Babes in Kurdland

There were moments during my trip into the Qandil mountains of northeastern Iraq when it felt as if all the other passengers stuffed into the Land Cruiser with me—some dozen Kurdish guerillas and activists—were sitting in my lap. Not that I was complaining. This was the summer of 2004, and I figured it was cooler and safer here in Kurdistan than in Baghdad. Besides, the cozy seating arrangement kept me hidden from the prying eyes of checkpoint guards as I headed to the training camps and bases of a coalition of groups best known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Since its founding in 1978, the PKK has waged an on-again, off again insurrection against the Turkish state. Kurds are an ethnic minority in all four of the nations in which most Kurdish people live—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—concentrated near the mountainous border regions that constitute a kind of Middle Eastern Four Corners. There is a myth that Kurds are the descendants of children hidden in the mountains to escape the ravages of a man-eating giant. The reality is equally bloody: Kurds have often been on the losing side of seemingly never-ending struggles with their larger and more powerful neighbors. Though the best-known conflict is Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey has long been heavy-handed in its suppression of the basic political rights and cultural identity of Kurds living there. By the 1990s the war between Turkey and the PKK became almost Central American in its catalogue of atrocities committed against civilians by both sides.

But I had heard something intriguing about the PKK, namely, that about half of their soldiers are women. Gender equality would be unusual in most First World military forces, and it is all the more so in a region where the right to a driver’s license, let alone the right to vote, is not universal. I had also heard that a radical Kurdish group associated with the PKK ran a reeducation camp devoted to teaching men how to be less sexist toward women. That would no doubt be a difficult task in any society, and it was certainly worth checking out here in the feudal hinterlands of Kurdistan.

Doing so, however, required a certain amount of subtlety. American faces are more than welcome in most of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. But the PKK’s penchant for bombing tourist destinations in western Turkey had earned it a place on American terrorist watch lists, and had earned Turkey the assistance of the CIA, which is thought to have been involved in the 1999 arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Remnants of the PKK, some 5,000 fighters, remain active on their front lines in Turkey, but they also maintain training camps in Iraq near the Iranian border. This is to the annoyance of Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, who have largely governed themselves since the Gulf War under the protection of Turkey’s ally, the United States.

The Land Cruiser ran straight for miles until the pavement ended, then twisted through highland valleys, across streams lined with willow trees, and past farms where women dressed in black abbayas tended chickens while girls in bright print dresses ran barefoot in their yards. When the road finally ended, as the sun was setting, our group descended from the vehicle and began to climb a trail toward the headquarters of the Kurdistan Women’s Freedom Party, or PAJK, our would-be hostesses. My guide and translator was the camp’s summer intern of sorts, Zini, a young Kurdish woman who had recently finished her first year at a university in Germany. She looked like a bohemian ballerina, petite and moderne, with tight black hair, a black sweater, and wide Picasso eyes. She moved gracefully up the trail as I huffed behind. Joining us were two young men on their way to visit male friends who were students at the camp. One of the tagalongs, a redhead who told me his name was Zakho, seemed like he could use a little reeducation himself. “PAJK women are very difficult women,” he warned me.

Night was falling, visibility was dropping, and I began to worry about my footing as we came to a rickety wood bridge, the irregular slats of which spanned a crevasse and a fast-moving stream like broken teeth. Suddenly, from behind me, Zakho called in English, “Look, Andrew! Amazon City!” There, on the side of a huge precipice that towered above the running water, was a series of low cement buildings that in the half-light looked for all the world like the cliff dwellings of some ancient tribe. Amazon City indeed.

We dined that night on yogurt and olives with several of the camp’s leaders. Women in their 20s and 30s, they dressed alike in the baggy olive twill pantaloons of Kurdish fighters, with sashes wound around their waists; several had kerchiefs on their heads. It’s an arresting look—traditional but revolutionary, like a Bolshevik babushka. Though the camp’s management is top-heavy to promote inclusion (there are 12 members of the so-called Coordinating Committee), it soon became clear that the real intellectual force of the group was a woman named Tekosin, pronounced “Tay-coo-sheen,” like the French word Indochine. This was a nom de guerre. In Kurdish it means “struggle.”

