Coops in the Kur­dish Move­ment, an Eman­ci­pa­tion Tool for Women. Two Testimonies. 

Fol­low­ing the adop­tion of the demo­c­ra­t­ic con­fed­er­al­ism par­a­digm by the PKK in 2005 as a con­ti­nu­ity in the polit­i­cal evo­lu­tion begun in the nineties, the legal Kur­dish move­ment in North­ern Kur­dis­tan (Turkey) began a process of auton­o­miza­tion from the Turk­ish State. Legal Kur­dish Par­ties notably sought to orga­nize gov­ern­ing struc­tures par­al­lel to those of the State. The first neigh­bor­hood coun­cils were estab­lished at that time, tasked – among oth­er things — with resolv­ing con­flicts out­side the Turk­ish judi­cia­ry sys­tem. In 2007 the DTK1was found­ed as a kind of pro­to-par­lia­ment, bring­ing togeth­er all polit­i­cal and asso­cia­tive ini­tia­tives in North­ern Kur­dis­tan. After 2015, State repres­sion would tar­get the DTK specifically.

The cooperatives as tools for a democratic economy

Coop­er­a­tive struc­tures play an impor­tant role in this auton­o­miza­tion process. Coop­er­a­tives have exist­ed since 1860 in Turkey, where they now num­ber some 84 000 in 25 dif­fer­ent sec­tors. The struc­ture itself is not an inno­va­tion. What is nov­el is the way the Kur­dish move­ment has reap­pro­pri­at­ed the mod­el for its ini­tial attempts at set­ting up a “demo­c­ra­t­ic econ­o­my”, as first estab­lished dur­ing the DTK con­fer­ence orga­nized in Van in 2014.2The eco­nom­ic ques­tion is essen­tial in the auton­o­miza­tion process, the Turk­ish State hav­ing vol­un­tar­i­ly con­duct­ed a pol­i­cy of under devel­op­ment in the Kur­dish regions where there are few indus­tries and pro-gov­ern­men­tal vil­lages ben­e­fit from the build­ing of those infra­struc­tures that do exist. The Kur­dish wom­en’s move­ment[footnote]KJA, then TJA fol­low­ing the Turk­ish State’s ban on KJA in 2016[/footnote]in par­tic­u­lar saw in the coop­er­a­tive move­ment not only a tool for the eco­nom­ic eman­ci­pa­tion of women whose domes­tic work is not rec­og­nized, but also as a way of open­ing spaces for social exchanges, edu­ca­tion and polit­i­cal aware­ness, allow­ing escape from the pres­sure of an extreme­ly patri­ar­chal and con­ser­v­a­tive society.

Until 2015 the agri­cul­tur­al coops in the region of Van were the most devel­oped and became exper­i­men­tal cen­ters for this new econ­o­my, as did the tex­tile coop in Diyarbakır. Oth­er wom­en’s coops exist in the Kur­dish regions, in Urfa, Mardin, Mersin. Sev­er­al have linked up under the “ekojin“4 label for col­lec­tive dis­tri­b­u­tion of their pro­duc­tion. An exper­i­men­tal coop­er­a­tive bou­tique, Medya Mar­ket, was also set up in Van for the past two years. 60% of its sales are from local pro­duc­tion, the salaries are shared equal­ly and the mar­gin cov­ers oper­a­tional costs only.

Despite par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh repres­sion since the attempt­ed coup d’E­tat of July 15th 2016, the sack­ing of the HDP may­oral­ties3which sup­port­ed the Kur­dish orga­ni­za­tions’ coop­er­a­tive projects, and the many arrests of polit­i­cal cadres, the wom­en’s coops some­how man­age to sur­vive. Some, such as those in Van, have had to sus­pend their activ­i­ties com­plete­ly but oth­ers, in Diyarbakır or in Urfa, refuse to give up. For Sevim, the ener­getic orga­ni­za­tion­al leader of the coops in Diyarbakır, the repres­sion is noth­ing new.

Kur­dis­tan has been expe­ri­enc­ing the coup d’E­tat already, the sit­u­a­tion exist­ed pri­or to July 15 2016, but now it has been legal­ized. Our entire orga­ni­za­tion has changed, there have been arrests and dai­ly raids. They have tried to pre­vent us from work­ing and to block our mar­kets. But it does­n’t mat­ter, if 5 leave, 10 come back. They delay us, but instead of suc­ceed­ing in one year, we’ll do it in three.” 

Collective emancipatory work, without bosses

The Diyarbakır tex­tile coop­er­a­tive is estab­lished in an urban envi­ron­ment, but the women who work there have often come to Diyarbakır fol­low­ing rur­al exile caused by var­i­ous peri­ods of con­flict in the nineties and again in 2015–2016. It’s urban imple­men­ta­tion boosts the dis­tri­b­u­tion of its prod­ucts how­ev­er, through greater prox­im­i­ty to its buy­ers and a greater social diver­si­ty than in the coun­try­side. Only six women worked there in March 2017. The work­shop had to be moved to an uniden­ti­fied base­ment in a Diyarbakır neigh­bor­hood to pro­tect it from a pos­si­ble State attack. The space is small, win­dow­less and, in order to reach the work sta­tions, you must squeeze through the col­or­ful cloth­ing hang­ing from the ceil­ing under bru­tal neon lighting.

