What is naked today is not the body of a woman whom they have slaugh­tered but the very under­stand­ing of the gov­ern­ment of war itself.”
Figen Yüksekdağ

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A woman is killed on the street in Cizre. Her dead body is stripped naked by those who killed her. They are sol­diers; she is alleged to be a com­bat­ant of the PKK. Pho­tographs are tak­en; they cir­cu­late on the news and social media. It’s not the first time this has happened.

The body of a female Kur­dish fight­er becomes – again – a sym­bol for the inten­tions of the gov­ern­ment: not to “end ter­ror­ism” but to force an entire region to heel by sys­tem­at­ic bom­bard­ment and humil­i­a­tion. The trou­ble is that in this act of dehu­man­iza­tion, the real pow­er of the woman and what she rep­re­sents is evi­dent. In any patri­ar­chal sys­tem, a woman who choos­es to resist is infu­ri­at­ing: she trig­gers the kind of rage that allows her killers to strip her and then dis­ap­pear her.

The above state­ment from HDP co-chair Figen Yük­sek­dağ says it per­fect­ly. Actions such as this demon­strate an inten­tion not sim­ply to deal with indi­vid­u­als who per­pe­trate acts of ter­ror against the state or civil­ians, but to cast the net much more wide­ly. Any polit­i­cal demands made by Kur­dish orga­ni­za­tions are reduced to acts of ter­ror against the Turk­ish state. “Ter­ror­ist” in this sense serves a twin pur­pose. First­ly, a ter­ror­ist does not deserve the ordi­nary process­es of jus­tice but can be killed by virtue of being labeled as such. Sec­ond­ly, the con­cept of “ter­ror­ist” is vague enough that it has been expand­ed to vir­tu­al­ly the entire Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion, or any­one sus­pect­ed of har­bor­ing ill feel­ings toward the state. A recent and vivid demon­stra­tion of this was the bomb­ing of wound­ed civil­ians – among whom were PKK oper­a­tives, or so the state alleges – in base­ments in Cizre. Once a per­son is named a ter­ror­ist by the state, her place as a cit­i­zen, a per­son with rights, is erased.

cizre femme guerre 1

In this strange and amor­phous war, the body of the dead woman becomes a cipher, a sym­bol. She must not only be dead, she must be dead and naked and humil­i­at­ed, she must be denied any kind of dig­ni­ty. She is not a sol­dier, nor a rebel, nor an ene­my, nor a com­bat­ant – she is first and fore­most female, noth­ing but a body. She must be reduced because the threat she embod­ies is mul­ti­ple: she is a woman, and also a Kurd, and a fight­er, a rebel. In the log­ic of a hier­ar­chi­cal patri­ar­chal sys­tem she must first be reduced to noth­ing but a woman, and then reduced to even less than a woman – a dis­hon­ored woman, a naked one.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scar­ry argues that tor­ture is a trick, an “act of com­pen­sato­ry dra­ma,” con­duct­ed on the body of the pris­on­er or vic­tim – it pro­duces phys­i­cal pain that is incon­testably real, there­fore mak­ing the regime that pro­duces it appear real. I would argue that some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened in this case and oth­ers like it, where the body is denied all dig­ni­ty and pri­va­cy even after death: it is a dis­play of pow­er by those who killed her and stripped her, and its aim is to illus­trate the real pow­er of the state and its armed forces. The woman is erased and in her place is left only the stamp of the state’s pow­er. Yük­sek­dağ, in her state­ment on the pho­to­graph, report­ed that many bod­ies in Cizre and oth­er south­east­ern cities that turn up at the morgue “do not have phys­i­cal integri­ty.” This sug­gests that there is some­thing sys­tem­at­ic in this kind of tor­ture or inter­fer­ence after death: the end is not sim­ply to elim­i­nate the ene­my but to dehu­man­ize her totally.

The body of the woman in the pho­to­graph has not been recov­ered. She has dis­ap­peared. How do you mourn a per­son who no longer exists? As Nicholas Glas­ton­bury point­ed out in an arti­cle for Jadaliyya, mourn­ing is high­ly polit­i­cal ter­ri­to­ry – attacks on the funer­als of the Suruç vic­tims and on the graves and funer­als of Kur­dish com­bat­ants take place because these deaths are not con­sid­ered valu­able enough for pub­lic dis­plays of recog­ni­tion and respect. Glas­ton­bury draws on Judith Butler’s argu­ment that pub­lic mourn­ing delin­eates what kind of life – and what kind of per­son – is valu­able. In the cur­rent equa­tion, the life of a female Kur­dish com­bat­ant (if that is what she was) appears to reg­is­ter so low on the scale of val­ue that she can be used as a canvas.

All this is doc­u­ment­ed in a kind of porno­graph­ic image that looks like a still from a snuff film, taste­ful­ly blurred on major news sites. Andrea Dworkin has argued that this kind of imagery – where visu­al­ized pow­er cor­re­sponds to actu­al pow­er – allows “the purg­ing of [women] from a shared com­mu­ni­ty of care and rights and respect.” If there was no image, the act would be lim­it­ed to those who took part in it. The image, end­less­ly repro­ducible, re-asserts the imbal­ance of pow­er each time. But that imbal­ance is not sacro­sanct. As Yuk­sekdag argued, such acts only make women’s resis­tance more deter­mined. Part of this kind of hor­rif­ic behav­ior stems from there being a very real and vivid pow­er in the liv­ing female sol­dier that even in death, can­not be prop­er­ly stamped out and so must be humil­i­at­ed and stripped too. Arguably the vio­lence met­ed out on her means that her exis­tence struck a deep­er chord.

As Dilar Dirik point­ed out in a speech at the New World Sum­mit, Kur­dish women long ago decid­ed that what they were fight­ing for was not a nation – which in no way requires the sex/gender sys­tem to be undone – but an entire­ly new way of exist­ing, one in which women are not hand­ed rights by state-run women’s empow­er­ment projects but active­ly embody and engage in their social and polit­i­cal pow­er at every lev­el of society.

Olivia Rose Walton

Zehra Dogan's drawing

Wal­ton, Olivia Rose, “How the Tox­ic Patri­archy of War Plays out on Kur­dish Women’s Bod­ies”, Inde­pen­dent Turkey, 15 Feb­ru­ary 2016, Lon­don: Cen­tre for Pol­i­cy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Orig­i­nal link

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