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“The resistance of the Kurdish people has broken the fear of Islamic State”

Meral Cicek
Meral Çiçek, president of the Kurdish Centre for Women's Affairs, in Erbil, has visited the UAB at the invitation of the Research Group on Geography and Gender. She spoke about Kurdistan's democratic confederalism and about women's role in that project and in the fight against Islamic State.


Women are taking the lead in organising an autonomous Kurdish region in Rojava in the north of Syria, with its own political project based on democratic confederalism, and also in the Kurdish forces' fight against Islamic State. Meral Çiçek, president of the Kurdish Centre for Women's Affairs, based in Erbil (Iraqui Kurdistan), gave a lecture on this topic at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts on 17 July. The event formed part of the project entitled "Escampant la llavor: revolució feminista kurda i epistemologies radicals" (Spreading the Seed: the Kurdish feminist revolution and radical epistemologies), financed by the Antipode Foundation and coordinated by Maria Rodó-de-Zárate, researcher of the UAB Geography and Gender Research Group. The project received the Scholar-Activist Project Award 2015.

What does democratic confederalism consist of?

Kurdistan is divided into four parts: Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Kurds' struggle for national liberation began with the aim of uniting these parts into a single independent state. With the fall of the Soviet Union, a debate arose within the movement about the failure of real socialism and about the nature of the state itself, leading to the conclusion that the state cannot be the way to freedom for the Kurdish people, not only for practical reasons but also for ideological ones. An alternative model was therefore developed, named democratic confederalism: open mechanisms for society to organise itself in democratic, plural and peaceful coexistence. It would depend on democratic autonomy in each part of Kurdistan and is both a political and a social system, a kind of communalist self-organisation. It seeks to transcend concepts like nationalism and create a new democratic system for the people, not for states. In Rojava it is having quite a lot of success and people are accepting it.

How much attention is paid to gender equality in this project?

Democratic confederalism has three main principles: democracy, ecology and gender liberation. For us the gender issue is the most important social conflict. If you really want to establish a democratic society you have to start with the gender issue. A revolution that does not have at its core a feminist revolution is not a real one.

What equality policies are being implemented?

I can talk about Rojava (Syria) and northern Kurdistan (Turkey), where the Kurdish liberation movement is most integrated in society. In the north, in the Turkish part, we have over a hundred municipalities. And in each of these there are "co-mayors": one man and one woman. Half the town councillors must be women. And there are also very strict rules against violence. If a man exerts physical or psychological violence against his wife he could lose his job and his salary could be paid to his wife. Rojava has a similar system: a quota of 40% on ruling bodies and a system of co-presidencies. In each canton there are two presidents, one man and one woman. There is also a mix of different political and social backgrounds. In the canton of Jazira, for example, the female co-president is an ex-guerrilla fighter and the male co-president is the Sheikh of a great Arab tribe.

Is women's status similar across the different territories of Kurdistan?

Not at all. The truth is that in one part of Kurdistan they are very free while in another they are slaves. It all depends on the intensity of the struggle in each place. In the north, in Turkey, as the struggle began very early on, women's status has changed a lot. It's the same in Rojava, where there is a feminist revolution. In the south of Kurdistan there are many women's organisations but there has never been a social revolution of any kind so the social status of women is not so well developed.

What are the effects of the fight against Islamic State (IS) on the Kurdish national movement?

It's a new experience because up to now we have been fighting against the states that are occupying Kurdistan. These types of forces that use Islam as a mask don't act only in their own interests: we need to see them in the wider context of the Middle East, especially in the last 15 years. IS is not just an organisation, a gang of bandits: it stands for something. They are waging a systematic war on women: for IS the only reason for women's existence is to satisfy men's sexual needs. The world vision they represent is the complete opposite of what we are trying to do in Kurdistan. This is no local battle but a confrontation between two ways of seeing the world.

It seems to be a very dirty war. We wonder who could be behind IS, what Turkey's role is...

IS clearly gets support from Turkey. IS is fighting for its own interests but also for those of many other local forces, one of which is Turkey, which rejects the revolution in Rojava and is doing all it can to prevent it. This policy is terrible even for Turkey itself, as they don't realise the great danger they are putting their own people in: we know there are a large number of IS terrorists inside Turkish territory. This is, without doubt, a dirty war. The methods used by IS belong to the Middle Ages. They are barbaric. But the resistance of the Kurdish people, especially women, has broken the fear that they are trying to spread across the region. For this reason, our struggle in Rojava is also very important ideologically.

With this conflict, do you think the Western vision of the Kurdish movement could be changing?

There is a new atmosphere and new discussions about the criminalisation of the Kurdish movement, about its legitimacy. The possibility of removing the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) from the list of terrorist organisations [compiled by the European Union and the United States] has been raised. Many states, like Spain, for example, exalt any resistance to IS and yet imprison people who are fighting IS. They offer military support but they also see that the Kurdish movement is a political and ideological struggle for an alternative system. The broader-scale political interests of the Kurdish movement and those of states like Spain are not the same. So this is also a conflict between short-term interests and long-term interests. The international community must rethink its attitude. The growth of fundamentalist forces in the Middle East can also be seen as a result of the policy of criminalising progressive forces, not only the Kurdish movement.

More information: Geography and Gender Research Group