his alternative model against capitalist modernity.

The women of the Kurdistan Freedom struggle have on one hand fought against the feudal mentality within society and on the other strengthened their organisation against the attacks of the capitalist system by turning their perspectives on freedom into a working organisational structure. This struggle has also made its mark on the struggle of the people of Kurdistan for democracy and freedom. In this sense, the struggle of women has been an important determinant in the development of the Kurdish national struggle along principles of democracy and freedom.

There were difficulties in the beginning regarding comprehending the importance and meaning of a separate and autonomous women’s struggle. One approach was, ‘If the Kurdish people become free, Kurdish women will also become free, there is no need for a separate organisation,’ ‘Kurdish society is feudal, women shouldn’t join the armed struggle, they shouldn’t join in demonstrations,’ while the other was, ‘women are defenceless, they must be defended.’ Alongside this was the fascist attacks of the Turkish state against women’s organisations, which became torture and rape in prison as well as police and military operations, arrests and massacres in the cities and mountains. The spin doctors of this fascism — analysts, journalists and intellectuals — were provoking societal backwardness and domestic and societal violence against women by saying ‘PKK is tricking women into going to the mountains, these women are ignorant, they have not even been to school,’. The murder of women under the guise of ‘honour,’ and the rape of female children, have met with reductions in sentences in court and the Turkish state’s governor in Siirt has supported this savagery by saying ‘they will grow up to be terrorists anyway.’ The state has placed at the basis of its massacre of the people, the massacre of the will-body-mind of women.

The women’s freedom movement, which has developed its struggle in multifarious ways has predicated its praxis on educating, transforming and democratising the Kurdish people against the political-military and economic attacks of the state; as well as transforming men and strengthening the intellect, will, organisation, and activity of women based on the new paradigm. Furthermore, work is being done so that men and not just women stand up against the violence, polygamy, forced marriages, circumcision, harassment and rape women face in Kurdish society; and also so that the will and decisions of women are respected; that women can take their own decisions about their lives and can become involved in the political, ideological, legitimate defence and social-economic spheres of life as a social individual. In this sense the women and men of Kurdish society have been taken away from the control of the system and have been given the opportunity to take place in the building of an alternative society. Starting from local level, women’s parliaments, communes, organisations, academies for learning politics, cooperatives and the participation of women in local administration and politics has developed and become the new fields of the struggle.

The struggle of Kurdish women also crosses borders. It has the aim of struggling and organising not just in Kurdistan but everywhere where there are patriarchal systems and practices. It has the aim of meeting, partnering with and supporting any women’s movement that is against capitalist modernity. It is evident that the struggle of women’s unions in Kurdistan, the Middle East and rest of the world on an international level will develop and strengthen radical democracy. Escaping the system’s and man’s mentality and accepted modes of being through cooperating and uniting to develop a unique perspective and solution to present to humanity will bring about a universal mentality that will also succeed locally.

Looking at it from this perspective, women’s freedom struggles have correct reasons and excuses to break away from capitalist modernity, its model of administration, the state, and its power relations and policies. This is why women have to be able to defend themselves and be the most conscious, organised and systematic force against a system that constantly presents itself under different guises. It needs to be comprehended well that the first target of the system has always been woman. Therefore a solution should not be expected or demanded of the system. We have a solution and the necessary skill, experience and legitimacy to realise our own social model.

The final representative of state-class based civilisation is capitalist modernity and it is currently the hegemonic modernity around the world. To be against this modernity is important. However it is not enough. The mentalities, ideological arguments, methodologies and vehicles those who are against it use are also important. We know all too well that, ‘if the mentality and methodology used to solve a problem is the same, the result will also always be the same.’ In this sense, movements struggling for gender equality, ecology, national, ethnic, cultural, and social-democratic freedoms must engage in an entrenched and radical analysis of the system. To not begin with this will mean the struggle in overcoming capitalist modernity, will result in a situation that does not go beyond being in constant opposition to it. Having said this, ‘power-sovereignty’ should not be demanded neither in the name of women, men, nations, socialism nor ecology. ‘A state,’–its vehicle–should not be demanded either. These two things produce societal sexism, violence, exploitation, famine, poverty, force, oppression, nationalism, and societal and ecological problems.

If the aim is equality and freedom, then democracy should be strengthened. Regarding this Öcalan says, ‘Rather than making a revolution for society, those who are struggling must aim to clear the obstacles preventing society from making a revolution.’ Only a women’s freedom movement that approaches the issue in this way can be an alternative to capitalist modernity, and play a leading and fundamental role in building democratic modernity.

This text was delivered as a speech to “Challenging Capitalist Modernity—Alternative Concepts and the Kurdish Quest” – Conference in Hamburg 2012. The whole book of the conference can be downloaded here