Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice

By Dilar Dirik

Book Review Details

Dilar Dirik, Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice (London: Pluto, 2022).

“Our defence is not for a piece of land, but for the protection of life’s ability to unfold itself” (Nûda, member of the YPJ, the women’s defence units, 237).

Front cover of Kurdish Women's Movement featuring woman in landscape

This is a meticulously researched and critically argued book from an author writing not only about but from within the Kurdish women’s movement. In the West, Dilar Dirik is one of the most prominent and articulate voices on the role of women in the Kurdish struggle for participatory democracy, ecological sustainability, and women’s liberation. There is much that could be highlighted and celebrated in this book; I will focus on three themes: history from below, feminism, and ecology.

The Kurdish Women’s Movement is emphatically a history from below, and explicitly adopts this approach from the outset. It is a committed account and does not purport to adopt a spurious neutrality, especially as its value is in giving expression to voices that are demonised and criminalised when not routinely marginalised and excluded. But neither does it sidestep difficult and controversial issues. For example, Dirik deals with the difficult legacy of the so-called “dirty war” in southeastern Turkey/Bakur during the late twentieth, early twenty-first centuries. She discusses the complexities of this bloody conflict, explaining the alliance between the “deep state” and nationalist paramilitary squads such as the Grey Wolves, while not airbrushing the internal rifts between Kurdish populations and within the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Above all, this is an account written in the spirit of a “women’s resistance history from below” (xx), with its focus on feminism and jineolojî, Abdullah Öcalan’s term for the science of women that has emerged within the Kurdish movement.

Relatedly, The Kurdish Women’s Movement opens with liberatory appeals from renowned Egyptian feminist writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi, and Kurdish revolutionary Sakine Cansız. Dilar Dirik draws a clear line between what she regards as the shortcomings of liberal feminism and more radical perspectives, another strong thread in the book. Hers is a rare voice in setting out a critique of liberal approaches, seen as limited to aspirations for participation in an unjust and unsustainable capitalist hegemony. “In radical traditions”, she argues, “feminism is not about visibility or representation in an unjust world”, and “should never be compatible with the dominant power-based system” (xxi). Therefore, Dirik calls for a critical understanding of hierarchical structures to avoid the co-optation of feminism. She is therefore watchful of the emergence of what she sees as the “apolitical and casual use of the term ‘decolonisation’ in universities” (62), or the way that the power of equality is diluted and degraded in the liberal notion of equal opportunities, albeit at a time when emboldened right-wing think tanks and dominant media attack any notion of diversity and inclusion as “woke”. This critique of the negative impact of liberal foreign policy and the role of non-governmental organisations is brought together with devastating effect in the concluding chapter, “Two rivers, two freedom agendas?”, which argues that prospects for real change are being deflected and suffocated against the interests of the majority of women.

In the early twenty-first century, ecology appeared alongside women’s liberation as complementary ideas underpinning what was to be known as democratic confederalism, a philosophy of stateless democracy. Both women’s liberation and ecology require social change and systemic transformation if their aspirations are to be realised. For Dirik, “femicide, genocide, and ecocide are inseparable” (149) and “entangled (312-313). Also like feminism, she argues, the ecology movement risks being framed within apolitical liberal discourses that threaten to appropriate activism within the arena of green consumerism. Landgrabs to produce consumer products lead to the twin consequences of the displacement of human communities and the destruction of the rest of the living world. More positively, a shift to a socially-oriented and regenerative economics – the Kurdish solidarity economy – would have benefits for both social justice and ecological sustainability.

Although beyond the remit of this book (xx), I hope that someone will extend the research to the impact of democratic confederal ideas on women in the wider region who are not ethnic Kurds. Women in the Arab-majority city of Raqqa, formerly the capital of the so-called Islamic State’s caliphate, have been within the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (popularly known as Rojava), endeavouring to adopt principles of democratic confederalism, since their liberation in 2017. Significant ethnic minorities within North and East Syria who are now working with Kurdish women to further the project for direct democracy, women’s liberation, and ecology include Syriacs and other Christian populations, Armenians, Yezidis, and Turkmen. Other women such as those from Palestine and Afghanistan embroiled in struggles against patriarchy and colonialism have also found common cause with the Kurdish women’s movement, with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), for example, exchanging messages of solidarity.

I will conclude with an extract where Dirik secures the powerful connections between the Kurdish movement’s ideas about women’s resistance, liberatory and ecological conceptions of the land, and historical awareness:

The Kurdish word welatparêzî translates to “loving and protecting one’s homeland”. Unlike the patriarchal connotation of the Latin-based “patriotism”, it is gender neutral. In the movement’s thought, welatparêzî is conceptualized as a commitment to liberate the lands from colonization, occupation, and militarism. Women’s love for the homeland is read against male-dominated notions of borders, nations, and states, as universal love for humanity and the earth combined with an attachment to one’s ancestral lands and ecology. Protecting cultures, identities, and geographies from genocide and forced assimilation is seen as indivisible from self-defence. Therefore, women’s love for the homeland means a fight against state terror and other forms of exploitation and oppression, with an inherent commitment to internationalism. Drawing on this notion of welatparêzî, the movement often encourages internationalists, who have complicated relationships to their countries’ problematic colonial and imperial histories, to dissociate their social history from that of the state and the ruling classes and seek traces of resistance legacies in their own cities and regions, to find references for democratic values and practices in their local contexts (66-67).

The Kurdish Women’s Movement is much recommended for its insights for anyone with an interest in women’s history and feminism, one of the most hopeful and dynamic political movements, and democratic confederalism as a way forward for such seemingly intractable conflicts as those in the Middle East. Dirik’s account presents a theoretically coherent and sophisticated alternative to much of the liberal commentary on this issue. I don’t suppose this aspect of contemporary history will become a bestseller. It should be.

Stephen E. Hunt

Front cover of Kurdish Women's Movement featuring woman in landscape

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