The Gender Security Project
Organizing Transformed Spaces: Kurdish Women, Jineologi, and Rojava
By Stuti Srivastava
A mural in support of the YPJ in Bologna, Italy
It is perhaps true that the Kurdish resistance garnered most media attention with the circulation and popularization of images of female militants of Kurd armies, symbols of a revolution where women were more not mere victims of violence, but important actors and agents. However, there is a longer history of social revolution that precedes these women taking up arms - a revolution that sought to change interpersonal relationships, community rules and settings and ways of dissemination of information and ideology and pave the way for a future that allows the imagination and realization of radically transformed spaces. The heroism of the Kurdish guerrilla women is accompanied by the painstaking work of women indulging in groundwork to organize and innovate alternative forms of resistance that would be a step in accomplishing the kind of world the women’s movement in Kurdistan wishes to achieve and inhabit.
Even before garnering media attention in the West, Kurdish women were being recruited to militant forces, forming Congresses, and parties were forming women’s wings. On 8 March 1995, the first women’s congress took place, and by 1999 the PKK had a separate women’s wing. (Melis, 2016) In the early 1990s, by some estimates, women made up a third of the fighting force of 17,000 militants in the PKK. (Ozcab, 2007) PKK leader Ocalan’s views that centered women and anti-patriarchal resistance in the fight against the state and capitalism, largely stemming from Engel’s writings and Marxist-Leninist ideology, served as an important base for Kurdish women’s resistance. The Kurdish movement’s aim later shifted to a goal of ‘democratic confederalism’. We can find traces of both these visions in the ideals and beliefs that have governed Kurdish feminist actions.
The women’s science proposed by the Kurdish movement – Jineoloji, reflects a mix of the above. It rejects liberal feminist discourse and seeks to go ‘beyond feminism’ in all its interventions. Simply put, it seeks to challenge traditional masculinity in the region, center the experiences of women in popular, political discourse and systematically bring about a change in methods of knowledge production. It is critical of knowledge production being the ‘monopoly’ of Western, academic institutions. Instead, the idea is to develop a new scientific paradigm closely linked to women’s experiences and phenomena existing within society, as opposed to knowledge production emerging in academic institutions. As Ocalan puts, it is to ‘build academies under every tree’, recognizing that everyone is simultaneously a student and teacher. Jineoloji seeks to uncover local knowledge that is relevant in women’s everyday lives: women’s roles in history and natural societies, as well as knowledge about the natural world, such as herbalism. (Al-Ali and Kaser, 2020)
Such a paradigm has allowed ordinary, less educated women to take part in everyday activism at several levels. Organisation of any kind has been key to the Kurdish women’s movement, which has subsequently brought about changes like the abolishment of child marriage, and introduced women’s quotas and co-chairing in leadership positions. Another immediate goal is the internationalisation of their struggle – building transnational networks between indigenous feminist groups practicing a decolonial, anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal resistance.
Building alternative mechanisms of resistance that complement the risk and danger of militancy with the tenets of cooperation, care and aid is a continuous task. It is an ongoing process of collaborative state and society building. It is appealing to the interacting areas of revolution, ideology and organisation, that lies in the foremost, perhaps most difficult task of breaking free of oppressive family and societal structures.
But this systemic dissemination of ideology and education is radical in more ways than one. Kurdish voices remain situated at the heart of entrenched conflicts concerning political sovereignty, national belonging, and cultural legitimacy. (Schafers, 2017) There are several methods women have taken up to voice resistance against state repression and patriarchal setups, recount history and culture and spread information. Kurdish women have found a way of resistance in writing, with literature becoming an important tool documenting personal and political struggles. But writing is accessible to only so many people. (Like, Ava Homa’s Daughters of Smoke and Fire is the first English novel by a Kurdish woman to ever be published.) Women have found other ways to voice their opinions. For example, dengbejs are traditional singers of folkloric poetry, who have now taken up the art to sing about Kurdish history, state repression and the revolution. The politics of voice is especially important to these women, because of a historical denial of any voice at all to not just women, but their entire community. It is not just dissemination of information or encapsulation of theory and emotions, it is a radical taking up of space in the face of a repressive political set-up, along with religious and socio-patriarchal institutions that have prescribed shame and dishonour to women’s voices being heard.
In such context, Rojava, the autonomous region inhabited by Kurds, with a polity based on non-hierarchical principles, sustainable ecologism and community-based governance is a society in line with the vision of Kurdish women. Rojava is the exact opposite of the masculine, capitalist nation state. It sustains a system of decentralised social organisation that centers both men and women as decision makers. The community remains central, which ensures that it is the people who remain ultimately sovereign. People’s direct participation in decision making is encouraged. This is in line with the PKK ideology and with jineoloji, which sees the state as an inherently oppressive institution. So, conflict resolution is carried out within communes through region specific reconciliation communities, women decide on social laws, and economic decisions are also taken through a direct democratic process.
The economic vision in Rojava is based on values set forth by a Belgium-based NGO called International Cooperative Alliance: mutual help, mutual responsibility, democracy, equality, fairness and solidarity. (Shilton, 2019) Many women have started their own small businesses, and there is a constant effort on the part of the community to erase all aspects of capitalist mentality. Though not completely reformed, family structures are transforming. From spaces of abuse and oppression where women had no voice and there was complete patriarchal dominance, they are transforming into safer spaces of equality and collaboration. There is indeed a long way to go still, but Rojava is a testament to the ability of people to govern themselves, and to the fact that alternative, sustainable socio-economic setups based on the feminist ideals of co-operation and solidarity are completely possible, if not completely necessary.
Kurdish Women in Rojava: From Resistance to Reconstruction - Pinar Tank
Writing against loss: Kurdish women, subaltern authorship, and the politics of voice in contemporary Turkey – Marlene Schafers
Beyond Feminism? Jineolojî and the Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement – Nadje Al Ali and I Kaser.
Gendering Resistance: Multiple Faces of the Kurdish Women’s Struggle – N. Goksel
Beyond Female Soldiers: The Feminism of Rojava - Melis
PKK Recruitment of Female Operatives - Nihat Ali Ozcan