Isabel Käser, The Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement: Gender, Body Politics and Militant Femininities (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Isabel Käser (IK): I started the research for this book in 2014, around the time when the Rojava Revolution started gaining momentum and when the attacks of ISIS on Şengal and Kobanî put the focus onto what the Kurdish Freedom Movement was doing in Syria’s northeast. Women were clearly at the forefront of this revolution in the making—and took center stage in the reports that we read about it. However, I was really puzzled by the information available; on the one hand, you had the (Western) media coverage, reproducing old Orientalist stereotypes of the one forward-looking militia, heroically fighting for what is good in an otherwise barbaric Middle East, depoliticizing, essentializing, and often sexualizing the women at the frontlines. On the other hand, you had the Kurdish Freedom Movement discourse, telling an important but very ideology-laden story, that of the “free woman” and how the liberation of women was linked to the liberation of Kurdish territories. I was dissatisfied with both, wanting to go beyond these simplified depictions and understand how women got to play such central roles in this movement, and how they themselves understand, embody, and fight for freedom.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
IK: The book is a transnational feminist ethnography, centering the lives of militant women active in the political, activist, and military spheres of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. I was interested in how women historically shaped the movement, how they pushed for gender-based equality and justice within its ranks, and how that process of learning to become “free” operates. So in the different chapters, I look at the history of the movement, the role women play in the political sphere in Turkey, and how women become fighters in the mountain camps. Here I analyze the education and training of guerrillas and that process of “becoming,” obtaining and embodying what I call “militant femininity.” I also ask how death and mourning are ritualized in Maxmur camp (movement-run refugee camp in Northern Iraq), and how norms around gender and sexuality are rewritten by this movement. In this last chapter I unpack the “sex ban” or the “abstinence contract” as I call it, looking at how the movement’s liberation ideology operates on an intimate level, or put differently, how the party’s body politics is linked to their specific idea of what liberation looks like.
I situate my work within feminist international relations and critical military studies, disciplines that ask precise questions of how wars are gendered, to what extent conflict and war open spaces for women but also look critically as the true cost of war, at how militarized societies depend on reconfigured but still essentialized femininities and masculinities. The book also speaks to ongoing conversations in transnational and post-colonial feminist scholarship on gender and war, which cautions us that gender inequality is often further entrenched in militarized societies—and that women who are part of armed movements are often pushed back into the private sphere and their wartime gains are frequently sidelined in times of “post”-conflict reconstruction and state-building. This movement claims to be different; the politicians and commanders I interviewed all stressed that they had studied other post-colonial liberation movements and have rectified where they had previously gone wrong—they are organized independently from men in all spheres of activism (military, political, social), and they are active against all forms of violence, from the intimate to the battlefield, and can therefore not be pushed back or overruled, neither during nor “post”-conflict. I centered my explorations around this claim and asked how it is put into practice in the everyday.
My research also makes an intervention in the conversations about nationalism and feminism and how the two “isms” enable or hinder each other. This movement is not fighting for a new nation state but for democratic confederalism, a non-state council-led form of radical democracy. Plus they do not call their movement feminist, instead the terms “women’s liberation” and “Jineolojî” are used. I found, however, that this does not necessarily mean that the “free woman,” her body, and social roles are less prone to being essentialized as the markers for purity, honor, modernity, and progress and—albeit progressive—this operates along similar lines as in many other national liberation movements. I show how wherever the party holds power, women become the markers of “freedom” and demarcate the boundaries between “us”—a gender-equal society based on radical democracy—and “them”—the barbaric other: ISIS, the Turkish and Syrian regimes, and the racist and capitalist world order.
J: How does this book connect to or depart from your previous work?
IK: This is my first book, but it speaks to my longstanding interest in the so-called Kurdish Question, militarism, war, gender and sexuality, and women’s movements in the Middle East more broadly.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
IK: Since 2014, we have seen a surge of literature on this topic, so we now know much more about the history and everyday struggle of this movement. However, I found a lot of that literature to be telling an idealized story of the female fighters and the Rojava project and believe that my book will be relevant to those who want to go beyond this liberated/oppressed dichotomy and get a more nuanced sense of the complex power structures these women operate in.
