“A feminist ideology that mouths radical rhetoric about resistance and revolution while actively seeking to establish itself within the capitalist patriarchal system is essentially corrupt."
— bell hooks
“We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough."
— Combahee River Collective Statement
“Kurdish patriarchy, much like language, is a system of subsystems. It is the system of gender rule and, among other things, a cultural institution, a form of social organization… a secular male order, a political economy of gender relations, a form of class power, a mode of signification, and a meeting point of tribal, feudal, and national traditions. It is woven into the very fabric of language, oral and literary traditions, modes of thinking, music, dance, behavior, emotions, habits, attitudes, and dress codes."
— Amir Hassanpour
How have the Kurdish and Black American radical traditions dealt with the question of women’s emancipation? What did they offer women? Have they betrayed women? What can be learned from these geographically distinct traditions and instated in our own movements, and what avenues are available for resistance to, and distancing from, gendered subjugation? Radical political configurations have historically confronted obstacles to women’s liberation more substantively than their bourgeois liberal counterparts. Because of this, an analysis of the status of women within the Kurdish and Black American radical traditions clarifies the project of building a contemporary proletarian feminist movement capable of dismantling capitalist racial patriarchy.
The PKK, a Kurdish nationalist organization founded in 1978, started a guerilla war against the colonial Turkish state in 1984. At first, the PKK agitated for an independent Kurdistan, but later departed from the Marxist-Leninist perspective of national liberation in favor of a new program for assembly and council democracy, or Democratic Confederalism. The PKK now critiques statehood and nationalism as inherently oppressive and patriarchal. It advocates an alternative liberationist project based on gender equality, ecology and pluralistic democracy.
Abdullah Öcalan is the Turkish-born, imprisoned founder of the PKK. His capture in 1999 eventuated in the party’s ideological paradigm shift to Democratic Confederalism. He identifies gender-hierarchies and the relegation of women to the domestic sphere (“housewifization”) that first arose in the Neolithic era as the beginnings of social inequalities and cultural injustices. Öcalan refers to women as “the first colony” or “the oldest form of slavery” related to the process of state formation, and identified monotheistic religions, the nation-state, and capitalism as three roots of women’s oppression. I will mainly discuss the Turkish Kurdish region (Bakur) and their plight and political project within the borders of Turkey rather than Syrian Rojava or Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdish liberation movement proposes an alternative economic and social model to the capitalist-imperialist world order. It has expressed a great emancipatory outburst against brutal forms of patriarchy and fascism. The militarization of Kurdish women has been an instrument of equality in opposition to the oppressive logic of male dominance. Women have often found themselves left behind after the throes of revolution, but the Kurdish liberation struggle has refused to subordinate the question of women to the national question or to dismiss women’s emancipation after the revolution.
*Note: I have chosen to use gender essentialist terms throughout this paper. In lieu of saying “oppressed genders” to incorporate a broader scope of gender diversity, I have used the words “women” and “female” interchangeably and as shorthand. This is for brevity, even as I am staunchly opposed to gender essentialism - and because I’m hesitant to map my Western understanding of gender-nonconformity onto Kurdish culture when I haven’t studied gender diversity within the Kurdish context.
Another caveat - Öcalan’s new book, The Sociology of Freedom, includes classical antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories that not only endanger Jewish people in their proliferation, but also call into question Öcalan’s entire analysis of capitalism. In some of his other writing, particularly in Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution, Öcalan essentializes the category of woman. He does so in a mysticizing manner that seems consistent with the racial essentialism that can lead to invocations of “Jewish Power.” Öcalan’s antisemitism is egregious and inexcusable. His anti-Jewish racism may well compromise his historical analysis of capitalism with what Postone identifies in antisemitism as a “foreshortened, fetishized and distorted anti-capitalism.” However, the liberation of Kurds from state violence and racial chauvinism certainly merits critical support. I do not believe that the movement’s accomplishments are discredited wholesale by Öcalan’s racism. I do want to highlight this significant critique of his theory, as well as to rebuke gender or racial essentialism entirely in any analysis of capitalism, misogyny, or the nation-state.
