Kurdish women & the militant legacy of International Women’s Day 

by Marcel Cartier    


“The transformation of the feminine psyche, which is adjusted to the new conditions of its economic and social existence, will not be achieved without a strong, dramatic self-overcoming. Every step in this direction creates collisions which were utterly unknown to the heroines of the past. And these conflicts, which take place in the souls of women, by degrees begin to draw the attention of novelists, begin to serve as sources of artistic inspiration. A woman, by degrees, is being transformed from an object of a tragedy of the male soul into the subject of an independent tragedy.”
Alexandra Kollontai, Russian revolutionary (1919)

More than a century ago, socialist women across Europe made the links between their oppression and degradation and the battle to overthrow capitalism. While liberal women’s movements of the time focused almost exclusively on the question of women’s suffrage, the militant women of the socialist movement understood that although this was a necessary and important democratic reform to be fought for, it wouldn’t solve the fundamental contradiction of their enslavement which was rooted in the economic, political, and social system that prevailed. 

It was 1907 when the first Women’s Conference of the Second International took place in Stuttgart, Germany. The historic event saw delegates from across Europe meet under the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) – at that time still a Marxist revolutionary organisation – to discuss autonomously the major questions the movement for women’s liberation was facing.

Three years later, at the Copenhagen conference, German socialist leader Clara Zetkin proposed a day to be marked annually that would advance their struggle. Her proposal said, "In agreement with the class-conscious, political and trade union organisations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women's Day, whose principal purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women's suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women's question according to Socialist precepts. The Women's Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully."

Importantly, although the ability of women to vote within the framework of the capitalist system was the principle reform being fought for, it wasn’t viewed as separate from other issues such as social security, including maternity leave and health insurance for women. 

The first International Working Women’s Day would be held the following year in 1911, with mass demonstrations across Europe connecting women’s suffrage with the struggle of the proletariat against capital. 


International Women’s Day & the Socialist Revolution 

Although it had been widely expected that the first socialist revolution would take place in Germany, the degeneration of the country’s Social Democrats into a reformist party during the so-called Great War brought forward a split, with militants who opposed the pro-war line of the Party’s leadership breaking ranks. Among these were Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, who went on to take up key roles in what would become the Communist Party of Germany. Luxemburg was murdered by the German government – now led by her former comrades in the SPD – in 1919 during the Spartacist Uprising. 

The tumultuous events in Germany were the consequence of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Considered the most backward country in Europe at the time, it was here that the working-class would take and hold power for the first time in history. 

Women’s suffrage was among the first acts undertaken by the revolutionary government. In 1920, revolutionary Russia became the first country in Europe to make abortion legal. Additional decrees were passed to abolish inheritance rights, and equality of the sexes was enshrined in law. As Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party, would say in 1919, “In the course of two years Soviet power in one of the most backward countries of Europe did more to emancipate women and to make their status equal to that of the "strong" sex than all the advanced, enlightened, "democratic" republics of the world did in the course of 130 years.” 

With the achievement of workers’ power in the former Russia Empire, which would become the Soviet Union in 1922, International Working Women’s Day was now a public holiday in a huge part of the world. Until 1975, it was largely celebrated in the socialist countries until the United Nations decided to adopt the day (albeit without ‘Working’ in its name). 


Liberalism vs revolutionary approaches to women’s equality

Today, International Women’s Day is being marked across the world, often viewed as a celebration of the accomplishments in the fight for equality. 

In the United States, the election of Donald Trump as President has given rise to a new women’s movement. The day after his inauguration in 2017, one of the biggest marches in U.S. history took place in Washington, D.C. to push back against his sexist and male chauvinist agenda. The allegations of sexual harassment and assault that have shaken both the political establishment and Hollywood has seen the massive #MeToo movement gain international attention. 
As was characteristic of the struggle in Europe more than a century ago for women’s suffrage, the contemporary western women’s movement is often liberal in its approach to ‘solutions’. Hillary Clinton, the war-hawk who lost the 2016 election to Trump, sees herself as part of the ‘resistance’. Meanwhile, revolutionary women posit that only the replacement of the capitalist order with a socialist and truly democratic system can usher in an era of equality between the sexes.


The Kurdish struggle shows the way

In today’s world, there can be no serious talk about women’s liberation without discussing the Kurdish struggle which is radically altering the social fabric of the so-called Middle East. 
It was the fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in Syria who caught the attention of the world in 2014 as they fought valiantly alongside their male comrades in defence of the city of Kobane against the fascism of the Islamic State. Women warriors such as Arin Mirkan – who blew herself up to avoid capture by the rape-cult of Daesh -- became symbols of emancipation and self-sacrifice. 

Today, the world is largely silent as the tremendous sacrifices of Kurdish women continue to plant seeds for women’s equality around the world in the face of an invasion by the Turkish Army and their Salafi proxies in the Free Syrian Army. The battle to defend Afrin is not merely a struggle to defend the territorial integrity of Syria, or to prevent a genocide of the Kurdish people of the region, but a great historical battle to defend the gains of the women’s movement and revolution in Rojava (western Kurdistan). 

