Turkey: Kurdish women's struggle for rights & equality
“Insanlar mücadeleleriyle varolurlar“. Zeynep Gambetti, a scholar of Kurdish politics, found this comment inscribed in the visitors’ book at the Diyarbakir Art Centre’s exhibit of photographer Ami Vitale’s Kashmir photos. The phrase roughly translates as; “people come into existence through their struggles“. The struggle to “ensure the equal rights of men and women to enjoy all economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights” has indeed defined the existence of many ethnically Kurdish women in Diyarbakir and, more generally, in the south-eastern region of Turkey. The obstacles in this struggle for equality are manifold. While the efforts of Kurdish women in Turkey to overcome these obstacles have been remarkable, there is still considerable progress to be made.
The problems facing the Kurdish women of south-eastern Turkey are highly varied. Firstly, traditional Kurdish society is patriarchal, with a woman’s power within the family secured firmly below that of a man. This devaluation of women, and an orthodox Islamic lifestyle, results in problems such as domestic violence, honour killings and a lack of educational opportunities. Secondly, the south-eastern region of Turkey is the poorest in the country. Women face enormous economic constraints, magnified by their lack of financial independence from their husbands or fathers. Thirdly, from 1984 to 1999, and with intermittent outbursts of conflict ever since, the region has been engulfed in a guerrilla war with the PKK, a group representing Kurdish nationalist aims. This war has inflicted innumerable costs on the women of the region; from the destruction of their homes, to the death of their husbands and sons (leaving them without income), to direct abuse by the PKK or Turkish army. Many women of the region were forced from their homes, and relocated into larger cities such as Diyarbakir, without the family or communal ties upon which traditional Kurdish villages are structured. Lastly, Kurdish women face the same lack of cultural and political rights as Kurdish men in Turkey. Restrictions on political activity in the name of Kurdish rights and the use of the Kurdish language have only recently been relaxed, yet enormous obstacles remain to full recognition of the Kurdish minority. Furthermore, these obstacles are even more pertinent for Kurdish women. Unlike Kurdish men (who learn Turkish during their compulsory army service), Kurdish women of rural areas often do not speak Turkish, preventing them from education, employment and access to public services.
While these issues span the areas of economics, religion and politics, and while solutions in each of these areas could be suggested, one key development which is necessary to combat these problems is increased engagement by Kurdish women on behalf of their rights. The idea of ‘consciousness raising’ became a norm within the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s in the West, when women learned that their individual problems were not isolated cases, but part of systemic inequalities between men and women in society. Such a realisation, and subsequent political and social activism, is necessary in Kurdish Turkey. Only by recognising that the problems facing Kurdish women are collective, rather than personal, will there be momentum for change in the region.
The key question then is how Kurdish women can be mobilised to agitate on behalf of their rights. The solution to this question comes in two interconnected stages; establishing opportunities for involvement, and fostering a desire for involvement. The key to the latter is greater education and increased economic independence. Limited incomes restrict the ability of women to become engaged in movements aiming to overcome patriarchy and minority repression by, for example, reducing their leisure time. Greater education is fundamental, but less clear-cut. While formal education, and gaining the ability to read and write, would be likely to substantially increase women’s desire for engagement, the greater challenge is making women aware of how their position can be improved. Strict religious and cultural mores are so ingrained in the culture that many women accept that they are inferior to men, and a history of repression and poverty allow them to take their relative deprivation for granted. It is the duty of NGOs and supra-national organisations like the UN to take on this task.
Indeed, NGOs serve both purposes by increasing a desire for involvement through programmes of education, and offering opportunities for consciousness-raising amongst women. The prime example of one such NGO, which can serve as a model for further positive change in the region, is KA-MER, a support centre for women in south-eastern Anatolia. The organisation includes a restaurant and nursery to enable women to gain financial independence, and a counselling service for women seeking help. In terms of promoting engagement, KA-MER provides group sessions for women to discuss topics such as democratic participation, human rights, education and leadership. Furthermore, KA-MER provides opportunities for professional development. For example, it recently sent 10 women to university in Istanbul for a course in making documentaries, with the hope that they would return to south-eastern Anatolia and produce educational films on the abuse of the rights of women.
In short, positive change in the region requires a reformation of paradigm views on women’s rights from within the female Kurdish community itself. The history of women’s rights in the West has demonstrated the primacy of such internal change to achieving gender equality. In order to realise such emancipation, external actors need to promote economic development and educational opportunities, and facilitate increased social and political activism by women. Such changes will then become self-perpetuating. After recognising the injustices they face, Kurdish women, like the founder of KA-MER Nebahat Akkoc, will become involved in the establishment of institutions, organisations and movements to further promote Kurdish women’s activism until, finally, the equal rights of the men and women of south-eastern Anatolia is ensured.
Finalist in WLP’s Youth Essay Contest Group 2: 18-25 Years
Eda S, Turkey/UK
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