A Fight for Women by Women

By Marisa Lowe

In the east of Turkey, “she went up the mountain” is a common phrase among Kurds. It describes the journey from the tribal villages to the cave-filled mountains, a process of relinquishing your possessions for an austere lifestyle, a commitment to a new life with a gun by your side, and membership in the Kurdistan Workers Party, or the PKK.

While the literal and metaphorical use of going up the mountain is used in other regions such as Pakistan, the prevalent use of this term to describe women is unique to the Kurds. Currently, women make up half of the PKK’s leadership and have proven to be intensely committed fighters within the militant organization. Women are unorthodox violent actors—even in the United States, women make up only 16 percent of the armed forces , and they continue to lack opportunities for frontline service and advancement. By comparison, 40 percent of PKK fighters are women. For them, joining the PKK represents an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to Kurdish independence and escape what are often restrictive tribal villages.

While conventional and scientific norms view women as physically weaker and less aggressive than men, the PKK has sustained itself as an unconventional yet successful fighting force. The PKK was founded in Turkey in 1978 to fight for Kurdish cultural and political rights and, ultimately, independence. After forty years of fighting, the organization is finally in negotiations with the Turkish government, and its forces have recently served to protect populations in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Given the location of the PKK’s training camps in Syria and its close ties to Kurdish organizations in Iraq and Syria, its defensive fight against ISIS is natural.

The radical acceptance of women in the PKK stems from the organization’s Maoist roots. Egalitarianism is taken very seriously. Dov Friedman, a graduate student who studies the PKK at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, described life within the organization as “monastic, spare, and austere.” Personal belongings are minimal if not nonexistent. Romantic relationships are strictly forbidden, and all PKK members are celibate. The grassroots insurgency’s decision to involve women in combat can be attributed to “ideology but also necessity,” Friedman said. “In a rag-tag group listed as terrorists, you do what you can and make do.”

Integrating women into the insurgency has not been without difficulties. Initially, women were paired side-by-side with men, but after sexual assault problems arose, the PKK discarded this method. At the height of the PKK’s violent efforts against Turkey in the 1990s, women often acted as suicide bombers. About 73 percent of its suicide bombers were women, while only 22 percent of the PKK’s operatives were women at the time. In a period when it remained unclear how to best make use of women in the field, women in the PKK proved their commitment and effectiveness to the cause with their lives.

Recent media attention by Western news outlets has honed in on the PKK’s female soldiers and glorified their forceful movement against ISIS. But while this phenomenon should be highlighted, the notion of this strong ideologically opposing force rising up against ISIS is “quite troubling” according to Gulay Turkmen, a PhD candidate at Yale studying religious and nationalist identities in the Middle East. The organization’s founding and continuing purpose remains equal rights for ethnic Kurds within Turkey, and the PKK should not be thought of as a reactive organization to the rise of ISIS.

Moreover, the idea of the PKK as a haven for women from restrictive Islamic cultures is misleading. As Friedman noted, Kurdish villages are “restrictive but not fanatical.” Any restrictions towards women are more likely to be caused by the rural, tribal nature of these villages than any conservative or radical Islamic traditions.

The co-ed forces of the PKK do not represent a new, reactive ideal of equality, but rather one that has continued to exist and thrive throughout the tumult of the past half-century. Memin Saka ’17, a Turkish Yale undergrad from Istanbul, remarked that the existence of women in PKK forces “doesn’t make a huge difference.”

“I don’t think it changed what people thought about the PKK,” Saka said. He personally finds the PKK distasteful “because they have always caused trouble in Turkey.”

The existence and persistence of the PKK has meant that an entire generation of youth has grown up with the image of women and men effectively fighting side-by-side. Turkmen feels that with the rise of ISIS and its refusal to grant women rights, the PKK’s use of female fighters is particularly noteworthy: “The involvement of women in this conflict is seen as a sign of a better, more equal world the [Kurdish forces] could offer against the ideology of ISIS.”

Marisa Lowe ’17 is in Pierson College. Contact her at marisa.lowe@yale.edu.