Of all the arenas where women’s equality might be an issue, the battlefield is not one that takes high priority.
Warfare is a man’s game by and large. Women are slowly making headway in national armies around the globe -- they make up about 20 percent of the U.S. armed forces, for instance. But even those serving in the world’s most powerful military are still officially barred from most combat roles.
If there is anything resembling a modern counterpart to the Amazons of Greek mythology, it exists not in the West, but in Turkey -- territory where the Amazon legend may in fact have its origins.
There, an insurgent group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party -- which goes by its Kurdish acronym PKK -- has led the charge in bringing women to the front lines. The PKK fights for Kurdish autonomy; it is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, the European Union and allies.
The PKK has been involved in guerilla warfare with Turkish troops for decades, though several of its leaders are now based in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq. Lives lost on both sides total an estimated 40,000, and the clashes continue.
Although it is supported by many Kurds around the world, the PKK cannot claim to represent all Kurdish people, many of whom are moderate and seek integration into the various countries where they now reside.
The Kurdish homeland is sometimes referred to as Kurdistan, although it is not an internationally recognized state. This mountainous region encompasses areas in southeastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The Kurds are loosely united by a common language related to Iran’s Persian, but there are various dialects, and most also speak the official language of their country of residence.
The PKK coalesced in southeastern Turkey in 1978, and it became officially militant in 1984. Influenced by communist and socialist ideas, the group was uniquely devoted to gender equality from the get-go.
Women played a strong role from the very beginning. In the 1990s, they made up about 30 percent of the PKK’s fighting force. Modern estimates are hard to come by due to the underground nature of the organization, but it is telling that three Kurdish activists who were recently assassinated in France, making international headlines, were all women.
One of the victims was a founding member of the PKK, and by some accounts its highest-ranking female. Sakine Cansiz was killed on Jan. 10, along with two others: Leyla Soylemez and Fidan Dogan. Their bodies were found inside a facility called the Center for Kurdistan, which is situated on the busy Rue la Fayette in central Paris.
The perpetrator of the crime is still unknown, but it is almost certain that he or she had political motives. The murders occurred just after talks began between Turkish intelligence officials and current PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned on Imrali Island, 50 miles from Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara.
These talks are highly significant because they could herald a new era of cooperation between the Turkish state and PKK militants. Kurds of all stripes have long faced discrimination in Turkey, and the Imrali negotiations, if successful, could bring some measure of peace if the government is willing to address Kurdish rights in exchange for a laying down of arms in the southeast.
But radicals on both sides -- hardline Turkish nationalists and Kurdish extremists -- are opposed to any compromise. Analysts posit that the Paris assassinations were likely intended to derail negotiations, though they have so far failed to do so.
The future of the PKK is now in Ocalan’s hands, assuming that his willingness to compromise does not damage his reputation in favor of the more militant leaders stationed in Iraq. That prospect is doubtful since Ocalan is highly revered -- even deified -- by many PKK members.
To a lesser extent, so was Cansiz, who became a legend not only due to her leadership role in the PKK, but also for the activist work she did during the years she spent in prison between 1980 and 1991. She played a huge role in advancing women’s status inside the PKK, and her death was mourned by female Kurds and PKK supporters around the world.
The violent guerrilla movement for Kurdish autonomy in Turley is highly charged issue, but the PKK’s success in promoting female participation cannot be denied -- especially since it took place in a region where women’s rights have lagged considerably behind the rest of the world.
The militant women of the PKK are on the battlefield to stay, until the day finally comes when negotiations put an end to decades of bloody conflict.