By Amanda Jessen
Standing in Nevruz Park in Diyarbakir, Turkey last March, I was immediately and acutely aware of the magnitude of the event playing out before me. Two years ago marked the first time Kurds could legally gather to celebrate the Persian New Year. This year, Kurdish vendors came prepared with traditional foods and merchandise for sale. Eager to capitalize on the spirit of the day, men solicited grilled meats and peppers, circled families with trays of traditional simit, and manned tables stacked rows-deep with t-shirts, flags, and scarves – some boasting the traditional colors of Kurdish nationalism, others boldly featuring Abdullah Ocalan’s profile. Visions of red, yellow and green were woven together by the sound of women ululating in unison over rhythmic drumbeats, a combination that evoked a sense of communal celebration.
To understand the significance of the event, it is critical to establish some context around Turkish-Kurdish relations over the past several decades. In 1974, Abdullah Ocalan organized Kurdish resistance to Turkish rule by issuing a clarion call to action that, up until recently, argued for a separate and unified Kurdish state encompassing Kurdish communities living in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Over the past 40 years, the Turkish government and the PKK, or Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – the group of armed insurgents that formed around the charismatic leadership of Ocalan – have participated in on-again, off-again periods of intense military engagement. Since 1984, the conflict has racked up severe costs, both human and financial: 30,000-40,000 lives and $300 billion-$450 billion have been claimed over four decades of fighting. By all accounts, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has defined several generations of Kurds living in Turkey, and has served as a template from which offshoots of the PKK in Syria and Iraq have mobilized for greater autonomy within their own national contexts.
But since 2013, Ocalan, with the support of PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, has engaged directly with the Turkish Government in high-level peace talks, even though both sides are careful to frame the discussion in terms of “seeking a solution” rather than “building peace.” The talks are in the very early stages, with the government only having released its vision of a six-phase road map last summer. In addition to the slow pace of progress, many observers express concerns that ISIS’ sustained attack on the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane and the Turkish governments’ posture toward intervention threaten to derail the positive developments of the past few years.
In Diyarbakir, I was awestruck listening to Ocalan’s message – recorded prior to the start of the festival from his prison on Imrali Island in the Marmara Sea – permeate the air, reminding his followers to tread the path of peace and avoid a return to violence. Even more strikingly, I was amazed to see how many young girls took center-stage in the celebrations. In conversations with Turkish friends, I was told that Kurdish women suffer a great deal under the burden of an oppressive patriarchal structure, further stressed by decades of conflict, poverty and neglect. But at the celebration, the energy on the ground suggested something very different. I noted an equal number of women dressed in long, sequined gowns as I did women dressed in the infamous green fatigues of PKK mountain fighters. I quickly lost count of the number of young girls I saw, ages 10 and younger, dancing with their elders, clad head to toe in the olive green of the Kurdish insurgency. So even as Ocalan was speaking to a peaceful and prosperous future, it was clear that the allure of rebellion still held powerful sway over some of Turkey’s youngest women.
There is limited scholarship outlining the conditions under which women leverage violence to effect political change, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least in the case of Kurdish women electing to join the insurgency, women take up arms to “escape poverty. They flee a conservative society where domestic violence is common and there is little opportunity.” These motivating factors could help explain why Kurdish women have been attracted to the organization since it was formed in the late 1970s.
But women’s representation in the struggle for Kurdish self-determination is not just limited to the PKK. In the political wing of the Kurdish movement, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), women are guaranteed a participation threshold of 40 percent and the party is presided over jointly by both a male and female representative at all times. There is historically a strong commitment to elevating women to key positions as both political actors and combatants. This is true at least in terms of theory and what is visible to an outside world, whose capacity to understand the PKK might be influenced by factors such as the U.S. State Department’s 1997 listing of the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Turning again to the ongoing peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK, a workable plan that facilitates the disarming, demobilization and facilitated reintegration (DDR) of Kurdish combatants is a hotly contested topic. One often-ignored aspect of DDR in this context is how demobilization will impact on the Kurdish women who have made their mark in the decades-long insurgency. If it is true that significant numbers of women have joined the ranks of the PKK over the past four decades as a means of pursuing empowerment and social status through military engagement, any sort of demobilization and reintegration scheme will have to comprehensively map out mechanisms through which returned combatants can return to civilian life without sacrificing perceived gains in self-actualization. A report by International Crisis Group suggests, “Any amnesty or reintegration mechanisms must make sure not to exclude women and girls who are combatants or otherwise associated with the insurgency.” In view of women’s long involvement with the insurgency, simply ensuring that we do not exclude women does not evoke a strong image of a plan that accounts for women’s active roles in the group.
Rather than limit the focus on how not to exclude women from DDR programming, a successful post-conflict strategy must think more proactively about how to prioritize the women being asked to disarm. There must be compelling incentives to return to civilian life that are driven by an understanding of the gendered pathways to combat that brought women into the military theatre to begin with. If the aim is to present a peaceful alternative to the militant nature of the past 40 years, any durable peace deal cannot afford to ignore the factors and structures that pushed Kurdish women into combat; it cannot risk implementing DDR protocol and programs that do not expressly appeal to female combatants. Parallel political, economic and social development programming must be sensitive to the ways in which Kurdish women’s realities are differently gendered, and must offer enticing and appropriately tailored incentives to female combatants being asked to demobilize.
The most enduring memory of my March afternoon in Diyarbakir was not dancing chapi, and it was not moving freely through a dense crowd wrapped in a scarf emblazoned with the colors of Kurdistan, an act that would otherwise garner unwanted attention everywhere else in Turkey. The moment I will never forget unfolded when I looked into the eyes of a little girl waiving a flag with Ocalan’s face on it and wondered if she would be afforded the chance to grow up in a Turkey where her interests would be represented democratically, equitably and without the echo of gunfire in the background.