The book also contains a lot of comparative historical material, looking at previous post-colonial revolutionary movements that grappled with the “woman’s question.” So, beyond activists and scholars interested in the Kurdish women’s movement, a larger audience working on gender, war, and militarism will hopefully find my book of use. My concept of “militant femininities” might also be helpful for people working on other movements and contexts where women commit radical acts of resistance, particularly when unpacking the norms, rules, and regulations attached to women’s bodies in moments of armed or political rupture.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
IK: I am currently working on a collaborative project in Iraqi Kurdistan, where my team and I are looking at feminist, art, and youth. We are interested in how a young generation of artists and activists is trying to forge out spaces that go beyond party politics and regional rivalries, and ask how through their work might be creating more transparent and inclusive spaces. We are about half way done with our research and it is both incredibly frustrating to see the stagnation and tangible hopelessness that young activists are up against, and also fantastic to find pockets of activism, where individuals and collectives are finding creative ways to push back against (religious) conservatism, corruption, and rapid neoliberal development.
J: You did your research for the book in different parts of Kurdistan at a time of heightened conflict, from the urban wars in eastern Turkey to the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. What were some of the main challenges you faced and how did those shape your work?
IK: There were so many! I arrived in the so-called “field,” Diyarbakir, in September 2015, just as the urban wars started. That meant that parts of the city, the historical center Sur, was being shelled by the Turkish army, as I was trying to organize interviews. It also meant that the women I was hoping to work with were under targeted and sustained attack by the government, and of course had many better things to do than talk to me. Despite this, they were extremely generous in welcoming me at their centers and into their structures.
As the war intensified, my access and room for movement became increasingly limited and I started to feel more and more inadequate and out of place, as well as incredibly powerless. These feelings accompanied me throughout fieldwork and beyond, as I later went to Rojava, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Maxmur, which were even closer to the border with ISIS. The injustices, the overbearingness of violence, and the living-in-violence were things I only very slowly learned to cope with. Aside from that, certain borders became more difficult or impossible to cross; for example, I was eventually deported from Turkey and labelled a “threat to national security” and am, like so many of us, permanently banned from the country.
Another huge challenge for me was the density and intensity of the movement’s cosmology, meaning, among other things, the ideology, and the repetition thereof. In the book, I write about how difficult I found it to go beyond the slogans of resistance and liberation that were so often narrated back to me, wherever I went in the different parts of Kurdistan. I was both amazed and frustrated by the uniformity of what I was told. After a while I stopped doing interviews and just did participant observation and found that to be much more telling of the lived realities of my respondents. Eventually I understood these slogans as part of the revolutionary labor that women do, and have to do, when speaking to a researcher like me. But of course, it is much more than that; these slogans are the results of decades of struggle and continue to help women to hold men accountable and push for more gender equal and just structures, laws, and policies.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-6)
‘When I struggle for my freedom with women, I feel free and I feel equal. Maybe if we weren’t organised, I wouldn’t feel like that. But freedom is so far away, that I know, we need hundreds of years’ (Ayşe Gökkan, 14 November 2015). We were sitting in the office of KJA, the Congress of Free Women (Kongreya Jinên Azad) in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, when Ayşe told me what equality and freedom meant to her. Our interview was often interrupted by the war planes roaring overhead and rattling the windows, Ayşe’s phone ringing and people walking into her office for a quick consultation. Ayşe seemed unfazed by all the commotion, the recent collapse of the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê), and the ensuing outbreak of the urban wars in Turkey’s southeast in the summer of 2015. She had been active in the Kurdish Women’s Freedom Movement for thirty years – as a journalist, politician and member of KJA – and had seen it all: the early years of the PKK, the prison resistance in the 1980s, the emergence of the Kurdish political parties in the 1990s, the establishment of women’s structures and the implementation of the women’s quota in the 2000s, and the hope that came with the Rojava Revolution in 2012. From 2009 to 2014 she served as the mayor of Nusaybin, a Kurdish city bordering Syria. When we met, she was responsible for the diplomacy of KJA, which meant building peace initiatives with Turkish feminists, creating international networks, welcoming foreign delegations, and speaking to researchers like me.
KJA served as an umbrella structure to unify and streamline ‘women’s work’ in Turkish Kurdistan/Bakur and implement the ideas around women’s liberation according to the writings of the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s imprisoned de facto leader Abdullah Öcalan. During our interview Ayşe told me her personal story but also highlighted some of the cornerstones of the women’s liberation ideology: the importance of devoting yourself to a unified struggle led by and for women, against a ‘capitalist system’ and a ‘patriarchal society’. She also explained the difference between ‘being free’ and a ‘free life’; being free is achieved by participation in an everyday struggle, a process of liberation that is geared towards a vision of freedom situated in a future utopia. In order to achieve that ‘free life’ women have to liberate themselves from the shackles of a racist, misogynist and capitalist society, a process in which they will not only free themselves but the fragmented and oppressed Kurdish nation as whole.
