Kurdish women with white head scarves against all walls

Kurdish women in a 2019 protest. Their sign reads "Jin, jiyan, azadî", meaning "Woman, life, freedom" in Kurdish.
Kurdish women in a 2019 protest. Their sign reads "Jin, jiyan, azadî", meaning "Woman, life, freedom" in Kurdish. Autor/a: RemziyeTosunHP @ Twitter
Mr. Mustafa is a 51-year-old historian and researcher. We embark on a small tour with him around Urfa’s Balıklı Göl (the Fish Lake) where according to tradition it is believed that the wood from the great fire ordered to be set by king Nimrod to burn Abraham was transformed into the fish whereas the fire was turned into the lake water. The fact that the ancient stone houses built on the rocks around us have nowadays been converted into restaurants serving food to tourists reduces nothing from this mystical atmosphere. And unless you carried a clock with you to show the time while strolling through those ancient structures, you would probably lose your sense of time and consider yourself to be a part of that history. With regard to the latest process, I ask Mustafa about his opinions and observations on the story of Kurds, who have lived on these lands for at least five thousand years.

“Kurds were left to their own fate in all four parts of Kurdistan when the cards were being redistributed with the Sykes-Picot Agreement,” he says, and mentions about Kurds’ status of being divided and fragmented among four states after the 1916 secret treaty between France and the UK. He complains about Turkish, Iranian and Arab sovereigns who have not only kept silent about, but also abused and taken advantage of this status of Kurds by assimilating them for generations as well as creating a gap among Kurds in Kurdistan and those in Western and Eastern Anatolia. Furthermore, forced migration, religion and the other habits of the ethnic majorities of the four states that are guarantors of Kurdistan are reshaping the Kurds, and primarily the Kurdish women and their role and evolution within a hostile environment.

Urfa, known to have an important Arab community, is one of the Kurdish cities in which women have very limited public visibility, and not only polygamy but also domestic and inter-familial violence is very common. Sociologist İsmail Beşikci, a Turk from the province of Çorum who spent 17 years of his life in prison due to the books he had written about the Kurds, mentions the relationship of the Turkish State with Kurds, and emphasizes that the Turkish state primarily targets Kurdish women in its assimilation policies: “The state’s first goal is to exterminate the Kurdish language. It does not want the Kurds to acquire and learn their mother tongue, and it intensifies its assimilation efforts on women due to their roles as mothers.”

In Urfa, one of the most common ways of protecting oneself from temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius is to pass one’s time inside the air-conditioned prayer rooms and mosques, and the other one —women and men— is to cover one’s head with white flower patterned purple scarves. One can easily tell that a person is from Urfa if he or she is wearing a head scarf of this colour and pattern, for these head scarves are unique to the city. Just like many other Kurdish cities, it is also a very common practice for women in Urfa to have tattoos on their faces although it is considered haram (religiously prohibited) according to some interpretations of Islam.

Our meeting spot with Sevgi and Delal is an open-air teahouse run by Sevgi’s husband. This is an old building, and at the same time, a historical site under protection. The garden watered to refresh the area seems to have become green as if in response. Although sensitivity of Sevgi and her husband about social matters is reflected in the profile of frequenters of this place, this fact does not provide us with immunity from their deep stares. “Public visibility of women is not welcomed here,” says Sevgi, and makes it clear. She attributes this to the city’s location and the male-oriented interpretation of the religion that dominates society. She states that this understanding of religion is way more predominant here than in any other Kurdish city, and this results in regression of the community in Urfa. “There are places where polygamy is still common, and it is considered normal here. Nobody asks women’s opinion, even if it’s about marriage,” she continues.

Sevgi, a 28-year-old woman, is a founding member as well as a Central Executive Committee member of İnsan ve Özgürlük Partisi (Human and Freedom Party). She is from Gever, by its name in Kurdish (Yüksekova, in Turkish), a town located on a plain on the outskirts of Hakkari Mountains. According to a human rights commission linked to the Turkish Parliament, Gever is one of the places in the Kurdish region where violence against women is the least. She thinks that there is still much progress to be made for this struggle to spread to the foundations of society. The 20-year-old university student, Delal, breaks her silence: “There is a very beautiful historical structure named Gümrük Han here. It houses many restaurants and hangouts. For instance, until ten years ago, it was a men’s place to hang out, and women were not allowed in.” She also adds that both the religious mission given to Urfa, popularly referred to as ‘the city of Prophets’, and the fact that it is one of the strategic cities chosen by the State to assimilate the Kurds, play a significant role in this. She states that, as an Urfa-born woman, she likes the city, but that it does not have much to offer to women.

