Since its establishment, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has included a small number of female militants. Over time, however, this number has increased significantly. By the early 1990s, 30 percent of its 17,000 armed militants were women (Cumhuriyet, June 17, 1993). The PKK’s increased use of female militants is a concerning development since women provide great potential for both propaganda and recruitment, and they often have better access to certain soft targets.
According to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s Marxist ideology has significantly influenced the group’s view of women. The organization views women on the principles of “gender equality.” Nevertheless, it had difficulty in practicing this approach due to social realities. The aspects of the modern world—such as loyalty to the party and gender equality—had no meaning in feudal Kurdish society . People did not find it meaningful to join an illegal organization, commit crimes and change the social order. Instead, they preferred the security provided by their tribes and families. For those reasons, the organization was unable to recruit an adequate number of militants in its early stages between 1973 and 1990. Abdullah Ocalan, who wanted to overcome this dilemma, saw Kurdish families and tribes as the primary obstacles that hampered PKK recruitment. He recognized that feudal family and tribal structure had to be dissolved and disbanded in order to recruit new members. While one way to accomplish this was to force the evacuation of villages, the other was to change the social status of women, who were at the bottom of the tribal hierarchy. Through this practice, the traditional tribe and family system dispersed and adherence and loyalty of individuals to those structures ended. As the party substituted the tribe, Ocalan, as the leader of the party, replaced the tribal leaders.
Even though the Turkish Civil Code has accepted men and women as equals since 1926, it was not possible to accomplish this ideal in practice for the Kurds of Turkey. Generally, the status of women differed in three ways among the Kurds. First, women were recruited from rural areas where tribal structure and a male-dominant oppressive environment that considered women as second-class citizens were present. Second, recruitment was made from the women taking part in modern life who migrated to western Turkish cities, which they did to change their social status and free themselves from oppression in the name of religion and tradition. Finally, the third group included women from families that migrated to several European countries after 1960 as guest workers. Eventually, the PKK increased its number of members through the recruitment of women from different social structures and environments.
In the PKK’s early stages, it recruited young women by kidnapping them. In doing so, the PKK forced families whose children were already a member of the organization to cooperate and thus turned them into accomplices, creating both a myth and sensation of curiosity based on the idea that women in the organization were “free.” As a result, an increasing number of women joined the group.
Even though it differs according to their social environment, women have joined the PKK for two primary reasons. First, family-related reasons play a significant role. Second, systematic, organized propaganda efforts that target women encourage their participation. Participation due to family reasons is based on a few factors. Some families encourage their daughters to join the organization to avenge family members who were killed in clashes with Turkish authorities, or just to maintain the social status granted by aiding the organization. For example, Makbule Esen, who grew up in a small town and joined the organization, points out these factors in her self-criticism report in the First Women’s Congress of the PKK . On the other hand, some of the women who joined the organization aimed to avoid family repression—especially women from rural areas who were forced to marry older men and become their third or fourth wives at the age of 13-14—while others wanted to avoid forced work in the fields and the obligation of giving birth to a large number of children. These women saw the PKK as an organization that would offer them “freedom.”
On the other hand, it is also observed that women who live in the cities and study at universities join the PKK because they are attracted to the organization’s propaganda activities. Kin networks, publications, television and the internet rouse curiosity and play a key role in recruiting. The chance for a guerrilla romance, the excitement of youth and young women questioning and criticizing authority serve as factors for those who join the organization. Additionally, poor living conditions in suburban big cities have also led women to join the PKK.
Kurds from Turkey live in several European cities as immigrant workers. The PKK, embedded in various associations, continues its propaganda toward women in Europe. Young women living in these countries, alien to the culture and yearning for their homeland, join the organization as active members. While some of the women maintain organizational activities in Europe, some are sent back to Turkey and participate in armed branches of the organization.
Women assume two different roles in the PKK. Some of them take part in military activities, while others work for its various front organizations. Primarily, the younger women are charged with military duties, whereas the others are charged with front organization duties. In the early stages of the PKK, female militants carried out military operations together with male operatives, but as their numbers and incidents of sexual harassment increased, some changes have been made. Although sexual harassment incidents were punished severely at first, in time women and men were just separated from each other . Some women in these groups wanted to prove themselves as being more aggressive and ambitious than men, such that after 1995 women have been chosen as suicide bombers among PKK ranks and have committed terrorist attacks. Women in the front organizations, however, deal with propaganda, media, street demonstrations, logistics support and intelligence activities. The PKK still has 4,500-5,000 militants, and approximately 1,100 of this total are comprised of women (The Guardian, August 20).
Over time, the PKK has successfully recruited a large number of women into its ranks. It owes this success to analyzing Kurdish social structure effectively and developing suitable strategies. Many young women have joined the organization due to the failure of political leaders to provide necessary responses to rapidly changing socio-economic conditions. In sum, the higher number of women militia in the PKK increases the security concerns of the Turkish government. This situation makes propaganda more effective and the participation of militias in the PKK easier.
1. Lale Yalçın-Heckmann, Kürtlerde Aşiret ve Akrabalık İlişkileri (Tribal and Kinship Relations of Kurds), Istanbul, Iletisim, 2002.
2. Yajk, I. Ulusal Kadın Kongresine Sunulan Faaliyet Raporları ve Mesajları (Activity Reports and Messages Delivered in the First Women Congress), Northern Iraq, 1995. Yajk, I. Ulusal Kadın Kongresine Sunulan Bireysel Özeleştiri Raporları (Individual Self-Critics Reports Delivered in the First Women Congress), Northern Iraq, 1995.
3. Şemdin Sakık, Apo, Sark Yayınları, Diyarbakır, 2005. Selim Çürükkaya, Aponun Ayetleri: Beyrut Günlüğü (Apo’s Verses: Beirut Dairy), Istanbul, Doz, 2005. PKK 5. Kongresine Sunulan Eyalet Çalışma Raporları (Provincial Working Reports Submitted to PKK’s 5th Congress), Vol. 1, Damascus, 1995.