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Women's Liberation and Leadership

What Turkey’s Elections Mean for Kurdish Women

Turkey’s upcoming elections will be a turning point for the country’s future and the global struggle for democracy. The vote comes at a critical juncture for rights and freedoms in the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that a victory will allow him to remove the last restraints remaining on his personal power. Millions of voters upset with his increasingly authoritarian rule hope for change.

No groups may have more at stake than Kurds and women: two constituencies that have become the primary targets of Erdogan’s consolidation of power along religious and nationalist lines. If Erdogan can be defeated, the policies and ideas put forward by politically active Kurdish women and their allies may have an opportunity to change the course of Turkey’s future—and the future of the Middle East.

The AKP views women as objects, not subjects. Erdogan’s political project does not exclude women altogether—rather, it consigns them to subordinate social roles in line with fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and punishes them if they breach these boundaries. Developments ranging from the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention to repression of feminist protests and organizing to Erdogan’s constant commentary on women’s marriages and families illustrates this assault on gender equality.

Alongside this patriarchal crackdown, Erdogan’s government has turned to ultra-nationalism to marginalize Kurdish demands for peace and democracy. This strategy, similarly, does not exclude Kurds completely as Turkish leaders once did: instead, it promotes Kurds who are willing to be subordinate partners in a Turkish nationalist state project at the expense of collective Kurdish ethnic interests.

These two strategies often intersect. Nowhere is this more clear than in the AKP’s alliance with the far-right Islamist Free Cause Party (HUDA-PAR). HUDA-PAR is considered to be the political wing of Kurdish Hezbollah, an Islamist paramilitary responsible for extrajudicial killings of Kurdish nationalists, socialists, and feminists  in the 1990s. Its beliefs about women are even more extremist than those the AKP espouses. The government uses groups like these in order to marginalize the role of women in Kurdish society because it is aware that women are central to successful campaigns for peace and democratization.

The opposition People’s Alliance, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), seeks to end Erdogan’s rule. Yet it is unclear how much real change this alliance will be able to bring about for those segments of society who suffered the most under it. Some of its proposals, like a return to a parliamentary system, will be necessary for democratization. Yet it do not go far enough in challenging the political order that allowed Erdogan to rise and consolidate power in the first place—particularly on issues central to human rights and democracy like gender equality and ethnic and religious pluralism.

It is the Labor and Freedom Alliance, centered around the Green Left Party (a successor to the Peoples’ Democratic Party), that may hold the keys to real change. This alliance stresses the importance of women’s freedom and gender equality at every level—from promoting equal representation in politics through innovations like the co-chair system to pushing for social change to counter discriminatory attitudes and practices. Kurdish women play leading roles as candidates and organizers at every level, an opportunity that no other major party offers them. 40% of the Green Left Party’s candidates are women, the highest rate of any party.

The Labor and Freedom Alliance argues that democracy requires bottom-up change, not a return to the pre-Erdogan status quo. Here, unlocking the potential of local democracy is a key goal—as it has been for pro-Kurdish parties in the past. The devastating aftermath of the February 6th earthquake has given this policy a new relevance: when state authorities failed to come to the aid of their citizens, communities across Turkey organized to help themselves. Social solidarity saved lives when central authority failed.

The alliance is critical of the international community’s approach to the current government in Turkey. These governments talk about freedom, democracy, and the environment while simultaneously tolerating authoritarian regimes and prioritizing short-term interests over the preconditions for long-term peace and stability.

At the core of all of these policy proposals is a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. The Labor and Freedom Alliance believes that a peaceful, democratic solution to the Kurdish question would address not only the problems faced by Kurds, but those impacting all citizens of Turkey—particularly marginalized segments of society like women, workers, and other ethnic and religious minorities.

If Erdogan is replaced, it may have an opportunity to put its views into practice. The opposition coalition does not have a consistent position on the resolution of the Kurdish issue, but it will require Kurdish voters in order to be successful. This may impact its foreign and domestic policies alike and help those opposition figures with a more pluralistic perspective win out over their more nationalist counterparts.

Certain conflict developments also provide grounds for hope. The PKK has already extended its post-earthquake ceasefire through the elections. If a new government comes to power, the group will likely give it time to show that it is ready to take steps towards peace. If a new government can make and implement policies showing that they are willing to do this, this de-escalatory approach from the Kurdish side will likely be continued.

The international community has a vested interest in supporting this. These elections are not just any elections: if Erdogan can be defeated and the Kurdish issue can be resolved at the negotiating table, it will deal a blow to autocracy and militarism worldwide. Turkey’s allies may stand to benefit—including those that have previously failed to support peace and democratization in Turkey.

Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy and neo-Ottoman vision have not only impacted women, Kurds, and other ethnic and religious minorities within Turkey’s borders or in neighboring Iraq and Syria. These policies and the ideas behind them have become a destabilizing force in the Caucasus, North Africa, and Europe. The use of paramilitaries and proxy militias, the development and export of drones, the promotion of extremist ideologies, and other elements of this strategy were tested in Kurdish regions before being exported across the region—with devastating impacts.

In particular, Erdogan’s aggressive approach to the Kurdish issue has become a direct threat to the U.S.—itself once the most prominent backer of Turkey’s war on the Kurdish movement. A recent Turkish drone strike at Sulaymaniyah International Airport endangered U.S. personnel while attempting to target SDF Commander in Chief Mazlum Abdi and SDC Co-President Ilham Ahmed.

It is likely that a new government in Turkey pursuing a new policy on the Kurdish issue will also pursue less confrontational foreign policies—a positive development for all citizens of Turkey, the Middle East, and the international community alike.

Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

About the Author

Melike Yasar


Melike Yasar is the Representative of the Kurdish Women’s Movement in Europe and has been a member of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) since 2008. She was previously an administrator at CENI, the Kurdish Women’s Peace Office …

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