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The Struggle of Kurdish Women Human Rights Defenders Continues in Iraq, Turkey, Syria

Semanur Karaman

Mégane Ghorbani

On 20 July 2015, the international community was shaken by the news of the murder of 31 civil society activists, many of whom were women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the predominantly Kurdish city of Suruç in Turkey. The activists were on their way to rebuild the war torn Kurdish city of Kobane in Northern Syria, carrying toys and books for orphaned children.  

Although the attacks were attributed to the self-proclaimed “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), many point to the government of Turkey’s complicity in the bombing of activists to curb peaceful advocacy in solidarity with Kurdish minorities of the region.[1]

The assassination of the WHRDs at Suruç took place almost one year after the poignant intervention by Iraqi Ezidi MP Vian Dakhil on abuses committed against Ezidi women and girls by ISIL. It is worrying to observe violence targeting women in the region has escalated since Dakhil’s call. Despite ongoing challenges and organised violence, Kurdish WHRDs continue to develop new strategies to tackle oppression by governments and violent non-state actors.

AWID spoke with five Kurdish women activists to learn more about their experiences of defending Kurdish women’s rights, and to analyze the challenges and opportunities for the struggle in Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in the visibility of the Kurdish struggle in Turkey and Syria; yet, media attention on Kurdish women has mostly focused on their engagement in armed combat against ISIL[2]. This has unfortunately obscured the multiple dimensions of Kurdish women’s activism and limits understanding of their meaningful involvement in conflict resolution and advancement of human rights. Kurdish women human rights defenders have greatly contributed to the fight for the minority rights of Kurdish people and for gender equality in Kurdistan[3], in a climate marked by a number of challenges but, above all, new opportunities.    

Women’s resistance in the face of diverse forms of oppression

The struggle of the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Syria is based on a history of resistance – that of Kurdish women for their identity, as ethnic women, and for their emancipation, says Nursel Kilic, representative and spokesperson for the International Representation of the Kurdish Women’s Movement. “These women led a revolution at the heart of their community well before organizing as a movement. These women activists and human rights defenders first engaged with women across all social classes in order to raise awareness of their social rights and the history of the global struggle for women’s liberation. In the early 1980s, with regard to the political climate of the time, women involved in the struggle for Kurdish recognition focused their activism on mobilizing women forced to migrate; women from villages that had been evacuated by force or arson by soldiers of the Turkish army. Within this climate of insecurity, they cautiously fought illegally at the cost of their lives.”

While doing so Kurdish women had to address double oppression, that of the state and their own communities. Oyku Sezer, trans activist working with the organization Hebun LGBT in Diyarbakır, Turkey asserts “We’ve been oppressed both by national governments denying our identity, and at the same time certain members of our movement that are not gender, and definitely not trans rights, sensitive. Therefore the struggle of Kurdish women is also one attempting to emancipate them within their own movement as we have been betrayed by our own allies in numerous instances.”

According to Kilic, Kurdish women were not only mobilized socially and through organized civil society, but also in the Armed Front of the struggle for Kurdistan’s liberation, and very quickly became critical of the models upon which military organizations are structured. Within the liberation movement, Kurdish women militants were fighting equally against the patriarchal system and wanted to guarantee equality between women and men at all levels of decision-making. “It was an ongoing struggle against the masculine ranks of patriarchy in the community and in the political arena. Kurdish women activists also questioned the place of religious fundamentalisms, which became embedded into society by the manipulation of beliefs by State forces. The autonomous democratic system that they are promoting is the critique and antithesis of all existing monopolistic structures,” adds Kilic.

Kurdish women who are not affiliated with party politics and the military wing of the struggle, and who attempt to assert a more independent outlook faced numerous challenges as well. Zozan Ozgokce of Van Women’s Association (VAKAD), a women’s rights organization based in the pre dominantly Kurdish South-eastern Turkey town of Van, said “Unfortunately, I am observing a decrease in the number of independent civil society organizations attempting to advance human rights within our own community and the wider national context. Under heavy government pressure, growing conservatism and a war atmosphere, it is tremendously difficult to carry out our work calling for the recognition of our most fundamental rights.”

Ozgokce continues, “Our association faced a closure case. The premises of our office were searched without necessary warrants. We lack the adequate financial resources to carry out our work. But under such hostile circumstances, our spirit of activism is what keeps our movement alive.”

In Iraqi Kurdistan, women face different forms of oppression, which make it difficult to build a well-organized Kurdish women’s movement, even though there are activists rising up against the economic, social and political situation that women from southern Kurdistan are facing. Ala Ali, independent conflict research specialist and Kurdish-Iraqi peace activist,[4] notes that a significant number of women in Iraqi Kurdistan are suffering because of the political crisis between the Kurdistan regional government and the central government of Iraq, as well as the financial crisis affecting the country. In addition to the Ezidi and Christian women who were the main target of ISIL, often displaced, losing their homes and families; women from southern Kurdistan generally suffer a lack of access to education, employment and equality of life - not just to that of men but also to that of other women in the rest of the country. In extremely difficult economic times, women are often subjected to domestic violence by their spouses, who become increasingly aggressive toward them. “The status of women in southern Kurdistan is therefore in a critical state and there is the issue of structural violence. We also have a problem regarding education levels, which are extremely low in Kurdistan. It is why we have few experts working on these difficult issues, and when you are not affiliated with a political party, it becomes very difficult to obtain a position of influence over policymakers that could lead to change,” underscores Ala Ali. She also stresses the significant issue of corruption in Iraq – Iraq being one of the six most corrupt countries in the world[5] – which is sometimes the cause of misallocation of funds originally allocated to women, but benefiting certain individuals. “For example, some have used the Ezidi crisis to gain money and benefits for individual and small groups.”

