How Turkey’s Anti-Kurdish Crackdowns Threaten Women Across the Middle East

HDP MP Remziye Tosun surrounded by police at a demonstration.

This article analyzes women’s political representation in Kurdish-majority regions of Turkey before and after the 2019 crackdown on elected mayors from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), as well as women’s political representation in the Syrian region of Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain) before and after Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.

Both political and military interventions by Turkey against Kurdish entities consistently diminish women’s representation in the impacted regions, often to rates below 10%.

In both cases, laws and policies implemented by Kurdish political actors in order to address gender discrimination and gender-based violence have been systemically removed by Turkish authorities and their allies, and women’s institutions have been destroyed or closed.

A banner reading “women are resisting” in Turkish and Kurdish at an International Women’s Day march.

For the past 15 years, pro-Kurdish political parties in Turkey have prioritized women’s rights, representation, and effective participation more so than any other major parties in the country.

While these efforts occur at all levels of governance, they are most pronounced at the municipal level in Kurdish-majority regions of Turkey, where these parties easily win overwhelming majorities of the vote. State crackdowns on pro-Kurdish elected officials and affiliated civil society organizations thus disproportionately impact women.

The internal structure of pro-Kurdish parties incentivizes higher levels of women’s representation and encourages men and women to work together as equals. These reforms have steadily developed as new parties have been formed and subsequently shut down by the state — showing how feminist concerns are a priority even under political pressure.

In 2005, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) became the first party to adopt the co-chair system, wherein men and women share party leadership posts, as well as a quota for women’s representation. Aysel Tugluk and Ahmet Turk served as the first co-chairs.

While gender quotas are a form of positive discrimination that are common in political parties and governments around the world — including in several Middle Eastern countries — the co-chair system was at the time unique to left-wing Kurdish political formations.

The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) took the co-chair system further, running “co-mayors” for every municipality they contested in the 2014 local elections. This meant that all mayorships that they won would be shared by a man and a woman.

Turkish law does not allow more than one person to hold a mayoral post. To get around this, the party had a candidate for each municipal council campaign as the “co-mayor.” When elected, their position was then recognized by the council. In 2014, more than 100 municipalities elected co-mayors, and nearly all of them were recognized.

Today, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has not only implemented quotas and the co-chair system at all levels, but has also formed autonomous women’s assemblies that set the party’s policies on women’s issues and that can overrule mixed-gender party structures on these matters.

In the three parliamentary elections in which the HDP has competed, it has elected the highest proportion of female MPs of any major party, more than doubling the proportion of women MPs elected from the parties with the next highest proportions.

In June 2015, when the HDP entered parliament, 39% of its MPs were women, whereas only 16% of AKP MPs and 15% of CHP MPs elected were women.

In the most recent parliamentary elections, held in 2018, 36% of HDP MPs elected were women, compared to 18% of AKP MPs and 13% of CHP MPs.

17.3% of members of the Turkish parliament are women. Turkey is currently ranked 129th in the world in terms of women’s representation in its parliament, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

In municipal elections, due to the adoption of the co-mayorship system, the HDP’s record is even stronger. Women’s representation at the municipal level is also much lower across Turkey as a whole. This will be discussed in greater detail in the context of the 2019 election.

While Kurdish parties clearly exceed the competition in terms of representation, the gains do not end there. A 2018 study of all municipalities in Turkey that had female mayors between 2004 and 2014 found that female mayors from the pro-Kurdish BDP were the most likely to implement three sets of policies to fight gender-based violence: gender budgeting, gender-sensitive collective labor contracts, and the establishment of women’s support centers.

Many male mayors from pro-Kurdish parties implemented the same policies. When Abdullah Demirbas served as mayor of Diyarbakir’s Sur district during the same time period, for example, his municipality implemented gender-sensitive labor contracts, established a women’s council, and supported women’s cooperatives.

In contrast, mayors from the AKP and CHP did not take these steps, regardless of gender. This suggests serious policy differences on women’s rights, addition to differences in levels of representation.

