The killing earlier this month of three female Kurdish activists in Paris highlighted the powerful role women play both politically and militarily in the Kurdish struggle.
Ozlem Ozen is attending a local women’s group meeting.
As a senior member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party , or BDP, in Turkey, she says gender equality is at the heart of the movement.
“Our party is attractive to women, as it’s the only political party that gives importance to women’s freedom and equality and for them to participate in the democratic process,” she said. “We have a quota of a minimum of 40 percent positions for women, as candidates and positions in the party. You will find women at every level of our movement.”
Among the three women killed in Paris earlier this month was Sakine Cansiz. She was one of the most visible symbols of women within the military and political ranks of the Kurdish movement.
Shortly after she was gunned down, photographs circulated showing her in khaki military uniform standing alongside Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.
Sociologist Nuhket Sirman of Istanbul’s Bosporus University has been studying Turkey’s Kurdish minority. She says women have become a formidable force within the country’s pro-Kurdish movement.
“They are both within the party organization but they are autonomous,” said Sirman. “They have their own decision-making bodies. They are ones who decide who is going to stand for election, who is on the list for MP candidates. They try to make women’s rights a central part of the party’s policies and the party has accepted that and they have that place within the party organization. In that sense it is very, very powerful.”
Nearly a third of the 35 parliamentary deputies of the BDP are women – that’s more than double the 14 percent representation of women in Turkey’s parliament.
According to experts, women are also believed to make up more than a quarter of the ranks of the PKK armed rebel group.
And, PKK founder Ocalan, now in a Turkish prison, has stressed the importance of fighting for women’s equality along with Kurdish rights in many of his writings.
That message has influenced attitudes within the country’s Kurdish movement. Sociologist Nuhket Sirman explains:
“Equal presence in all areas of the Kurdish opposition has really revolutionized the party and conditions of life in these regions,” said Sirman. “For example, any member of municipality who is found to have used violence against women in their household is fined. Women’s organizations that provide support for victims of violence against women have the power to enter these homes.”
But for Kurdish activist Ozen, there is still much work to do in changing men’s attitudes toward women even within her party.
“Women here have shown their force and their power in politics in fields of social services and the wider struggle,” she said. “When we have the chance, we have shown what we can do. This is the biggest step in changing attitudes. Our motto is more women take part in the democratic process so democracy gets stronger.”
Analysts say with the struggle for gender rights intertwined with that of Kurdish minority rights, women are likely to continue to increase their representation and profile within the pro-Kurdish movement.