Religion has served the Turkish state in its aim to penetrate Kurdistan. As a multi-coloured place, it is possible to find spots of freedom like Gever, or conservatives places like Kızıltepe, where women generally come back home before sunset. Those are differences that the Turkish state has broadened during a century. As a result, Adıyaman, Malatya, Erzurum and Elazığ, the key regions during the Kurdish revolts at the beginning of 20th century, are now strongholds of Turkish nationalism and religious conservatism. It is not odd to find people that reject their Kurdishness and prefer to emphasize their Muslim identity.

Today, the advance of the Turkish state is evident in Bitlis, Siirt and Bingöl. Although religion has been used as a tool in these regions, the inhabitants are aware of their Kurdish identity. Therefore, the State uses and deforms the message of people like Sheik Said, a leading Kurdish figure during the revolts of 1925. State propaganda reproduces the government’s idea which assures that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members are the enemies of Islam.

It takes two hours to go from Urfa to Mardin. Home to various civilizations since 4500 BC, Mardin still bears the traces of them and attracts many domestic and foreign tourists. It has a magnificent atmosphere of ethnic and religious diversities that is represented in a colourful universe of old madrasas, bazaars, churches, synagogues, and several coffee houses and wineries.

Berivan, a 28-year-old young survivor of the massacre taking place in the Suruç district of Urfa during a press release of a group of young people mobilized to take their aid materials to Kobanê in 2015, has such a good command of Kurdish language that I cannot help but ask if she has any Turkish friends at all. “Very few,” she says with a warm smile. Her words avoid contagion from Turkish or Arabic that predominates in Kurdistan; her sentences mix the informality of Kurdish as spoken at home with this language’s academic variety. Her bachelor’s degree from the Kurdish Language and Literature Department of Mardin Artuklu University explains this Mardin-born woman’s fluency in the language. This department of Artuklu University is considered one of the few concrete achievements of the Kurds.

Berivan, from Mardin. / Photo: Nurcan Aktay.

The meeting place with Berivan is in Old Mardin at the peak of the city and where the beauty of the landscape of the fabulous Mesopotamia plain arises. “First of all, I am not happy with the international public image of the so-called militant Kurdish women ready [to fight] at the fronts with long braids and guns,” she says, “because not only do they fight at the fronts, but they also fight in every area of life.”

Berivan states that Kurdish women are not only fighting against the ignoring policies of the states, but against societal barriers as well. Even though this struggle led to some achievements like co-chairing —a system bolstered by the Kurdish left that demands that mayor’s offices and other senior positions be co-headed by a woman and a man—, the language of women’s organizations has not influenced people totally due to its ideological nature. It is a great barrier. One that will take generations to overcome, but the presence of Kurdish women is an unstoppable reality. HDP, the main pro-Kurdish party of Turkey, is a reference that symbolises gender equality and respect for other cultures. A process in which women’s role is crucial, is also part of the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader. According to his thesis, without liberation of women, it will not be possible to achieve peace and democracy in Kurdistan. Neither is it possible in the wider Middle East.

Forced migration

By its Kurdish name, Gundikê Melle is a small village of 40 houses. One of them is owned by a 55-year-old couple: Hesen and Hewê. Hewê, a talkative woman, does not speak Turkish except a few words. Hesen speaks Turkish. He had learned it in the Black Sea region where he was a worker. They watch only Kurdish TV channels on satellite. Hewê has several chronic diseases on account of which the State pays them a symbolic pension. This is their only income.

“I never went to school. There were no schools in our village anyway. They did not ask for my opinion when I was married at the age of 12,” complains Hewê. “But things are not like before. I am proud of our village’s head-woman, for example,” his husband adds and continues: “Women can become mayors, members of the Parliament now. Why not head-women?”.

The development in Anatolia over the past decades has made possible the arrival of education, affecting especially women. School attendance is increasing, and education is the main tool used by Ankara to assimilate Kurds. If children do not speak the Kurdish language before they reach the age of schooling, which is around six years old, they will not probably learn it later. And if they already speak Kurdish, they will probably lose their fluency when they start school: there will hardly be room for Kurdish, because children will speak Turkish in the classroom and they will see the varied Turkish television at home. They will continue to understand Kurdish —denigrated by state propaganda— with increasing difficulties, and more interfered by Turkish. Without a proper acquisition of the Kurdish language, grandmothers speaking Turkish poorly will not be able to communicate appropriately with their grandchildren. The linguistic problem, despite the increasing number of Kurdish organizations and researchers working on it, is still increasing as the Turkish language has reached Kurdish homes via TV series, football, cartoons, and TV shows.

