Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani
As the Kurds continue to defend Kobani from the ISIS assault, with very limited support (in fact, Turkey at first used the movement of Kurdish fighters into the area as an excuse for bombing Kurdish targets), I reproduce from Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas Janet Biehl’s 2012 interview with Ercan Ayboga, in which he describes the development of a confederal democratic assembly movement among the Kurds, inspired in part by Murray Bookchin’s writings. Biehl has since translated into English a book of writings by members of the movement, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation and Ecology (New Compass Press), available from AK Press.
Kurdish Democratic Society Congress
The Democratic Assembly Movement in Kurdistan
Until the 1980s the Kurdish society was completely patriarchal. There were no women’s rights or feminist groups, not even among the more liberal Alevi Kurds. The most important dynamic in overcoming the patriarchal structures became the Kurdish freedom movement. And without women’s participation, the movement could not possibly have achieved broad popular support. By around 1990 women were participating widely in this movement, and between 1990 and 1992 women were leading demonstrations, which started to change the situation significantly. In the middle of 1990s a broad ideological discussion started in the movement, in which patriarchal structures in the whole society were criticized systematically. Since then, many women’s organizations have been founded in all areas of the struggle…
Today women are present in all the political structures, at all levels, in the Kurdish freedom movement, which is a result of the long gender discussion and of women’s struggle within the movement and in the democratic assemblies. For instance, in the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], all chairperson positions must be held by a man and a woman, and there is a 40 percent requirement for both sexes in all management boards, public parliaments, and elected councils. As “gender liberation” is one of the three main principles used by the freedom movement besides “democracy” and “ecology,” a social perspective without women’s liberation is unthinkable.
Assembly democracy has limited roots in Kurdistan history and geography. …[T]he society’s village character was and is still fairly strong. Some villages had hierarchy and aghas (feudal big land owners), but in others, where these factors were absent, villages organized common meetings in the kom (village community) in which they made decisions. In many cases, older women participated in these meetings, but not young women.
In past centuries, tribes sometimes held assemblies with representatives from all families (or villages) in order to discuss important issues of the tribe or the larger society. The tribal leader carried out the decisions that the assembly accepted.
During their long history, Kurdish tribes used from time to time and from region to region a confederal organizational structure for facing political and social challenges. It was based on voluntariness, so not all tribes participated in the confederal structure. But in most of Kurdistan, many non-Kurdish tribes or societies were not much involved in the confederal system.
In the 1990s, as the Kurdish freedom movement grew stronger, an effort was made to build up assemblies in “liberated” villages. PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] guerrillas promoted village assemblies, and in villages where the guerrillas were strong, most of the people accepted them. But just as they were getting under way, the Turkish army destroyed 4,000 villages and their political structures. Thereafter the repression intensified. Since 2005, in some of the villages that were close to the freedom movement, this idea has been developed again. Some villages organize regular democratic assemblies, fully including women and all parts of the society.
The Kurdish freedom movement had its ideological sources in the 1968 student movement and the Turkish left’s Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other communist theories. At the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish freedom movement embarked on a critique of the actually existing (state) socialist model, and in later years it would be deepened. The critique of the 1990s said, among other points, that it’s important to change individuals and society before taking the power of any state, that the relationship between individuals and state must be organized anew and that instead of big bureaucratic-technocratic structures, a full democracy should be developed.
In 1999, when the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and the guerrilla forces were withdrawn to Iraqi Kurdistan, the freedom movement underwent a process of comprehensive strategic change. It did not give up the idea of socialism, but it rejected the existing Marxist-Leninist structure as too hierarchical and not democratic enough. Political and civil struggle replaced armed struggle as the movement’s center. Starting in 2000, it promoted civil disobedience and resistance (the Intifada in Palestine was also an inspiration).
Further, the movement gave up the aim of establishing a Kurdish-dominant state, because of the existing difficult political conditions in the Middle East and the world; instead, it advanced a long-term solution for the Kurdish question within the four states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria: democratic confederalism. It now considers it more important to have a democratic, social and tolerant society than to have one’s own state. For Turkey, it has proposed the foundation of a second or democratic republic…
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” not only from the ideas of communalist intellectuals but also from movements like the Zapatistas; from Kurdish society’s own village-influenced history; from the long, thirty-five-year experience of political and armed struggle; from the intense controversies within Turkish democratic-socialist-revolutionary movements; and from the movement’s continuous development of transparent structures for the broad population…
We foresee communalism as developing first in Turkish Kurdistan. Since 2007 the freedom movement has created democratic and decision-making assemblies in neighborhoods of cities where it is strong, particularly in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Van. The assemblies were established to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighborhood according the principles of a base democracy–the whole population has the right to participate. In some of the assemblies, non-Kurdish people are participating, like Azerbaijanis and Aramaic people…
There are assemblies at several levels. At the bottom are the neighborhood assemblies. They choose the delegates that constitute the city assembly. In Diyarbakir, ideas are discussed in the city assembly, of which the city council is part—not officially, not legally, but in our system. If the city assembly makes a certain decision on an issue, then the city council members who are part of the city assembly will promote it. (But the city council also has members from the other parties, like the ruling AKP, which don’t agree with it.) The city council has the legal power to make decisions that become laws. But for the people, the city assembly is the legitimate body.
When decisions on a bigger scale have to be taken, the city and village assemblies of a province come together. In the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, the experience has had very positive results. The state authority has no influence on the population–the people don’t accept the state authorities. There are two parallel authorities, of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in practice.
