On November 25, 2015, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against
Women, the Women’s Commission of the Kurdistan National Congress calls on the international community— particularly the United Nations, the European Union, and the National Governments—to stop the IS genocide and feminicide in Kurdistan.
The Longest War
For thousands of years in Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East, the reality of women’s lives—veiled beneath concepts of honor, property, ethnic continuity, shame, and sin—has been that they face ongoing decimation and sexist terror. The region’s physical, cultural, political, social, psychological, and economic war against women has been the longest and most systematic conflict of all. For thousands of years women have been brutalized and decimated; they still are, in a war that leaves in its wake broken and wounded female identities and the corpses of countless women. This war has a name: feminicide.
Today Kurdish women face an acute form of patriarchal and colonial aggression practiced by the Islamic State (IS), the Turkish AKP government, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. All of these three powers are fundamentally anti-woman. Differing only in their methods, they share a patriarchal ideology that is male, class-specific, nationalist, and sexist in character.
During the twentieth century, regional and international colonial powers that saw the need for strategic change in the Middle East focused on Kurdistan. When the nation-states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria were established after the First World War, the “Kurdish card” became a useful instrument to create new borders. All Kurdish villages, cities, and nomadic areas that were seen as obstacles were cleared using military force. In Kurdistan, cultural, political and physical genocide became a living reality.
Genocide and Feminicide: Parallel Strategies in Kurdistan
Kurdish society and sensibility, compared to others, have been relatively matricentric, and women’s influence there has been relatively more prominent. Before the nineteenth century, women were warriors, artisans, and even rulers. Notable women in Kurdish history demonstrated the ability of women to be effective participants in society with fully rounded personalities.
But the pressures of war and the onset of colonial patriarchal culture separated agrarian Kurdish women from their lands. The strong sense of “honor” felt by men in Kurdistan and in the Middle East generally has been used to suppress women’s identities and create for them a dangerous social reality. The decline of women paralleled a decline in the fate of the Kurds themselves, as Kurdistan suffered repeated invasions.
Specific policies of violence against women have been imposed to break the Kurdish people’s resistance. In Kurdish wars women have suffered the most, as dominant powers have used them as instruments to achieve their goals and as trophies of war. For example, during the 1938 uprising in Dersim thousands of Kurdish women and girls were raped and killed or given to Turkish military officers as gifts. Rape, harassment, and torture have been and still are some of the war weapons used by the colonial powers against Kurdish women. Thousands of women, facing sexual violence, today as in the past, have refused to become war trophies by committing suicide, choosing death to maintain their honor and human dignity.
Despite the periods of subjugation and occupation of male domination, Kurdish people have not remained silent. Throughout it all, women in particular have been crucial to preserving Kurdish language, culture, and traditions. They have kept their cultural traditions alive even as they maintained female honor and human dignity. For Kurdish women, resistance has become their raison d’être and their way of life; indeed, it is their identity.
Turkey The AKP Government
In 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey, and ever since then, under Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, policies aiming at the subjugation of women have become far more systematic.
The AKP uses sexist discourses to reinforce male dominant society, to naturalize and perpetuate it, by institutionalizing the concepts of “morals, honor, and tradition.” Its mentality regards women not as individuals but as identical to the institution of “family” and promulgates the idea that “woman’s place is her home.” In so doing, it strengthens the idea of “family honor” and perpetuates “honor” killings.
The AKP conservative paradigm has spread throughout the society and is now dominant. “Honor” killings have increased under AKP rule. Indeed, violence against women in Turkey has seen an unprecedented increase. An average of five women are killed every day, and the rate of feminicide has grown by 1400 percent.
It was clear from the outset of the conflict in Syria that the AKP government in Turkey was providing tacit support to militant groups, including IS. Kurdish victories against IS and across Rojava, as well as the increasing military and political support being offered by Western states to Kurdish forces and their profile as a reliable ally is especially threatening to the AKP.
With more and more evidence being collected, it is now well-known that the AKP has provided active support of IS in order to use it as an instrument of its expansionist policies in the Middle East, and to dissolve the revolution in Rojava and Syria. As a result of this policy, the border between Turkey and Syria has become a haven for IS and gangs from all over the world used this border for logistical and mobilization purposes.
Regarding aggression against women the ideological roots of the AKP and IS are consistent with eachother. Both are using the political Islam as a justification for feminicide.
The Empowerment of Kurdish Women
Women active in Kurdish politics have become stronger and are making their presence felt. Having gained their willpower and raised their own consciousness, they are organizing, and their struggles for social justice have had a great influence on Kurdistan and on the region as a whole.
