At the summit of a damp mountain road in northern Iraq, two teenagers in oversized army fatigues are standing by a checkpoint. They are members of the Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which controls the 50 square kilometers beyond the checkpoint to the south and west of the Iranian border. Getting around has become significantly more difficult for them in the past few months, and airstrikes have grown in frequency since October 2011, when an attack by the PKK in Turkey killed 25 soldiers.
My guides are three locals who know how to dodge the government patrols that would send me back to the nearby Iraqi city of Irbil. As the Jeep they're ferrying me around in draws closer to the checkpoint, the teens are visibly annoyed at having to step out of their shelter, but after peeking around the car for a while and speaking to someone at the other end of a crackling walkie-talkie, they wave us up along the road. At the end of it there's a small house with a thatched roof, where I find Ronahi Serhat, one of the PKK's many female soldiers.
If there is such a thing as a stereotypical guerrilla, Serhat's not it. She's 40 now, and looks like she was once very beautiful. She joined the PKK as a student in the late 1980s and has spent most of her time since then up here in the Qandil Mountains. “I have been in the struggle for the last 20 years,” is the first thing she says. “I don’t know how time passed so quickly.” I had read about the PKK’s all-female units before and wondered what might lead young women like Serhat to run off to the mountains and pick up a gun. The women of the PKK are by no means shielded from the fighting—just weeks after Serhat and I met, Turkish forces killed 15 female PKK fighters in clashes in the province of Bitlis, over the border in southeast Turkey.
Not everyone appreciates the PKK's quest for freedom The impoverished southeast is home to the majority of Turkey's Kurdish population. It is also where Serhat grew up, at a time of great political instability. Following a military coup in 1980, leftist and Kurdish groups were routinely dismantled and their members locked up. She tells me about a raid on her family’s home when she was a child, during which she hid two cassette tapes with Kurdish music up a tree for fear they would lead to her arrest. “After the coup, people were being killed, arrested and tortured," she explains. "We were not allowed to speak our own language. All of these things had an effect on me." A few years after the coup, in the face of severe repression at the hands of Kenan Evran's regime, the PKK took up arms against Turkey to fight for an independent Kurdish state in the southeast. It was around this time that Serhat joined up. “I went to university. It's a place where you meet people with different political ideas, and I suppose I became enlightened.”
Serhat, myself, a "foreign affairs" spokesman for the PKK named Roj, and a few other fighters sit down for lunch: a feast of tuna, soup, and fresh fruit washed down with cans of 7 Up. They're very welcoming, but it quickly becomes clear that getting Serhat to speak candidly is going to be difficult. She sits on the PKK's 31-member executive council and, like most members, is fiercely loyal to their leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999. During our conversation, she credits him and the PKK with everything from improving women's rights to presiding over a kind of enlightenment for Kurdish society. Her speech is delivered in long, well-rehearsed monologues, full of references to Öcalan's writings and ideas, which he still publishes from his cell.
“We want to find a democratic solution to 'the Kurdish question',” she says, "but Öcalan’s release from a Turkish prison must be part of that solution." She tells me that it was Öcalan’s analysis of the problems faced by Kurdish women that led her to the group in the first place. “It was like nothing I had ever read before,” she enthuses. The PKK’s purported feminist ideals have been an effective recruitment tool through the years. The group strictly forbids relationships between fighters, which helps ensure discipline among the ranks and allows conservative Kurdish fathers to send their daughters off to the mountains, confident in the knowledge that their dignity will remain intact.
“When people join the PKK, one of the first things they learn is how to respect women,” she says. “Before, women had very low status within Kurdish society. But this has changed through the struggle.” As for the group’s effect on Kurdish society? “Sometimes the men make a joke about it,” she laughs. “They say: ‘We can’t do anything to you, because the PKK is behind you.’” Sitting alongside us in this small house (next to a heater, very wisely), are a teenage boy and, with him, a girl who seems to be younger than Serhat was when she joined the PKK. I wondered whether it was Öcalan's feminist writings that had persuaded her to take up arms, too, but that seemed unlikely. Things have improved for Kurds to a small degree since the PKK was founded, but Kurdish broadcasting and political activity is still restricted, and in November, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish police of: “casting the net ever-wider in the crackdown on legal pro-Kurdish politics.” Huge demonstrations calling for Kurdish rights are a regular occurrence.
As it begins to get dark, the three fighters set off on their return journey back up to the mountains. Before they go, Serhat gives me a book of Öcalan’s prison writings as a gift. There are chapters on “the institutionalization and expansion of feudal civilization” and “the expansion and maturation of slavery,” but not one on women's rights. Nevertheless, young girls are still taking to the mountains to join the PKK, and are likely to do so for as long as the situation in southeast Turkey remains the same.
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