Fanack Home / Kurds targeted in Turkish attack include thousands of female fighters who battled Islamic State

Kurds targeted in Turkish attack include thousands of female fighters who battled Islamic State

Kurdish female Peshmerga fighters
Syrian-Kurdish female Peshmerga fighters and members of the Rojava Defence Units take part in routine military exercises in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk on March 29, 2018. Photo: SAFIN HAMED / AFP ©AFP ⁃ SAFIN HAMED

By: Haidar Khezri

Kurdish fighters under attack by Turkey have described President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria as a “stab in the back.”

Since bombing began on Oct. 9, Turkish military operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria, Washington’s staunchest and most effective allies in the war against the Islamic State, has killed at least 11 civilians and an unconfirmed number of Kurdish fighters, with estimates ranging from dozens to hundreds.

Kurdish fighters are key partners to the U.S. in the Middle East. From 2003 to 2017, they helped overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, battled al-Qaida and pushed the Islamic State out of northern Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish women have fought on the front lines in all these battles, as they have done since the 19th-century Kurdish commander Kara Fatma led an Ottoman battalion of 700 men and 43 women against the Russian Empire.

That was unusual for the period – but, then again, Kurdish women have long been exceptions in the mostly conservative Middle East.

Who are the Kurds?

Kurdistan, where I was born, is among the largest nations in the world without a state. Around 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous zone straddling Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia.

The Kurds were first split up politically in the 17th century, when their territory was divided between the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Back then, the Roman scholar Pietro Della Valle traveled to the region and was surprised to find “Kurdish women commuting freely without hijab.” He noted in his 1667 travelogue that “they engage with Kurdish men and foreigners without any problems.”

After World War I, a treaty between Britain and France, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, drew arbitrary borders across the Middle East, creating colonial protectorate states. The partition again fragmented the Kurds, this time across four countries: modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The Kurds have been fighting for their sovereignty ever since. In recent decades, they have succeeded in establishing autonomously governed regions within Iraq and Syria.

But in Iran and Turkey, the Kurds continue their armed struggle. Both countries to view this ethnic minority as a terrorist threat and legally repress Kurdish populations.

This setup has put Kurdistan – domestically a rather peaceable, prosperous place with significant oil reserves – squarely in the center of a geopolitical quagmire.

Until Trump’s recent turnaround, the U.S. had backed the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Iran, where they were critical to defeating the Islamic State and served as jailers to about 11,000 captured IS fighters.

But Turkey – a U.S. ally – sees the armed Kurds in Syria as an extension of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since the 1980s.

In May 2018, over 250 people were killed when Turkey bombed the Kurdish-majority Syrian city of Afrin, which Turkish armed forces considers a “terrorist corridor.”

The feminists of the PKK

PKK
This undated picture shows Sakine Cansiz, a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Sakine Cansiz was one of the three Kurdish women who were shot dead overnight on January 10, 2013 in Paris in what France’s interior minister dubbed an “assassination”. The women were found in the early hours with gunshot wounds to the head inside a Kurdish information centre in the 10th district of the French capital, police and the centre’s director said. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited the scene of the crime and described the killings as “assassinations”. The murders came after Turkish media reported on January 9 that the Turkish government and jailed Kurd rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan had agreed on a roadmap to end a three-decade-old insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Photo: STR / AFP ©AFP ⁃ STR

The Marxist-Leninist PKK, founded in 1978, may be an enemy of the Turkish state, but it is also one of the most feminist movements in the Middle East.

The group held its first congress on women’s rights in 1987, in which PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz – who was assassinated in 2013 – proposed that its “liberation for all” rhetoric must include women’s liberation, too.

Today the party’s political agenda explicitly recognizes religious minorities, dissidents and women as the crux of democracy.

In the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, women have the same legal rights as men. Indeed, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has a higher proportion of women than the United Kingdom – 30% versus 20%.

The charter of the semi-autonomous Syrian Federation of Kurdistan, founded in 2012, requires that women must hold a minimum of 40% of all government posts. Every Kurdish Syrian public institution must also have two co-presidents, one male and one female.

