The 20th century woman who helped inspire the contemporary Kurdish woman's struggle

by Elif Gun    


The formation of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), an all-woman battalion, is a revolutionary step forward for struggling women everywhere. The world has looked at awe as Kurdish woman have not only stood at the forefront of the battle against Islamic State (IS) but have inspired the Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen women of Syria to do the same.

Let it be known, however, that the YPJ builds on a tradition of women resistance that stretches back for millennia. The legacy of Kurdish struggling women has been growing since at least the early 20th century. These are the predecessors to the women at the forefront of defending Afrin from an assault by the Turkish State today, and they ought to be acknowledged.   

The Kocgiri Rebellion

This rebellion was the first of its kind, led by the Kocgiri Tribe Society for the Rise of Kurdistan and the Kizilbas Kocgiri tribe as a response to the overwhelming militarization by the state on the Kocgiri region, the leaders of the Kocgiri rebellion were pioneers of Kurdish resistance.

It was the year 1921, the Kocgiri rebellion with the Yazidi and Zaza Kurds from one hundred and thirty-five villages had just begun. The rebellion began within the same decade in which many women across the west were just winning their right to vote. As women in Britain, Finland, and Canada were at the forefront of the fight for woman’s suffrage, Kurdish women were leading a rebellion in the name of freedom. Zarife, a militant Kurdish woman with the desire to liberate her people, fought alongside her husband Aliser during the rebellion. In a society that still had entrenched patriarchal values, Zarife rose up and influenced many of her fellow Kurds to understand that both in rebellion and in peacetime, women and men ought to be treated as equals.

Zarife was born in 1882 and by the tender age of 24, she knew fluently how to read and write, an uncommon skill for most women during the early years of the 20th century. By 1918, she was already married to Aliser, a leading member of the Society for the rise of Kurdistan, who had been a member of a growing intellectual circuit of Kurdish nationalist writers.

The historical moment was explosive. The First World War had just concluded a few years prior, and an armistice was signed between the Ottomans and the allied powers. Istanbul was occupied by the victors of the allied forces of the war. President Woodrow Wilson of the United States expounded the concept of “the right to self-determination” in his famous 14 points. Kurds had been promised a state of their own with the colonial carve-up of the remnants of a dying Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, a former political officer named Mustafa Kemal (who would incidentally become the founder of the Turkish Republic), had organised the first Grand National Assembly of Turkey to resist the allied occupation and sought the hearts of Kurds to do so.

Never had there been a time when Kurdish self-determination would be so promising. In the six Ottoman provinces of Sivas, Bitlis, Van, Diyarbakir, Elazig, and Erzurum, intellectuals were talking about independent Armenian and Kurdish states. Some wanted to retain the Empire, others sought to resist.

The Kurds themselves had been divided. One camp supported Mustafa Kemal’s claimed efforts to re-establish the caliphate (he never had any intention to do so), while others (like those who would instigate the Kogciri rebellion) had decided to rise up instead. This camp, which included Zarife and Aliser, were members of the Istanbul based Kurdistan Taali Cemiyeti (Society for the Rise of Kurdistan).

The seat of Ottoman Government had changed to Ankara, and they wanted to re-establish their control. This is where Aliser and Zarife come in.

Haydar, the son of the Alevi-Kurdish Kocgiri tribal leader, helped mobilize Kurds to stand up to the Ottomans. He worked alongside Baytar Nuri, who would later be known as Nuri Dersimi. Aliser, who was a member of the influential trio, played his part by gathering Kurds in the Alevi Dervish lodge near Kangal, and declaring the armed struggle for Kurdish independence.

This at least is the story commonly told in conventional history. But there is a crucial part missing. it was his comrade and wife Zarife, who pushed for the rebellion to happen in the first place.   

As he once told a crowd in the aftermath of the rebellion:

“it was Zarife, who said get up, lets go, we have a long way to go, but may the end be a meeting of all of us in the middle of the Dersim precinct.”

In December 1920, an armed confrontation between Ankara and the Kurds took place after a local director of a post office was assassinated. The rebels who fought the army heroically, captured the villages and towns of Umraniye and Kemah, and arrested civil and military officers as they demanded immediate independence. Zarife carried her gun and fought too!

In 1921, martial law was declared. The commander of the Central Army, Nurreddin Pasha, sent a force of 3000 to quash the rebellion and promised to cleanse the villages of its instigators.  

As he put it: “In Turkey, we cleaned up people who speak “zo” (Armenians), I’m going to clean up people who speak “lo” (Kurds)”

Villages were “cleansed” in the very first day of the operation. Forests were burned, livestock was plundered. Like many rebellions, it ended in a tragedy. But women like Zarife also laid the groundwork for the struggle of Kurdish woman.

Even after the rebellion, the courage of Zarife became an attribute to strive for within the Kurdish movement. She was a woman who sought, not only to represent the emancipatory desires of Kurds, but to stand up for the women in our community. Zarife used to call her husband “Hevalim” which translates to friend or comrade, and she refused to be fashioned by the patriarchal diktat of that century, where women were treated and viewed as second class citizens.

Zarife was next to Aliser, wherever they would go.

She is the only woman to have ever sat and discussed the politics of Kurds with Seyid Riza, a Zaza political leader and religious figure who would eventually instigate the Dersim rebellion (1937-1938) against the state of Turkey.  

The struggle of women today

Illustratively, whereas patriarchy has pervaded in Kurdish society, and continues to oppress Kurdish women, it has often been malleable to the resistance of women, who have been at the forefront of placing themselves at the helm of the Kurdish liberation movement. And in this fight, men and women have equally contributed to the fight for freedom. For this Zarife paved the road.

Today’s female Kurdish fighters are the result of this historical movement and process. Kurdish woman have resisted patriarchy for just as long as many of their counterparts around the world.

Today, 97 years later, Kurdish women are more than ever involved in the struggle for Kurdish liberation. They are writing history as they build feminist democracy. From the all female Kurdish force (YPJ) battling to oust the Islamic state, to the female co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party in Rojava, Asya Abdullah, Kurdish women have become an example to the women of the world.

Women are now at the forefront of Kurdish politics, and are inspiring the revolutionary women of the world. In Rojava, they have staked their place in an egalitarian system which desires to increase women’s participation in all the levels of society, as well as political and public life.

As Asya Abdullah once put it at the Rojava New World Embassy in Oslo, “the hallmark of a free and democratic life is a free woman.” It is no lie that they inevitably represent the power women have, all around the world.