Kurdish women are transforming the structure of the traditional patriarchal family, where gender equality, once a great taboo, is now being seriously debated. Traditional feudal standards of judgment against women are being demolished. As Kurdish women regain their female honor and identity, they are initiating a women’s revolution. No longer confined to the four walls of domesticity, they are streaming into the streets and the mountains.
The more Kurdish women struggle and resist, the more they have become aware of their own power and greater their confidence and strength. They are also drawing Kurdish men toward greater consciousness and a democratic way of thinking. Kurdish men now face the reality that while they have been dominant at home, they are also slaves to the Turkish state. Thus they are becoming open to seeing free women as companions and friends.
AKP’s Revenge Against Kurdish Women
The advance of Kurdish women has become a nightmare for the Turkish state and the AKP, which now uses feminicide to resist social change. It has placed new pressures on women active in fighting for women’s rights in Kurdistan. It has intensified the oppression of Kurdish women through the judiciary and arrested many women, even violating their rights in prisons.
Kevser Eltürk, nom de guerre Ekin Wan, was martyred in Gimgim (Varto) on 10th August 2015 as a result of a firefight with the occupying Turkish forces, who later stripped her off clothes and dragged her naked body on the ground in the town centre. The reason for the brutality against Ekin Wan is that the AKP government couldn’t accept the achievements of Kurds and did therefore start a war against the Kurdish people for revenge, while it also increased its fierce attacks on women in order to sustain the existence of its order based on male dominance. YJA STAR guerrilla, Ekin Wan was the symbol of self-defence and symbolises the resistance of free Kurdish women.
The AKP and its male dominant mentality could not accept the Rojava revolution, which is in fact a women’s revolution and the apparent role of women of the HDP, which programmatically includes the women’s liberation struggle.
It is the bodies of the women that are firstly and mainly attacked and targeted in all wars, and recalled the years of 90’s where the Turkish security forces raped, tortured, exposed naked the bodies of women in Kurdistan after executing them.
Turkish police hit HDP (Peoples’Democratic Party) Co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ with gas canister in her head in Diyarbakır’s Silvan district on November 12, 2015. Figen Yüksekdağ was trying to visit the town while under curfew as a parliamentary delegation. Mrs. Yüksekdağ is an elected member of parliament who enjoys legislative immunity.
The police intervened the demonstration staged on 11 November 2015 in Hakkari to protest in the curfew and operations in Silvan district of Diyarbakır. The police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. HDP MP Selma Irmak was for the excessive use of tear gas and hospitalised.
Former HDP deputy and current spokesperson for the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), Sebahat Tuncel was on Nov. 14, 2015 arrested at the Airport in Istanbul. Sebahat Tuncel was acquitted of “making terrorism propaganda” charges in two speeches by a court in Diyarbakir province. Tuncel had been facing a potential prison term of up to five years.
And in another example, Besime Konca deputy of HDP was arrested in Siirt on November 3, 2015 despite having parliamentarian immunity.
The Feyli Kurds, who are Shia Muslims, once had significant influence within Iraqi society. Feyli women had a high level of education, making them a particular target of the Ba’ath regime. But in the 1970s and 1980s the Ba’ath regime forcibly deported tens of thousand of Feyli Kurds to Iran. The women were raped and tortured. Feyli Kurds were stamped as stateless people with no rights.
Between 1986 and 1989, the Ba’ath regime conducted a genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people known as the Al-Anfal Campaign. During this period thousands of Kurdish women were held in concentration camps and complexes. They were raped and then killed or sold as slaves in Arab countries.
For the last thirty years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has systematically implemented the most disgusting forms of harassment, discrimination, and violence against women.
Iran’s 15 million Kurdish people represent the most organized and dynamic power in the struggle for democratization. The Kurdish freedom movement regards women as the main force for democratization and supports the development of self-organized, systematic struggle.
In the Kurdish-populated areas, women—the peace mothers, as well as Kurdish women in universities and elsewhere in the society— are fighting the male-dominant Sharia laws and seeking to liberate Kurdish identity. As the Kurdish women’s movement grows here, the regime has come to fear its strength. It is attempting to intimidate Kurdish women activists. It has arrested many politically active and influential Kurdish women as political prisoners and inflicting incredible tortures them.
The regime gave special attention to the cases of Shirin Alam Hooli and Zeynep Celaliyan, as object lessons, to try to intimidate Kurdish women generally and warn them away from political activity. The Kurdish freedom fighter Shirin Alam Hooli was subjected to inhuman tortures but did not yield; she was executed on May 9, 2010. In mid-2008 Zeynep Celaliyan was accused of being a member of PJAK (Free Life Party of Kurdistan). On January 14, 2009, she appeared before the Revolution Court without a lawyer. After a seven-minute hearing, she was sentenced to death. The High Court of Iran approved her execution. She is currently seriously ill and urgently needs medical care.
