How women are increasingly leading Turkey’s socialist movement

ÖGK members at an International Women's Day march this year.

In common with many other countries, Turkey’s socialist movement has been marked by the dominance of men in positions of leadership and authority.

The patriarchy is a social order that has become dominant globally over the course of millennia and which connects with oppressive conceptions of the family, exploitation and inheritance — in short, with social class. Socialists cannot stand by as it recreates itself in the very structures we claim exist to overturn social stratification and oppression.

It is by now well known around the world that the Kurdish liberation movement is playing a leading role in questioning the role of gender in society in general, and its reflection in political structures in particular.

Historic Kurdistan is divided between four modern states — Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The liberation movement in all states is united in the Kurdistan Communities Union, which supports overturning the oppression of women in all spheres.

HDP example

Many socialists are working closely with this movement, mostly found in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which united Kurdish forces with Turkish leftists, or at least closely support it. These socialists are showing an observable tendency to follow the example of the Kurdish liberation movement in consciously creating autonomous structures for women and promoting women to leading positions.

The HDP’s particular manifestation of this approach, which is found in all four parts of Kurdistan in ideologically linked groups, is  having leadership positions shared between one male and female co-leader. This provides women with a structure to “veto” gender oppression, which insidiously reproduces itself even in revolutionary movements. Around the world, leftists have observed this tendency again and again through their own experience.

But it is not merely that Turkish socialists mimic the Kurdish liberation movement, or follow it. The diversity of Turkish left groups, too numerous to easily count, reflects a diversity of intellectual and practical approach.

Some groups support the Kurdish liberation movement on the grounds of supporting the Kurdish right to national self-determination, while criticising their social practice — including the Kurdish movement’s commitment to radical feminism. Such groups maintain a traditional 20th century approach to labour organising, sadly assuming women’s labour is identical or, worse yet, subordinate to men’s.

This is a theoretical and practical error, as women’s labour is in many ways primary in terms of social production and reproduction.

The role of gender in reproducing division of labour in society may be invisible to many Marxist men, particularly older ones whose social position in society and their organisation may let them stand aloof from deserved criticism.

However, it is anything but invisible to poor and oppressed women, who know and clearly state, if men are willing to listen, that the bulk of toiling falls on their shoulders.

Some socialist groups have internalised these critiques from the perspective of women’s liberation, and have begun a protracted process of trying to undermine patriarchal ideas within the socialist movement. A key way of doing this is promoting women to leading positions in organisations which claim to stand for the liberation of the foundation of social life: labour.

Of course, many groups, such as the social chauvinist Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) may attempt to use prominent women to legitimise what are basically unchanged politics, mere tokenism and window dressing.

Autonomy and collective struggle

But it is our assertion that in spite of the widespread phenomenon of using women to cover up for groups that are still essentially “boys’ clubs”, there are real advantages to promoting women's leadership in the socialist movement. This reflects not only the individual power of women but their collective struggle.

One example of strong women’s leadership is the Social Freedom Party (TÖP). The specific organisational model of the party provides the basis and backbone for this. Instead of imposing itself on struggles and communities, it prefers to work within various social dynamics to strengthen those dynamics.

For instance, its women’s organisation Purple Solidarity seeks to organise women who do paid or unpaid labour, independently and according to their specific needs and demands. The same goes with a different organisation for woman students.

Purple Solidarity acts independently, yet maintains an organic tie to the party. TÖP maintains the model of the “cadre party”, but its main objective is to help the people to become subjects of their own fate and to organise themselves and an alternative to the current system. 

This is reflected in the internal dynamics of the organisation, with young women in particular playing strong roles. TÖP has an advantage in this area over many older socialist groups due to being a relatively new organisation that began small.

This put disproportionate power in the hands of young people, whose critical eye towards gender politics in Turkey is sharper. Also, younger women and gender oppressed people stand on the shoulders of decades of social struggle and resistance within Turkey by the feminist and LGBTI movements.

Another example is the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP, or PSB in Kurdish). It has played a disproportionate role in building the HDP, given its relatively small size next to the Kurdish liberation movement. In contrast to the system of “co-chairs”, the ESP has for some time been led by women, choosing to promote women to the exclusion of men in a policy of positive discrimination.

Figen Yüksekdağ, the ESP chair at the time of the HDP’s formation, was promoted to HDP co-chair — partially on the recommendation of the jailed Kurdish liberation movement leader Abdullah Öcalan. Her vacant position in the ESP has been subsequently filled by a series of women, currently Çiçek Otlu who has been jailed for almost a year.

Despite being led by women, the group also organises autonomous women’s groups, such as the youth organisation Free Young Woman (ÖGK).

Beyond promoting socialism in the women’s movement, groups such as ÖGK have actively intervened against men’s violence on the left. Examples of such violence include the beating of a woman by the group known as “Popular Front”. The ÖGK declared Popular Front to be “enemies of women”.

Further, the ESP provoked the ire of more conservative socialist men by sending their male cadres out as “ESP men” to condemn a form of “manhood” that stands for nothing more than violence against women, and in defence of abortion rights and other women’s issues.

Class and oppression

The purpose of this was to actively respond to the concerns of women cadres’ concern that socialist men were aloof from their own social role in recreating women’s oppression, even if only by their silence.

An underlying emphasis on class as a social division among all groups, including women, has meant that groups such as the ESP have not been appropriated by bourgeois feminists. Such feminists largely ignore the huge significance of a defiant, struggled-tested leader like Yüksekdağ, while on the other side, macho elements of the socialist left have declared the ESP has descended into “identity politics”.

This contradiction shows that all socialists, men and women and all gender oppressed individuals, have a duty to draw closer the various fronts of struggle, such as the feminist, LGBTI, national and labour movements.

This can be done only by continued struggle with the masses themselves to turn the poor, workers, women, LGBTI peoples and all the oppressed into political subjects.

[[Muhsin Yorulmaz is a writer and translator with Abstrakt, a Marxist internet magazine. Mazlum Zafer is co-editor of Toplumsal Özgürlük, the newspaper of TÖP.]