Kurdish Nationalism, Statehood, and its Gender Integrated Military
By Maxwell Myers
Studies of nationalist movements around the Middle East and North Africa are often confined to the Weberian definition of statehood: “[a] human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” However, the nationalism literature tends to overlook areas where national identity and state boundaries do not overlap entirely, namely in the case of Kurdistan. Existing literature addresses the Kurdish nationalist and women’s rights movements, yet authors fail to approach its dynamic nature and layered complexities which this paper aims to address. When addressing topics of Arab nationalism, the state, or development of state-like institutions in the absence of a state, are critical to addressing nationalism. This paper does not attempt to project the trajectory of Arab nationalist movements. Instead, this paper aims to address how nationalists reshape social and cultural norms outside the traditional state-society boundaries. This is most prominent in the case of Kurdistan. Ernest Gellner’s Nationalism provides the bases for understanding nationalism and its role in creating a unified identity and vision for a community while political scientist Nira Yuval-Davis’ work highlights the gendered experience in nation formation. This paper utilizes the case of Kurdistan under Ocalan in the 1990s and present-day to question state institutions’ roles in developing a sense of nationhood and challenge pre-existing women’s rights to further improve gender relations.
Literature Review and Key Definitions
Nationalism is often ill-defined, yet critical to understanding the Kurdish case study. Early anthropologist Ernest Gellner began to question the role of the state in communities and the development of political communities. Gellner argued the nation is “primarily a political principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.” Arab nationalism is complex and highly contested in academic literature. For example, scholars such as political scientist P.R. Kumaraswamy argue countries within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) suffer from not creating a national identity reflective of their heterogeneous populations. The implications of a lack of national or regional belonging lead to fragmented political identities, so substate communities begin to form. As a result, the literature often fails to address nationalism in the MENA region because political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists impress western frameworks on states and communities in the region.
An article entitled “Gender and Nation” by Nira Yuval-Davis examines nationalism in relation to norm creation, namely related to gender integration and the development of national identity. She examines the extent to which national identity production or reproduction is reliant on gendered experiences. At the basis of Yuval-Davis’ theory is that the exclusion of women in citizenship has been central to men’s entitlement to democratic participation and their participation in the collective community. Yuval-Davis’ article provides a unique critique on nationalism in the production of a states’ collective national identity – gender relations are ultimately intertwined with institutions and overlayed on other divisions. The result of understanding gender and nationalism dynamics should be a more accurate consideration of the role nationalist projects have in incorporating women. Her work offers the proper tools to address the Kurdish case study: the relationship between institutional development and gender as well as the development of nationalist ideologies and their impact on norm development.
Kurdistan: A Historical Background
The Kurds are an ancient middle eastern community rooted in agrarian and tribal feudal economy. Although centralized around principalities, an organized state did not emerge because the Iranians to the east and Ottomans to the west ultimately divided the Kurdish state in the 17th century. Iran and the Ottoman Empire pursued policies of centralization to break apart the Kurdish community. A sense of Kurdish identity began to sprout as Kurdish intelligentsia wanted to distinguish themselves from their Muslim neighbors, namely in the form of poetry from Ahmad-e Khani (Ehmede Xani) pitted Kurdish identity in opposition to Persian, Arab, and Turkish oppressors. The result of this was not a Kurdish identity but not yet one that became nationalized.
Modern ideas of nationalism sprouted in the 19th century when poet Haji Qadriri called for Kurds to utilize Japan as a model and discard superstitious religious beliefs to learn the sciences and take up arms themselves to defend their state. After the Ottoman Empire was divided in the First World War, West Kurdistan was redivided and the Allied and Central Powers signed The Treaty of Serves. However, this treaty did not last for long as the British Mandate and the League of Nations eventually allowed the Kurds to have limited freedom to use the Kurdish language in education and media. Iranian Kurds too suffered under the rule of the nationalist regime, yet the Soviet Union encouraged them to form their own state. While this state ultimately failed, the nationalist sentiments Qadriri spurred in the 19th century did not dissolve. The Kurdish mythology of resistance persisted.
The Kurds have participated in nationalist revolts for much of the 20th century. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is a leftist political organization Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish nationalist, leads in exile. The PKK has had a tense relationship with the states that surround it. For example, the PKK has been waging armed conflict against the Turkish government to establish a homeland since 1984. Although militancy exists, the ideological framework the PKK espouses has continually evolved. For example, nationalism remained part of the discussion, yet Ocalan abandoned the once Marxist-Leninist beliefs his party espoused. As a result, his party shifted toward democratic feminism: a principle requiring self-government rooted in feminism and anti-capitalist beliefs. The ideological shift highlights the dynamic nature of the PKK’s platform and the elites’ willingness to adapt their party platform.
