Violence. Discrimination. Sexual harassment, violent control over women's sexual behavior and murder. All words that come to my mind after my most recent visit to northern Iraq. Learning about violence against women in some of the more volatile regions of the world is an extraordinarily experience. Extraordinary in the sense that it is extraordinarily painful. As a woman, it is no easy task to listen to the suggestion that women are second-class citizens or to know that the rights of women are undermined, abused or just simply non-existent. Nor is it easy to hear tales of fathers shooting their daughters, just because she wanted a boyfriend. The killing of a woman or a girl and in rare cases a boy, is justified in the name of restoring family honor in northern Iraq as well as other parts of the Middle East and south Asia. Family honor can be destroyed by a woman engaging in sexual activity with a man who is not her husband or maybe for something as simple as being seen talking to a man on the street, according to traditional Kurdish beliefs. Beyond honor killings, women face blatant discrimination and violence from men, all of which have come to be justified under the banner of 'culture.'
Yet, not everyone in the region agrees that such levels of violence and harassment of women are acceptable. In a small café in the center of Erbil I met with Osman Ocalan, a founding guerrilla leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK and brother of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK. Apart from rejecting Islam and other Kurdish cultural codes such as honor killings, the PKK has criticized the low status of women in Kurdistan.
The PKK emerged as a socialist movement in 1974 and aims to establish an independent Kurdistan through revolution. Part of that transformation includes reforming the violent attitudes towards women in Kurdistan.
After asking what led the PKK to reject Kurdish discriminatory attitudes towards women, Osman leans back in his chair and calmly narrates the story of how women's rights became embedded in their Kurdish liberation movement. His brother wanted to help the most helpless in society he told me, which has usually been women who have been shamed. His brother has been imprisoned since 1999 in Turkey, which considers the PKK a terrorist faction. Women who have been shamed are usually women who have engaged in sexual activity with a man who is not their husband or in certain cases, women who have been raped.
In line with their socialist principles Ocalan tells me the PKK sees women as the class who should be freed. Their attitudes were very much shaped by their mother who was a strong authority in their lives and influenced most of what they came to know about the world. They learned respect for women, through her. However, their sister was later married off against her will which Ocalan recalled deeply hurt his brother Abdullah. It was these two factors that led both of them to speak out for women.
'My brother understood that taking away women's sexual rights is violence,' said Ocalan. Violence it is.
He recounts a story of when their younger brother was planning to get married and was questioning whether his potential wife had honor. Abdullah told his younger brother that all women have honor and if anybody doesn't have honor it is him. Challenging traditional Kurdish cultural codes that link a woman's sexuality to her honor has been a central tenet of the PKK according to Ocalan.
The PKK have also rejected honor killings. 'The first women who became involved with the PKK were women who had been sexually assaulted and would have been killed by their families,' Ocalan said. When they joined the PKK they were respected. The PKK has created all female guerrilla units, a process in which Ocalan was largely involved.
The PKK now has one of the largest amounts of female militants in the world. A stark contrast to many of the other insurgent movements in the region.
With the entrance of ISIS to the region I asked him about his views on ISIS and women, Ocalan responded, 'ISIS is Islam. This is how Islam sees women. They have enslaved women and are now using women as sexual objects. This is how Islam has always been. It is completely unacceptable.'
My meeting with Osman Ocalan was for me, truly revolutionary. In the midst of this tremendous violence facing women not just in Iraqi Kurdistan but throughout the world, there are men who choose not to conform to the discriminatory attitudes that promote the rights of men and limit those of women. There are men that would instead stand up against their culture and fight for a new one that is fairer and freer for everyone, not just for one half of the population. Change can always be fought for and there is no excuse for a single member of the global population, male or female, to not be part of the resistance movement against the violent attitudes towards women that are so prevalent around the world. What Osman and his brother have attempted to do in the PKK is an example of that.
'Women must free themselves to be free,' says Ocalan at the end of our interview.