Turkey's HDP radically reclaims women's place in society

Turkey's HDP radically reclaims women's place in society
Comment: Women's struggles play a central role in constructing Turkey's national project, writes Rosa Burc.
7 min read
22 Jun, 2018
Supporters of imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, presidential candidate and leader of People's Democratic Party (HDP) [Getty]
"I am revival, I am flowing, I am a woman" sings an all-female chorus to images of women working in the fields, doing traditional dances in colourful garments, protesting in mass rallies, waving red, yellow, green and purple flags of the Peoples' Democratic Party, HDP. 

These are the images and lyrics of the recent election campaign song of HDP's women assembly. Three years ago, an election song with similar motives was released, in which the then co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag join a group to collectively dance the halay and horon, both folk dances from different parts of the country.

Today, both co-chairs and dozens more HDP politicians are in prison, and Selahattin Demirtas is running as a presidential candidate from behind bars.

It is common knowledge that HDP's electoral success in 2015 kept Erdogan from installing a single-man authoritarian system, and led to an intense surge of nationalist feeling against the Kurds.

This period also saw the end of two years of shaky but death-free peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and a months-long round-the-clock military siege in the Kurdish southeast. HDP co-chairs were imprisoned along with elected MPs, mayors, dissident journalists, pro-peace academics and critical voices.

Within three years the Kurdish question was fully re-securitised and the politics of Turkification along the lines of the republic's factory settings "one state, one nation, one flag, one language" became the main driving force in Turkish politics once again.

So far so good, but this explanation lacks one crucial dimension: HDP's identity as a women's party.

Today, both co-chairs and dozens more HDP politicians are in prison

While widely known and for the sake of simplicity described as a 'pro-Kurdish' party, HDP more than anything else is a pro-peace Left alliance and women's party that has its roots in the Kurdish freedom movement.

"Our programme is clear, we want to make women visible in a country where even the word "woman" is wiped out systematically" said HDP group deputy chairwoman and feminist activist Filiz Kerestecioglu in a 
talk show, just two weeks before Turkey's snap elections on 24 June.

In 2003, when the then newly elected AKP presented its 34-page-long programme for the 59th cabinet, the term 'women' only appeared once towards the end of the document and only within the framework of family and nation.

For a different viewpoint, read: '
Women's r-evolution in Turkey under Erdogan's AKP'

Women, as written in the document, have a 'special role' as the 'providers of healthy generations'. Almost a decade later the still ruling AKP government has restructured the institutional landscape and replaced the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs with the Ministry of Family and Social Politics.

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, presidential candidate of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), pose in front of his
image during the election campaign, April, 2018 [AFP]

This way, the AKP situated the women's question in social political areas by making it invisible at the same time. The new national project under the AKP deliberately regarded women as objects that needed protection from western capitalism, emphasising the necessity to 'protect' women's bodies that were considered within the boundaries of the nation.

Not only were women paid less than men for the same work and mostly employed in agriculture and industry under new neoliberal economic principles, Erdogan explicitly dismissed women pursuing a career and female emancipation as he defined it as an alienation from the women's 'nature of creation'.

This paternalistic rhetoric helped the government to construct a new variation of Turkish nationalism that is built on the idea of a more explicit Islamic identity and to reinstate the welfare state within the framework of conservatism.

HDP more than anything else is a pro-peace Left alliance and women's party that has its roots in the Kurdish freedom movement

Feminist scholars claim that the state - despite guaranteeing women's rights to a certain extent - can never fully liberate women, unless women's struggles play a central role in constructing the national project. The attempt at radical women's empowerment, hence radical feminism that aims to eliminate male dominance in all societal, institutional and economic contexts, advanced in Turkey for the first time in a wider scale with the emergence of the HDP out of the Kurdish political sphere.

While the AKP aims at making women invisible, HDP radically reclaims women's place in society and politics.

Being born out of the Kurdish freedom movement and successfully reaching out to the non-Kurdish Left and feminist organisations, HDP managed to establish itself as an anti-status quo party that aims at creating a new framework for citizenship, overcoming the Turkish-Kurdish divide and empowering women. 

HDP defined itself as an antithesis to the Turkish status-quo, hence as anti-sexist, anti-militarist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-nationalist and above all pro-peace.

Put into practice in the form of a leftist alliance of in total 37 parties and organisations, the ideas of equal representation in parliament, grassroots democracy outside the state and radical women's empowerment were made the main pillars of the envisioned national project for Turkey and the wider region; a novelty in Turkish politics.

Women in the ranks of HDP formed a completely autonomous women's assembly, parallel to the existing party structure. Since then HDP women's assembly operates in both mixed and women only areas, and on the central level in the form of women only commissions, such as for diplomacy, media, education, law and finance.

The implementation of these principles by HDP and its women's structure is exemplified in a co-chair system applied on every organisational level, with one position reserved for a man, and one for a woman.

The female chairperson is elected with the women's vote only, unlike the male chairperson, who is elected by both men and women. All decisions taken by HDP affecting women can be annulled by the women's assembly through veto.

Furthermore, all decisions concerning women are not only taken by the women's council, but are also binding for all decision-making bodies and committees at the corresponding level. The aim is to build self-defence mechanisms institutionally in order to protect against the domination of men, or as the party 
programme reads:

Read more: Turkey's suffragettes: Politics still wears a moustache

"As HDP Women's Assemblies we believe the most important part of self-defence is organisation". These policies are also applied in election processes such as determining candidates, who will run in party congresses and also in local and general elections.

Election campaigns are run by women-only campaign offices and strategy centres. While HDP opened a space in social, as well as political spheres to make women more visible and active participants, the AKP reduced the number of female candidates from 99 to 69 (out of 550) during the run-up to the November 2015 snap elections, which resulted in a total of 317 seats, of which only 35 were occupied by women.

In an already highly centralised state, with rising demands for decentralisation and self-determination, the HDP project gained support over time as a catch-all party reaching out beyond the traditional Kurdish electorate.

All decisions taken by HDP affecting women can be annulled by the women's assembly through veto

The HDP significantly challenged the state's hegemony over the national project based on Turkishness and male dominance, by transforming the core principles of the Turkish nation state, and providing a new framework for citizenship. This ideal is constructed ethnically and culturally in pluralistic terms, and with an autonomous women's body.

In the context of violence against Kurdish women who resisted the military siege, or the arrests of female journalists who were working for the first women only Kurdish news agency JinNews, state-orchestrated sexual violence appears in a different light - one of attempting to restore male hegemony in spheres that were politically transforming in the hands of HDP's feminist politics.

In this atmosphere of political harassment, injustice and sexual violence, HDP's women continue to rally, to organise and resist with their very existence: 
We are here, We are women.

Rosa Burc is a research and teaching associate at the Institute of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Bonn, Germany. She is currently writing her PhD on "Reassembling the Nation-State: Communal Struggles for Self-Determination and Prospects of Radical Democracy in the Middle East." 

Follow her on Twitter:@rosaburc

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.