Suna Erdem in London -
So, what about those Kurdish women fighters, then? Tougher than the Iraqi army that fled the IS advance, that’s for sure. Dressed in their pink bunny socks and recounting tales of filling IS militants with bullets, the women who spoke to London’s The Times this week were beyond cool. Three years after coming to prominence fighting in Iraq and Syria, these battle-hardened vets are making a big impression on the battlefield and in the media.
Across the border in Turkey, Kurdish women, who have long swelled the ranks of the separatist guerrillas of the PKK, have been making another kind of stand. One bright spot in the miserable, going-nowhere coalition talks in Ankara was the presence of Figen Yuksekdag, joint leader with Selahattin Demirtas of the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) – a pro-Kurdish party with wider, social democrat aspirations. Interestingly, she’s not even an ethnic Kurd, but the leftwing daughter of Turkish nationalists. That’s beside the point – in a country with hardly any senior women politicians, she’s at the top table of a party that’s largely from the conservative southeast.
HDP astounded many by overcoming Turkey’s prohibitive 10% national barrier and getting into parliament at all. With its high-profile women MPs and women’s rights and equality agenda, it is swiftly showing that it can bring something different to the country’s politics.
In late June the quiet actions of another HDP woman, Dilek Ocalan, demonstrated how Turkey and the Kurdish movement have grown closer together. The niece of imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, she was sworn in as one of the party’s 32 women MPs (out of a total of 80). It’s almost unthinkable that this took place at all, let alone happened with no cat-calling or protests. Not long ago, just using the respectful term “Mr Ocalan” for her uncle, who was not spoken of unless referred to as “baby murderer” or “chief terrorist”, was seen as a criminal offence. Now that he’s been involved in peace talks with the government from his island prison, his niece is left alone to serve.
Equally astounding was the swearing in of Ms Ocalan’s colleague, Leyla Zana. In 1991, Zana caused uproar for ending her parliamentary oath with the Kurdish words “I swear this oath in the name of the brotherhood of Turkish and Kurdish peoples”. Three years later she was thrown out of parliament and imprisoned for links to Kurdish separatists – a judgement that was overturned a decade later by the European Court of Human Rights. She has won the European Union’s Sakharov prize for her struggles. Here she is now, back in the house, to little protest.
Ms Ocalan’s family apparently didn’t want her in politics, but she firmly took her place on the ballot. Yuksekdag ran away from home to become a leftist activist, to the dismay of her rightwing family. She couldn’t even finish school and didn’t speak to her father for seven years. The Kurdish movement also boasts among its number Gulten Kisanak, the mayor of the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir. She survived imprisonment after the 1980 coup in Diyarbakir jail, which was notorious for barbaric treatment of inmates, including sexual abuse, and was tortured for refusing to renounce her Kurdish identity. It’s too early to say what kind of policies these women favour, but clearly, they’re no pushovers.
Their leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is on a roll. Together with Yuksekdag, he has met Justice and Development Party (AK) leader and outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has the mandate to form a government. Since it owes much of its support to anti-government protest votes, HDP is reticent about joining the incumbents in coalition. But its tone has softened recently as Demirtas begins the task of trying to help revive AK’s much-vaunted, then all but abandoned Kurdish peace plan – one that is strongly opposed by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and viewed with ambivalence by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the other two parties in parliament. Ahead of the meeting with Davutoglu, Demirtas called for Turkey’s Kurdish guerrillas to respect a ceasefire with government troops and lay down their arms, one of AK’s preconditions for peace. This is perhaps a sign that they might work with AK in some form.
The HDP’s new legitimacy is lent further weight by the sanguine way in which Iraqi Kurds have managed their northern Iraqi enclave and the bravery of Kurdish fighters as really the only effective force opposing IS. These days, the Kurds are the much-admired new boys and girls on the regional block.
As HDP march towards the mainstream, however, the euphoria is bound to wane. The pro-Western liberals who applauded its ascent might be less enamoured with their redistributive economic plans, which even party activists say are likely to worry investors. The realities of parliamentary horsetrading will take the shine off the Cinderellas of Turkey’s politics.
At this juncture, HDP leaders, including all its powerful women, would do well to study the fate of President Tayyip Erdogan, whose party went into power as an unknown upstart and was loved for its anti-establishment behavior. It was when Erdogan decided he would prefer the comforts of “becoming one of them” and swapped unusually good governance for the authoritarian mantle of Turkey’s traditional strongmen rulers that he began to lose favour.
In Turkey, where voters have long tired of what the usual suspects have to offer, hardheaded competence, together with preserving that little bit of difference, could be what keeps the dream alive for newcomers, even as they face the inevitable disappointments of parliamentary politics. In both departments, HDP could do worse than look to its ranks of bolshie women for inspiration.
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