Superimposition of the struggle onto women’s bodies
Women’s bodies have long been frontiers of political violence. Nationalism and origin myths have been inscribed onto the female body as a site of control, possession, discipline, retribution (largely for the actions of other men), and the continuation of dehumanizing logics of warfare.
“Honor,” conceptually, has long been a way of asserting masculine control over women’s bodies and freedom. In the Kurdish case, “honor” has justified much violence against women – once a woman’s character is perceived to be ruined by bad conduct or by sexual assault inflicted upon her, men in the community are encouraged to kill or harm the woman in defense of familial and communal honor. This is a very explicit instance of domination of women and brutal dehumanization: dehumanization both in order to subject a community member to disciplinary violence and by nature of projecting a community’s virtue onto a woman’s chastity as if she were a product diminishing in value upon consumption. “Woman who was first turned into property and who is today a commodity; completely, body and soul.” The villainization of women’s agency and sexuality tied up in this cultural practice and in broader chauvinistic cultural mores is something the Kurdish separatist movement, headed by Öcalan, offered a departure from. Reprieve from gendered and sexual violence and social control is part of what attracted women to guerilla warfare in “the hills.”
Kurdish women in Turkey, especially in the unstable years after the 1980 coup, were acutely oppressed domestically, subjected to domestic violence and exploitation, and simultaneously oppressed by the Turkish state for their Kurdishness and their class status. Kurdish women who joined the PKK in the mountains managed to escape much of the repression they faced in the village domestic sphere. Öcalan was vitally important in raising women’s status within the PKK and beyond; he redefined masculinity from the narrow and domineering expression it had held in traditional Kurdish social structures. The Marxist PKK grew to prioritize women’s liberation. However, this prioritization of defeating patriarchy along with the capitalist, colonialist Kurdish state took many decades of struggle and much concerted female advocacy to be realized. A paradigm shift occurred when one of the co-founders of the PKK, Sakine Cansız, helped create women’s military branches composed exclusively of female combatants - this development elevated the status of women within the party, and contributed to the centering of radical feminism in the Turkish struggle.
Notions of command over women’s bodies linked to extreme economic exploitation of women in premodern Kurdish feudal social structures were troubled by Öcalan’s reconstitution of “honor.” He reframed honor from a structure of command over women’s bodies to a sense of responsibility for and protection of the land itself, and in doing so freed women from some of the constraints imposed upon them by familial “honor,” or namus. This relative freedom allowed women to partake in the Kurdish liberation struggle and to become visible human subjects in the public political sphere. This paved the way for giants in the Kurdish women’s struggle like Gültan Kişanak, the first female co-mayor of Diyarbakır who has been imprisoned since 2016 on trumped-up charges of terrorism and affiliation with the PKK, Ayla Akat, Kurdish politician and Öcalan’s defense lawyer, and Leyla Zana, the “first female Kurdish politician of the last century,” who faced prison for a decade as an elected MP for speaking Kurmanji on the senate floor at a time when all Kurdish languages were banned in public.
Though this reconstitution of namus was a seismic shift, the paternalistic attitude embedded in protection of virtue, while shifted from a projection onto women to a projection onto the “homeland,” still operated under sexist logic. Linking women’s “purity” to decolonial nationalism as a symbol of moral superiority to the colonizer is necessarily sexist, and a superhuman platform is as dehumanizing as subhuman degradation. Women guerilla soldiers were still expected to enter into a state of “sexlessness” and to “masculinize” in order to command respect from men in the early days of the PKK, subscribing to rigid constructions of masculinity that betrayed a disdain for women and femininity. Female guerilla “purity” was mythologized to justify the righteousness of Kurdish resistance and of women participating in guerilla units. This conditional allowance for women’s participation in the movement, that they remain “clean” and honorable in their sacrifice and in their championing of the feminized Kurdish cause, and in their emulation of men, was an extension of sexist logic rather than a rejection of it. Italian academic Andrea Novellis posits that “the redefinition of namus did not seek to change the patriarchal social structure.”
