On Tuesday, Nagihan Akarsel, scholar, journalist, and activist, was shot dead outside her home in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where she carried out her research and edited a journal on jineology. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was another assassination carried out by the Turkish Secret Service (MIT), which has already been blamed for three assassinations in the city this year. In a sad and angry testament to his sister, Akarsel’s brother, Ahmet Güneş, wrote, “In Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish woman was treacherously shot while she was chasing freedom… Those who play with the dignity of an oppressed people are those who doubt their own dignity.” Akarsel was a civilian. Her struggle for change was carried out through ideas. So, what in those ideas did Turkey finds so dangerous?
Jineology is the radical feminist women’s science developed by Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish Women’s Movement. It bears no relation to liberal feminism, which focusses on individual success within existing society; rather, it seeks to change the nature of society itself, in line with a feminist – communitarian and non-hierarchical – perspective. These are the ideas that gave birth to the slogan Jin Jiyan Azadi – Women, Life, Freedom – that has become the rallying cry of the Iranian uprising, and their promise of a better world is indeed a threat to all those whose power depends on existing systems of violence and exploitation. In the eyes of the Turkish state, Akarsel and her jineology were especial targets because she was Kurdish and her liberatory ideas came out of the Kurdish Freedom Movement.
As a slogan, Women Life Freedom is so readily appealing that it risks being appropriated by those with no knowledge of the ideas that it contains. Especially outside the Kurdish region, many people in Iran, where political discussion was severely curtailed, will not have encountered the ideas behind it. Indeed, in some places it has been paired with the chant Men Homeland Prosperity, which is the very negation of what it stands for. This has been deliberately pushed by conservative monarchists, though many of those repeating it can be accused of no more than ignorant naivety. Meanwhile, the commentators and politicians of western liberalism can easily pin the slogan onto liberal feminism, or even see it as another marketing opportunity. But its power to change must not be forgotten.
Jineology is a different way to engage with the world. In rejecting patriarchy, it also rejects those social structures that it argues are tied to patriarchal understandings, including the forces of hierarchy and competition that underlie the capitalist system and its destructive relationship to nature. Jineology is making a revolution through helping people to escape old mentalities, to recognise the importance of community relationships that have been side-lined by market forces, and to work together to take control of their lives.
The Kurdish Freedom Movement argues that autonomous organisational structures can undercut the power of the state, and, in a similar fashion, a reprioritisation of non-commercial life could be expected to help undercut the dominance of big business. But existing power structures are hard to escape, and capitalist forces have demonstrated a ruthless survival instinct. The movement looks forward to an economy focused on social rather than financial values, but it can’t afford to ignore the power of existing capitalist relationships, and nor can the fundamental antagonism of conflicting class interests be wished away. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey demonstrates that the movement can embrace organised labour, and people from Marxist organisations, grounded in class-based politics, have supported and died for the revolution in Rojava. Despite jineology’s focus on women as the main agents of revolutionary change, this need not be antithetical to class-based action; and that action can open the space needed to allow a more communitarian life to flourish.
The importance of class action is especially strong in a potentially revolutionary situation such as now exists in Iran. In 1978-9, working-class organisation in the form of a coordinated general strike played a crucial role in forcing the shah to flee the country. The Iranian people, and especially Iranian youth, are showing extraordinary bravery and mutual support, but a general strike on top of this could help persuade the current regime that it has lost control and can no longer govern. Strikes have been threatened by various groups of workers, including in Iran’s dominant oil industry, and there have been some strikes among teachers and truck drivers, and also among the bazaaris, or small shop keepers, who played an important role in the revolution against the shah. But, unlike in the seventies, when communist organisations had a strong foothold, overall organisation and leadership is so far lacking.
Iran’s Kurdish political parties, which are all forced to organise from exile in Iraq, have shown their recognition of the importance of strike action, and – on 19 September and the 1 October – their ability to organise it in the Kurdish regions. However, these regions have been deliberately denied a major role in Iran’s economy. If such action is to become more than symbolic, it needs to be taken up across the country and on a prolonged basis.
