Elif Genc is a PhD student in Politics at the New School for Social Research and an Adjunct Professor at Marymount College in Middle Eastern politics in NYC. She also teaches Western political thought and revolution at St. John’s University. She is also an activist in the Kurdish women's social movement in Canada and the USA. She has worked closely for years with the Kurdish diaspora and has recently been researching on the oral histories and lived experiences of Kurdish refugees in Toronto particularly focusing on the past violence and trauma of the women of the community. Her current research interests focus on the women guerrilla of the Kurdish social movement and the role that violence plays in contemporary armed struggle and in bringing about social and political change particularly in the recently declared autonomous regions of Kurdistan both in Turkey and Syria -- specifically the role that women are playing in these armed movements against state totalitarianism and dictatorship.
A Reflection of Kurdish Women on Revolutionary Feminism(s) and Solidarity in the MENA | Kurdistan
During the latest MESA (Middle East Studies Association) Annual Meeting that took place in New Orleans, far from the Middle East, a group of feminist scholars organized a meeting called “Feminist Conversation on Current Uprisings in the Middle East.”1 The intention of this meeting was, according to the organizers, to facilitate “an informal and lightly moderated and open feminist conversation on the current uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). All are welcome! We hope to be able to share, learn, think and be together at this critical time.” As Kurdish feminist activist-scholars, and because of the centrality of revolutions to our struggle, we were thrilled to join the genuine, critical conversation, brought together by revolutionary feminists. We were hoping to contribute to the discussion by thinking through the ongoing Kurdish women’s resistance against the latest colonial invasion of Turkey in Rojava/North East Syria. Despite the all too familiar reservations any Kurdish woman scholar would have regarding feminism in the MENA, given the nature of subjectivities as they are constructed by colonialism and nationalism, we decided to attend all the same. We held reservations based on our own experiences, particularly in relation to Turkish feminism, as Kurdish women under the Turkish colonial rule at the mercy of nationalist discourse that labeled us “backwards, feudal, traditional and/or terrorist” – a common practice in the 1990s.
Before delving more deeply into our experience at the MESA meeting, it is crucial for us to highlight the exclusive spaces of academic gatherings in the Global North and acknowledge our privileged positions as academics and graduate students when attending such gatherings to talk about revolution from our “comfort zones.” However, it is also vital to recognize that our own subjectivities are not exempt from Turkish colonial gender violence. All of us are currently, in one way or another, in exile and therefore unable to join in the revolutionary praxis on our stolen/colonized land.
As we arrived, women in the room were singing revolutionary Arabic chants that had arisen during the revolution in Lebanon. We shared the excitement and positive sentiments of the feminists who had flown directly from the protests in the MENA region to the conference. As the conversation unfolded, we were struck by the discourse of the feminists present, as it clearly favoured Arab feminism, and more specifically the latest Lebanese uprisings, over other feminisms in the region. We felt that any discussion regarding feminism in the MENA could surely benefit from revolutionary Kurdish feminism, and we, in turn, could hear and learn from our fellow MENA sisters in the struggle.
The title of the discussion implied that the space was inclusive of all forms of feminism in the MENA. Despite the good intentions of the organizers, it became very clear to us that the space reproduced a hierarchical relationship between Arab feminism and non-Arabs exclusively in its various forms in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Sudan. A few of us tried to participate in the conversation by bringing attention to issues that arose from the discussion regarding Arab nationalism, colonialism, resistance, as well as their idea of revolution and its silencing of the Kurdish women’s movement in the space. We felt that our criticism regarding the Arab nationalism and colonialism that was permeating the room was not addressed throughout their feminist conversation. The hierarchy between Arabs and non-Arabs is not exceptional to MESA; rather, it is a recurrent occurrence at feminist gatherings in the MENA. This piece, therefore, is an intervention to address the structural and systemic issues we face in both knowledge production and transnational collective action on revolutionary feminist movements in the MENA. Our particular experience and positionality brings three essential issues to light: those of temporality, nationalism, and colonialism. While these notions can be found within the discourse on revolutionary movements in the region, we believe that they need to be unpacked through the perspective of the Kurdish women’s movement.
In discussing any uprising or collective action in the MENA, the majority of scholar-activist communities have a general tendency to refer to the temporariness of uprisings or collective actions, as was the case in the abovementioned feminist gathering. This dynamic results in a flawed understanding of revolutionary action as episodic, short-term, and ahistorical moments. Furthermore, this understanding overlooks essential components of revolutionary feminist movements by de-linking and de-historicizing them from social relations in the MENA regarding patriarchal nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Through the revolutionary lived experiences and agency of the women in the Kurdish political movement, we underline the importance of addressing temporal, national, and colonial epistemes that are intrinsic to feminist discourse in the MENA. Kurdish women have been represented and discussed as heroines and/or victims, in the West as well as in the MENA, throughout their formation of democratic autonomous structures in Rojava since 2011. Such a representation obscures their four-decade long struggle for national liberation and gender equality. It de-historicizes the Kurdish women’s revolutionary struggle against colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal nationalism, and dissociates them from social relations in the MENA societies. It also erases the revolutionary lived experiences and agency of the Kurdish women’s movement in the region mentioned above.
