Democratic Confederalism and Feminism


Democratic Confederalism aims to overthrow male domination, because it rejects all forms of domination and demands communal life. As such, Democratic Confederalism is a women’s system. It is the first step for the liberation of women.

In this chapter we would like to present several projects that attempt to implement the liberation of gender, one of the pillars of Democratic Confederalism. We interviewed female members of a BDP-led municipal government, a cooperative laundry, a women’s association, a women’s support center, and a women’s academy; we talked about their goals, conditions, difficulties, and practices.

Although there are autonomous women’s institutions in every area of work and life, the liberation of gender is not considered the exclusive task of  he women’s movement. Gender liberation is also much discussed by members of ecology groups, economic projects, the academies, and the councils. For gender liberation is considered a key value in social reconstruction; the extent to which it is achieved is the extent to which the liberatory principles of Democratic Confederalism are put into practice. So movement activists scrutinize family structures and conduct campaigns against sexual violence.

Gender liberation entails a transformation of traditional gender roles for both sexes and comprises a new orientation in all social areas, and consequently intersects with other aspects of liberation work. The radical women’s movement and its BDP representatives in the municipal government are at the forefront of the work on gender liberation—they called to life most of the projects we present, and the autonomous women’s institutions network with them. So we will begin with a short account of the Free Democratic Women’s Movement.

The Free Democratic Women’s Movement

The Free Democratic Women’s Movement, DÖKH, was founded in 2003 by hundreds of kurdish women activists, to bring together women from different social, cultural, and political backgrounds and to become an umbrella organization to fight gender inequality, racism, nationalism, militarism, sexism, environmental destruction, and economic exploitation.

Whenever men make decisions for women and go over their heads, they ignore the will of the women. That’s the mentality of the state.

The DÖKH attempts to strengthen the will of women to struggle against a male-dominated system and build their own more humane system, one in which women can demand their rights and their freedom.

Democratic Confederalism means that the society is organized by women, that the society’s mentality is changed, and that taboos are broken.

The founding of the women’s councils was an important step toward self-empowerment. Convinced that democracy, ecology, and gender liberation represent the solution to the problems of humanity, the DÖKH struggles for gender liberation and is organized in all social strata, in order to achieve both equality and liberty.

The popular council took this declaration of women’s will and incorporated it into a convention with the municipal government. So now, for example, in cases of domestic violence, the council imposes sanctions on the violent husband. This convention exists because of the women’s councils and is valid in every Kurdish city and town where the BDP holds power. As in this example, the struggle for the liberation of gender is effecting tangible changes in people’s lives.

Communal Projects for Women in Sûr

Sûr is the oldest and poorest neighborhood in Amed. It lies within the old city wall and is crisscrossed by small, incomprehensible alleys. The BDP has been in power here since 1999. The district’s mayor, Abdullah Demirbas, has been in office since 2004.

Sûr has severe social problems. Many immigrants live here — people whose villages were destroyed, forcing them to resettle. Poverty, unemployment, drug dependency, violence against women, rape, and prostitution are widespread. Since the 2009 municipal elections, the Sûr government has had a women’s department—no such thing existed previously. The BDP has pledged, regardless of whether a male or female holds the mayoralty, to maintain that department.

Gülbahar Örnek is responsible for the women’s projects in the districts. Three women’s centers have been opened, to support women in difficult circumstances. Here is our interview with Gülbahar Örnek:

How did your work begin?

We spent the first six months going to the women in the neighborhoods of Sûr and asking them what their needs were: “What would you do if you were mayor?” We developed our projects to conform to their answers. We established art centers and art studios, offering courses in jewelry making and handicrafts, as well as Kurdish-language courses. After a year we noticed how successful these women were and what good products they made. We made contact with sales outlets and went to various stores and said, “There are women who make pickles—you could sell them. There are women in our neighborhood who make jewelry—you could sell it. They do very good work, including custom manufacturing for individual tastes.” This project was very important, because it was a way to fight poverty, and to allow women to earn their own income. The number of women who participated grew. They formed groups of about twenty, according to their individual abilities. One group pickled cucumbers, the others produced jewelry or henna. Then they made further sales at wedding halls. Finally one friend from Istanbul suggested an agency to bring together employers and women seeking work.

How many women found work that way?

The project of producing goods, and our office, began a year ago. Initially we put a lot of effort into getting women out of their homes, to become active, and to organize their time differently.

The first Office for Equality was in Bursa [in Northwestern Turkey]. “Equality” as practiced meant equality of different religious groups and ethnicities—Kurds, Turks, Armenians, and Assyrians. But for us the equality of women was also important. So when we set up the office here in Sûr, we expanded the Bursa project. It’s the first office of this kind in Turkey. The Interior Ministry will probably refuse to recognize it and blame the Sûr government for setting it up in the first place—which tells you something about our problems.

 What does that official recognition depend on?

 The ministry has to approve the office. Since Sûr established it without prior agreement or approval, the ministry might even remove Mayor Abdullah Demirbas from office. They did that to him once before, after which the city had to hold new elections.

Does this Office for Equality apply only to Sûr?