This centrality of women in the struggle of the Kurdish Freedom Movement is represented by ‘Women, Life, Freedom!’ (Jin, Jiyan, Azadî!), one of the main slogans of the women’s movement that was not only present on banners and posters in the KJA office but was chanted at demonstrations, after speeches and reiterated during my interviews across the fieldwork sites in different parts of Kurdistan. This slogan is also a central aspect in Democratic Confederalism, the political paradigm penned by Abdullah Öcalan, which links the liberation of women to national liberation and foresees a non-state nation based on gender equality, radical democracy, ecology and self-defence (Öcalan 2011). Running with this ideology, women in the political branch of the movement were able to push through a 40 per cent women’s quota and the co-presidency system in the mid-2000s and have since been elected in great numbers into local and national political party structures in Turkey. Even more prominently, women who have been fighting in the armed branches of the movement have gained significant visibility since the PKK’s sister party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) and its armed wings, the People’s ProtectionUnits (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) and the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ, Yekîneyên Parastina Jin) took control of Rojava, the Kurdish northeast of Syria in 2012. The role armed women played in the defence of Kobanî (Rojava) and Şengal (Iraq) against the onslaught of the so-called Islamic State (colloquially known as daesh) in 2014 led to much media and scholarly attention on the female fighters. Often depicting smiling and attractive young women with Kalashnikovs, the female fighters of the YPJ became the antithesis to the barbaric other: daesh, the many jihadi groups fighting in Syria, the Syrian regime and the Turkish army. This representation of the female fighters has been criticised as essentialist and orientalist, as it objectifies and sexualises the women, brushing over what they stand and fight for (Dirik 2014; Shahvisi 2018). The party’s own propaganda and the activist literature published in the wake of the ‘Rojava Revolution’, while providing important insights into the Rojava project, mostly idealise and glorify the struggle and its revolutionaries, without much space given to critical voices or reflections on the true cost of war for those who fight it (Demir 2017; Flach et al. 2016; Lower Class Magazine and Unrast e. V 2017; Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness 2015; Tax 2016).
Rather than assessing the representation of the female revolutionary, I want to introduce the female revolutionary through women’s embodied experience of becoming and being a militant of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, as politicians, activists and fighters. I discuss the specific ways in which this particular transnational women’s movement has fought for, created and used emerging spaces since 1978, when the PKK was founded. In order to think beyond the sensationalist and sexualised representation of women at the political and military front lines, I examine how women filled the political, activist and militarised spaces with particular organisational practices and ideological claim making: how they operate on a continuum of violence and resistance in the everyday, and what kind of hegemonic femininity has been formed and is being practised in the different spaces between the mountains and the cities I had access to during my fieldwork: the legal Kurdish parties in the cities (Bakur), the women’s guerrilla training camps (Başûr) and the martyr mothers in Maxmûr Camp (Başûr).
One of the movement’s own ideological claims is that of sustainability and difference, emphasising that their movement is aware of the shortcomings of previous national liberation wars, in which women actively participated but were pushed back into the domestic sphere following the conflict, when peace- and policy-making were left up to men. When making this argument, my interviewees often referred to the Russian Revolution or the Algerian War of Independence to illustrate how women were unable to hold on to their wartime gains post-conflict because their institutions were not organised independently from men. Members of the women’s movement argue that because their struggle is deeply rooted in a forty-year history and ideology of resistance in the armed, political and personal spheres, and because women’s liberation and the building of autonomous women-led structures are at the core of the movement’s political identity and strategic efforts, their women’s movement will endure. Moreover, the implementation of these new structures requires women’s self-defence and will allow them to work and live as active members in their community and participate in political decisionmaking processes and conflict resolution during and after armed conflict, so the women of the movement argue. Öcalan links this claim of difference to the Neolithic matriarchal society (approx. 10,200–8,800 BC), a time when women of Upper Mesopotamia were strong and independent. He evokes the symbol of Îştar the goddess, an important Mesopotamian deity of female love, beauty, fertility, war and political power, saying that today’s female freedom fighters all need to become like Îştar – fearless, dedicated and independent of men (Çağlayan 2012; Duzel 2018).
The claim of sustainability and need for self-defence, as well as the relationship between official party discourse and practice raise further questions about how historical references are used, how the party’s female identity of the ‘free woman’ is constructed, how that identity is translated into everyday practise, and how this challenges or reinforces existing hierarchies of power. This ideology and practice of women’s liberation is two-sided as the journey towards liberation goes hand in hand with the renunciation of particular freedoms. For instance, women and men who join the armed branch of the party pledge to abstain from romantic or sexual relations. The trainee guerrillas learn to become desexualised freedom fighters, an endeavour that requires a strict ideological education but also much coercive power and discipline under the watchful eye of the party.