Although not readily apparent, Ocalan pushed the narrative surrounding the development of a strong Kurdish political community rooted in the development of grassroots women’s movements and academia to bring forth women’s role in democratic development. The ecofeminists from the PKK argued that “capitalist relations are intrinsically destructive to both society and ecosystems at once, as they are predicated on authoritarian, gendered, and racialized exploitation.” This transition toward ecofeminism that sprouted within the PKK in the 1990s is what ultimately propelled women’s cultural norms along with the development of Kurdish nationalist sentiments.
Case Study Analysis: Nationalism and Feminism under the PKK
The PKK’s national liberation movement comprises of people across Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The root of this nationalist movement began in the 1960s when young Kurds began to rediscover Kurdish identity and subsequently develop nationalist sentiments. At the elite level, women have continually comprised a significant portion of the PLL’s leadership. In fact, the PKK’s charter states every leadership position must be held jointly by a man and woman. Prominent female figures such as Sakine Cansiz have come to the forefront as a result. The integration of women into politics has had a net positive effect on the political sphere and furthers equality among members of the Kurdish community regardless of their gender.
Women’s liberation extends to Kurds in Turkey as well. The Kurdish Political Party, Halklarm Demokratik Partisi (HDP), promotes women’s rights. While the HDP and PKK are different groups, they share a common policy on women’s rights. This commonality highlights the role national identity movements have in creating shared norms and ideology. In this case, gender norms are certainly a connective tissue between the HDP and PKK. Because this norm has crossed political boundaries, it is evident that nationalist movement development has had a positive effect on Kurdish nationalist movement development. Furthermore, it allows for commonality when discussing the issue of Kurdish autonomy as well.
In the community, women’s integration was largely seen positively. The PKK ultimately arranged for a number of communities, namely including women, to have communes in villages neighboring Kurdish towns.  These communities provided safe spaces for women’s safety to be upheld and gave opportunities for increased mobilization politically and economically as well. Ultimately, the development of national unity included gender equity beginning to be overlayed on government institutions which was especially relevant because of the states’ socialist political institutions.
At the forefront of the Kurdish Nationalist movement was Ocalan who looked to further develop the national community. At the forefront of his ideology was the deepening of democracy as opposed to the creation of the state. He intended to do so by creating an equitable social institution in which class societies and modernization are limited as they inevitably lead to the destruction of society. Because deepening sentiments toward democracy was his goal, Ocalan looked at gender integration as critical to this goal. Creating equal institutions then creates a stronger bond between those within the national community.
The relationship between the development of society and the effects of having a neolithic society whose communal values are not destroyed. Key to Ocalan’s goals in creating an equitable society was the cementation of communalism. Socialization through gender and life via nature underlines his idea of democracy in the creation of a democratic confederalist state. Key aspects of Ocalan’s society were communes and villages. In this community, social groups, including women’s organizations, were key to civil society and often promoted to develop “self-government of local communities [that are] organized in the form of open councils, town councils, and local parliaments… the citizens themselves are agents of this kind of self-government.” Thus, creating an equal and democratic state was dependent on developing a national community where gender integration was its cornerstone.
Ocalan’s role as an elite highlights the impact top-down approaches of nationalist movements have on state development and further challenges to societal norms. For example, Ocalan and other Kurdish activists promoted the idea of the ‘Mother’s Peace Assembly’ which promoted opportunities to solve the Kurdish issue but placed women in maternal roles. While it is important to note the PKK is not a legitimized political institution, it still has the ability to have a strong influence on Kurdistan’s social and cultural spaces. As a result, the party still controlled involvement in the military and women remained subordinate in military positions for most of the 1990s without opportunities for mobility to higher ranks.
