In northern Iraq, which is predominantly Kurdish, polygamy and the oppression of women are widely condoned. Kurdish women in Turkey and the militant rebels of the PKK, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, are now fighting to change this.
For women in the region, having the support of the PKK is one of their few possibilities of gaining rights and recognition. In some instances, the party is actually the last refuge for a woman in danger of falling victim to an honor killing.
For decades, PKK rebels have been attacking Turkish targets from bases in northern Iraq. The PKK originated as a communist murder and terror movement, subsequently pursued the aim of a separate state. Many countries and international organizations – including the EU, the US, the UN and NATO – list the PKK as a terrorist organization. Now, though, the PKK is trying to promote an image of itself as being "democratic" and "federalist."
In spite of these changes in direction, one aspect has remained constant: the PKK’s ability to attract women. The organization has always fought for the abolition of patriarchal thinking (except where it concerns the patriarchalism of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan); their fighters have to attend courses with titles such as "kill the man in you". There are many female fighters in the PKK.
Less visible, and far more effective, though, is this: in south-eastern Turkey, spokesmen from the PKK are often a woman's last hope when she’s trying to escape an honor killing or a forced marriage. Some local community functionaries who are known to have connections to "the mountains" will go to the woman’s family and attempt to find a solution. In those situations they save lives. Elsewhere, terror attacks carried out by the PKK end lives.
This friendliness towards women is the best the PKK has to offer in a society which in many ways still operates along medieval lines. The effectiveness of this strategy is rarely fully appreciated.
In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where honor killings, forced or desperate suicides by women and forced marriages are much more widespread than they are in the Kurdish region of Turkey, feminism is a powerful weapon – and recruiting tool – that the PKK can and has made use of. It is entrenched in the mountains, while elsewhere in the country, traditional tribal society rules.
Under pressure from the Turkish army, which is being fed with secret service information about PKK targets by the US, and dependent on the acquiescence of the Kurdish leadership of northern Iraq, the PKK has its back to the wall. A feminist offensive in northern Iraq might help it strengthen its base among the local population.