Since the Franco-British division of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War, Kurdish communities straddling the borders of four turbulent Middle Eastern countries have faced widespread persecution, war, statelessness and political oppression. Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own country in the world and the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East after Arabs, Persians, and Turks. Despite pressure to endure the governing powers of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, many Kurdish people have resisted assimilation and pushed for a global recognition of their national identity. For most Kurds across the region, the overarching political goal consists of founding an independent Kurdish state, or at least establishing autonomous regions within existing states. This goal is often underpinned by a dogma marked by feminist, secular, and democratic values, giving way to unique resistance against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, the dwindling international support for an independent Kurdistan compounded by the increased instability in the region has pushed this ideologically-based struggle harder with every year that passes.
Kurdish efforts in the Iraq War and the demise of Saddam Hussein led to the establishment of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Northern Iraq, governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG). In Syria, the power-vacuum left by the retreat of government forces from the north enabled Syrian Kurdistan to gain de-facto autonomy. Known as Rojava, the autonomous administration consists of multiple democratic self-governed cantons and is protected by local militias, namely the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Meanwhile, Kurds in Turkey have faced thirty years of institutionalised repression of their culture, language and ideology, which in turn has resulted in an internal armed conflict between Turkish forces and militant Kurdish political organisations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), labelled as a terrorist group by Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
Kurdish commitments to implementing autonomous structures arose from constant conflict and regional instability, with the most severely affected being women and children. From 2010 to 2015, the KRI health ministry recorded 3,000 women died as a result of domestic violence, though due to misreporting it’s likely the number is higher. The reality of femicide among Kurdish women has resulted in a distinctive expression of leadership which has repositioned them as an integral part of governance in Kurdish society. Between navigating explosive Turkish attacks, a bloody civil war and the threat of ISIS, Syrian Kurds established a political structure guided by feminist ideology, allowing the world to witness how women can successfully lead in the face of war and patriarchy. The Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement (KWFM) was established by the co-founders of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan and Sakine Cansiz, and aims to provide an alternative to religious sectarianism, patriarchy, capitalism and chauvinistic nationalism. Both Öcalan and Cansiz have paid the price for their ideology – Cansiz was assassinated in 2015 and Öcalan has been writing from a Turkish prison since his capture in Nairobi in 1999. The movement established multiple institutions to train and educate Kurds under Öcalan’s ideology. This includes women’s academies that teach Jineoloji, the theory behind the strategic processes that elevate women in society. Öcalan’s cult-like status has garnered attention from the global left, who have come to recognise him simultaneously as an inspiring political philosopher and a respectable leader willing to engage in self-criticism.
Öcalan’s publications, released from prison, detail his vision for a thriving and equal Kurdistan. His political theory has shifted from propagating the importance of a (Kurdish) nation-state to declaring the nation-state to be the optimal environment for capitalist and patriarchal structures to thrive. Instead, he proposes a governing system that increases the power of citizens rather than that of central authorities. His solution to the Kurdish question is a political model that he has coined ‘democratic confederalism’. On this he writes:
“Democratic confederalism is open towards other political groups and factions. It is flexible, multicultural, anti-monopolistic and consensus oriented. Ecology and feminism are central pillars. In the frame of this kind of self-governance an alternative economy will become necessary, which increases the resources of the society instead of exploiting them and thus does justice to manifold the needs of society.”
In contrast to the linear and bureaucratic administration of the nation-state that homogenises society, Öcalan’s proposed democratic confederalist model seeks to liberate and diversify, posing a political formation whereby all communities and cultural identities are represented. While this may seem unfeasible in a region overwhelmingly run by authoritarian leaders, Öcalan reconciles this with the need for gender equality. He suggests that class and sexual oppression develop together and that masculinity has generated the hierarchical system of the ruling class and the ruling state. His answer to societal reform lies in the aforementioned concept of Jineoloji, the science of women. In an interview with an independent global media organisation, the editor of the Jineoloji Journal in Diyarbakir stated:
“If you analyze the historical process of how state, capital, and religion went hand in hand with a patriarchal mentality, you will realize that this process is not normal, that it has relied on power and violence. When you disrupt, destroy the very essence and meaning of life itself – which is the mentality that guides one’s treatment of nature and other human beings in this society – then everything is disrupted and destroyed. That’s why, if we can rectify our relationship with women and change people’s minds in this regard, this will have an impact on everything else in life.”
