One of the most inspirational movements of political history was the movement for female suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a struggle by a disenfranchised group that sought to radically transform how the existing political order functioned, and succeeded despite the fact that none of their group were in the corridors of power. Men and women came together to rectify an injustice that in modern discourse could only be conceived of as a thought experiment rather than as a serious policy proposal. Thankfully in democratic countries this arbitrary distinction has been removed, but the campaign for women’s suffrage can, in my view, easily compared to the struggle for Kurdish liberation. On the surface this may seem like a bit of stretch but hopefully this article will convince you of my case.
Firstly we must consider the current international order, but in order to fully do so we are faced with the disturbing absurdities of Western foreign policy. Turkey is a NATO ally of Britain, France, and the USA because it was an example of democracy in the Middle East which, unlike the pan-Arabist states of Egypt and Syria under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hafez al-Assad respectively, were more closely aligned with the USSR than the US wanted them to be. Turkey, as a Western-looking liberal democracy, was thought to have more in common with Western Europe and North America and at the time this wasn’t incompatible with liberal institutionalism. Incidentally NATO’s sole purpose was to act as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, which has ceased to exist since 25th December 1991, so Turkey’s membership was also an exercise in containment. In other words, Turkey is a Western ally because of a series of premises than no longer apply.
In the contemporary world we see the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodğan silencing his political opponents, censoring the press, and developing a cult of personality around himself, especially after the failed military coup in July 2016. Further, since the constitutional referendum earlier this year, Erodğan has centralised power in his own hands and extended his term in office. Although not an Islamist, he and his party are very socially conservative and Erodğan is currently overseeing the construction of what would be the largest mosque in the world. He sees himself as in the tradition of the Ottoman sultans and therefore wants to portray himself to the rest of the world as both powerful and devout. Modern Turkey is not a country that the West would be wise to be in bed with.
The other noteworthy players in this situation are Syria and Iraq. Although these two countries are the stage of the conflict that has brought this question forward in many people’s minds, I would argue that the actual governments of these two states are not as involved as that of Turkey. The current Iraqi government, whilst still nominally controlling Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad, the realities of warfare have resulted in most serious decisions being taken from Erbil. Additionally, the Iraqi government are not conducting a chemical-weapon induced genocide of Kurds as the Saddam Hussein government did from 1986 to 1989. In Iraq, the Kurds are safe from persecution from the Iraqi military.
Similarly with Syria, less Syrian land is claimed by the Kurdish independence movement than in Iraq and therefore there is less confrontation between Peshmerga and Syrian government forces. The Kurdish fighters in Syria are annexing territory as part of the de facto coalition against ISIS but are not really going any further than the land they claim as their would-be nation-state. Furthermore, the Assad government, much like the Iraqi government, is more focussed with fighting ISIS than the Kurds. Starting a conflict with a group that shares this enemy would be a tactical error to say the least.
The reason I’ve laid out some of the current geopolitical realities of the region is to demonstrate a fundamental point that often goes unmentioned despite everyone silently admitting it to be be true. The Kurds have quietly been the most effective and successful fighting force against ISIS militants. Why does nobody talk about ISIS bombings in North-Eastern Iraq? Because the Kurdish government have been in control of the region since the conflict started, and indeed a map of the region that shows who controls what land shows that the Kurds have a pan-handle of land going along the Turkish border.
Not only have the Kurds been successful against ISIS, they have done so without the same levels of financial and logistical backing as the Syrian and Iraqi governments have had from Russia and the West respectively. Finally, the Kurds have had these military victories despite being attacked by the Turkish government. The bombing campaign by Turkey hasn’t stopped even though they are both fighting ISIS in Syria, which one could argue is handicapping the effort against the organisation. Kurdish fighters have been vital to the war effort against ISIS.
So where does the women’s liberation movement come into all of this? I offer that there is a stark comparison between the cause for women’s suffrage and the Kurdish independence movement. In Canada, Britain and the United States women gained the right to vote either during or immediately after the First World War. This was for two reasons. The first was that their activities during the war undermined the ideological basis for denying them the franchise. Women were perceived as mentally unable to comprehend politics or even be educated in how to make reasoned policy judgements. WWI illustrated that the notion of women being mentally inferior to men was total nonsense as participation in the labour force showed that they were just as able as their male counterparts.
The second was, in my view, an exercise in realpolitik. These governments had just relied on the labour-power of women workers and these women were no longer confined to the home. It would be difficult for any marginalised group to go back to the pre-war social situation when their activities were so vital for their success in the war. Although women couldn’t vote, more progressively minded men who could vote would have turned against a government so blatantly bankrupt of all morals. Also, because women were now more commonly seen in the public sphere, the angst that women’s suffrage would have caused before the onset of the war ceased to exist in mainstream society. That isn’t to say that sexism didn’t exist after 1918, but it was that women couldn’t conceivably continue to be disenfranchised because that position had lost public support.
The participation of women in munitions factories and in providing logistical support for soldiers during World War I showed that the success of the Allies was only possible because of female labour. Women were an instrumental part in the success of the armed forces on the battlefield because without tanks, bullets, and clothes the soldiers couldn’t fight. In other words, women were thrust into the political spotlight and showed themselves to be incredibly important in the fight against the Triple Alliance.
It is my view that the Kurds are, for want of a better phrase, the women in the current international political situation. Just as women workers showed themselves to be vital in the war effort, despite lacking recognition and basic political rights from those in power, the Kurds have fought ISIS valiantly and deserve political rights. Without the contribution of the Kurds, ISIS would have control of significantly more territory in Iraq and these military successes could well have motivated people across the world to travel to the region in support of ISIS. If the world is to succeed in defeating ISIS, the Kurds will be crucial in that fight.
The right to self-determination has inherent value for any political group because it ends a period where they have been persecuted, but it also has instrumental value. If a Kurdish nation-state is established in the Middle East, the international community will be able to assist them in fighting the Kurds, and use existing institutional mechanisms, particularly the United Nations, to broker peace with Turkey and turn all fire-power onto ISIS. Turkey and the Kurds have a common enemy in ISIS and unlike for Western countries their fight with the organisation is about survival. By granting the Kurds internationally recognised political rights, the world can change the dynamics of the Syrian conflict and correct an injustice that has existed for far too long.
The movement for women’s suffrage was successful because a marginalised group found themselves at the centre of economic activity and proved to those who wished to keep them subservient in society that they were just as important as their male colleagues. Further, the overarching international situation meant that people at all levels of society were working towards one common goal. The Kurds are on the front line in the fight against ISIS and have been persecuted by different governments over the decades. They have been ignored for too long and is time that we all agitate for their political rights. Domestically, war was the catalyst for women’s suffrage. It is now time that the Syrian war catalyses Kurdish political rights in the same way.