Despite many campaigns demanding the release of the women, both within Kurdistan and internationally, the mullah regime has remained intransigent. Women in Iran will not gain their rights until this misogynist pan-Persian Islamic regime has collapsed.
Islamic State (IS)
Today the war in the Middle East is creating new power relations. Amid the turmoil in Syria, the self-styled Islamic State has instituted a war of terror against Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and against Bashur (Iraqi Kurdistan). In both places, IS is carrying out systematic crimes against humanity. In the name of Islam, it uses all methods of brutality against the peoples of the region (Kurds, Syriacs, Armenians, Arabs, Turkmens, and Mandaeans) as well as its religions (Yezidi, Alevi, Kakei, Yarsan, Shiite, and Christian).
IS seeks to control the psychological and social environment of the local societies. The traditional cultures in Kurdistan regard it as a “dishonor” to the family and tribe for an enemy to get hold of a woman. Within that social context, those practices induce a sense of moral defeat and weaken resistance.
Zoroastrianism, an early cultural phenomenon, is the basis of the Ezidi religion today. Essentially an ethical philosophy, it is based on free will, the freedom of the individual against systems of slavery, cooperation between men and women. In Sinjar, where the Ezidi live, IS has kidnapped, raped, and enslaved particularly Ezidi Kurdish women because their way of life still contains elements of this philosophy. In this respect, the IS is taking revenge on behalf of patriarchal rule.
IS legitimizes its brutality against women with the Islamic concept of ganimet, or “war trophy,” which allegedly allows them to kidnap women and sell them in the slave markets in Middle Eastern countries. In the regions under the control of IS, a slave trade in women is growing. IS’s policy of systematic rape is an extreme form of the strategy of domination and conquest, aiming to vanquish an individual through the total control of body and mind.
Across the region, huge demographic shifts are now under way. The IS terror against women has been especially decisive in motivating mass evacuations from Rojava and Iraq.
Physical wars are destructive to a society, but cultural, political, social and psychological warfare is even more so. The brutal IS war leaves in its wake huge numbers of women damaged, broken, or murdered. It is a war between the male-dominated Islamic states and sexist terrorism against the female population of Kurdistan and the broader Middle East.
A Global Women’s Revolution?
Feminicide is a global problem, and the issue of women’s liberation is at the centre of today’s most pressing agendas. The chaos and crises of the present may be understood not only as sources of misery but also as opportunities for a new start. After all, in the nineteenth century people sought to find a way forward by creating nation-states. The twentieth century became the era of the workers’ and socialist movements.
As Kurdish women, we are convinced that the twenty-first century can be the century of women’s revolution. Indeed, we are convinced that the twenty-first century must give priority to women’s revolutions. The anti-woman programs of the AKP, the IS terror, and the Iranian and Arab theocratic regimes are making this revolution inevitable. Perhaps more than any other region, the Middle East needs a radical women’s revolution.
Kurdish Women’s Resistance
In Kurdistan, we view women’s liberation as the liberation of society. The freedom of society can come about only through the freedom of women, and humanity will achieve true freedom only by struggling against violence against women. Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has identified the vital importance of women’s liberation as a precondition for social transformation. Now in Kurdistan, where women participate in all areas of life, a new social culture is emerging. The determination and strength of Kurdish women is influencing women in neighbouring communities.
Most recently, the Kurdish female fighters of YPJ and YJA-Star have inspired Christian Syriac women to organize in self-defence against IS terror. Today Kurdish women in Sinjar, in Kobanê, and in all four parts of Kurdistan are leading the struggle against the enemies of women—against reactionary forces like the IS and the AKP—to eliminate all kinds of oppression and persecution.
Self-defence for women in Kurdistan became a matter of life or death when faced with the AKP-IS collaboration. Following the appalling attacks of IS on August 3, 2014 against Kurdish Ezidi people and particularly Ezidi women it became vital to have mechanism of self-defence. The YJA Star (women’s army of the HPG) and the YPJ, the Women’s Defence Forces in Rojava, helped Ezidi women to build their own autonomous women’s army called YJÊ (Yekinêyen Jinên Êzidxan,-Êzidxan Women’s Units). In parallel, Ezidi women in Sinjar built their autonomous self-governance structures. Now the YJÊ has reached a certain level in terms of quality and quantity, and is capable of undertaking the duty of defending not only women of Sinjar but all Êzidî women and the Êzidxan (the land of Êzidî ).
People of Kurdistan say: Jin Jiyan Azadî
In today’s Kurdistan, Jin Jiyan Azadî has become a political and social slogan, meaning “Women, life, freedom!”— a free life is impossible without women.