Iranian governments have promoted an exclusive Persian nationalism, under both the shah and the Islamic Republic, but different communities have come together in protest against the Iranian regime. Whether this can translate into support for meeting the specific demands of Iran’s ethnic minorities is another matter – especially demands for greater regional autonomy. The Kurdish political parties have to walk a difficult line – uniting against the regime with other non-Kurdish Iranians, while not allowing their own demands for Kurdish rights and for regional autonomy to get submerged. A similar approach is also needed for coordination between the different Kurdish groups themselves, in order to build trust while respecting their different agendas – especially between the other groups and the Free Life Party of Iran (PJAK), which follows Öcalan’s philosophy.
Links between different minority ethnic groups are easier to accomplish than those between minorities and the dominant majority. One of the other peoples that has suffered particularly hard from Persian and Shia chauvinism is the Baluchis, whose homeland is divided between southeast Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A week ago, on Friday 30 September, Baluchis protesting outside the police station by the main mosque in Zahedan were shot down by police marksmen stationed on the surrounding rooftops, who aimed for their heads and hearts. The Baluchi protest was part of the countrywide movement, and also had a local trigger in the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl by a police commander. Eighty-eight people are now known to have been killed and that figure is expected to rise. 30 September has become recognised as Black Friday across Iran, and the Baluchis have received especial solidarity from the Kurds, with whom they already had long-established links based on shared suffering and shared hopes of autonomy. In the Kurdish town of Saqqez, which was home to Jina (Mahsa) Amina, teachers have been pictured donating blood for the wounded people of Zahedan. Cultural freedom for different ethnic groups, not just for Kurds, is a central tenet of the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s philosophy.
The difficulty of preserving unity of action without eliminating radical politics, and the need to bring together different oppressed groups in a common struggle against the system that oppresses them all, are not confined to Iran, but there they are writ large.
The Iranian government
For the governments of Iran and Turkey, dedicated to what Akarsel’s brother describes as an “organized and systematic apocalypse”, levels of repression are determined only by what they believe will most weaken the resistance. But, in both places, government repression has made the resistance broader and more determined. In Iran, where, after three weeks of protest, the state has killed over 400 people, injured over 10,000, and arrested over 20,000, heart-breaking stories of teenagers murdered by the security forces are interspersed with videos of schoolgirls with heads uncovered tearing up images of the regime’s leaders, and even forcing a local director of education out of their school. There have been many reports of calls for a nationwide protest today.
Meanwhile, the Iranian military has continued to flex its muscles through cross-border attacks into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. There have been no more reports of casualties here, but Roj News claimed on Wednesday that more than 500 local people had fled their homes in the Bıradost and Balekayeti regions to escape the bombardment.
Turkish aggression in Iraq and Syria
Turkey’s pounding of both Iraq and Syria is unrelenting. Their attacks on Zap, Avaşîn and Metîna, where the PKK are defending both their bases and the basic concept of an autonomous Kurdistan, continue to escalate in the face of determined PKK resistance. On Thursday, at the start of the Yazidi pilgrimage holiday, another Turkish drone hit Shengal (or Sinjar). By attacking both military targets and civilian leaders, Turkey aims to sabotage the Yazidis’ autonomous control of their area, and make displaced Yazidi families too frightened to return. The target of Thursday’s drone was a military base of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), the Yazidis’ self-defence force, which is officially recognised as part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces. Turkey is helped in their plans by both Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party) – who want control of Shengal for themselves, in line with a UN-sponsored agreement imposed over the heads of the Yazidis. Iraq has been putting pressure on the Yazidis by blocking Shengal’s access to petrol and gas.
The Turkish Secret Service (MIT) has been assumed responsible for the assassination of Nagihan Akarsel, with which I began this review, and the president of the right-wing nationalist Iraqi Turkmen Front has shared photographs of a meeting between himself and the head of MIT in Hewlêr (Erbil). There is no information on what was discussed.
In the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, besides their continued shelling of border towns and villages, Turkey has assassinated another Peoples’ Protection Forces (YPG) commander and veteran of the fight against ISIS. The chaos Turkey has brought to the occupied regions that they have claimed as a “safe zone” is exemplified by the story – far from unique – of Turkish mercenarieshttps://twitter.com/RojavaNetwork/status/1577989426814353409 This is the very antithesis of the society that Turkey is trying to destroy in their fight over looted possessions.
