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Dilar Dirik

‘We can abolish the patriarchy’: inside the Kurdish Women’s Movement

Author Dilar Dilik speaks to gal-dem about the history of the Kurdish women’s movement and their fight for women’s liberation.

06 Feb 2023

It might seem surprising to some that a powerful revolutionary women’s movement could come from such a “patriarchal, conservative society in the Middle East”, says Dilar Dirik, Kurdish author and activist. She is describing the Kurdish Women’s Movement – a beacon of light that has for decades mobilised women in the region spanning Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and beyond. 

“And it’s not a small group of people. I’m talking about millions of organised women here,” she tells gal-dem. 

The Kurdish Women’s Movement is an organised coalition of women who have been fighting against oppressive nation states for 40 years. It stems from revolutionary roots, prioritising the liberation of Kurdish women at its core, not only in the political sphere – with women taking up arms and engaging in warfare alongside the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdish mountainous regions – but domestically too.

“The traditions of older generations included door knocking, [and] mobilising from the grassroots meant mobilising workers, peasants, migrants, refugees,” she says. Dirik, who was born in Antakya, Turkey but is now based in the UK, has always been a part of the movement in some capacity. From having to flee Turkey as a child with her family and seeking asylum in Germany, she saw firsthand the oppression and political persecution of the Kurdish people.  

“The real defenders of women’s rights are the ones in prisons, the women who are struggling in the streets”

Her recent book, The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice looks first-hand at the movement, taking the reader on a descriptive journey through various regions of Kurdistan to tell women’s stories. By taking this empirical approach woven into historical tellings and feminist, anti-capitalist theory, the book is neatly tied together by a common thread throughout: hope.

“This isn’t a book about the history of Kurdish women; it’s a book about a political movement.” With a sociology PhD from the University of Cambridge and as a research fellow at the University of Oxford, Dirik uses her voice and knowledge as a mouthpiece for those most marginalised, criminalised and silenced. 

Mobilising women around the world

Kurdish people have been fighting against state-sponsored oppression and persecution (from NATO-backed Turkey, for example) for decades. Yet the Kurdish liberation movements have been criminalised in their attempts to fight back. The PKK, founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan as a Marxist solution dedicated to forming an independent Kurdistan, is listed as a terrorist organisation by several countries. Activists have been assassinated, and journalists have been murdered. Against a backdrop of the erasure of Kurdish languages, statelessness, forced displacement and genocide, the place of women in this struggle was uncertain. However, the Kurdish Women’s Movement has mobilised millions of women in the region and across the world. 

The movement has three core pillars: ecology, democracy and women’s liberation, Dirik says. “Ecology is not just caring for the environment, but also to have symbiotic relationships within your movement. The movement should be organised in an ecological non-hierarchical way,” she explains. Paired with democracy and women’s liberation, which is all about autonomy and non-reliance on the state, the Kurdish Women’s Movement is actively challenging patriarchal and colonial formations. 

Its organisation is symbolic of Kurdistan geographically as a region spread through parts of four countries: Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. The movement operates with elected councils and a strong, functioning infrastructure that serves entire Kurdish communities, not just the women. “It’s a self-reliant and self-organised movement that is organising without money or sponsorship from any state, government or foundation,” Dirik says. “This way, it’s able to protect its radicalism and uncensored voice.”

What is true solidarity?

In recent months, the global spotlight has once again been on Kurdish women due to the ongoing uprisings and protests in the name of Jina Amini, who was killed in September while detained by Iran’s morality police. Powered by rage and fear, protests in Iran have sparked global solidarity, and the women in Iran and Eastern Kurdistan resisting all forms of patriarchal structures are showcasing true bravery. “The real defenders of women’s rights are the ones in prisons, the women who are struggling in the streets,” says Dirik.

In light of these protests, the Kurdish Women’s Movement finds it imperative to be sceptical of the global outpouring of ‘solidarity’ in the West and the co-opting of the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”

“There’s a reason why people and governments and heads of state and media are so excited about protests in Iran, against the killing of a Kurdish woman. It’s a way of agitating against Iran – a regime that is an enemy of the West,” says Dirik. 

“However, that does not make these protests invalid. They express the anger of so many people – but we always need to be careful about the politics of it.” To be specific, she adds, “sometimes there are geopolitical reasons for why certain situations are being amplified.” Kurdish women have been under threat for many years, yet there has been “no attention, condemnation or a single effort to hold Turkey accountable for these war crimes” in the same way that there has been for Iran. If this so-called solidarity was really standing with Kurdish women against state violence, there would be uproar against Turkey too, she says.

To distinguish what is propaganda and virtue signalling from honest and genuine solidarity is one of the many dichotomies explored in her book. And although we should be critical when understanding the circumstances in Iran, the fearlessness of the Kurdish and Iranian protesters is undeniable. These demonstrations are all part of the pursuit of patriarchal abolition.

A radical identity

Dirik’s identity as a political Kurdish woman is, of course, intrinsically entwined in her work. “We grew up as Kurdish women seeing pictures of this radical women’s identity: of women fighters, women politicians, women in prisons. But somehow that image was never present in the mainstream,” says Dirik. “The book is a way of sharing [the Kurdish women’s] experiences with others. So in that sense, my intention was to also mobilise people with this book and to encourage them to directly engage with the movement and the people on the ground.” 

Part of the movement’s ethos, as explored in Dirik’s book, is the unwavering belief that the patriarchy, and patriarchal-adjacent systems can be abolished in our lifetime. “It’s about understanding where violence comes from. It’s a system, it’s a logic, it’s a mentality, it’s power relations, and we can undo them.” Dirik says. 

Patriarchy, like colonialism, weaves itself into every inch of society: in relationships, in legislation, in healthcare. Recognising where those dynamics are at play, whether that be in the home, or a doctors office, is the first step to the literal abolition of the patriarchy. “Not many people can imagine a world where there is no patriarchal violence. But we need to work in a way that assumes [patriarchy] is something we can actually abolish, it’s not something that is just nature or parts of our fate,” says Dirik.

The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice, published by Pluto Press, is available here