The essentialist identities of women as mothers, as well as the insecurity that comes from intense oppression, required that women perform exceptional acts of heroism not required of men in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the cause. Öcalan espoused more misogynistic views in the early days of the PKK, demonstrated by his assertions that women were the “weakest links” of society, and that women had a slave mentality. Women went to extraordinary lengths to prove that they had broken from the female mental subservience Öcalan articulated. They often became martyrs in response to chauvinism within the PKK that Öcalan enabled. This helps explains why so many of the PKK’s self-immolations, suicide bombings and other radical and sacrificial acts were committed by women.
Öcalan published Kurdish Love in 1999, and adopted the foundation myth of the Goddess Ishtar. This marked a turning point for locating women’s liberation as central rather than peripheral to the Kurdish cause. According to Novellis, the creation of a Women’s Army within the PKK was the primary impetus for both Öcalan’s and the party’s feminist shift. The Women’s Army challenged traditional gender power relations within the PKK, and Novellis argues that Öcalan’s support for women’s rights was politically expedient. However, this nationalist myth of Goddess Ishtar still derived the need for women’s equality from essential maternal qualities and motherhood. “The PKK’s emancipation discourse recognized women’s freedom only as sacrifice for the struggle and at the expense of their lives.” But Öcalan also used that nationalist myth in Kurdish Love to criticize patriarchy more deeply and to anchor Kurdish feminism to the political struggle for liberation from Turkish oppression and colonialism.
In both the Black American and Kurdish contexts, women were subjected to sexual control. According to theorist bell hooks, the political aim of the systematic rape of Black women by white males was to maintain, through terroristic demoralization and dehumanization, allegiance and obedience to the white imperialistic order. Rape of Black women by white men has historically been sanctioned by fear and hatred of women and of Blackness. Rape is levied as a method of social control in support of the categorical system of economic and social exploitation of Black women. However, during the ‘60s Black Power movement, hooks argues that Black men within the movement overemphasized contemporary white male sexual abuse of Black women in order to dissuade Black women from participating in interracial relationships, and thus control their sexuality. Meanwhile, these same men partook in sexual relationships with white women. We see the bodies and sexualities of Black American women and Kurdish women controlled by similar logics of patriarchy, commodification and male ownership.
There is another comparison to be made to American society in that, just as domination was shifted from the Kurdish female body onto the concept of the Kurdish “homeland,” granting some Kurdish women relative reprieve from oppression, the most severe forms of misogynistic violence were shifted from all women onto specifically Black women, granting specifically white women relative reprieve from oppression. This came with the construction of white womanhood as newly pure and virtuous and de-sexualized in the 19th century, whereas Puritan sensibilities had previously reviled all women absolutely.
“White women were no longer portrayed as sexual temptresses; they were extolled as the “nobler half of humanity” whose duty was to elevate men’s sentiments and inspire their higher impulses… once the White female was mythologized as pure and virtuous, a symbolic Virgin Mary, White men could see her as exempt from negative sexist stereotypes of the female [applied to racialized women]… The shift away from the image of White woman as sinful and sexual to that of White woman as virtuous lady occurred at the same time as mass sexual exploitation of enslaved black women… As American White men idealized White womanhood, they sexually assaulted and brutalized black women.”
Therefore, white womanhood emerged as exempt from the brunt of overall gendered sexual and social violence in slaving America, while Black women absorbed the brutal “double oppression” of sexual exploitation and commodification of reproductive capacities on plantations, in addition to economic exploitation. The legacies of this phenomenon continue today with white women’s generally higher caste in society over Black women and all racialized women.