Following Öcalan’s philosophy of women’s liberation, women in Kurdistan, particularly in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) and in Rojava, have become vital participants in all fields of life. Most political decision-making bodies comprise more than 50 per cent women. Most municipalities in Bakur are run male-female co-mayors. All political parties have a cochairman and co-chairwoman.
Women are organized in gender-mixed political and social structures but also in autonomous women’s structures, where they fight domestic violence against women. The autonomous women’s NGOs in Kurdistan are trying to solve problems like polygamy, forced marriage, and unemployment. Step by step, the principles of women’s freedom are becoming societywide principles. The patriarchal reality in Kurdistan is now surrounded by women, both in mixed-gender political structures and in autonomous women’s ones.
Feminicide: A Crime Like Genocide
Genocide is the systematic annihilation of an ethnic or religious minority: it is defined by the 1948 UN Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as an international crime against humanity. Five categories of actions “committed on the purpose of partial or total annihilation of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” are factors in genocide. Taking any of these five actions for the purpose of partial or total annihilation of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group constitutes the crime of genocide:
1. Killing members of the group;
2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
5. Forcibly transporting children of the group to another group.
These five points were determined in the wake of the genocide of Jews during World War II. The crime of genocide is not defined as including cultural genocide (unless it is covered by five prohibited actions, or is committed for the purpose of genocide), sexual genocide (based on women), massive annihilation of political groups (revolutionaries, assaults on oppositional movements), or the destruction of nature (ecocide).
Two of the prohibited actions listed above, it can be argued, apply to women. First, “killing members of the group”: statistics show that thousands of women face a bodily genocide every day and are physically destroyed. Second, “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”: women face both physical and mental violation, even though it hardly registers in the consciousness of the male-dominant system.
A woman’s body, sexuality, and identity are determined by factors beyond her control. Her body is as exploited as her mind. The male-dominated system determines everything about her, from the number of children she has to the appearance of her body. An ethnic group may be rendered “other” by being characterized as “inferior” for the purpose of genocide; just so, women are described as the “second sex,” as being less intelligent, as being created from the rib of man, as seductive demons, witches, sorceresses, as cursed, and so on. Every kind of inhuman treatment of women is regarded as normal. Therefore feminicide is the main source of all genocides.
Feminicide has no definition in international law. Rape has only recently been accepted as a war crime thanks to the intensive efforts of women’s movements and human rights organizations. Many war crimes were tried at the “war crimes” tribunals established in Tokyo and Nuremberg after World War II. But the thousands of women subjected to sexual violence have not been taken into consideration. The International War Crimes Tribunals established by the United Nations as a result of the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda considered sexual torture and rape to be serious war crimes and prosecuted them as crimes against humanity. More recently, rape and fostering prostitution have finally become recognized as violations of Geneva Conventions and are processed as war crimes.
The Kurdish women’s spring is an opportunity for the entire Middle East to rise up against all systems of power that are based on theocratic political Islam. As Kurdish women, we will continue to fight all kinds of discrimination against women in our own society. Furthermore we will participate as equal members of Kurdish society in protecting our country against new waves of colonization and occupation.
For their part, the United Nations has the responsibility to recognize the crime of feminicide that is being committed in Kurdistan by regional hegemonic powers like Turkey and Iran.
Unless the international community takes serious action against IS and its supporters in the AKP government, feminicide—the systematic extermination of women from all areas of life, by physical killing, rape and slavery—will become politically, culturally, and legally normalized.
The terrorists are using Islam as a cover to enable their expansionist and occupationist strategies in Kurdistan and the wider Middle East. Once again in the twenty-first century, Kurdistan faces a dangerous new order in the Middle East. Kurdistan is once again becoming a battlefield for regional and global powers. In Turkish Kurdistan, the AKP government is following a lawless policy against Kurdish civilians and women, imprisoning women comayors and assaulting politically active women, including female MPs.
But the AKP government is not only seeking to prevent a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue within Turkey, it is trying to extend its war against the Kurds to Syria and Iran as well. Through the IS, as well as Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham, Turkey is conducting a proxy war against the Kurds in Rojava, and it is trying to foment hostility among the Kurdish political parties in the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.
The Iranian regime must be held accountable for its terror against women. The regime must recognize women’s right to exist. And since Iran is a multiethnic and multireligious country, it has to stop the cultural assimilation of all its peoples. The release of political activists, particularly Kurdish women, should be a main criterion in international negotiations with the regime.
If the IS, the AKP, and the Iranian regime are not held internationally accountable for practicing feminicide in Kurdistan, we believe that women there will be forever consigned to colonial approaches.
Therefore we call on the international community:
– to prosecute the AKP for its support of the IS, and to force it to stop its dirty war against diverse peoples and women;
– to take action to free all women who have been enslaved at the hands of the IS; and – to recognize feminicide as a crime against humanity
Women’s Commission of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK)