Sebahat Tuncel, a female Kurdish politician who has faced state violence and prosecutorial pressures throughout her life to ensure free and equal conditions for women, continues her fight from Sincan Women’s Closed Prison, Ankara.
Sebahat is among those being tried with an aggravated life sentence in the high-profile case in Turkey named the Kobani (Kobanê) Trial, which was opened against Kurdish politicians after they spoke out against ISIS atrocities in 2014.
On the occasion of 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Tuncel assessed the importance of the women’s struggle while responding to questions from the all-female Kurdish news agency JinNews.
Her comprehensive analysis of the history of the Kurdish women’s movement and present day challenges is printed below:
Confronting a century-old history
The authoritarian, fascist, denialist, religious and militarist character of the Turkish Republic has led to the suppression of the Kurdish people’s demands for equality, freedom, and democracy, leading to what is now known as the ‘Kurdish issue’.
The fascistic nature of Turkey, which denies diversity, established itself through relentless state violence using its state apparatuses. This situation has perpetuated the dynamic of coups in Turkey through every decade.
Turkey cannot start anew without confronting its century-old history. The fascist government of Justice and Development Party (AKP)-Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) aims to enter the second century with the policies of the first Republic, denying different identities and cultures, particularly Kurds, women, Alevis, and basing a constitution on a male, Sunni, Turkish, national state.
In doing so, it places Kurdish hostility at the centre of both its domestic and foreign policies.
As Kurdish women, we have experienced dual oppression during this century-long process, due to both our gender and Kurdish identity, making it necessary to fight for both the freedom of our identity and as women.
Women have played a significant role in the development and preservation of Kurdish language, identity, and culture. The undeniable role of women in the incomplete success of assimilation policies is irrefutable.
The role of women in the September 12 Coup
Particularly in Diyarbakır Prison, inhumane treatments were met with resistance from the prisoners’ relatives, where women played a decisive role. Leyla Zana, a female politician who became politicised and elected to parliament during that period, was one of the notable figures.
The 1990s, marked by state violence, described as a ‘low-intensity war’, and characterised by unsolved murders, disappearances in custody, village burnings and forced migration, was a time of emergency law in Kurdistan.
This period also saw the politicisation of Kurdish women, youth, and the general populace. Women began to participate in armed struggle and organise in political parties, associations, and women’s institutions.
This era was marked by mass protests and rebellions, known as ‘serhıldan’. The intense state violence and the resistance and struggle of the Kurdish people, especially women, centred around the democratic and peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue.
The organisation of women’s demands for peace, recognition of their language, identity and equal citizenship rights played a crucial role in this process.
Women’s participation in political parties
In the Kurdistan regions, under emergency law, massacres, violence, and human rights violations were ignored, leading to forced migration and exploitation of the population in metropolitan areas, with poverty and labour exploitation as cheap, insecure labour.
Women, in particular, were heavily impacted by numerous violent policies such as detentions, arrests, sexual violence and forced village guard systems. In response to continuous and systematic state violence, the Kurdish people established political parties to resolve the Kurdish issue.
Initially, women did not hold leadership roles in these parties, but they began to participate in the administrations of the People’s Labour Party (HEP) and the Democracy Party (DEP). Women took on more active roles within the People’s Democratic Party (HADEP).
The creation of women and youth platforms, the autonomous organisation of women, the introduction of a 25% women’s quota in politics and the inclusion of women in local governments, have all been significant.
In the local elections of 28 March 2022, the number of women mayors increased to 40.
In the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), the women’s quota was raised to 35%, with continued autonomous organisation. With Democratic Society Party (DTP), a 40% gender quota was introduced, along with co-chairmanship and women’s councils.
In the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Democratic Regions Party (DBP), the principles of co-chairmanship and equal representation in council organisation were adopted.
Kurdish free women’s movement
The need to combat all forms of discrimination and violence against women, addressing issues from working life to domestic labour, from unions and factories to rural areas, expanded the scope of women’s studies.
The Democratic Free Women’s Movement (DÖKH) was declared in Istanbul in 2003, arising from these needs. In 2015, DÖKH dissolved itself and continued its struggle under KJA, which, after being closed by a statutory decree, led to the continuation of their activities under Tevgera Jinên Azad (TJA).