At the top of this model is the DTK (Democratic Society Congress), which brings together all Kurds in the Republic of Turkey. It consists of more than five hundred civil society organizations, labor unions, and political parties—they make up 40 percent of its members; 60 percent of its members are delegates from village assemblies.
The DTK provincial assemblies were crucial in electing the candidates for the Turkish parliament of the legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. For the last elections, the Diyarbakir provincial assembly decided on six candidates chosen by the DTK—those selected became candidates of the BDP for parliament. (Six of 36 elected candidates are now in prison—the court did not release them. We don’t know when or whether they will be liberated.)
Slowly but surely, democratic confederalism is gaining acceptance by more Turkish Kurds. Recently, the DTK presented a draft paper on democratic autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan. At a big meeting in Diyarbakir in July 14, 2011, the DTK declared itself in support of “democratic autonomy.” It seeks to realize democratic autonomy step by step, by Kurds’ own means, and especially where the Kurdish freedom movement is strong. Much of Kurdish society approved, but the idea was controversial in Turkish society.
One result of the discussions of democratic confederalism has been an objective to found new villages on the communalist idea or transform existing villages whose conditions are suitable for that. Such villages are to be democratic, ecological, gender equal, and/or even peace villages. Here peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world. Cooperatives are the economic and material base of these villages.
The first peace villages were developed in 2010. In Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran and where the freedom movement is very strong, several villages decided to develop a cooperative economy. The new political and social relationship of the population and the economy are suitable for that, as the freedom movement is very strong there, with direct support from 90 percent of the society. Close to the city of Weranshah (Viranşehir), the construction of a new village with seventy households based on the idea of peace villages just started. In Van province, activists have decided to build a new ecological women’s village, which would be something special. This would enforce the role of women in the society. Women who have been victims of domestic violence will be accepted. These small communities could supply themselves with all or almost all the necessary energy.
In reality, the assembly model has not yet been developed broadly for several reasons. First, in some places the Kurdish freedom movement is not so strong. Almost half of the population in Turkey’s Kurdish areas still do not actively support it. In those places there are no few or no assemblies. Second, the discussions among the Kurds on democratic confederalism have not proceeded everywhere as well as they might.
And third, the repression by the Turkish state makes further development very difficult. About thirty-five hundred activists have been arrested in the past two and a half years, since 2009, which in many regions has significantly weakened the structures of democratic confederalism. There have been trials for two years. The military clashes between Turkish Army and the Kurdish guerrillas are once again on the increase… The state simply says these assemblies are coordinated by the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan), the umbrella structure of the leftist Kurdish freedom movement in Middle East ,of which today PKK is a part, which is an illegal structure, and that becomes the pretext for arresting them…The Turkish Kurds’ legal party, the BDP, proposes “democratic autonomy” for the whole republic… Generally it envisages a fundamental democratization in the Turkey’s political and administrative structure, achieving it through democratic participation by incorporating people into processes of decision-making. The essential vision is not to create smaller structures with characteristics of the nation-state; rather, the democratic decision-making structures in the societies should be developed through a combination of base democracy and council democracy.
And rather than being a purely “ethnic” and “territorial” conception, democratic autonomy proposes a regional and local structure through which cultural differences are able to freely express themselves. Thus it proposes to establish twenty to twenty-five regions in Turkey with major autonomous rights. These autonomous regions and their assemblies would also assume major responsibilities in fields like education, health, culture, agriculture, industry, social services and security, women, youth and sports. The central government would continue to conduct foreign affairs, finance and external defense services.
In addition, the Kurdish freedom movement demands that Turkish Kurdistan have control over its own “security,” or self-defense; and the right to manage the natural environment and natural resources. At the same time it demands that Turkish Kurdistan be able to establish specific social, cultural, economic and political ties with the other three parts of Kurdistan, in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Democratic Society Congress (DTK)
In Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement is in implementation phase, but in the three other parts, the Kurds are in the first stage of discussing democratic confederalism. The existing Kurdish parties and organizations that are not part of the Kurdish freedom movement give no importance to it. They support either full independence for Kurdistan or a classical model of autonomy and federation.
But organizations that are part of or close to the KCK, and intellectuals and small groups, promote democratic confederalism as well as the democratic autonomy project of the DTK. The thirty-five hundred activists arrested since 2009 have all been members of the KCK which is an illegal organization. Every two years they have meetings with delegates from all four countries—they meet secretly—in the mountains…
The Kurdish freedom movement has declared that it is not against existing state boundaries and does not want to change them. But at the same time the movement expects that the states respect all decisions of the population. The movement speaks of two authorities, the state and the population. In democratic confederalism, two different regions of neighboring states can come closer, for instance in terms of culture, education, economy, without challenging the existing states. But in a system of democratic confederalism, the Kurds of different states, or any other suppressed culture in more than two different states, would come closer after decades of separation. This aspect is still not defined well und needs to be discussed deeper.
The Kurdish freedom movement proposes democratic confederalism for all countries and cultures of Middle East, as it is more appropriate than the existing centralized, half-decentralized, or totalitarian political structures there. Before the twentieth-century foundation of nation-states in the Middle East, the structures did not control the societies deeply; the different regions had certain freedoms and self-government, and the tribal structures were dominant. Here many local structures are still strong and resist the state influence.
Further, in the Middle East the cultural diversity is so high that a communalist society could much better consider this richness. It would allow ethnically or religiously nondominant groups to organize themselves and contribute significantly to a dynamic cultural diversity. Direct democratic structures may make sense here too: in the recent uprisings in many countries, new democratic movements were born or have been strengthened. We would like to object to opinions that consider Arabs or other populations incapable of democratic thinking.
Excerpted from Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012), ed. Robert Graham