The issues surrounding women joining the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have always attracted academic and social attention, which has aimed to understand the roots of why women have such a strong presence in the mountains.
The issue was touched upon once more in a recent book by security expert Necati Alkan, which includes in-depth interviews with 20 female PKK members who spent many years in the mountains. The book has a lot to say on the wide range of ideological and sociological motives behind their decision to join the PKK.
Alkan's book, “PKK'da Semboller, Aktörler, Kadınlar” (Actors, Symbols and Women in the PKK), shows how hundreds of women have found themselves among the terrorist organization's militia in the mountains of Turkey's Southeast, on the borders of Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Interviews with former female terrorists show that they were deceived into joining the PKK with the slogan “Liberating Women, Liberating Kurdistan.” Many of these women tell Alkan that they were seeking freedom when they joined the PKK. Through these interviews, Alkan evaluates the journey that a female terrorist makes, including why they join the PKK, how they become radicalized and the roles they play in the organization's hierarchy.
The National Police Department's counterterrorism unit report on the background of 151 women who joined the PKK is revealed to the public for the first time in Alkan's book. The book also covers the department's 2010 report, which says the percentage of female suicide bombers in the PKK is much higher than any other terrorist organization in the world.
The report indicates that the PKK started training female suicide bombers after it had difficulty attracting new recruits in 1996. Statistics show that between 1996 and 2010, 55 percent of the PKK's suicide bombers were women, the majority of whom joined the PKK after terrorist leader Abdullah Öcalan's capture in 1999. According to the report, 18 percent of all PKK terrorists are women.
In terms of demographics, the National Police Department says the age of new PKK recruits can be as low as 11 for males and 15 for females, while 61 percent of PKK terrorists come from poor backgrounds and 7 percent have families with an average income. In addition, the report explores the level of education of female terrorists: Three percent are university graduates, 11 percent are high school graduates and 56 percent completed elementary school. In addition, 20 percent of PKK members do not know how to read or write.
According to the report, 60 percent of PKK militants' families have a prior connection to the terrorist organization. Female terrorists are recruited mainly from the southeastern and eastern provinces of Turkey, with the majority joining the organization from Mardin province, followed by Şırnak, Van, Hakkari, Diyarbakır, Kars, Iğdır, Tunceli and Şanlıurfa.
The National Police Department's report concludes that the main reasons women join the militia arm of the terrorist organization are family pressure, having been married as a child and the opportunity to escape honor killings.
Stories of female PKK militants
Gender relations in traditional Kurdish society, the marriage of girls at an early age against their will and pressure on women within the family are the main factors which have led to thousands of girls and women joining the PKK, expressing their opposition to the position of women in society.
In addition, emotional relationships and affairs between opposite sexes are strictly forbidden within the PKK in order to maintain discipline and motivation. Love is seen as the enemy to maintaining the integrity of the militia.
The following stories shed some light on this situation:
Asya: “One of my close friends fell in love with a male militant. Some of the other women told their superior commanders about the affair. A trial was arranged. Without even taking statements from them, the jury decided that they should be executed. However, while the decision to execute the woman was upheld, the man's sentence was suspended. In most of these cases, female militants were executed.”
Bese: “I had had no link with the PKK and I didn't know the organization very well. But I had many problems with my family and they tried to prevent me from going to school. In addition, they forced me to marry a man against my will. I was very depressed. I had two options: Either I could commit suicide, or I could escape from my family. I did not have the idea of joining the PKK until that day. One of my friends suggested that I joined the organization, saying that my family would not be able to find me. When I first joined the PKK, I said to myself: ‘Now I'm in the mountains and I have a gun in my hand. Therefore, I am free.' But as months went by I realized that there was no freedom at all, because I wasn't allowed to have a personality. I couldn't express myself properly; I couldn't criticize anything. I wanted to leave the PKK, but I could not.”
Zelal: “When I was young, I always asked why women were oppressed. Additionally, the lack of warm relations within my family was another one of the major reasons [for me joining the PKK]. My father and I were always strangers to each other. I wanted him to call me ‘my daughter' and love me. But when I did not get any of this, I decided to go the mountains.”
Sozdar: “I had no profession or education which attached me to my life. My family did not let me to go to secondary school. I was not allowed to go outside. My future was already decided. There were two options: Marriage at an early age, or being busy with cleaning or cooking in the house. I was looking for a way to escape from all of this. I knew the name of the PKK, just like everybody else. I thought that the PKK could be a chance for me to escape. I decided to join the PKK with a friend from the neighborhood.”
Ejin: “Following the death of my father, my brothers put pressure on me. I took part in political activities and my brothers intensified their pressure. I joined the PKK for emancipation and freedom.”
Pelin: “Women have influence on Kurdish men. If a woman goes to fight [in the mountains], male militants don't feel they can just stand back. The presence of the women in battle motivates and encourages the men. Before launching an assault against military targets, the criticism and speeches by women spur the men on.”