PKK and the 'free female fighter' rhetoric

PKK and the 'free female fighter' rhetoric

Over the last two months, there have been dozens of articles published on how the brave Kurdish women of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting fiercely against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including publications by BBC News, Foreign Policy magazine and the Huffington Post. Indeed, at first sight one feels proud at the fact that women are as strong as men and are fighting for what they believe in. Yet, something about the rhetoric used by news sources on Kurdish female fighters feels deeply dissatisfying.

“Gender equality is a fundamental feature of the PKK, which was founded as a Marxist organization,” many news sources reported, while depicting the heroines of the PKK, conducting individual interviews and sharing their extraordinary life stories. Nevertheless, there are serious complications about these statements. Among many, the claim that PKK is still a Marxist organization is highly disputable when its political discourse has been redefined over many decades. However, what we should concentrate on is the hyperbole of "female power and independence" within the PKK.

It is true that since its establishment, the PKK has recruited women as well as men. While some of these recruitments were voluntary, others were by force. Nihat Ali Özcan, who is an expert on the PKK, claims that women have voluntarily joined the PKK because they are attracted to the propaganda and aims of the organization, or because of family pressure. However, especially during the early stages of the PKK’s existence, it is well-known that the group kidnapped young women for recruitment and forced children whose families were already involved with the PKK to join the organization. In time, they were successful in creating a false notion of gender-equality.

“For me, the freedom of women is more important than land and culture.  A woman must be a freedom fighter. You must liberate yourselves,” said Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, on international women’s day this year. However, during an interview in 1997, when asked about his alleged “harem” (where the main male character was surrounded by a group of females), he dismissively responded that it is completely natural to have a desire to be close to the leader in guerrilla movements, as “the leader delivers light and power to those who are around him.” Moreover, the gender-equality façade of the PKK took a serious blow when one of its own female militants, who escaped from it and found refuge in Iraq, published a book on her experiences titled “The Escape to Freedom” in the early 2000s.

After joining the PKK at the age of 13, Dilaram (her codename) spoke to almost 100 ex-militants about the beatings and rapes taking place within the PKK by its leaders and high-level commanders. The story in the book is of a woman who voluntarily joined the organization, but then could not leave it once she was in. Dilaram became a victim of all types of misconduct. The horrific stories range from brutal incidents of rape, to the execution of young women who wanted to run away from the group. Thus, all today's arguments suggesting that the PKK provides freedom and power for women within the organization should be taken with a grain of salt.

Moreover, those who are familiar with the history of PKK attacks in Turkey will recall that more than half of its suicide attacks have been conducted by women. There was a time in the country when people became restless when they saw a pregnant woman in a crowded place, suspecting that she could be a PKK militant ready to detonate a bomb. Indeed, in the book “Women as Terrorists: Mothers, Recruiters, and Martyrs” by R. Kim Cragin and Sara A. Daly it is written that while the PKK has utilized female militants as suicide bombers because they would be better able to slip past Turkish security measures, many of the female operatives became suicide bombers out of eagerness to prove that they could be as fierce as their male counterparts, after being accused of being passive fighters.

Needless to say, the PKK is not the only armed group to employ female militants in its activities – in its occasionally ideological and at other time pragmatic strategy. What's more, there is a great irony in the fact that PKK women have lately been combating ISIL, which as an Islamist organization that not only prohibits any female fighters’ involvement but also conducts unspeakable violence against females in the raided towns. All of this being said, before displaying euphoria about women being equal to men in their “fight” and before portraying the PKK as if it has no record of gender discrimination, one should take a better look at its history. Regrettably, not all stories are as marketable as others, but there are many lives that have fallen between these gender cracks and deserve to be remembered.

*Berfu Kiziltan is currently a Davis Scholar at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.