White American women and Turkish state feminism
The construction and mythology of white womanhood emerged and calcified in the 19th century in order to secure the place of Black women at the bottom of America’s socioeconomic hierarchy. A tiered hierarchy of dehumanization was necessary in order to maintain economic exploitation of racialized and sexualized underclasses, particularly of Black people and especially of Black women. Considerations and privileges have always been afforded in settler America to white women that are withheld from Black women; this is part of the contracting of white women into upholding an oppressive racist-sexist social order through the ideology of whiteness.
According to bell hooks, racial imperialism supersedes sexual imperialism in American society; according to Öcalan, this is not quite so within Kurdish and Turkish society. He identifies the oppression of women as the primary social contradiction: “the societal system is most vulnerable because of the unresolved question of woman.” However, given the extreme ‘racial’ persecution Kurds face, which serves as the basis of Kurdish separatism and resistance, Turkish women do not endure the same racialized state-sanctioned violence and economic exploitation as Kurdish women do (however, brutal misogyny is currently skyrocketing across ethnic lines as neo-Ottoman fascism is fomented, and femicides are exponentially increasing among all sectors of Turkish society). In the words of Gültan Kışanak, female co-mayor of Diyarbakır, “Kurdish women don’t just fight because they are Kurdish, but also because they are women.”
The specific obstacles Kurdish women confront, through xenophobic and ethnic discrimination in all walks of life that is exacerbated by language and cultural barriers and by lesser educational attainment, mean that Turkish women often enjoy an appreciably better quality of life, certain class privileges, and disparate material conditions from Kurdish women that mirror those afforded to white women in the US. Both the hyper-exploitation of Black people in the US and of Kurds in Turkey can be viewed through an analysis of internal colonialism, upheld institutionally and interpersonally in myriad ways.
In the American feminist movement, whiteness poses a barrier to female solidarity. While white female organizers have attempted to minimize their position in the racial caste hierarchy of American society to dissociate themselves from white men and deny connections based on shared racial caste, there is undeniably an allegiance to whiteness that undermines the fight for all women’s equality. The white suffrage movement was very racist — white suffragettes maintained that white women needed to get the vote before any Black people did, because otherwise Black men would somehow be even more tyrannically oppressive of white women once they could vote (despite the immediate need for the Black vote, given the mob violence Black people were subjected to en masse in the aftermath of slavery and Reconstruction.) White women historically were reluctant to acknowledge Black women socially, partially for fear of sexual competition, because of the history of white male sexual objectification of and violence towards Black females and their contingent hyper-sexualization.
White American female wage slaves wanted to maintain the racial hierarchy that granted them higher status in the labor force above Black women. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, white women regularly acted as if feminist ideology existed solely to serve their interests, and as such, they “othered” Black women, excluding them from feminist movements. Their unwillingness to distinguish between various degrees of discrimination or oppression caused Black women to see them as enemies.
Kurdish women face a comparable double oppression to Black women’s double oppression in America, and to the double oppression all “third world” women face; economic and sexual oppression and exploitation from their respective states and the capitalist-colonialist-imperialist world order, and economic and sexual oppression domestically and intracommunally. Due to this double oppression in an American and Kurdish context, Black and Kurdish feminisms center the plight of respective demographics as among the most oppressed cohorts in their societies. Alice Walker coins Black-centric feminism as “Womanism,” in a rejection of the racial chauvinism found in white women’s movements. In Turkey, the very word “feminism” has been associated with the Turkish state and with privileged castes of Turkish women, and thus an alternative women’s movement was founded in Öcalan’s jineology.
Black and third world feminisms, with an incorporation of gender and race as modes of class oppression into an internationalist socialist politic, present the possibility of true solidarity amongst all women and oppressed peoples. Acknowledging and accounting for the asymmetrical violence of racial and patriarchal capitalism allows for the prospect of and agitation for everyone’s freedom — “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” This internationalist socialist character and broad politic of solidarity has been present both in radical Black feminist formations in an American context, like the Combahee River Collective, and in the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the electoral arm of the Kurdish liberation struggle. The HDP has robust alliances with LGBT advocacy and Turkish socialist parties, and has lent itself in recent years to collaboration among Kurdish and Turkish women’s activists.
