Turkey: 'Kurdish Women: Resilience in the face of double discrimination'


The Kurdish ethnic group historically inhabited Kurdistan, an area now divided between the modern states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  Kurds form about 20% of Turkey’s population. Since the formation of the state of Turkey, Kurds in Turkey have faced marginalization  and suppression of their cultural identity and a very severe assimilation policy. In 1984 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an armed uprising against the Turkish state demanding an independent Kurdish homeland. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the conflict that followed.  From time to time, there has been a lull in the fighting, but to date there has been no final resolution to the conflict. [i]

AWID asked two Kurdish women about the unique challenges that Kurdish women face in securing equality rights as part of a marginalized group. Dr. Handan Çağlayan[ii] is an independent researcher and writer while Nurcan Baysal[iii] is an activist working on rural development.

Turkish women face several barriers to full equality but the situation of Kurdish women is exacerbated by prejudice against their ethnic and linguistic identity. Çağlayan attributes the discrimination that Turkish women face to patriarchy in private and public spaces. Women have heavier workloads at home and this is a barrier to their participation in work outside the home. They are also marginalized socially and politically. “Capitalism benefits from patriarchal control over women,” says Çağlayan. “Women are marginalized in the production process, and their employment is increasingly informalized.” She adds that for Kurdish women, armed conflict, village evacuations and forced migration further impoverish women and expose them to human rights violations.

Baysal says that since there are not many opportunities for employment, several entrepreneurship projects for Kurdish women have been started with foreign support, but many of these have failed.  Çağlayan notes that data collected by the Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat) does not distinguish on the basis of ethnic origin. Nevertheless, inferences that can be deduced from data collected indicate that Kurdish women engage less in the labour market, earn lower wages and work in more precarious conditions than either Kurdish men or non-Kurdish women. “In the East,” she says. “Either they do not participate in the paid labour force or they work in precarious and low-paid jobs as unpaid [domestic] workers, seasonal agricultural labourers or textile workers.”

Baysal flags lack of access to education and employment as some of the most significant barriers faced by Kurdish women; and these are compounded by the language barrier. “They start their [formal] educational [journey] with a language other than their own and this brings many challenges –estrangement to their own culture, incomprehension of the lessons taught, and discrimination within the school system.”

State policies prohibiting any official use of the Kurdish language[iv]marginalize Kurdish women even more. In order to access education, employment and social welfare they must be able to speak Turkish fluently. According to Çağlayan, to communicate with the outside world they often need the intervention of a Turkish-speaking family member – usually male - and this reinforces men’s control over women.

Migration experiences

Baysal highlights some problems that those who migrate – especially forcibly - to the west of Turkey often face: loss of the family unit and the difficulties of not speaking Turkish; not being able to buy bread from the local grocer for instance.

Çağlayan agrees that those who move west to Istanbul or the Aegean towns have difficulty accessing the bazaars, workplaces, hospitals and other institutions if they cannot speak Turkish. However she thinks that those who migrate to eastern cities like Mersin and Adana, which are closer to the Kurdish region and also have  migrant communities do not experience the same difficulties.

Her research about women forcibly migrated to Istanbul showed that the Kurdish language was gradually abandoned in daily life and eventually the migrants spoke Turkish at home. In some cases, two different languages are used in the same house; mothers understand but do not speak Turkish and children understand but cannot speak Kurdish. This hinders cross-generational transmission of knowledge and experience. “Feelings of exclusion and insecurity are prevalent among migrants,” says Çağlayan.

Impact of the War

Çağlayan says that the impact of the war on women has been multifaceted.  “Women have undergone the traumatic impact of conflicts, rights violations, forced migration and impoverishment,” she says. But in her book Mothers, Comrades Goddesses she writes that the conflict situation has provided opportunities for women’s activism and greater voice. “The conflict has had the impact of politicizing them.”

Combating stereotypes

Kurdish women are often stereotyped as ignorant, victims, subjects of so-called ‘honour killings’ and so on. Baysal says: “Kurdish women are depicted as passive and pitiful subjects, ignorant and oppressed by their culture.” But this is not the case. “They fight for their own and their children’s rights despite all the dispossession and losses; despite everything,” she says.

Both Baysal and Çağlayan emphasize the folly in depicting Kurdish women as homogenous.  “A great majority underwent a political socialization during the process of political mobilization on the basis of Kurdish identity and are empowered,” says Çağlayan. “They are not victims.” They participate in decision-making and are represented politically. More recently, the stereotype of Kurdish women as pro-conflict and violence has arisen, according to Çağlayan who cites media characterizations of BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) Deputy Emine Ayna as a “hawk.” She says that on the other hand, women are subject to stereotyping by the ideology of the Kurdish political leadership; the “free Kurdish woman” homogenization that is central to Kurdish political identity discourse is misleading. “Reduction of women’s emancipation to the demonstration of active political participation… can trivialize patriarchal control, oppression and the violence women face,” says Çağlayan.

Kurdish women’s activism

According to Baysal, Turkey has a number of laws favourable to women’s rights, but implementation is often weak, especially outside major cities. She says that there is significant lawlessness regarding women’s rights in remote localities and that Kurdish women’s rights activism is largely focused on violence against women and honour killings.