It’s no coincidence that the occupying forces have been shown to be particularly brutal to the women they have killed. The mutilation of a YPJ fighter in late January should have sparked global condemnation – but since Turkey’s role as the second largest army in NATO is indispensable for the European and western powers that aim to position themselves as such defenders of the rights of women – they have remained silent about such heinous atrocities.
In light of the attacks by the Turkish state and the role of women on the frontlines of the resistance, a new initiative called Women Rise Up For Afrin has been launched. The call, announced in February, said “We have built up autonomous structures based on communal organising, women’s councils, academies, and cooperatives, as well as women’s self-defence. Through realising that women’s solidarity is one of our most effective weapons, we have developed our collective strength and consciousness. Today, ten thousands of women have taken up arms to defend their land, their lives, and their future in Afrin. The resistance of the Women’s Defence Units YPJ and the women’s civil defence forces, Parastina Jinê, who have organised under the umbrella of the Women’s Movement of Rojava, Kongreya Star, are part of a women’s global resistance against any form of oppression, exploitation, femicide and fascism.”


Kurdish organisations mark the 8th of March

In all four parts of Kurdistan, women have continued the militant history set forth by Clara Zetkin and her comrades in the Second International through the activities of the Kurdish Women’s Movement. Just as the European socialists of a century ago organized autonomously, such structures permeate the Kurdish revolutionary movement. 
In northern Kurdistan (Bakur), or southeastern Turkey, the women’s component of the armed forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is known as YJA-Star (Free Women’s Army). Women guerrillas are marking the occasion of International Women’s Day as a chance to reaffirm their commitment to the age of resistance. As YJA-Star guerrilla Roza Tolhildan said, “There is a challenging period of war today. The AKP [Turkish] state based on advanced technology claims to have finished off the Kurdish movement. However, this does not prevent us. Despite all the attacks and lack of circumstances, this day of resistance is celebrated with great enthusiasm everywhere in Kurdistan. The 21st century will be the century of women’s freedom.”

The PKK-aligned Women’s United Revolutionary Movement, which also includes several Turkish and Kurdish communist parties, issued a statement saying, “Women are under attack both physically and spiritually. The women who are mounting organised resistance are targeted brutally. They are trying to destroy women who resist. Today, in Turkey, a patriarchal method is developed in the same line with ISIS, to kill and torture women. AKP is responsible for this. The state and patriarchal system is responsible for this.”

In Iraq, the Shengal Women’s Resistance Units (YJÅž) Commander Axîn Ä°ntikam marked International Women’s Day and remembered the Yezidi genocide of 2014 in which countless women were killed or taken as slaves by the so-called Islamic State. Speaking at a ceremony, she said “We remember with gratitude all the women that contributed to this struggle, fought and fell as martyrs. We must give a ceaseless struggle to live with our identity of a free woman. As is known, there exists violence and pressure on women, our society and people. We women must fulfil our responsibility everywhere in order to stop this violence and pressure.”


Woman, life, freedom

The revolution unfolding in Rojava and across the landscape of Kurdistan is one for grassroots, participatory democracy. At its fundamental core is the liberation of women. This movement has taken as one of its key slogans ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’, meaning ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. A central theoretical pillar of the movement is Jineoloji, or the ‘science of women’ which was advanced under the leadership of PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz and several other women’s leaders who understood that without the ability of women to organize within the revolutionary ranks autonomously, any lip service paid by the Party to their freedom wouldn’t translate into anything beyond the abstract. The tangible accomplishments toward the equality of women in Rojava, even in the midst of war, has been due to this independence of organisation and ability to be self-determining.

Just as Clara Zetkin refused to allow the liberalism of Europe’s political landscape in 1910 to dictate the women’s movement, Kurdish women of today are leading the way in connecting the dots between capitalism, patriarchy, and the battle to be victorious in what the movement refers to as the longest war in human history. Issuing a historic call to women around the world for today’s occasion, the Kurdish Women’s Movement has said:

“On the occasion of 8th March 2018, International Women’s Struggle Day, we commemorate all women, who have given their lives in the quest for freedom, in the resistance against enslavement, exploitation, and occupation. From Rosa Luxemburg to Sakine Cansız, from Kittur Rani Chennamma to Berta Caceres, from Ella Baker to Henan from Raqqa, from Djamila Bouhired, from Palestinian Sana'a Mehaidli to Nadia Anjuman, we are ever grateful to the immortal warriors of the women’s liberation struggle. Their light rips through the darkness imposed on us; on the path that they have illuminated before us, we march towards freedom. Along with them, we commemorate all women, who have been murdered over the course of a 5,000-year-old patriarchal order, through all sorts of male violence, wars, state terror, colonialist occupations, religiously masked powers, men’s gangs, husbands, and so-called lovers. It is their memory that raises our unbreakable determination to put an end to femicide, which constitutes the longest war in the world.”

The path toward a more just future is being written today in the blood of the tens of thousands of martyrs of Kurdistan. Their sacrifice isn’t merely for their own homeland. It isn’t for the narrow interests of a country or a people. Their blood is being shed for the whole of humanity, and particularly for the women of this planet who hold up half the sky. They understand – as the world must come to – that only the dismantling of capitalism can liberate women and all of humankind.