The principles of Jineoloji and democratic confederalism go hand in hand: according to Öcalan, hierarchy and statism are not easily compatible to women’s nature and any movement vying for women’s freedom should prioritise anti-hierarchical and non-statist political constructions. Essentially, gender equality is the central stake in his proposed political structure.
Naturally, Öcalan’s writings are not infallible. There has not just been contradictions pointed out and disagreements expressed by political opposition but indeed from within Kurdistan itself. Many Kurds still champion the idea of the nation-state and it is no surprise that there still exists a chasm between Kurdish political leadership and the conservative gender norms that pervade the region. Millennia-old traditions and systems of gender collide with what is central to Kurdish political ideology. Prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) is far higher in Iraqi Kurdistan than in the governorate of Iraq: in 2011 the prevalence rates in the KRI ranged from 3% to 62% whereas Iraq had a range of 0% to just 1.5%. This shows many women in the Kurdistan region continue to be bound by a strict cultural influence, a tradition that demands their subjugation and obedience – antithetical to ‘Jineologic’ teachings.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, where the theory upholds, the practice is more complex. While an egalitarian judicial and political framework that seeks to prioritise culture over religious rule is technically instated, the institutionalisation of gender equality has side-lined Kurdish female activists and failed to gain results. The influence of Abdullah Öcalan on the KRG has manifested in the existence of a gender-quota in the political structure which has been criticised by Kurdish women for being devoid of feminist identity, as is official legislation for glazing over the issue of femicide. The KRG has enacted laws that seek to protect women and to challenge gender-based violence, something that the Iraqi government has failed to replicate, however the rates of intimate partner violence continue to be a concerning, and likely underreported, phenomena. In 2013, two years after the KRG ratified an article to protect women from gender-based violence, 58.3% of women reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence. This can be attributed to the archaic and religiously-grounded traditions of honour that permeate Kurdish society. In reality the KRG has yet to fully improve the situation for women; even as women make progress in establishing leadership roles, the perennially patriarchal social structure continues to obstruct genuine equality.
This makes it all the more surprising to look at the Kurdish political movement in Rojava, where co-chairing is taken more seriously with women from all ethno-religious backgrounds being represented at all levels in leadership positions and involved in decision-making. Feminist leadership training is mandated in Rojava and social processes that legitimise women are visibly saturating society. This includes the mission of education that Rojava employs, which teaches men and women the principles of Jîneoloji and illustrates the role of women as crucial in dismantling oppressive structures. In fact, all-male militias are required to reflect on the history of patriarchal power and dissect their own relationship with masculinity.
The Impact of Kurdish Female Fighters
Injustices and gender inequality in the region have been met with political activism and military engagement from Kurdish women. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their female counterparts, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are both part of the SDF and have played a substantial role in the effort to defeat ISIS. In 2017, the YPJ consists of roughly 24,000 women, their military goal is to defeat Islamic extremist groups and their ideological goal drives their efforts. The fundamental aim of the YPJ is to vanquish the patriarchal foundations that ISIS is built on, and their method of doing so lies in the liberation of women: it is a combat led by ideology rather than purely military pursuits. Moreover, Kurdish female militias have proven incredibly effective in combat. The defeats of ISIS at the hands of the YPJ in the towns of Kobane and Sinjar in 2014 offer important insight into the efficacy of female counterinsurgency. Women’s ability to perform in combat and demonstrate how well female units can function has cast light on gender-based strategies in war and terrorism. In response to the YPJ’s success, which challenged the extremist perception of women as objects of sexual or maternal function, something that many of the Kurdish female fighters know all too well with many being captured and enslaved by the Islamic State, ISIS launched their own all-female, weapon wielding al-Khansaa brigades.