Yes, in Sûr most people live in great poverty. The neighborhoods of Diclekent and Kayapinar have a middle class—people there are doing better financially and can afford to hire a nanny or a house cleaner. So the Office of Equality facilitates contact between people. Now 150 women from Sûr have found employment in Diclekent or Kayapinar. Previously only five or six worked there.

Do women who clean houses or care for children receive a minimum wage? Who decides how much they are paid? How can you be sure that a third-party employment agency doesn’t exploit them?

The employment agency determined the wage. But we only find the jobs for the women—they have to negotiate the wage themselves. They have the right to say, “That’s not enough pay, I don’t want this job, find me another one.”

What other projects are under way?

Well, we had a project where women once a month went to the theater or a movie, or eat out, or take a day off. They really didn’t have to do anything—our goal was actually just to get them outside the house. Then they developed their own preferences. They decided which weekday they wanted to have free, and when they wanted to work. That created an atmosphere in which their work gained value. When we organized seminars on hygiene, on the history of women, and on workers’ rights, women attended them all and stayed to the end. At the beginning our goal was to protect them from violence—when they became more independent financially, they’d be better able to resist domestic violence. But we also tried to perpetuate certain traditions: for example, in Kurdistan women customarily get together once a week to make pasta for a family. While they cook, they talk about problems in the neighborhood, such as whether someone is sick, or needs help. And now they discuss each week what issues to bring to the attention of the mayor.

Are these discussions moderated? Does someone decide on the topics, or are soap operas and makeup also discussed?

The pasta making isn’t a political discussion—it’s an old Kurdish tradition that at some point was lost and that we wanted to revive. Insofar as the conversations have a leader, traditionally the oldest in the group handles it. But no one says, “Today we will talk about this topic.” Instead they say, “Have you heard? X is sick.” They talk about social problems, but there’s no agenda. We wanted with this project to preserve a certain culture and to keep a tradition alive, so that people could mutually aid each other and develop a collectivity.

Has the Call for Democratic Autonomy had any effect on the women’s’ projects?

The women who join these projects without previous political experience have to be taught what Democratic Autonomy is. So we’re organizing seminars to explain it to them. Our projects are tied to Democratic Autonomy, are connected to it, so the support is a two-way street. But let it not be said that every women on the street really understands what Democratic Autonomy is.




Female Activists and Their Families

When we interviewed members of the Amed Women’s Academy, we asked them how much their families supported them as activist.

You’ve said the women’s movement is a large family. Do women activists have to break with their own families, or do the families accept them and their work?

Many of us come from families that are closely tied to the Kurdish freedom movement, patriotic families. Mostly they respect our work. Frankly, we’re in a state of war and grew up in the resistance. A large part of the society is politicized. So many people are open-minded about women organizing, at least to a certain extent. I  earned from my mother how to behave at a meeting and how to organize people.

For our part, we like the family as an institution about as much as we like the state. The state creates things in its own likeness, and the traditional family is one of them. The state reproduces its hierarchical structure in the family. That’s true for both traditional and modern families. The family of our aspirations, by contrast, is one that’s open to a democratization process. We’re not talking about democratic families, because right now that would raise expectations too high.

Kurdish families aren’t yet really open to the new system, Democratic Autonomy. They haven’t yet internalized it. We, the activists, have very much internalized it, and it’s our responsibility to make change, to impart ideas of Democratic Autonomy to families, even if it’s only in small steps. We can start talking about it at home the way we do outside. When our families see how seriously we take it, that will affect them. Of course, discussions are often very difficult. Doors get slammed, people shout. But a lot of perseverance and discussion has also begun to create change in families.

But to get back to your question: we’re not for severing all ties with the family. We’re for bringing families into this process and then bringing the process to fruition along with them. Separating oneself from the family is tantamount to ending all one’s relationships, to alienating oneself even from oneself. So as we construct democracy, we need to bring our families along.

What happens with women who are free and self-reliant but also want to have children? In Germany that’s an important subject—how to reconcile work and family.

We don’t consider family and work to be all that much in contradiction. Here women who are married and have children are also active. But some movement women dedicate themselves to the political struggle and choose not to create a family. They don’t get married, they don’t have children, because they regard the family as a reflection of the state and the present system, while we want to build a new, alternative society.

What about women who have children and want to become active? And women who are active now but would like to have children? Are they demanding more public child care?

 A woman wanted to attend a class we were offering, but she had a child for whom she could not find care on weekends. So she thought she couldn’t take the class. We told her to bring the child along. So for two days before the class, we organized child care, so that it wouldn’t be an problem. We also had a kindergarten attached to Selis Women’s Counseling Center, where the women could leave their children during the daytime.11 It’s about to close, so we’re organizing another one.

 Women who want to become active aren’t required to leave their families and children behind, or to stay childless. There’s also no law that forbids us to have relationships with men. I have a relationship with a man and nonetheless work in the women’s movement. I’m trying to conduct my relationship free of traditional gender relations. We reject the position of women in the ruling patriarchal social order. If we’re going to change society, then of course men and children have to be involved.

Editorial Comment

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