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Women Of The PKK: Fighting For Kurdish Rights And Gender Equality

With the announcement this week of a historic ceasefire from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, a look at the feminist side of the Kurdish fight for greater autonomy.

Women in the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK
Women in the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK
Boris Mabillard

Avasina was born into violence, between Bingöl and Diyarbakir, in the east Anatolia region of Turkey. What she saw as a little girl was traumatizing. To transcend the horror and escape a pre-determined fate, she joined the militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) 15 years ago.

She wasn’t yet 16 years old.

Many women joined the rebellion, like Julia or the three activists assassinated in Paris on January 9th 2013. They took the arms for different reasons: some to defend the rights and dignity of the Kurdish people , others to end the misery induced by the patriarchal traditions. Behind their struggle lies a unique fight for the emancipation of women.

A photograph – probably from 1992 - shows Sakine Cansiz, one of three victims in Paris wearing fatigues, standing on a stage alongside Abdullah Ocalan, founder and historic leader of the PKK. She was there when the party was created in 1978, and turned out be the first woman to reach the top of the hierarchy.

Inspired by Karl Marx’s class struggle and egalitarianism ideology, Abdullah Ocalan's aim was to emancipate the Kurds from oppressors, to gain autonomy from Ankara. He also was focused on gender equality, in the face of tribal, feudal and conservative Kurdish society.

Sakine Cansiz founded the women’s front, a movement within the movement, that has its own military unit. The PKK worked on its creed and put forth the emancipation of women as a recruiting argument as well as a reason to fight.

In the 1990s, women represented up to 30% of the rebellion and today, there are around 1250 of them in the 5000 armed contingent. Other far-left guerilla movements drafted women too but not as much as the PKK. No sexual discrimination here: they use the same weapons, follow the same training, and wear similar fatigues with a long belt made of fabric. The only difference is the hairdo, they wear long braided hair that gives them that feminine, "Amazon-like" style.

At first, families were reluctant to let their girls do something usually considered to be a man’s job, but the strict rules –- no sexual relations, no recreational activities, no alcohol -- were convincing enough.

Avasina's long, straight, ebony hair flows down her emaciated but resolute face. To a reporter's inquiries, she remains cautious, overwhelmed by emotion, fearing she might get denounced. Where to begin? “The suffering, the prison, the torture, the operations, the dead, the injustice, the friends.” Avasina isn’t her real name, it means blue as the stream’s living water, a common name among the woman soldiers of the PKK.

Taking arms or arranged marriages

She recalls an episode when she was 10 years old: “One night in Diyarbakir, I woke up to the sound of bullets getting fired, so my mother took me in her arms to protect me from the ricochets. When silence settled back in, I saw the bloody corpses of four young men shot down, later on identified as rebels, by the government forces right next to our house. One of them even tried to find shelter in our alley where the army caught up to him. I can still hear him screaming and denying his involvement with the PKK, and the army guys insulting him. That’s when I realized we Kurds were alone, victims of ethnic injustice.”

In the middle of the 1990s, the repression was at its peak, and thousands of villages were being destroyed in the hunt for harbored rebels. During those dark times, no family was spared. The police violence infuriated the whole region and the rebellion made massive recruiting gains.

The image of the rebel fighting the oppressor became popular. “My entire family commiserated with the rebellion. Around 60 members of our clan, close or distant relatives, joined the PKK.” An uncle was one of them, he got arrested and died shortly after in jail. His body was hanged on a rope from a helicopter and displayed around the village.

Soon after joining, Avasina spoke with a friend who'd decided not to. "She regretted not to have followed me. I, myself, knew what kind of bullet I had dodged: a husband I wasn’t going to be attracted to, telling me to wear the veil and a long dark skirt.”

But soon, reality slapped her in the face. She was arrested and instantly condemned to seven years in jail. “Fortunately, they couldn’t prove that I was part of the rebellion, or else I could’ve been in serious trouble.”

During the four years and eight months she spent behind bars, Avasina learned more about the Kurds and feminism than when she was outside. "There were a lot of women activists in prison," she recalled. "I almost wanted to stay a little bit more to learn a few more things. Everything I know, I owe it to my fellow prisoners.”

Since getting out, she’s living on the down low. She is still involved in the movement, but cannot divulge details about what she does, for she might get arrested again. Only her family knows she belongs to the PKK. “Sometimes, my brother jokes about the woman I’ve become. I recently asked him to come and help me with the dishes, he laughed and retorted: “So this is what the PKK has done to us!”"

The party for Democracy and Freedom (BDP), the legal front of the PKK, continues to fight for female liberation, with legal backing, a woman as one of its top leaders, and public campaigns to change sexist mentalities in the society in general.

Still, it’s a long winding road towards success. The women are still a minority within the ranks of the BDP. The patriarchal traditions are deeply rooted, too. A recent study published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) states that more than 50% of the Kurdish women from the southeast of the Anatolia region get married before 18. Arranged weddings within the family – often between first cousins – are still common.

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