Women’s movement as a symbol of legitimacy
The status of further minoritized subgroups within an already minoritized population is often used to justify aggression towards a movement or political formation, or, alternatively, subsumption into the project of the West. Kurdish women’s supposed special historical freedoms, as compared to those of surrounding racially and culturally distinct women, originally helped validate Kurdish nationalism. Within the later electoral wing of Kurdish resistance, the 40% quota and co-chair system bolstered the legitimacy of the HDP and of Kurdish resistance among the general electorate, and led to an increase in Turkish women’s representation among the ranks of respective Turkish parties in reaction to HDP’s exceptionally inclusive tactics. Public image and memory can also be a political tool wielded against resistance struggles — the Black Power movement in the US has been delegitimized to the greater American public by allegations of male chauvinism.
Women’s emancipation was viewed at the beginning of the 20th century by some Kurdish nationalists as an arbiter of modernity and nationhood, and thus legitimacy. Women were essential to the nationalist project in legitimizing the Kurdish image on the world stage because of the maternal and reproductive role of women in furthering Kurdish bloodlines and reproducing “Kurdishness.” Kurdish nationalists had particular interests in portraying Kurdish women as always having been more liberated than Turkish, Arab or Persian women; women’s “purity” was, again, linked to nationalism as a sexist symbol of cultural superiority. The historical instances of female chiefs that were often used to support the claim that Kurdish women have always enjoyed more freedom than their neighbors do not hold up to closer inspection. It is an ill-supported argument because the few women who were able to occupy positions of power achieved this due to their proximity to powerful men and their own high social status, and never without a specific set of conditions comprising strategic relationships, preexisting social and economic standing, and exceptional disposition. Though the historical precedent for elevating a few women over the centuries to leadership roles in Kurdish society is noteworthy and laudable, most Kurdish women did not necessarily experience better conditions than other women in the region. Within Kurdish separatism of the earlier 20th century, women counted politically only when they and their image could assist men in the nationalist cause.
Once the HDP formed upon Öcalan’s capture in 1999, the party structure began to incorporate female representatives at the behest of Öcalan and concerted efforts by female activists such as Leyla Zana. Women were granted their own independent wings of the party, followed by official quotas in parliamentary seats and dual seats (co-chair system) for mayoral elections. This impressive women’s representation began to be a marker of legitimacy for the Kurdish cause. In response to this, Turkish parliamentary representation began to incorporate more female politicians — but these female Turkish politicians tended to be of the “state feminism” ilk, or of a far more educated and higher class than their Kurdish counterparts, who tended to be lower-class and often with very little to no formal education. This was due to the multiple axes of oppression that Kurdish women face in Turkish society — the station of Kurdish people, especially of Kurdish women workers, is generally lower than that of the average Turk, riddled with more exploitation and poverty and state-sponsored violence in a parallel to the overexploited condition of the Black population as a whole in America.
Novellis criticizes Öcalan’s reliance on women’s support for his own political ascent by enfranchising and elevating women politically and militarily. Novellis argues that, although Öcalan struggled to retain his authority within the party in the late ‘90s, women’s organizations supported and remained directly tied to him, in turn helping Öcalan to purge dissenting commanders and retain sole power. He considered women’s organizations to be the only section of the party to follow his teachings, viciously attacking the men’s cadres. Women’s organizations also became increasingly influential within the party through their loyalty to Öcalan. According to this analysis, the political relationship between Öcalan and women’s liberation had a transactional element to it. However, Öcalan, self-servingly or not, did emphasize women’s double oppression and make strides to promote gender equality within the guerilla formations — although few women occupied higher positions of power within his PKK.
