Why the Kurdish Fight for Women

SULAIMANIYA, Iraqi Kurdistan Region — An equality decree, number 22 of the year 2014, unique in the Middle East, recognizing the rights of women in Syrian Kurdistan has prompted opposition from conservative Muslim clerics.

While the courage, audacity and resistance of Kurdish women fighters combating Islamic State jihadists in Kobani have made headlines in the last few months, Kurdish women have marked another revolutionary step by passing an equality decree that could guarantee their own rights within family and society. Their active involvement in fighting has not only seriously challenged gender roles, but also altered traditional views of revolution and politics as male enterprises. The equality decree is another form of resistance by Kurdish women against the Islamic State, which is known for abusing women’s rights in areas under its control.

The Democratic Union Party issued its equality decree on Nov. 10, insisting on women’s participation in lawmaking, and on the inclusion of “women’s will and needs into legislation.” It asserts women’s rights to stand for and to hold all kinds of political positions along with respecting co-presidency in governance. In defining “principles of equality between women and men,” its 30 clauses seek to establish gender equality at all social, economic and political levels. Most significantly it challenges patriarchal mentality in public and private arenas, criminalizing polygamy, forced and early marriages and so-called “honor” crimes, as well as disparities in inheritance rights.

The opening words of the decree make clear its purpose:

“The degree of progress in any society is tied to the active role of women and their participation in the edifice and development of society. It is with this aim and in order to ensure protection of their dignity and to achieve their freedom and rights that women have been fighting... From now on, women do not accept marginalization. A movement that liberates them is an invincible necessity in the fight against all forms of oppression, violence and homicide.”

The equality decree’s progressive line is seen by some as a direct challenge to Sharia law. Following promulgation of the equality decree in the Jezire Canton of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan, conservative faith leader Mullah Kamaran from Suleymaniya responded, “Excluding religion from social, economic and political life, not only leads to thrashing the support of Muslims and Islamic scholars inside [your nation], but also results in negative effects and leads to reinforcement of Islamic movements as well as Islamist integration.”

His view echoes that of a non-negligible proportion of Iraqi Kurdistan’s society which shares values based on religion and tradition; Islamic parties in Iraqi Kurdistan Region, including the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Kurdistan Islamic Group, and the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, hold three ministerial positions in the current government and 17 seats of 111 total seats in the regional parliament.

In recent years, Kurdistan has experienced an acute and often violent struggle between conservative and modernizing forces. Gender relations have been at the center of this transformation and struggle. Iraqi Kurdistan witnessed similar opposition from faith leaders when the Kurdistan parliament voted for the Combating Domestic Violence Law in June 2011. Since it was adopted, there have been multiple challenges to its implementation.

The equality decree, which carries the signatures of woman and man, has brought to the surface these sharp divisions between traditionalists and progressive forces in Kurdistan. Women’s rights activists have defended its principles as an effective response to women’s needs and requirements. They consider them an appropriate reflection of Kurdish women’s experience in Rojava, and notably in Kobani.

According to women’s rights activists, the equality decree challenges the traditional rhetoric of revolution, which has insisted on rights and liberty in the face of occupation and dictator masters. Many Kurdish women see it as a political program for women’s status and role in the public arena and beyond the “secret revolution” of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava.

The “secret revolution,” a term taken from the documentary by Darius Bazargan, refers to the governing experience of Rojava, Western Kurdistan. The experience started with the withdrawal of Syrian authorities from Kurdish areas two years ago. Following the withdrawal, Kurdish forces established three autonomous cantons and women have participated in both governance and resistance to Islamist forces, including Al-Nusra and ISIS.

Kurdish political forces in this part of Kurdistan have been trying to link the Kurdish national cause to the wider question of “radical democracy.” As managing editor of the Harvard Political Review Gram Slattery said, “the Kurdish toleration of Jews, Christians, Agnostics, etc., their unwillingness to veil women, and their appreciation of secularism is apparently too much for some Sunni militiamen.”

Kurdish scholar Professor Karman Matin of Sussex University, has described the Rojava model as unique in that it emphasizes grassroots participation, an egalitarian approach to gender and increases women’s participation in all levels of social, political and public life. Women throughout Kurdistan are well aware of past experiences of women in other parts of the world who have fought alongside men and carried out different political activities in anti-colonial and independence wars — and then been relegated to the domestic sphere as soon as the wars ended. Their representatives in Erbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, have repeatedly told me that while they did not want to take Western feminist experiences as examples, they did not want either to repeat the experience of Algerian women during the war of independence or Iranian women during the 1979 revolution.

PYD female representatives in Erbil have told me that they would continue in their vanguard role both “at war but also peace time, against oppression at home as well as in public space.” Their force of character, strong convictions and progressive political attitudes in the face of ignorance and fundamentalism have been described as “legendary” by Houzan Mahmoud.

As noted Arab feminist and writer Nawal El Saadawi said in a statement, “Kurdish women lead a war for freedom and democracy against oppression and subservience and tell the world that women are equal to men. They represent women throughout the world.” Indeed women in other parts of Kurdistan and the diaspora have been looking to the women in Kobani as evidence of “a new hope” and an “aspiration for a real transformation of gender roles.”

The PYD, a sister party of the left wing PKK movement, has sought to ensure the real involvement of women in polity and revolution. The party has a large number of women members and the equality decree is an indicator of its social and political progress. However, nurturing the progressive spirit expressed by the decree and turning it into a reality beyond the current situation will require continued vigilance and effort by women themselves.

Meanwhile, Kurdish women on the homefront face an equally intractable battle.

While some faith leaders will continue to oppose any move to liberate women from traditional roles and the subservient status at the core of their Islamist ideology, ultimately it will be up to women and their political allies who will win the battle for gender equality, personal liberty and human rights in Kurdistan.