Tekosin bombarded me with questions: What is the political affiliation of my magazine? Why do Americans care about women’s rights in Iraq? What is the percentage of women in American ministries? And the ultimate icebreaker: if there are so many antidemocratic tendencies in America today, how can it spread democracy to the rest of the world? Whether because of the high altitude or the long journey, or because I had wondered some of the same things myself, I was soon hyperventilating about the independence of journalism (and some such nonsense). Someone with a flashlight took pity on me and led me to the segregated men’s huts high on the opposite side of the cliff, where the rest of the guys were already asleep on their roofs, under the August sky.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from a sexism reeducation course, but I figured it might be something practical, along the lines of the touchy-feely tolerance training American students receive when they arrive at college. Something with role-playing and take-aways like “‘No’means ‘NO,’” and “Don’t expect sex just because you paid for dinner,” only translated for a society in which honor killings, polygamy, and arranged marriages are common. Instead, the discussion subject at the morning meeting of my first day at the camp was “Quantum Physics, Chaos Theory, and Social Struggle.”

We, 14 men and 8 women, gathered in a circle of chairs in the large meeting hall of the camp’s main building, though the Kurds referred to themselves not as men and women, but as “friends,” as if they were Quakers. The “boyfriends” were mostly former guerilla fighters who had applied for and been chosen to attend this ten-month program called “Killing the Man,” in which the students learn how the patriarchal system destroys independent thought, followed closely by “Changing the Man,” another program in which they try to take on a new, independent identity that’s based on a more equal relationship between men and women.

“We are all teachers and pupils at the same time,” said Bahar, one of the “girlfriends” who helped lead the discussion. Like Zini, Bahar had also studied at a German university, which perhaps explains her attraction to intellectual abstraction and theoretical physics, and why she pronounced “chaos” like “cows.” “Our philosophy isn’t just for women, it’s for both sexes,” she said. “The patriarchal system teaches women that they are weak and that men have real power. We want to change that. But we also want to change the authoritarian attitudes of men toward women, and their sexist attitude toward themselves—that they get power from their gender. We try to analyze this.” She sounded like the world’s last Freudian, adding, “We give them theory at first, and with dialogue, try to get them to criticize themselves and identify ways in which their thinking is patriarchal.” Bahar gave a few examples of patriarchal attitudes: egocentrism, selfishness, and dogmatic thinking. And she recalled how one boyfriend in the course had become aggressive in his attachment to a girlfriend at the camp. “We had to tell him, ‘You may be interested in her, but she’s not interested in you,’But he couldn’t understand that: ‘I’m interested in her; how could she not be interested in me?’That’s the psychology of men. But it’s not a problem of men; it’s a problem of the system. Our goal is to overcome the hierarchical structure in our own heads, to accept others’ways of thinking. If just one Kurdish man could change, that would be a revolution.”

Back at the discussion of quantum physics, chaos theory, and whatever, I suddenly realized that I was using the wrong collegiate paradigm to understand the reeducation camp. This wasn’t pre-frosh orientation; this was more like every graduate-student seminar I had ever audited. The discussion leader introduced a definition of quantum physics—that two opposites can exist simultaneously, that one can be alive and dead, right and wrong at the same moment—and opened the floor. Silence filled the room until the class wonk, Sinan, a chiseled veteran of the Turkish front, took out his notes and began a monologue so filled with academic jargon that no translator, not even one as pretty as Zini, could have kept up.

His point seemed to be that, in a world with no absolutes, if you make a choice for one side over another, you’ll only be able to understand the world through that limited perspective. “All of us have to be open to change,” he said. He also elaborated at length about something to do with merging male analytical intelligence and feminine emotional intelligence, and about getting reacquainted with the Neolithic family values of the Stone Age, when women shared power with men and humans had a deeper relationship with the changing natural world.