In villages like Gundikê Melle, inhabitants preserve the identity that has always characterised the Kurds. They watch Kurdish channels on satellite, and they have, in many cases, close links with the PKK and its ideology. During the conflict, villagers became the main targets of the Turkish counter-guerrilla that burned thousands of villages in the 90s. As a result, at least one million Kurds were forced to move out of the rural areas and settle in the neighbourhoods of Diyarbakır, Van, Kiziltepe, Ankara, Istanbul or Izmir. That was the price to pay for the villagers, a key actor who provided shelter and information that helped the PKK to be a decisive actor today not only in Turkey but also in all of the Middle East.

We meet a group of young women in the minibus taking us to Nusaybin. Throughout our minibus ride, they keep complaining about the fact that they have to work for a textile mill without social security instead of going to school at their young ages. Nusaybin is one of the most heavily wounded cities during the 2015 conflicts. One can easily distinguish strangers from their happy faces than the locals with deeply wounded souls. The hardly standing unruined walls would prefer to be demolished than to be written “T.C. burada”, which means “T.R. is here!” —“T.R.” stands for the Republic of Turkey. The sentence is usually written by members of security forces in order to undermine the morale of Kurds.

"T.C. burada" in Nusaybin. / Photo: Nurcan Aktay.

25-year-old Gülsüm runs a café with three co-owner women across the Syrian border, where the city of Qamişlo sits. “We, the four co-owners, suffer from raids and harassment by the police nearly twice a month,” says Gülsüm. “They even take photos of our customers. Four women draw attention in a city like Nusaybin. Other shopkeepers also suffer from those raids carried out under the name of regular security controls, but much less than us,” she continues, complaining about the closure of women’s cooperatives in the state-appointed trustees era —municipal leaders directly designated by Turkey between 2016 and 2019, replacing democratically elected mayors. She underlines that the government is much crueller towards women here.

It is really traumatic to see the border just after getting out of the café. The beautiful city of Qamişlo is at a distance of just ten minutes’ walk from Nusaybin. But the huge Turkish flag between the two borders stands as a stark response to the question of why we cannot go there freely. The three-meter-high massive blocks of cement that are part of the 911-kilometre-long border wall between Syria and Turkey ruins the trade between the countries and forces young people to move to bigger cities for work. Without a job and with too much pressure, a new wave of migration has been taking place in Kurdistan since 2015. Unlike the crisis of the 90s, this time it has happened mostly within Kurdistan. Although the Turkish state tries to show its power via graffiti and flags, the fear is still the more persuasive weapon. No side of this PKK-Turkish state war wants to extinguish the fear, but Kurds are slowly leaving Kurdistan. That, precisely, is the aim of Ankara.

Women, the example

Checkpoints increase on our way to Diyarbakır. In the city centre, after passing the famous City Walls —which are said to be the longest in the world after the Great Wall of China—, a paved street leads to the Grand Mosque. Children pose for the camera. Bayram is a 52-year-old tailor working for nearly 30 years in Sur, on of the city’s central districts, partially destroyed during the 2015 conflict. His accounts of the conflicts are shocking. “We faced the Apocalypse that winter! Women are the real victims of these conflicts. They shoulder the responsibility of their families. Some mourned for their children that they lost after the conflicts, some tried to get used to their new lives in the cities they were made to move and some others were imprisoned.” He gives as an example the former co-mayor of Diyarbakır, Gültan Kışanak, and an HDP MP, Remziye Tosun.

Remziye Tosun was found guilty and sentenced to 15 months with her baby child on the grounds that she had not abandoned her home for 96 days during the curfew and restrictions. Her house was destroyed and later she was elected as an HDP MP from Diyarbakır. She attends parliament sessions with her white head scarf which is a significant symbol of Kurdish society. She calls to mind Leyla Zana. In 1991, Zana was elected an MP from Diyarbakır and was detained by the State for speaking Kurdish at the oath-taking ceremony of the assembly. She was sentenced to 10 years after the trials. They both remind of the Kurdish struggle and are loved by the Kurdish society.

Tosun, also a member of Kongreya Jinên Azad (KJA, Congress of Free Women), underlines that she owes her struggle and position to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan: “Kurdish women have public visibility now. This affects the political agenda of Turkey and the international community. Leyla Güven’s hunger strike”, another HDP MP that has held such kind of protest between November 2018 and May 2019, “is a good example of this.”