Çağlayan says that there are a number of organizations that provide services to address conflicts, forced migration, violation of rights and poverty. “Such institutions are usually affiliated with municipalities and are service-focused rather than policy-making,” she says.

To reinforce their activism, women’s rights organizations often form networks. : “There are widespread and strong networks in the region, built mainly by the women’s departments of political parties or other associations,” says Çağlayan. “They organize regional and national women’s rights campaigns.”

Women human rights defenders in Turkey are frequently exposed to violence, including death, by state actors. “Many Kurdish women activists are currently in prison,” says Baysal. According toRoj Women, a Kurdish and Turkish women’s rights organization, “Women are arrested for their political activism and abused as a means of demoralizing them and their communities.” They say that the wide discretionary powers that the police have been granted in the context of the ongoing conflict have been abused and that it is difficult to challenge their actions.[v]

There are several Kurdish women’s rights initiatives. The Saturday Mothers is a group of womenwho for over 17 years have been seeking justice for disappeared relatives. The Women’s Initiatives for peace brings together young women, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish.  Young Kurdish women actively support these groups and according to Baysal, today almost all Kurdish women’s associations are run by youth under the age of 30.  Baysal says that most are politically engaged and although they may differ on certain issues, they are united on the question of Kurdish as a language for education.

Political participation and engagement with Kurdish question

Kurdish women are very actively engaged on the political front. Çağlayan says: “They participate in political decision-making mechanisms and have strong representation. The BDP which is predominant in the region applies a quota requiring a minimum of 40% female representation.”

Baysal believes that the reason Kurdish women are very active in politics is their sensitization influenced by over 30 years of war. “[It has made] Kurdish women more [forceful] about the rights of the children they have lost [and] their [families],” she says. She adds that while they have lost a lot, “the war has transformed them into significant political actors.”

The Kurdish women’s rights movement is closely related to the Kurdish political movement. According to Baysal, the war and poverty have been key mobilizing factors. The Kurdish movement has opened up spaces for women to organize; Kurdish municipalities have set up women’s centres, and gender quotas have been applied. She says that while there is a common consciousness and struggle, the Kurdish women’s movement is not dependent on the wider Kurdish political movement. According to Çağlayan, the gender-equity discourse within the Kurdish movement has opened spaces for women to assert themselves as independent, equal rights-holders. They have relative freedom of movement, although the concepts of honour and patriarchal control have not been completely eliminated.

“Kurdish women,” says Çağlayan."Are politicized and organized prevalently and in mass under the umbrella of the Kurdish political movement.”  In the broader context of repression and violence, their women rights advocacy is not separate from the Kurdish political movement. 

Successes and challenges

Baysal says that a major challenge is the restriction over the freedom of speech. [vi] “I always know where and to what extent I should speak as a Kurdish woman,” she says. “There is always a limit.”  The inability to access to resources and funding, and a shortage of competent human resources, is another challenge. 

However, says Baysal, “The most important success could be the fact that Kurdish women are more active in politics and NGOs.”

Çağlayan adds that by becoming effective political agents, even without formal education, Kurdish women have subverted the prevalent Turkish image of the “emancipated and modern woman” as one who has an education and career. [vii]

By Kathambi Kinoti

Saira Zuberi contributed to research on this article.

[i] See : http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/1022222.stm

[ii] Dr. Handan Çağlayan has authored two books about women in the Kurdish movement, Kurdish women’s identity and Kurdish women’s experiences of forced migration: Analar Yoldaşlar Tanrıçalar: Kürt Hareketinde Kadınlar ve Kadın Kimliğinin İnşası (Mothers, Comrades, Goddesses: Women in the Kurdish Movement and the Formation of Women’s Identity), İstanbul: İletişim, 2010 (3rd ed.), and Ne Değişti? Kürt Kadınların Zorunlu Göç Deneyimi (What Has Changed? Kurdish Women’s Experiences of Forced Migration), co-authored by Şemsa Özar and Ayşe Tepe, İstanbul: Ayizi, 2011.

[iii] [iii] Nurcan Baysal is the founder and Coordinator of the Rural Development Program at the Hüsnü Özyeğin Foundation. She is also a founding member of a newly established Kurdish Institue, DISA,  the Diyarbakır Institute for Social and Political Research.  Nurcan serves as an advisor and board member to several organizations such as the Global Fund for Women, Urgent Action Fund, Women Labour and Employment Platform, and is also a writer on development issues in Turkey. She won the Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF) prize on women creativity in rural life in 2010.

[iv] To even speak in Kurdish in public was criminalized until the 1990s .

[v]See shadow report to the United Nations.

[vi] Generally, Turkey’s record on freedom of speech is poor. Turkey’s press freedom ranking according to Reporters without Borders (now at 148th in the world, just preceded by Syria, Iran and China). See also Human Rights Watch 2012 report.

[vii] Ironically, Turkey has among the lowest rates of women’s participation in the work force globally, ranked 125th out of 130 according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Gender Gap Index.