The Women’s Army was formed as part of “rupture theory,” or Öcalan’s teaching that equality of women could only be attained by women’s separatism. Starting in the ‘90s, he advised women’s organizations to create distinct branches to promote rights and equality within the wider movement or “dominant and traditional men would try to destroy women after any achievements.” This was the main cause of the party’s ideological shift toward radical feminism. Arming, and thus empowering, women, was central to their combatting of the male chauvinism that denied them agency within the party — women were detached from “Old Kurdishness” and “subtracted from men’s influence” so that they could grow in strength amongst themselves and determine their own identity. This is in contrast with the direct rejection of separatism that the Combahee River Collective articulated: “we reject the stance of [female] separatism because it is not a viable political analysis or strategy for us. It leaves out far too much and far too many people, particularly Black men, women, and children… we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.”
According to Kurdish activist Dilar Dirik, the “western fascination with ‘badass’ Kurdish women” in the current moment in their battle against ISIS is less an instance of western legitimization than it is of a sexist and orientalist western gaze that functions to obscure and sanitize the leftist politics of these women. Accusations of Kurdish leadership exploiting women fighters for PR purposes in an attempt to win over western public opinion, in her eyes, fails to account for the different cultures and political tendencies and formations that exist among the Kurds, and that Kurdish women fighting is situated in a revolutionary culture of resistance to patriarchy as well as to oppressive regimes. Kurdish women had been fighting to become political actors and equal decision-makers with little media attention for decades.
In contrast, the role of women within Black Power movements, especially within the Black Panther Party, has been used to delegitimize it in the popular imagination. Whether due to the power of patriarchy and the prominence of male political prisoners in disappearing the contributions of women to the Black Power movement in public memory, or due to concerted smear efforts to depict the BPP as especially male chauvinist, the party often conjures up a hypermasculine image.
Elaine Brown, the Black Panther Party chairwoman appointed by Huey Newton, pushed back against the narrative that the Black Panther Party was a male chauvinist organization frozen in a uniquely patriarchal state of existence in an interview:
“They [people who leverage the claim that the BPP was singularly and essentially sexist] fail to remember that the NAACP, SNCC… There was no progressive organization that had women in any positions of leadership except the BPP. I hear people criticize the BPP all the time as male chauvinist. Do you know a country that’s not a patriarchy? Feminists like Gloria Steinem [bourgeois White feminists] have this notion that “we had to get out of the kitchen.” And you know what black women said when they said to get out of the kitchen and into the streets? They said, “I’d like to get out of the kitchen, YOUR kitchen.” And this didn’t even occur to these ‘Betty Friedan's [author of The Feminine Mystique] and former CIA agent and Playboy bunny Gloria Steinem. [Those white feminists] are the people who constantly say that the BPP were chauvinists and so they didn’t want to be in it. Okay fine, then what group are you in? What difference does it make who cooks the food?”
Although sexist attitudes and formulations within chapters and among party leadership were evident, as bell hooks emphasized, the Black Panther Party was fluid and nuanced in character among chapters and as time progressed. Assata Shakur attributed her joining the New York chapter to its progressive gender politics in comparison with other Black nationalist groups. According to Kathleen Cleaver, “When women suffered hostility, abuse, neglect, and assault - this was not something arising from the policies or structure of the Black Panther Party, something absent from the world - that’s what was going on in the world. The difference that being in the Black Panther Party made was that it put a woman in a position when such treatment occurred to contest it.” Women increasingly dominated party leadership by 1970, particularly in Oakland; but this was concurrent with overall deradicalization and the degeneration of the party.
The party had a stated policy of gender equality from its outset, in contrast with many left groups at the time. Women often stepped in to fill the roles left by the death and incarceration of prominent male leadership due to state repression. At its height, women made up nearly two-thirds of BPP party membership. Women were active in every aspect of leadership across ranks. Women were at the forefront of survival and mutual aid programs like the Breakfast Program. And yet distasteful and violent machismo is often the party’s residual image in popular culture. “While the corrosive nature of the sexism of the Black movement is a widely disseminated critique, the corrosive nature of the racism and white supremacy in the women’s movement needs the same sort of sustained critical examination.”