Case Study Analysis: Modern Nationalism and Feminism under the PKK
More modern interpretations of the Kurdish nationalist movement have either put nationalism before gender equality or have dismissed discussions of equality entirely. Anli, co-mayor of Diyarbakir, stated, “Some of our members have been questioning… the rights and needs of women and poor people. They want us to focus first on the national identity in Kurdistan. For them nationalist needs are the most important and should come before anything else.” This mayor’s analysis of the cultural and societal atmosphere around women’s rights highlights the need for further discussion related to the lack of understanding of the need for both nationalist and gender based development in society. Furthermore, men’s interpretations of what cultural norms should be are often disjointed from that of the idea of the Kurdish nationalist movement. Another interview by Al-Ali and Tas included a male Kurdish activist whose words were contradictory to the women’s movement’s goals: “[The PKK and Kurdish movement] claim that men and women are heval [friend] but cannot be lovers. This is against our natural life of human being.” These two interviews highlight an important factor when considering the development of cultural norms in Kurdish society: gender norms are not as well developed or equalized as one may predict. In fact, gender is not as linked to national identity development in the case of Kurdistan as one might predict.
Jineology as women’s science has continued to be promoted. Ocelan first wrote of this idea in 2009. At its basis, Jineology is “the extent to which society can be thoroughly transformed is determined by the extent of the transformation attained by women… the level of women’s freedom and equality determines the freedom and equality of all sections of society.” In practice, the Kurds utilize jineology in education programs with males and females in the military. In doing so, they utilize the military as an army to equalize society and promote progressive social norms.  The PKK was ultimately successful at giving women in the military a degree of agency. Ocalan argued the greatest problem needed to stop male misbehavior which led to his women more widely accepting Ocalan’s narratives of feminism and detaching themselves from patriarchal structures. In contrast, male members of Kurdistan’s military had a limited understanding of women’s organizations. Women could then utilize this opportunity to “acquire independent authority within the party structure.”
Another limiting factor of the Kurdish nationalist movement has been its failure to address progressive and modern topics related to gender. The lack of discussion about reproductive rights and sexuality remains at the forefront of this discussion. On one hand, Kurdish men are told to be celibate to live sexless egalitarian lives. On the other hand, this only furthers rather than resolves gender-based discrimination in Kurdish society because it does not allow for positive conversations around topics of sexuality. On the other hand, elites such as Ocalan critiqued the traditional family which promoted women’s ability to participate in the nationalist liberation movement and further away from traditional gender roles. The result of this transition was the turn toward women’s movements as a power basis and allowed them to continue Ocalan’s feminist jinealogy in policy and practice.
This essay aimed to answer the question of the degree to which we can address the development of gender norm development through nationalist movements in relation to the PKK using the Kurdish case study. This paper highlights the complex nature of gender norm development as well as the role of the PKK in shifting perspectives on norms and Kurdish culture in Turkey yet continuing women’s subjugation under a patriarchal system. The PKK’s political platform in the 1990s ultimately shifted the discussion of gender norms because it was rooted in the discussion of not only what the nation is but who could participate. Ocalan’s transition of political rhetoric toward democratic feminism promoted a system away from patriarchal control within the household to further women’s involvement in their communities. However, the party still controlled a significant portion of women’s lives as evidenced by their integration in the military, namely in relation to limited sexual liberation.
Further research should address why there is a failure in the states’ ability to abdicate full political equality to women as men have in Kurdish society. Limitations addressing the role of the state to maintain patriarchal control over Kurdish women would ultimately prove fruitful. When utilizing Yuval Davis’ theory to address the development of gender norm development in Turkey, this paper highlights the ultimate failure to integrate women’s political and social issues with the existing patriarchal system. This theory fails to address how durable institutions, namely those benefiting men, are difficult to deteriorate and equalize for an equitable community. Furthermore, Yuval Davis tells an incomplete story. There is limited causal logic for why the status of women in the military is as complex and did not reach full integration as her nationalist theory would have explained. As this paper highlights, Ocalan’s political movement in nationalism shifted toward one of shared democracy and autonomy which further research should address.
The PKK Kurdish case study highlights challenges in the restructuring of existing political institutions. Although the nationalist movement and its leaders have a vested interest in the development of political norms within a society, the Kurdistan case study shows their ultimate benefit in restructuring the system while maintaining existing power balances. Ultimately, the PKK’s process to develop a strong national state reimagined the role women have in reimagining social norms. As this paper highlights, the nationalist movement’s leadership and ideology have a strong role in determining the direction and manner in which the nationalist movement reimagines norms. However, the PKK’s norm development with gender shows that integration is far from complete for Kurdish women. Additionally, further research should address why the commune system in Rojava-North Syria remains the only community allowing for feminist thought. The case of the Rojava in Northern Syria highlights the uneven nature of women’s rights in Kurdistan. Thus, the literature should continue to address the relationship between nationalism and feminism without losing sight of dynamics related to regime change and political elite influence – namely in Abdullah Ocalan’s case.
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