A 2019 campaign flyer promoting the HDP’s Mardin co-mayor candidates.

Turkey held its most recent local elections on March 31st, 2019. The HDP performed best in terms of women’s representation from the very beginning.

According to statistics compiled by the Association for Support of Women Candidates, 50% of HDP candidates were women — 145 out of 290 in total. In contrast, barely 2% of candidates from the ruling AKP were women — just 24 out of 1,297 candidates.

The HDP won control of 58 municipalities. The co-mayorship system was implemented in all of them.

Even without taking this into account, the party would have been much closer to gender parity than any other party in the country. 41% of successful “official” HDP mayoral candidates were women.

Out of all officially elected female mayors from all parties in Turkey, 55% were from the HDP— although the party only won about 5% of the nationwide vote. This statistic shows just how much the HDP over-performs other parties in terms of women’s representation.

Women lead a demonstration against the removal of elected mayors in August 2019.

Erdogan’s first major attack on civilian Kurdish politics began after his government abandoned peace talks with the PKK in 2015, and continued after the failed coup attempt of 2016.

Nearly all Kurdish mayors elected in the 2014 local elections were removed from office between 2015 and 2016. This led to a drastic reduction in the already dismal number of women holding local leadership posts in Turkey.

Women’s centers opened by these municipalities were shut down, and trustees did not maintain the policies meant to disincentivize gender-based violence and gender discrimination — instead ruling them illegal.

In the 2018 parliamentary elections and 2019 local elections, the HDP attempted to make up for these losses. They won back the vast majority of the districts where their officials were removed. However, the party was almost immediately targeted in a second crackdown, which has continued until this day.

Once again, policies meant to ensure gender equality were a target. The co-chair system was cited as one of the charges against the first HDP mayors to be removed from office in August 2019.

Human Rights Watch noted this fact in a 2020 report on these cases, which found that their arrests “are not linked to any legitimate counterterrorism effort but [instead] trample the rights of the mayors and the 1.8 million voters who elected them.”

30 of Turkey’s 81 provinces are designated as “metropolitan municipalities.” Out of three female mayors of metropolitan municipalities officially elected in 2019, one was from the HDP: Bedia Ozgokce Ertran, mayor of Van. In addition, the HDP’s Hülya Alökmen Uyanık in Diyarbakir and Necla Figen Altındağ in Mardin served as unofficial co-mayors.

This meant that, in practice, women led five of Turkey’s 30 largest local government districts in the immediate aftermath of elections — a rate of 16%.

Three of these five women belonged to the HDP, and all three were removed from their positions. Because of the removals of HDP officials, women now lead just two of the country’s 30 largest municipalities — a rate of 6%.

Out of all 81 provinces in the country, just 4 officially elected female mayors. Two of these mayors were from the HDP: Ertran in Van and Berivan Helin Isik in Siirt.

Through the co-chair system, four more women co-mayors were elected: Songül Korkmaz in Batman, Seher Kadiroğlu Ataş in Hakkari, Eylem Çelik in Igdir and Şevin Alaca in Kars.

This brought the real number of provinces with female mayors to 8% of the total. With the removal of all 6 HDP mayors, only 2 provinces had female mayors — just 2.5%.

Women’s organizations meant to address serious issues that were not immediately related to partisan politics — like domestic violence and unemployment — were also targeted at the local level during the same time period.

The Amida Women’s Center in Diyarbakir’s Sur district, established in 2013, was shut down in 2016 when the state took over the municipality for the first time. In 2019, the district’s HDP co-mayors, Filiz Buluttekin and Cemal Ozdemir, reopened the center. It operated for just one month before a male trustee was appointed to the municipality.

He replaced the center’s director with a male AKP loyalist, causing the other women working there to resign in protest. Buluttekin was recently sentenced to seven years in prison on terrorism charges that included her membership in the KJA, a Kurdish women’s organization closed by decree in 2016.

In one particularly shocking case, the female mayor of the Mazıdağı district in Mardin, Nalan Özaydın, was charged with terrorism because of her support for the Sarya Women’s Cooperative: an agricultural cooperative that employed eight local women as of summer 2019.