A Kurdish alternative model of good governance

Despite ongoing challenges, the Kurdish struggle has produced alternative models of governance, putting democracy and human rights at the heart of policy making. For the past three years, the Kurdish liberation movement has been developing a political model for the control and self defense of the Rojava region in Syria[6], based on principles of direct democracy, community organizing, gender equality and respect for diverse identities.[7] Within this system, women are represented as equals, from municipalities to citizen’s assemblies and peoples’ self defense forces. “Women from Rojava are thus the carriers of a new social contract with innovative values,” explains Kilic. This social contract, adopted in January 2014 to proclaim the autonomy of Rojava, refers to the values of gender equality, mandatory and free access to primary education for all, collective rights (including maternity leave), respect for diverse identities, secularism, shared representation among authorities (with at least 40% of men or women across all institutions) and local self-governance of the three cantons that make up Syrian Kurdistan.       

Deniz Zenan Sapka, a volunteer of SPoD LGBT in Istanbul points out how the Kurdish struggle attempts to achieve aims broader than their own rights as a minority community, “One needs to think of the women’s rights movement in Turkey and the wider region, even when carried out by Kurdish WHRDs, broader than merely a struggle for minority rights. In this geography feminists are seen as man hating promiscuous women, so our struggle is for the emancipation of all women.”

Overcoming challenges at a critical Juncture: Kurdish WHRDs facing obstacles

The Suruç attacks are a serious cause for concern for those working for peace building and conflict resolution in the Middle East. The level of intimidation against Kurdish activists was further escalated by Turkey’s responding with military operations targeting Kurdish armed groups in northern Syria. Therefore, both the attack itself and the militarized response has undoubtedly had negative effects on establishing a conducive environment for human rights advocacy and peace building in the region.

The repressive political context for human rights activism in the region is exacerbated by the lack of financial and technical support to build capacities of civil society organizations and Kurdish WHRDs. “We need to underscore the issues and the mistakes to change reality,” says Ali. The Kurdish-Iraqi activist explains that donor funds allocated to women and young people in Kurdistan need to be coordinated and channeled toward finding sustainable and domestic solutions, implemented by community-based organizations with transparent structures and internal processes, “To me, it is inefficient to send Ezidi women and girls abroad, to European countries, as part of their healing process. The economic and social situation of these women and girls, who have been raised in very conservative farming communities, in villages where they have never been to school, means they suffer from culture shock when they arrive abroad. The proposed solutions do not take their realities and context into account, and unfortunately, these solutions are not only coming from outside but also from some individuals in Iraq, who may have underlying interests, which escalates the problem. In-house solutions are needed if we want sustainability and peace.”

Ozgokce also calls for effective funding for independent civil society organizations, “Independent activists, operating outside party or armed struggle politics should also be recognized and their voices should be heard. They need financial and emotional support and but most importantly solidarity and sisterhood.”

According to Kilic, in northern Kurdistan, through the gender equal co-presidential system in place across political and administrative bodies, women have come to be equally represented.[8] Moreover, she emphasises that the co-presidential system exists across all Turkish municipalities represented by the pro Kurdish and minority rights Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP)[9] following the June 2015 legislative election in which it received 13% of the vote and the number of women MPs in the Turkish parliament is the highest the country has ever seen. “At the same time, women are also organizing within the Democratic Free Women’s Movement, which brings together all ethnicities, gender identities, feminists, artists, ecologists, anarchists and humanitarian NGOs, and all political representation is founded in the values of women’s liberation. Women are mobilizing in neighbourhoods, villages, municipalities by hosting local meetings, which determine areas of focus according to the situation of women in the locality and a consensus-based political vision. The current objective of the Kurdish women’s movement is to take the ideology global, because this ideology concerns all elements for a new societal model. This ideology not only promotes thinking, it is built on a reality. The women’s movement also presents a new project, that of developing a science of women - gyneology. In Kurdish, gyn is defined both as life and woman. This new science defends a new societal project that questions and analyses all sciences that are based on a masculine vision. Gyneology redefines the arts and humanities, social sciences, economics, history and politics, to be able to return to the roots of history that gave value to humanity and the universe.”   

Some connections have therefore been promoted among Kurdish WHRDs in the region, as a way to strengthen cohesion and the exchange of experiences and strategies between them. Last May, the Iraqi al-Amal Association held a major regional conference addressing the role of women standing against extremism and militarism, explains Ali.

Activism for the recognition of human rights in the region have been carried out courageously by Kurdish women. However, they are at a critical juncture, facing momentous threats both from governments and violent non-state actors. Under such an environment they remain hopeful that their committed struggle will not only pioneer peace and human rights for their own communities, but all communities of the Middle East. 

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[1] Read Selin Girit, “Suruc massacre highlights Turkey's Islamic State dilemma”, BBC News,  21 July 2015.

[2] To learn more about the conflict situation in Iraq and Syria as well as the repercussions for Turkey, read:
To see a few emblematic examples of the media coverage pertaining to Kurdish women please read: - -

[3] With the exception of Iranian Kurdistan.

[4] Ala Ali is also member of the Iraqi al-Amal Association board of directors

[5] For more information, see the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index:

[7] In addition to the Kurdish population, Rojava includes Arab, Assyrian, Chaldean, Aramaean, Turkmen, Armenian and Chechen populations.

[9] Although having originated from the Kurdish movement, HDP adopted an all-inclusive, pro minority rights discource in party politics. For more information please read Joris Leverink on, Roar Mag, 8 June 2015 

West Asia