Women and War: Female Empowerment in the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict

Nadje Al-Ali, the gender studies professor of the University of London is giving a presentation on her recent research on peace and gender in Turkey on Thursday April 14, 2016.  (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

Most people run from violence, especially when that violence concerns decades-old tensions. Professor Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the University of London, chose just such a subject for her research.

“I should say before I start that every time I speak about Turkey and the Turkey-Kurdish conflict, I always take a moment to express my solidarity with my colleagues in Turkey…who are very much under threat from the Turkish regime,” Al-Ali said.

Al-Ali explained that while she was not an expert on Turkey or Kurdistan, and did not speak either language, she did understand “war and conflict.”

“I cannot call myself a Turkish-Kurdish conflict expert…but I know about war and conflict, and women trying to work across differences. I came to a point about a year ago where the situation in Iraq was so bad…it was so depressing, I felt I needed to take a break and work on something that, at the time, seemed more hopeful,” Al-Ali said.

Al-Ali claimed her research had to do with how the conflict affected Turkish and Kurdish women, as well as what peace would look like for Kurdish women.

“Feminist scholars teach us that the cessation of armed conflict does not mean peace, especially for women. My question is…what does peace mean for Kurdish women?” Al-Ali said.

Another subject of Al-Ali’s presentation was how the media depicted the Kurdish women who fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). She pointed out what she believed to be the hypocrisy of supporting these women while opposing the organization that they stem from, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

“I was struck by the way these Kurdish women were portrayed in the media as Amazonian warriors, when in reality their organization is a sister organization of the PKK, which is still classified as a terrorist group,” Al-Ali said. “We’re celebrating these exotic, sexy warriors and vilifying the root of their organization. It didn’t add up for me.”

Unlike other countries, where youth want peace or reconciliation, Al-Ali said, Kurdish youth have become a major part of the PPK, and in some ways they are more radical than those that came before them.

“Let me share with you some ideas about peace, although the other thing to consider is why the PKK officially declared a ceasefire in 2013, and shortly after a young wing of the PKK was established,” Al-Ali said. “It’s important to mention because in the recent conflict, these youths have played an important role. These youths have put up trenches in Eastern Turkey and these youths have fought the state. They’re more radical now than many of the PKK fighters, these youths who feel very disenfranchised by the Turkish state.”

Even after witnessing the hostility that still exists between Turkey and the Kurds, Al-Ali said she has been inspired by the work of peace activists to end gender-based violence and reconcile with the other side.

“I have been inspired by Turkish feminists who have been at the forefront of not only challenging the state and gender-based violence, but have also been at the forefront of solidarity and activism Vis a VI the Kurds,” Al-Ali said.

We need to broaden our understanding of the conflict to include gender-based violence, Al-Ali said.

“In the context of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, we need to expand our understanding of the underlying conflict, or conflict,” Al-Ali said. “It is not just about the conflict with the state, but the conflict with men and gender-based violence.”

Patrick Madaus, a second-semester mechanical engineering major, praised the presentation, suggesting that it was easy to understand while also providing a lot of useful information.

“I thought it was fantastic. I didn’t really know that much about the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, but I think it was really interesting the way she brought gender into it,” Madaus said.

Al-Ali warned that the signs of progress in Turkey may not last, and she questioned whether equality will remain a goal of the Kurds as long as they fight with the government of Turkey. In addition, she argued that there was still a gap between what the leaders of each group were saying and what is actually happening.

“For all these positive things and elements, I’m worried that this is a fragile flower in the midst of lots of violence, and I’m not sure how long the Kurdish political movement in Turkey is able to hold these principles of equality with the brutal crackdown of the state. There is still a big gap between what the political elite are saying and what they are doing,” Al-Ali said.


Eddie Leonard is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.leonard_iii@uconn.edu. He tweets @EddieLeonard23.