Osman Xunav is in Saraykapi Han, a building built in the 1800s in Diyarbakır’s Sur by the Ottomans, currently a well-known cafeteria. A 52-year-old man from Derik district of Mardin with his white, strong and curly hair, which is the most distinctive feature of his looks. He acts in a Kurdish TV series broadcast on TRT (Turkish Radio & Television Corporation) as a leading actor. Xunav compares the Kurdish women living in metropolises of Turkey and the ones living in the Kurdish region: “Those who live in the Kurdish region fight against the barriers of traditions and the State, but those living in the metropolises face problems related to migration.” Xunav mentions about how Kurdish women transform their disadvantages stemming from economic, cultural, ethnic and linguistic problems into advantages: “They have a chance to find out about other lives. They have to work because of their economic problems. But they gain self-confidence by working.”

Duysal, a 35-year-old woman, is both a former member of Azadî Movement, a religious organization, and a present member of Platforma Jinên Kurd (Kurdish Women’s Platform). Azadî was founded after the Roboskî massacre in December 2011. Mothers or sisters of those killed soon turned into a symbol of this massacre where the villagers were targeted in an air bombardment by Turkish planes. Duysal thinks that women’s struggle created an awareness in Turkish public opinion. “But we cannot see active steps yet,” she says, pointing out that “Turkish civil organizations do not have a clear civil mind. They act in the way that the State wants and approves, just as we have seen during the negotiation process in 2013. They change their own statements soon after the government changes its policies.” And this is a fear triggered by constant repression.

Duysal (Platforma Jinên Kurd) / Photo: Nurcan Aktay.

Reha Ruhavioğlu is a human rights activist and the manager of the Rawest Research Centre. “The State’s attitude towards Kurdish women is the same as its attitude towards the Kurdish politicians,” he says, and comments on police violence against Kurdish mothers whose children are imprisoned and have staged hunger strikes by saying: “Old women with white head scarves were tortured and detained for demonstrating for their children.” Those white headscarves mentioned by Ruhavioğlu are one of the significant symbols of the Kurdish society.

In the past, fights were stopped when a woman threw her white head scarf on the ground and for this reason they are also a symbol of peace, says Derya, a human rights activist like Reha, who works for the Diyarbakır Institute for Political and Social Research (DİSA). “We have founded a women’s reading group under DİSA. We share the same values only on a limited common ground with Turkish women’s organizations. We share the same concerns regarding violence and harassment against women and children, for example. But we cannot keep this on ethnic problems. Because they regard this issue as a matter of political survival of the State,” says Derya.

43-year-old Mizgîn Tahir, an opera singer from Rojava, reflects the elegance and gracefulness of an artist in her every move. She has been living in Diyarbakır since 2010. I wonder about her relationship with Turkish artists. “We lack a common ground. Unfortunately, we do not come together,” she replies. “We will be free when we meet”, she adds. She says these deploringly, and keeps talking about her co-concerts and good relationships with Armenian, French and American artists when she was in Damascus.

Since the 60s, the relationship between Kurds and Turks has been marked by the different points of view on the ethnic issue. In the 80s, the PKK joined the equation, and the 90s were a time of dirty war. Taboos started to change in public especially with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who started an initiative about the minorities. During that time, Kurdish cultural and political activities grew rapidly, and the contact between Turks and Kurds increased. Unfortunately, today the president is trying to snatch the progress that he achieved.

HDP’s 37-year-old former deputy of Erzurum in 2015, sociologist Seher Akçınar, a woman from Malatya but living in Diyarbakır for 15 years, comments on the strength of local women’s movements: “The policies of the Kurdish municipalities are shaped around the paradigms determined by women’s organizations. Women play a great role in setting the political agenda and directing the decision making mechanisms here.” Akçınar says that there are other women’s organizations besides the “mainstream” ones, by which she refers to those grouped around the PKK and HDP. Akçınar also mentions the importance of Kurdish women’s struggle to the international society, and continues: “Being a part of every decision-making process while fighting for freedom of their people should be a model for every mainstream women’s movement all around the world. It is worthy of respect that Kurdish women stand strong in decision-making processes as well as peace efforts.”

Just as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, laid a feminist bet at the beginning of the 20th century, it is now the Kurdish movement’s ideology that imposes its model for the liberation of women in the Middle East. There are still many walls to overthrow, starting from the traditional mentality of some power groups. In the face of all these, the revolution of the white headscarves seems to be unstoppable.

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