At this point I was confused. What did any of this have to do with the PKK’s struggle for Kurdish rights in the Middle East? While the PAJK camp was taking strapping young mountain fighters off the front lines and turning them into poststructuralist she-men, wasn’t the Turkish Army getting ready to give them a reeducation in blood and steel? I went looking for Tekosin for clarification and found her at the camp’s library, a small room filled with books in Turkish by Simone de Beauvoir, Rosa Luxemburg, and Émile Zola, as well as what looked like a section of romance novels.

Tekosin explained to me that the PAJK camp was performing part of the ideological work of the umbrella Kurdish radical movement once represented by the PKK, and that this radical ideology had been transformed since the capture of Ocalan. From his Turkish jail cell, Ocalan had renounced the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist baggage and embraced an outlook more suited to the new world order than the Cold War. Instead of dreaming of a separate ethnic Kurdish superstate, he had called on Kurds to act as forces for democratic change in their home countries. By guaranteeing rights for ethnic minorities, women, and the environment, Kurds could be a force for freedom and peace in a region that badly needed all of these things. The PKK heard his call and reorganized itself. Henceforth there would be a civilian political wing called the Kongra Gel, or People’s Congress, and a military wing, the HPG, or People’s Defense Force, which disowned armed struggle as a means to any end except self-defense. These groups called for a kind of peace and reconciliation commission, which would investigate crimes committed by both sides.

The role of the “Killing the Man” curriculum in the struggle for Kurdish rights, according to Tekosin, was to create a kind of personal, permanent revolution of the mind: in order to change an authoritarian system like the racist and sexist Turkish state, Kurds needed to change the authoritarian in each of them, so as not to exchange one repressive system for another. “We don’t think that Turkey is an enemy or evil,” she said. “Our aim is that by changing the state and changing ourselves we can find a way to create a society that respects the origins of all people and their way of life. And democracy is the best way of understanding what people want.” But their work was all the more difficult because HPG, Kongra Gel, and PAJK were illegal organizations in Turkey, and because the United States still considered all of them to be terrorists.

How sincere was Tekosin in her embrace of peace and democracy? And for that matter, how sincere was Ocalan in his disavowal of terrorism? There is still terrorism in Turkey after all. On the day I arrived in Istanbul en route to Iraqi Kurdistan, a bomb exploded in the city’s main tourist district, though who planted it was unclear. And of course the Middle East is full of leaders who have taken up democracy as the flavor of the month but whose real appetite is for power. No doubt multiculturalism, women’s rights, and environmentalism play well on the Upper West Side and the Left Bank, but was this a real renunciation of terrorism or merely a rebranding campaign?

All I know is that there were very few weapons in the PAJK reeducation camp, and I saw none in a Kongra Gel camp that I also visited: this in Iraq, where seemingly every mother’s son carries a Kalashnikov. And when I visited a guerilla training camp a half-day’s journey from PAJK headquarters, the guerillas, armed to the teeth though they were, spent more time playing volleyball and eating watermelon than training. Though the water turbine–powered satellite televisions we watched at night showed pictures of the Turkish Army clashing with their comrades up north, life down here was almost too seductive. Tucked into a valley of corn and bean fields, one gigantic, serrated rock between us and Iran, in a camp filled with pink and purple wildflowers and raspberry bushes, we took refuge from the midday sun under fat beech trees on raised dirt platforms covered with plastic sheeting and blankets, the quiet disturbed only by the occasional passing flock and shepherd boy playing pipes.

When I left the PAJK reeducation camp, two days after my arrival, several girlfriends arranged themselves in a line to shake hands with me and the others who were leaving on journeys of their own. As we bade our farewells, another group of girlfriends lined up on the opposite cliff and began applauding. There was something ancient and ennobling about the gesture, this salutation at the departure of friends. As I waved in return, one of my feet slipped on a loose stone, and I performed a little slapstick routine, pretending to fall to my certain death in the ravine below, hoping to squeeze one final laugh from my earnest hostesses. I glanced up and saw them smile, with a look on their faces that transcended all the ethnic and cultural differences between us, a look that needed no translation, a look that women have been giving men since the beginning of time, a look that said, “What a jerk!”