Women being at the forefront of the revolution is not a new phenomenon. Beginning in the late 1970s and participating in armed struggle in the early 1990s and onwards, women have been an integral part of the Kurdish political movement. Unlike other post-colonial and liberatory causes, this movement promises social transformation, including where gender relations are concerned, in all MENA societies. As part of a much larger movement, Kurdish women have put into practice a radical feminist politics that claims to implement entirely egalitarian principles that are based on proposing an anti-nationalist, anti-statist, anti-capitalist, and anti-patriarchal freedom for Kurdish societies. Their praxis of democratic autonomy happens exclusively in Rojava/North East Syria and Bakur (East/South East of Turkey). This radical system can be exemplified by the direct participation of community through local communes with committees, councils, cooperatives, and academies. All institutional levels count with a co-presidency system of one woman and one man, and a gender quota of 40%. Feminist women advocating for long-term social change took it upon themselves to build new educational institutions. Lastly, with the establishment of “women houses,” a self-determined justice system has been implemented to deal with issues of gender-based violence, mediation, and dispute resolution.
Along with the women’s revolution in Rojava, some of the MENA societies have recently taken to the streets to organize their own revolutionary uprisings. In analyzing the role of women in these uprisings, there is a general tendency among MENA feminist activists/academics to use a framework based on notions of nation-state – for instance, the Egyptian or Sudanese revolution. Such a framework excludes and/or marginalizes stateless and indigenous groups’ struggles, such as Kurds, Yazidis, Palestinians, Doms, Armenians, and Assyrians in the region. In other words, this state-centric approach is insufficient for an analysis of the Kurdish women’s movement, as it does not fall within the category of state. The movement’s struggle relies upon the premise that the violence of nation-state structures in the MENA region is reinforced by the patriarchal, imperialist, religious fundamentalist, and colonialist discourse surrounding their own respective nationalist struggles. In this sense, the movement counters this idea of nation-state in its revolutionary formation, thereby claiming to transcend state by implementing an anti-nationalist theoretical framework known as “democratic autonomy.” Situating women’s liberation as a pre-condition of freedom, democratic autonomy uses direct, innovative, and spontaneous forms of political action to articulate radical understandings of independence and freedom as disengaged from nationalism and statism.
The colonial subjectivities in the MENA formed under colonialism redefines labor, culture, intersubjective relations, aspiration of the self, and knowledge production in ways that render the colonizers – the Arabs, Turks, Persians – superior in relation to the Kurds. Kurds, particularly Kurdish women, have been marginalized and silenced in various ways and layers due to their particular position: they are subjected to intersecting forms of violence as colonized subjects under four nation-states in the MENA. These colonial subjectivities have permeated the consciousness and social relations of the feminist collectives in the MENA in their everyday politics. As Kurdish women activist-academics, we consider that these colonial subjectivities must be problematized and decolonized in feminist conversations that see themselves as progressive. The milieu for this prefigurative feminist politics can only be fostered if the hierarchical power relations, embodied in these colonial subjectivities, are acknowledged and unpacked in feminist praxis in the MENA. We believe that this can only be achieved through learning from the struggle of marginalized and indigenous women of the region. Only then, we, as Kurdish women, would no longer feel the need to prove ourselves as sufficiently feminist and revolutionary in the eyes of the MENA consciousness, nor to remind them of our existence at every regional feminist gathering.
The objective of writing this piece was neither to explain our praxis to MENA feminist collectives, nor to show how to address issues of temporality, nationality, and coloniality within the Kurdish women’s movement. Rather, it is a call for activist-academics across the region to (re)consider their subject positionality vis-a-vis these structural issues. Spaces of discussion need to be decolonized before they are turned into settings for productive conversation that all women movements of the region can fully benefit from. We believe that until there is open recognition and dialogue with the Kurdish women’s movement about the fundamental problematics outlined in this piece, a productive and progressive conversation about feminist revolutions in and across our movements in the MENA cannot take place. Our suggestion, therefore, is to start this discussion so we can work on fostering a transnational feminist solidarity that encompasses all of our particularities, and that enlarges and extends our revolutionary struggles beyond our immediate circles and imaginations.
- 1. This session was organized by a group of academics and sponsored by the Arab Studies Institute, the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS), and the Lebanese Studies Association.