Caricatures of Black womanhood in American media, according to Patricia Hill Collins, typically riff off of the tropes of jezebels and sapphires, mammies, welfare queens and Black matriarchs. These controlling tropes attest to the ideological dimension of American Black women’s oppression — they are designed to keep Black women in an assigned, subordinate place. Manipulation of Black roles for social control reifies the undesirability of Black women in various ways and naturalizes racial capitalist hegemony.
The mammy caricature is that of the faithful, obedient domestic servant, created to justify the economic exploitation of house slaves and sustained to explain Black women’s long-standing restriction to domestic service. The Black matriarch caricature is the inverse of the mammy, or one of the “bad” Black mother who has failed to fulfill traditional womanly duties and has thus contributed to social problems in Black communities. The Black matriarch represents the failed mammy by punishing those who reject the image of the submissive, hard working servant. It also reproduces views of innate Black cultural deficiency that diverts attention away from the political and economic inequalities that characterize global capitalism, and reinforces bootstrap capitalist mythology. It functions to individualize systemic oppression.
The welfare mother is the ideological justification for social control over women’s fertility, labelling the fertility of black women as unnecessary, dangerous and a threat to white society. The jezebel caricature, or one of a Black “whore,” controls Black female sexuality by punishing agency and sexual assertiveness. It originated in slavery when Black women were portrayed as sexually aggressive, largely to justify the sexual incursions of their white masters. This portrayal of excessive sexual appetite also functions to masculinize Black women. Finally, the sapphire caricature, or the “angry Black woman,” is characterized as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn and overbearing. This is also a masculinizing trope to otherize her from constructions of white womanhood, and a social control mechanism to punish Black women who veer from norms of passivity, invisibility and servility.
Turkish media tropes in portrayals of Kurdish women also function to otherize and exoticize Kurdish women, with the political intent of maintaining the existing social order and their particular subjugation. Kurdish women are portrayed as benighted passive victims of honor crimes, as backwards threats to Turkey’s modernity, or as terrorist aggressors. Turkish media coverage also naturalizes violence against all women by frequently using the passive voice to avoid mentioning or emphasizing the crimes of male perpetrators, contributing to depictions of violence against women as titillating or as punishment for bad behavior.
Counterpublics are the result of, and a response to, the social exclusion and marginalization of subordinate groups by dominant groups. Nancy Fraser, an American critical theorist, coined the phrase subaltern counterpublics to refer to “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” Dominant configurations of knowledge, power and culture produce alternatives to these dominant spheres, and alternative epistemologies. These dominant configurations of knowledge and power and culture are intrinsically tied to the nation-state, to capitalist modernity, to patriarchy and colonialism and racial casteism. The counterpublic can be used as a useful analytic in the arenas of Turkish media, Kurdish Indigenous folk knowledge, and Black American “ghettoization” and ensuing distinctive oppositional cultural practices and knowledges.
“Ghettoization” yields a certain form of counterpublic. Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought defined the process of “ghettoization” as the “confining of African-Americans to all-Black areas in the rural South and Northern urban ghettos, [which] fostered the solidification of a distinctive ethos in Black civil society regarding language, religion, family structure, and community politics. While essential to the survival of US Blacks as a group and expressed differently by individual African-Americans, these knowledges remained simultaneously hidden from and suppressed by whites. Black oppositional knowledges existed to resist injustice, but they also remained subjugated.” Collins articulates that the architecture of “Black” space, or the social exclusion of Black Americans from white civil society and relegation into racially segregated urban housing and self-containing Black neighborhoods and communities, did more than fulfill their designed goal of politically controlling, containing and exploiting Black Americans. These Black enclaves also provided a physically separate space, or a “counterpublic” to the dominant white society, wherein Black Americans could use and develop African-derived ideas to craft distinctive oppositional knowledges and cultures partially designed to resist racial oppression.