President Erdoğan has moved another step closer to a rapprochement with Syria’s President Assad, telling reporters at a European Political Community meeting in Prague that they can meet “when the right time comes”. Their coming together would be based on a shared desire to end the autonomy of North and East Syria.
On Wednesday, the Turkish Foreign Minister summoned the Swedish Ambassador to protest about a sketch by a Kurdish comedian poking fun at Erdoğan, which had gone out on Swedish national television. The sketch ended with the call ‘long live democracy’, and the ambassador’s summons demonstrated just why that call is needed. In fact, this week’s actual Turkish politics would be thought much funnier than anything in that sketch if its consequences were not so awful.
To start with Turkey’s claim to democracy. This week, the Turkish government submitted requests for immunity from prosecution to be lifted from 34 more MPs, including from the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as well as from 23 MPs from the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) The trial is continuing against 108 people, including leading members of the HDP, who could face imprisonment for life without parole; and evidence given appears to be based on copy-paste statements from ‘secret witnesses’. And the CHP Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is being investigated by Istanbul’s Chief Public Prosecutor for the “disrespectful behaviour” of holding his hands behind his back while visiting a shrine to the wife of Mehmed the Conqueror.
Following the PKK’s suicide bomb attack on a police building in Mersin on 26 September, Turkey’s Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, claimed that a taxi driver had been able to identify the attacker as a named PKK guerrilla – who later produced a video to show it was not her – and linked the supposed bomber to the CHP on the grounds that they had included her in a report on journalists in prison in 2013. Soylu compounded the absurdity with a bizarre claim that the attackers had come to Mersin by paraglider from Manbij, in North and East Syria – and implicated the Americans.
Bellicose speeches by members of government have become ever more exaggerated. This week, Erdoğan claimed that “No one can confine Turkey’s vision to 780,000 square kilometres” (the area of Turkey) on the grounds that Ottoman cemeteries are spread over 34 different countries. And Soylu told party loyalists that they were “representatives of the Ottoman Empire”, and asked if they were ready to “let our will dominate the entire world”. This is pre-election rhetoric, but, Michael Rubin argues, in The National Interest, that Erdoğan’s election strategy could also include an attack on Greece: “Erdogan needs an excuse either to postpone elections or to distract Turks with nationalism. A conflict with Greece checks both boxes.”
By contrast, the Turkish government has remained muted over the uprisings in Iran. Pinar Tremblay, in al Monitor, suggests a combination of reasons: fear of encouraging Turkish protests against their own government’s erosion of secularism, a wish not to antagonise Iran and risk mutual trade and political deals, and lack of sympathy with a movement that is for women and involves Kurds. Was the murder of a respected Kurdish feminist Turkey’s response to the Iran protests?
Öcalan and the CPT
Turkey’s penal system is an especially macabre farce, with Abdullah Öcalan’s İmralı island prison at its centre. But the system of international inspection by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) is a sad charade too. Up to late September, there had been no contact at all with Öcalan since a very brief phone call with his brother in March 2021, and there was a concerted campaign to persuade the CPT – as the one organisation who could not be refused – to make another visit. On Monday it was announced that that visit had taken place, but by the time the report has been written and Turkey has submitted their response, it will be a year before any information is made available about what they found – assuming that Turkey agrees for it to be published. The visit confirms that Öcalan is alive, but no more.
This was the CPT’s ninth visit to the island where Öcalan is held in conditions of severe and illegal isolation, but very few of the CPT’s requests for improvement have been acted on. Instead, Öcalan’s isolation has been increased. Even as the CPT delegation was in Turkey, Öcalan was issued with another “disciplinary punishment” that, against international laws on human rights, ensures he continues to be denied access to his family and his lawyers.
Tomorrow, it will be 24 years since Öcalan was forced by an international conspiracy, including the CIA, to leave Syria, where he had been based, and to begin an odyssey in search of asylum that would end, four months later, in his abduction and return to Turkey. As every year, this anniversary will be the occasion for renewed campaigns for Öcalan’s freedom. Although his isolation is worse than ever, the support for his freedom continues to grow.