The tension between the Kurdish free women’s movement and the Turkish women’s movement is not a new issue. Despite the socialist and feminist women’s movements standing side by side in the ‘women’s issue’ and against war, this solidarity does not go beyond a certain point.
This is due to the Turkish women’s movement’s influence by the state’s coding of the Kurdish people’s freedom struggle and right to self-determination as ‘divisive’ and ‘terrorist’, leading to a strained relationship.
Approach to Kurdish Issue was determinative
In Turkey, apart from the socialist movement, solidarity with Kurds was weak and we know there were politicians who called themselves socialists but viewed the Kurdish issue from the official government perspective.
The socialist and women’s movements were also affected by the general political situation. While Kurdish women in Kurdistan faced intense oppression, in the metropolitan areas of Turkey, they encountered discriminatory, alienating, nationalist and political violence.
Throughout these processes, women have exerted tremendous effort and labour to assert their existence and articulate their demands. However, Kurdish women speaking about their identity in feminist marches and activities is still not a widely accepted situation.
At the women’s congress convened by the Human Rights Association (İHD) in 1989, Kurdish women had to prepare a separate declaration for their demands and faced discriminatory attitudes at the congress. This discriminatory attitude exposed a need for Kurdish women to organise separately.
In those years, organisations, and magazines such as the Patriotic Women’s Association and independent Kurdish women’s institutions emerged.
Even in the 2000s, though there were many joint activities with the Turkish women’s movement around anti-war activism and women’s issues, the approach to the Kurdish issue in women’s organisation was determinative.
Women’s freedom assemblies must be activated
Politicians and feminists in Turkey need to move beyond this. While the feminist movement rightly objects to Israel’s occupation and massacres in Palestine, its silence towards the occupation of North and East Syria, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Turkey’s war policies against Kurds – where we marched together in anti-war platforms with Kurdish solidarity (excluding feminist, socialist women) – perpetuates the continuation of war policies in Turkey and deepens the impasse.
The way out of this is the development of a strong peace movement led by women and the activation of Women’s Freedom Assemblies and the Women’s Initiative for Peace.
The future of the People is held hostage in İmralı
It is incomprehensible not to see the reality of the denial of existence, the situation of being under the threat of genocide and the colonialisation of a people whose demands for freedom and equality, and coexistence, have been embodied in the person of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Ultimately, the future of the peoples of Turkey is held hostage in İmralı, embodied in Öcalan. I believe it is essential for everyone who desires a democratic republic for Turkey’s second century, based on women’s freedom and ecological life, to accept the necessity of ending the absolute isolation of Öcalan and securing his freedom, as the resolution of the Kurdish freedom issue and peace can only be achieved through dialogue and negotiations.
State-produced concepts are dividing women
The understanding and solidarity of the Turkish women’s movement and feminist movement with the struggle of Kurdish women is important for building peace together. Standing side by side against women’s issues, violence against women, discrimination, and sexism, but not doing the same for issues stemming from our ethnic identity, stems from the approach to the Kurdish issue.
The state-produced terms ‘divisive’ and ‘terrorist’ serve to divide women, alienate them, polarise, and legitimise the state’s violence, lawlessness, and tyranny. The Turkish state fears the organised struggle of Kurdish women and attacks the achievements they have created with immense effort, opposing the line of free women.
Women and youth must organise
While not making economic investments in Kurdistan, the state uses the economy as a tool to make Kurds renounce their identity and submit to the state. The state’s actions in Kurdistan, such as soldiers and police officers getting young people addicted to drugs, forcing them into prostitution, allowing or facilitating drug sales, or doing so through affiliated gangs, are not independent of the state’s Kurdish policy.
The protection of Musa Orhan, who raped a young woman in Batman, attacks by soldiers on women in Van, pushing Kurdish women into prostitution and drug addiction, and protecting those involved in drug trafficking sufficiently demonstrate this as a reflection of state policy.
In Kurdish provinces, Kurdish children have been killed by armoured vehicles, police bullets and bombings by warplanes. The treatment of bodies left in the streets, Ekin Wan, and the treatment of a young woman’s body in Silopi, among other practices, show the state’s destruction of all human, moral, and religious values and its whitewashing of crimes committed against Kurds through a policy of impunity.
These policies are, of course, unacceptable. Against this, the organisation of women and youth is crucial.