Women also make up 30% of Kurdish fighters deployed across the Middle East. More than 25,000 Kurdish women are deployed in Syria as the Women’s Protection Units, an all-female militia inspired by the KPP’s feminist liberation ideology.

In contrast, about 14% of U.S. military service members are women.

Female Kurdish troops rescued thousands of Yazidis trapped by the Islamic State on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar in 2014 and helped liberate the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State in 2017.

Equal in battle but not everywhere else

Despite the relative freedom of women in Kurdistan compared to elsewhere in the Middle East, Kurdish society is not entirely gender equal.

In 2014, only 12 of 250 judges in Iraqi Kurdistan were female, and just one of 21 government ministers was. Female genital mutilation, child marriage and honor killings – in which male family members murder women who are alleged to have disgraced their families – persist, particularly in rural areas of Kurdistan.

And, in my experience, feminist debates like equal pay for women and #MeToo aren’t yet a topic of conversation in Kurdistan.

Historically, too, it’s noteworthy that many famous female Kurdish leaders succeeded only because their empowerment did not challenge the male establishment.

During World War I, Lady Adela Khanum, leader of the Kurdish region of Halabja, saved the lives of numerous British army officers on the battlefield, earning her the nickname “Princess of the Brave.”

But she originally rose to power because she inherited the position when her husband died. While ruling Halabja from 1909 to 1924, she did not push a women’s rights agenda.

The hard labor of freedom

Kurdish women who were seen as threats to male authority have often been punished, sometimes with death.

That’s what happened to the very first woman to fight in the Kurdish army. Margaret George Malik quickly rose up among the all-male ranks in the 1960s to lead troops in the Kurdish war for independence from Iraq.

She was murdered in 1969 under mysterious circumstances. Some historians believe that Malik was killed by her lover because she rejected his marriage proposal. Others say she was assassinated by the Kurdish leadership, which feared her growing influence.

Either way, Malik’s murder speaks to the battles Kurdish women still fight today.

It’s meaningful that in the Kurdish language, the word for woman – “jin” – shares a root with the word for life: “jiyan.” And both jin and jiyan are related to the word “jan,” or labor pains.

In a region surrounded by threats – from Turkey’s attacks and Islamic State terrorism and patriarchy at home – the women of Kurdistan are fighting for their life and liberty. And the cost is hard, dangerous labor.

Remark: This article was originally published by https://theconversation.com/ in October 14, 2019.

The Conversation

“The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily express Fanack’s views.”

© Copyright Notice

click on link to view the associated photo/image
©AFP ⁃ SAFIN HAMED | ©AFP ⁃ SAFIN HAMED | ©AFP ⁃ STR

We would like to ask you something …

Fanack is an independent media organisation, not funded by any state or any interest group, that distributes in the Middle East and the wider world unbiased analysis and background information, based on facts, about the Middle East and North Africa.

The website grew rapidly in breadth and depth and today forms a rich and valuable source of information on 21 countries, from Morocco to Oman and from Iran to Yemen, both in Arabic and English. We currently reach six million readers annually and growing fast.

In order to guarantee the impartiality of information on the Chronicle, articles are published without by-lines. This also allows correspondents to write more freely about sensitive or controversial issues in their country. All articles are fact-checked before publication to ensure that content is accurate, current and unbiased.

To run such a website is very expensive. With a small donation, you can make a huge impact. And it only takes a minute. Thank you.

  • The decline of Erdoğanist authoritarianism: a new chance for “democratization” in Turkey?

    On the flip side of the picture, ironically, the making of Erdoğanist authoritarianism has generated ample opportunities for a radical liberalization of the Turkish political system. Scrapping institutional discipline, liquidating the bureaucratic guardians, disposing of the ‘traditional’ cadre structure and confusing the ideological compass that defined the ‘old’ imperious state apparatus, without effectively replacing them with ‘new’ ones, presents a historic moment for a comprehensive and thorough transformation.
  • Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps

    The first, still best, option – repatriation of foreign nationals – is arguably a quickly closing window. Even then, questions would remain about what should happen to Iraqi and Syrian nationals, and what role the West should play in resolving their situation. But European powers must avoid taking the third option they’d been exercising by default – doing nothing, and waiting for circumstances to change.