In the West, conceptions of Middle Eastern women have been challenged by the YPJ. There was widespread coverage of ‘women who fight ISIS’, with articles in mainstream media outlets such as Marie-Claire and CNN about the 2014 Battle of Kobane. Beyond the glossy images of Kurdish women in military uniforms, the Western left has taken an interest in Jineoloji and the Marxist-inspired political philosophy that Rojava promotes. The Kurdish diaspora in Europe and the US remains significantly present in the Kurdish liberation movement and for a generation has been establishing networks that are crucial in disseminating information and forging solidarity. Yet, the geopolitics at play in Kurdistan’s region have put the YPJ and Kurdish Freedom Movement in an awkward position. Their organic ties to the controversial PKK have resulted in anti-terror legislation that acts as an obstacle for solidarity work within Kurdish diasporic communities and their supporters.
Ultimately, after continuous Turkish invasions into northern Syria since 2018 and President Trump’s removal of troops in 2019, the Kurdish struggle for self-determination rests in the hands of international powers. The future for Rojava and the rest of Kurdistan is at this stage uncertain but the model employed in Rojava undoubtedly provides a fresh and innovative political and social system that is unprecedented in the region, and possibly the world. Having been subjected to routine injustices, Syrian Kurds have sought to establish their own autonomy and demonstrate approaches to political and economic development based on Öcalan’s theoretical model of gender equality. The implementation of female Kurdish military engagement has embodied this model of feminist authority, grabbing the attention of the world stage in the process. Kurdistan’s intricate web of parties, alignments, communities, and militias all vary in their goals and behaviour. Not every Kurd believes in Öcalan’s vision or supports a particular political group, not every Kurd wants a nation-state. Needless to say, many are still grappling with the reality of deeply rooted cultural traditions and internal conflict. Kurdistan has much further to go to reach Öcalan’s utopia but their efforts have been indelibly etched into the foundations of today’s Middle East.
1. “Appendix E – Statement of Reasons – Kurdistan Workers Party” House of Representatives Committees, Parliament of Australia. Accessed at: https://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=pjcis/hamas_pkk_let_pij/report/appendix%20e.html
2. Parvaz, “Combatting domestic violence in Iraq’s Kurdistan region”, Al-Jazeera, 7 Oct 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2016/10/7/combating-domestic-violence-in-iraqs-kurdish-region
3. Abullah Öcalan, The Political thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism, trans. Havin Guneser (London: Pluto Press, 2017) blurb.
4. Nadje Al-Ali, foreword to The Political thought of Abdullah Öcalan by Abdullah Öcalan, x.
5. Öcalan, The Political thought of Abdullah Öcalan, 39-40.
6. Öcalan, The Political thought of Abdullah Öcalan, 42-43.
7. Ana Briy, “The Theory and Practice of the Kurdish Womans’s Movement: an interview in Diyarbakir” Open Democracy, 3 April 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/theory-and-practice-of-kurdish-women-s-movement-interview-in-diyarbakir/
8. Öcalan, The Political thought of Abdullah Öcalan, 91.
9. Nazar Shabila, “Geographical variation in the prevalence of female genital mutilation in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.” East Mediterr Health J. (October 2019) 25(9):630–636. https://doi.org/10.26719/emhj.19.009
10. Darya Adbulkarim Ali, “The Struggles of the Kurdish Women’s Movement in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq” (Master’s thesis, Lund University, 2019) 59.
11. Al-Atrushi et al.: “Intimate partner violence against women in the Erbil city of the Kurdistan region, Iraq”, BMC Women’s Health (October 2013) 13:37.
12. Amanda Metcalfe, “Freedom Movement: A Case Study of Feminist Leadership in Kurdistan” (PhD diss., University of Colorado, 2018) 99.
13. Benedetta Argentieri “Meet the female soilders in Syria and Iraq fighting for gender equality as much as freedom” The Telegraph, 18 Aug 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/meet-female-soldiers-syria-iraq-fighting-gender-equality-much/.
14. Shawn E. Gorman, “Are Female Counterinsurgency Units Effective? A Case Study of the Female Kurdish Militias of Iraq and Syria” (Masters thesis, Georgetown University, 2017) 80.
15. Elizabeth Griffin “These remarkable women are fighting ISIS. It’s time you know who they are” Marie Claire, 1 Oct 2014, https://www.marieclaire.com/culture/news/a6643/these-are-the-women-battling-isis/
16. Frida Ghitis “Syria Kurds give women equality. Take that, ISIS!” CNN, 17 Nov 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/17/opinion/ghitis-kurdish-womens-rights/index.html