HDP Mazıdağı mayor Nalan Özaydın with female employees of the Sarya Women’s Cooperative.

Women’s cooperatives are recognized by international bodies like the International Labor Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization as an effective means by which to advance women’s economic empowerment.

Özaydın’s efforts to create sustainable jobs for her constituents, however, were cited by Turkish prosecutors as evidence of ties to the PKK’s armed activity.

Data thus shows severe decreases in the already low level of women’s representation in local governance in Turkey when mayors from pro-Kurdish parties were removed from office. The explicit criminalization of efforts to increase representation, fight gender-based violence, and provide economic empowerment to underserved populations of women is also a concerning development.

Women and girls participate in a demonstration in North and East Syria, holding the flags of the YPJ and Kongreya Star.

Unlike Turkey, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has always had high baseline levels of women’s political representation. Women in its institutions have consistently been able to successfully advocate for reforms that support women’s rights.

In 2011, Kongreya Star— at the time an underground Kurdish feminist organization—issued a landmark document with comprehensive policy proposals for women’s empowerment in the new autonomous government that Kurds in Syria’s north were hoping to established.

These included several policies that have been institutionalized today, including a quota for women’s representation in all political bodies; the formation of communes and cooperatives, women’s centers, councils, conferences, academies, and self-defense organizations; and changes to Syrian law and the Syrian constitution to address gender inequality.

The co-chair system has been implemented in the region since 2012, when the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (MGRK) elected its first co-chairs to lead the cities that had been liberated from the Syrian government.

The region’s first constitutional document, which applied to the three cantons that declared formal autonomy from the Syrian state in 2014, included a provision stating that “all governing bodies, institutions and committees shall be made up of at least forty percent (40%) of either sex.”

This practice is continued to this day in all mixed-gender institutions; parallel women’s institutions are exempt.

That same year, the three cantons under the Democratic Autonomous Administration passed a set of Women’s Laws.

In addition to correcting inequalities in Syrian law relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other personal status concerns, this legislation guaranteed women’s political representation and further legitimized the creation of autonomous women-only institutions.

Today, women make up 42% of members of the Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the region’s highest political body. The co-chair system is almost universally implemented in government bodies, political parties, and other institutions.

Signs in three languages welcome visitors to the Serekaniye municipality.

Serekaniye, a city on the Turkish-Syrian border that was home to Kurdish, Arab, Yezidi, and Christian communities, came under the control of the AANES when it was liberated from jihadist groups in 2013. AANES laws, policies, and institutions related to women’s rights were well-established in the area.

As of September 2019, there were 117 women’s communes in and around Serekaniye.

The first ones were formed officially in 2014, through a process facilitated by Yekitiya Star. The smallest communes began with just three to five members, while the largest had more than 20.

It can thus be extrapolated that hundreds of women participated in the political and social life of their communities through these institutions — many likely for the first time.

Serekaniye had one Women’s House, a center for victims of gender-based violence and abuse, which was established in April 2013. As of 2015, the house had six administrators and four committees.

In its first two years of existence, 400 cases were brought to the house for mediation. These cases include cases of domestic violence, family disputes, and issues related to marriage and divorce.

The house’s administrators reported that they had been able to solve about half of those cases; the other half either remained under investigation or had been passed on to the People’s Court or Reconciliation Committee.

There were several women’s cooperatives in Serekaniye. The Washukani Bakery, opened in March 2015, produced pastries and desserts. A Women’s Agricultural Association, which had 122 members, cultivated barley on 1,700 acres of land. The Martyr Frashin Cooperative operated a generator that provided electricity

In total, more than 300 women in the area were employed by women’s cooperatives, according to Armanc Muhammed, an official with the Women’s Economy Committee. The total number of women employed in cooperatives was likely higher, as women also participated in mixed-gender cooperatives.

Many women’s organizations operating across North and East Syria had offices there, including the Women’s Bureau of the Syrian Democratic Council and the Free Women’s Foundation.

