by Meghan Bodette – USA
Throughout the months of November and December, women’s movements in Rojava (in northeastern Syria) and Bakur (south eastern Turkey) took to the streets to raise awareness of gender-based violence. Centred around the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November, the actions called attention to crimes against women in all areas of society – from discrimination, harassment and abuse in families and communities to atrocities targeting women in war.
This year, the campaign was punctuated by ongoing crimes against women on both sides of the border. Women in Rojava commemorated two fallen feminist politicians: Hevrin Khalaf, murdered by Turkish-backed jihadists in October 2019, and Zehra Berkel, killed in a drone strike in June of this year. They also called attention to the fate of the women abducted by Syrian opposition factions: at least 80 such cases have been recorded in Afrin in 2020 alone.
In Turkey, several feminist politicians are in prison for the crime of representing their constituents: this September, a former MP had a year added to her sentence because she called President Erdoğan a misogynist. Recent cases of sexual violence perpetrated by security personnel in Kurdish towns have been met with complete impunity. Official efforts to find a young Kurdish woman who disappeared in January have ceased, against the wishes of her family. 361 women have been killed by men since the start of the year – effectively one such crime for every day of 2020.
These cases are not isolated tragedies, but integral tactics of Turkey’s war in Kurdistan. As the Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime has consolidated power and inflamed destructive conflicts, it has also emboldened countless perpetrators of sexist violence. Whether crimes are committed by agents of the state or simply by men who know the state will side with them, the result has been an attack on women’s basic right to live safe, dignified, and peaceful lives.
An International War on Women
For the past decade of Erdoğan’s rule, the number of women murdered by men has increased nearly every year. Authorities have attempted to legalize statutory rape and child marriage not once, but twice, and have threatened to leave the Istanbul Convention – the primary international treaty criminalizing gender-based violence.
The crackdown on Kurdish opposition has removed hundreds of women from all levels of politics and shut down virtually all women’s centres in Kurdish regions. Women who resist these undemocratic policies face police brutality and terrorism charges.
In Rojava, the situation is perhaps worse. Turkey has employed brutal jihadist militias who see women as inherently subservient to men to crush the revolutionary advances in women’s freedom made by the Autonomous Administration.
Women and girls in occupied Afrin, Serekaniye, and Tel Abyad have lost all legal and institutional protections against violence and discrimination, while men who serve in Turkey’s proxy forces face no consequences for broadcasting crimes against women to the world. Religious authorities affiliated witih the occupation, whose rulings influence and often override civil law, have praised polygamy and defended so-called honour killings; their anti-women practices have led to a rise in child marriages in occupied territories.
Campaigns Against Male and State Violence
The connections between the AKP regime’s authoritarianism, militarism, and sexism are systemic and unequivocal. Thus, for Kurdish women, the fight against all three forms of oppression is connected. Their struggle is an essential example of how to challenge violent states and violent men at the same time – and how to build an alternative society free of both.
In Rojava, a four-week programme lasting from 10 November to 10 December reached hundreds of women in cities and towns across the region. Groups like the SARA Organization for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, the Syrian Democratic Council, and the Syrian Women’s Council hosted educational programmes raising awareness of domestic violence, while mass demonstrations were held condemning war crimes targeting women in occupied areas.
“Feminicide is the foundation of the elimination of society: without women, a society cannot thrive. A multi-faceted and strategic war is being carried out against women”, a Kongra Star statement issued for 25 November read.
“Women all over the world continue to struggle in the broadest sense and with intellectual activities that go ever deeper. But before we can reach national unity as women – the desired outcome of this struggle – we must first accept the truth that violence against women at the global level has reached the level of war”.
In Bakur, women in the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and affiliated organizations organized an even more extensive campaign under the slogan “em xwe diparezin” — “we defend ourselves”. These activities lasted from September to December. According to Free Women’s Movement (TJA) Spokeswoman Ayşe Gökkan, their anti-violence workshops had reached 3,000 women by mid-November.
On 11 December, the TJA issued a report on cases of male and state violence targeting Kurdish women for the year. Their report found that 2,250 women applied to NGOs and associations for protection from abuse, 775 women sought shelter, and 60 women were found dead under suspicious circumstances.
It also noted that nearly 250 TJA activists had been detained over the course of the year, and that a similar number of feminist politicians and women’s rights defenders were subjected to detention, arrest, and other forms of legal harassment. TJA’s recommendations to solve the crisis included policy proposals that addressed both issues specific to women’s rights and those related to the full scope of the war in Kurdistan: one point called on Turkey to fully adopt the Istanbul Convention, while another called for new negotiations to peacefully resolve the Kurdish question.
Internationally, the Kurdish Women’s Movement of Europe (TJK-E) has launched a petition to demand that Erdoğan face international justice for the AKP regime’s crimes against women. The “100 Reasons to Prosecute the Dictator” campaign will share the stories of 100 women killed by the Turkish state and its proxies.
So far, the women they have commemorated include Sakine Cansiz, the legendary PKK co-founder assassinated by Turkish intelligence in Paris in 2013; Taybet Inan, a Kurdish mother shot by Turkish security forces whose body was left in the street for a week; and Derya Koc, an elected HDP official killed in the basements of Cizre. “We want to seek justice and demand a prosecution of Erdoğan. With this effort, we want to be the voice for all women in the world who are subjected to violence, and [to] draw attention to all state crimes committed against women”, the campaign’s organizers stated. So far, more than 1,000 people have signed on to the call.