Black women’s doubly oppressed social positioning foisted on them an additional axis of marginalization and physical removal from the “public sphere” with which to develop distinctively Black and female forms of resistance and knowledge to the dominant white male culture. Black women were not only doubly oppressed but doubly “ghettoized,” or purposely confined and restricted to a specific physical locale and social realm on the basis of both their sex and their race. Black women’s long-standing “ghettoization” to service occupations represents the economic dimension of race- and gender-based oppression. “Domestic work fostered US Black women’s economic exploitation, [yet it simultaneously created the conditions for Black female counterpublics] and allowed for African-American women to see white elites, both actual and aspiring, from perspectives largely obscured from Black men and from these groups themselves.” Their additional marginalization offered, and offers, Black women a specific experience and lens from the outskirts of social and physical life with which to view and interpret society.
“Beyond the mask, in the ghetto of the Black women’s community, in her family, and, more importantly, in her psyche, is and has always been another world… These spaces are not only safe – they form prime locations for resisting objectification as the Other. In these spaces Black women observe the feminine images of the ‘larger’ culture, realize that these models are at best unsuitable and at worst destructive to them, and go about the business of fashioning themselves after the prevalent, historical Black female role models in their own community.”
The social position of the outsider, the enemy, the heavily exploited and persecuted, is conducive to a rejection of popular dogma, the seeking of alternative sociopolitical, cultural, economic and physical schema, and the imagining of better futures.
Women in Kurdish culture also represented, and still represent, a singularly repressed, othered and “enemied” social sect. Women were heavily persecuted in traditional tribal Kurdish culture, excluded not just from public political life, but also from religious life. Religious and spiritual expression for women tended to revolve around folk religion and folk healing, as women were often denied access to organized religion. Indigenous knowledges typically wielded by Kurdish women, especially knowledges and practices of healing and wellness, both developed out of necessity from exclusion and deprivation, and provided a counterpublic alternative to the dominant discourses of medicine and power. Folk knowledge was seen as the knowledge of the enemy, as diametrically opposed to scientific positivism and an affront to progress, just as Kurdish women were.
“Towards the end of the nineteenth century [and later in Kurdistan]… access to scientific knowledge gave doctors increased prestige and influence. Doctors, more so than scientists, were able to define deviance and social disorder, due to their greater contact with the masses. As medic replaced priests and mullahs as the guardians of social reality, power created knowledge rather than the opposite.”
Öcalan also understood women’s subaltern, counterpublic position when he championed the concept of “jineologie,” or a Kurdish form of feminism particularly focused on rejecting the epistemological monopoly men have traditionally held, and on emphasizing the need for a new body, cosmology, inquiry of scientific and social knowledge involving and spearheaded by women. Women’s counterpublics can also be seen in their media exclusion from the “authoritative aesthetics of the news language in Turkish,” and their respective alternative media counterpublic of “JINHA,” or Turkey’s first women’s news agency. JINHA made news more familiar and accessible to women by abandoning certain dominant Turkish news aesthetics, like the exclusive use of patronymics, that alienated many women from the sphere of public life that was consuming “the news.” JINHA provided an alternative “news” in covering the world of women that existed within and alongside the world of men. Portrayals of women through dominant male-centric sexist media that reinforces a patriarchal and violent culture towards women was rejected by JINHA. In its place, the women journalists at JINHA crafted a representation of events through women’s subjectivity and a feminist lens.
The goal of women’s emancipation everywhere should be, as Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas said, to birth a world where “a woman can grow up without fear.” Women everywhere are controlled by similar logics of patriarchy, commodification and male ownership; distinctive oppositional cultural practices and knowledge production and the militarization of women have been tools of equality in Kurdistan and in the US. Black and third world feminisms, in conjunction with a socialist politic, continue to provide a blueprint for the elevation in status of all women and oppressed people. The serious barriers posed by racial chauvinism and bourgeois interests to a truly formidable women’s movement can only be overcome through feminist and antiracist socialism — “because the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism and patriarchy.”
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