North and East Syria’s Women’s Laws were adopted in Serekaniye, like the rest of Cizire Canton, in 2014. These laws were created through a consultative process involving 25 representatives of different local women’s organizations.

According to data provided by the Rojava Information Center, immediately before Operation Peace Spring, women made up exactly 50% of the region’s local council, which was elected in December 2017.

21 of the council’s 42 members were women, and 21 were men. The council was led jointly by male and female co-chairs, like all other local government bodies in the AANES.

Serekaniye was one of the two major cities to be invaded and occupied by Turkey and the Syrian National Army (SNA) during Operation Peace Spring, which took place in October 2019. It is the only one for which demographic data on local governments before and after the occupation is readily available.

Documents produced by the Turkish-backed government in the city show that just one woman, Intisar Douda, serves on its 25-member civil council.

The highest-ranking official on the council is a man: Mehri Youssef. All members were selected by Turkish officials, and cannot make meaningful decisions without Turkish permission.

Operation Peace Spring thus lowered the level of women’s representation in local government in Serekaniye from 50% to 4%, and removed women from senior leadership posts in that local government entirely.

This is consistent with the low rate of women’s representation seen in occupied Afrin, a Kurdish-majority region that has been under Turkish control since 2018. There, the Turkish-backed regional council included 100 men and just seven women, and no local council had more than two female members.

All AANES women’s institutions in the area have been destroyed. The majority of the women who worked in them have been displaced, and affiliation with any AANES structure is treated as grounds for arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance by the SNA.

This means that hundreds of women are no longer able to participate in the public life of their hometown and community.

Victims of detentions and disappearances, particularly Kurdish and Yezidi women, have been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence in SNA custody, according to multiple United Nations reports.

Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) do not implement AANES laws related to women’s rights. When the AANES women’s laws were passed in 2014, the SIG compared them to laws implemented by ISIS, stating that both were “temporary.”

The SIG itself claims to enforce Syrian law under the country’s pre-Baathist constitution, amended to remove provisions that conflict with conservative religious principles. This leaves women at a severe disadvantage.

Turkish occupation has thus left women in Serekaniye, and other affected areas, with minimal representation, political power, and legal rights— particularly so when compared to the rights, freedoms, and level of representation they enjoyed under the Autonomous Administration.

It has also left women physically unsafe, preventing many from leaving their homes. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has found that “by targeting almost every aspect of Kurdish women’s lives…in areas affected by Operation Peace Spring…armed groups generated a palpable fear of violence and duress among the female Kurdish population. This resulted in an undermining of women’s ability to meaningfully participate and contribute to their community.”

Numerical data and qualitative reports prove that Turkish political and military intervention against Kurdish entities—the HDP in Turkey and the AANES in Syria— leads to a decrease in women’s representation.

Both forms of intervention have also explicitly targeted policies and institutions meant to protect and advance women’s political, social, and economic rights.

This pattern of behavior puts Turkey in violation of its own international commitments, as well as global best practices.

The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which Turkey has adopted, calls on governments to:

“commit themselves to establishing the goal of gender balance…including, inter alia, setting specific targets and implementing measures to substantially increase the number of women with a view to achieving equal representation of women and men, if necessary through positive action, in all governmental and public administration positions.”

The criminalization of policies that increase women’s representation and the destruction of entire political entities that take equal representation as a basic starting point is diametrically opposed to this principle. Data shows that Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policies substantially reduce the number of women in governmental and administrative positions in both Turkey and northern Syria.

Despite efforts from some high-ranking officials to withdraw, Turkey is also a party to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, or the Istanbul Convention.

Article 2, section 3 of the Convention explicitly states that it applies during peacetime and armed conflict alike.

The Convention obligates parties to “take the necessary legislative and other measures to promote and protect the right for everyone, particularly women, to live free from violence in both the public and the private sphere” and to “take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women.”

In both case studies, Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policies have targeted organizations, institutions, and individual activists that work to prevent gender-based violence and to combat the prejudices and customs on which violence and inequality are based. Once again, these interventions actively contravene an international obligation.

News and analysis on Northeast Syria.