This week, Ayşe Gökkan, women’s rights activist extraordinaire, has been jailed for the 84th time. There are some two hundred investigations running against her, all for assorted “terrorism” charges. Although it is rather common for Kurdish activists to have more than one court case ongoing against them – actually, you won’t be able to find anybody with only one case, it just doesn’t exist – the situation of Gökkan is exceptional. But then again, so is she, and the state targets her and her comrades for a very good reason.
I have the privilege to personally know Ayşe. She was mayor of Nusaybin, the sister-town of Qamişlo in Kurdistan in Syria, in 2013, when Turkey first started to build a wall on the border with Syria. She protested it fiercely, went on a hunger strike right there at the border. At the end of that year, we were both invited on a trip to Finland. I was based in Diyarbakır at the time and she and I and a Kurdish journalist were giving several lectures about the Kurdish issue in Turkey.
The flights were problematic because there were snow blizzards in both Diyarbakır, from where the two of us left, and Istanbul, where we would join up with the journalist. Ayşe took control of our efforts to get informed at the Diyarbakır airport. It was chaotic, it was crowded, noisy, and officials were running around trying to manage the situation. Ayşe stopped them and asked her questions in Kurdish, her mother tongue. Many of the officials didn’t speak Kurdish, but helpful as they wanted to be, they tried to find somebody who did. Then suddenly, Ayşe switched to speaking Turkish. The official we were talking to got angry: “So you speak Turkish but pretended not to? Why are you making things difficult?”
Ayşe didn’t raise her voice but made it very clear that it was not her who was making things difficult: “We are in Kurdistan, right?”, she said. “The problem is not me speaking Kurdish, the problem is that most of the people in Kurdistan don’t. It is my right to speak my mother tongue and it is problematic that I am forced to speak Turkish to make myself understood”. They may not have been her exact words, but this is what she communicated.
Ayşe Gökkan was right. She was right when she protested the border wall, she was right that it was a shame that she couldn’t make herself understood in her mother tongue in her own land, she was right in every analysis she made of the Kurdish issue during that trip to Finland and in every other interview I heard with her afterwards. We ran into each other several times in Diyarbakır, where she moved after her term as mayor of Nusaybin ended and after she had refused to take another term. Being a mayor required too much management, it was too much within the structures of the state for her. In the core, she is an activist, and a radical one. A position in the TJA, the Tevgera Jinên Azad (Free Women’s Movement) suited her much better. When she was arrested this week, she was the TJA spokesperson.
I admire Ayşe, and the whole Kurdish women’s movement. Their analysis of the Kurdish issue is razor sharp, leaving no power structure untouched in their dedication to change. It is from them that I have learned how entwined power structures are: the state’s suppression of the Kurdish language is inseparably connected to the “sacredness” of the Turkish nation-state, to the capitalism (and corruption) that is tied to it and the suppression of women that holds it all together.
Ayşe’s struggle is so much fiercer, so much more radical than that of the superficial white feminists I knew before I moved to Turkey fifteen years ago. Only through Kurdish women’s eyes I learned to look at my own home country and its feminism, and only then did I see that it’s the Black anti-racist women’s movement in Europe and the US that is dedicated to the same multi-layered fight. I am forever indebted to Ayşe and her comrades.
These women are burning down the patriarchy, which is exactly why they are cracked down upon so fiercely by the state. It is these women that the state should be very, very afraid of. They can lock up Ayşe, they can lock up her comrades, they can throw her in jail a hundred times and open a dozen more investigations, but it won’t help. The struggle continues, inside or outside prison. And they will win, without a doubt in the world.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.