Vahide, a seam­stress, describes : “The coop was estab­lished in 2007. We’ve worked here for 10 years, I’ve been here for 5. We grew pro­gres­sive­ly. But there’s been a hia­tus with the recent process, the polit­i­cal conditions.” 

She explains the func­tion­ing: “We start sim­ply, for exam­ple: we take one sewing machine, we buy anoth­er and we increase the num­ber of machines and of work­ers, and that way we move toward a coop­er­a­tive. We buy them with the help of the Wom­en’s Move­ment, we could­n’t con­tin­ue with­out them. We keep month­ly accounts, a friend takes care of them, every­thing is done inter­nal­ly; she fig­ures out our costs and our income. We don’t work against a fixed salary, it varies every month. Usu­al­ly, we work from 9 to 5 but we nev­er leave at 5, we only leave when we’re fin­ished. There is no boss, no one in charge. If some­one can’t come in, anoth­er friend takes her place.”

For anoth­er work­er, the absence of a hier­ar­chy changes the whole work­ing relationship:

I worked for boss­es before, there was a hier­ar­chy. What I real­ly like here is the fact there is none. Now I know how to work with­out a boss, before there was always supe­ri­ors and work­ers at the bot­tom, it was a social ques­tion, but here every­one is equal. We don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly earn very much but it does­n’t mat­ter, we work togeth­er and we’re not look­ing to make a profit.”

A work­er from a mush­room coop that opened in March in Diyarbakır but has shut down since, adds:

We want good, fresh, organ­ic prod­ucts. We don’t use fer­til­iz­ers, every­thing is nat­ur­al. We sell to the gro­ceries or in the build­ings. What we want is to get rid of the mid­dle men because they are the ones who rake in the biggest ben­e­fits. From the pro­duc­er to the con­sumer, that’s our goal. The rela­tion­ship with the neigh­bor­hood is impor­tant for this. We don’t work else­where. We want to cre­ate anoth­er cul­ture in our coops, anoth­er men­tal­i­ty, the coops aren’t just a way to pass the time, to drop in when we can.”

For Vahide as for the oth­er work­ers, work­ing in a coop has changed her way of life and her place in the home as well as in society.

I did­n’t work before the coop. A friend sug­gest­ed it to me, I like tex­tiles. I had attend­ed a course eight months ago, but I also learned a bit on my own. Before, I was always at home, work­ing feels good.” 

Being mar­ried or sin­gle makes no dif­fer­ence”, adds anoth­er work­er. “There’s no ques­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ty, of more or of less work, here, every­one is busy. Kur­dish women always have a lot of respon­si­bil­i­ties. The home is a lot of work, it’s true. We do most of our house­work at night, we warm up the dish­es. My hus­band isn’t against the fact I work, he does­n’t say I should either, it’s my deci­sion. I have two chil­dren, but I man­age to do every­thing. I tell him I’m going to the coop, he does­n’t say any­thing, I’ve been here for two years. Before that, I did noth­ing, I was bored.”

The clos­ing down of the eko­jin bou­tique has­n’t stopped the wom­en’s move­ment. “We don’t have a bou­tique any­more, but we sell our clothes by word of mouth, peo­ple know us, they call. Hav­ing a bou­tique is impor­tant for vis­i­bil­i­ty, that’s true, but it does­n’t mat­ter, we’ll open anoth­er. We’re afraid of noth­ing because we know we are right, jin jiyan aza­di !”4Sevim exclaims. “We have beat­en the stereo­types. In his­to­ry, every­thing began with women. They try to lock us up in the home because they know women can do what they set their minds to doing. We will nev­er bow down. We want­ed a com­mu­nal life and econ­o­my, we ana­lyzed coop­er­a­tives in the world and in Turkey, we gath­ered infor­ma­tion. We made mis­takes but we learned a lot. We shared our expe­ri­ences with oth­er women who want to set up the same kind of project. For exam­ple, there is a milk coop,Tire Sut koop­er­atif. When it’s pay­time, the women call their hus­bands. We don’t do that. We don’t have the salary paid off to the men, the one who works, gets the mon­ey. We are a small coop for now but we have big dreams.” 

These days, the tex­tile coop is attempt­ing to grow by cre­at­ing inter­na­tion­al con­tacts for the dis­tri­b­u­tion of its production.

We must­n’t think only about the pro­duc­tion and sale aspects”, Sevim con­cludes. “What counts is that the women here learn to be inde­pen­dent. We dis­cuss, there are also class­es in geog­ra­phy and his­to­ry of our region. Being a woman is hard in the world, but in Kur­dis­tan, it is very hard, we are in a par­tri­ar­chal region, it’s impor­tant for women to under­stand this and dis­cuss around it. We want them to learn com­mu­nal liv­ing. For cen­turies, peo­ple lived in sol­i­dar­i­ty, we want to return to that. You can spend hours telling peo­ple how to live but that’s not enough, it must become part of dai­ly living.”

The cooperative, an important place of socialization

In Bozo­va, Urfa province, a wom­en’s coop has been in exis­tence for sev­en years. Con­di­tions are harsh in this extreme­ly rur­al region of cere­al, pis­ta­chio and cot­ton crops with a bit of ani­mal hus­bandry. The coop has man­aged to main­tain itself despite gov­ern­men­tal repres­sion. Although inde­pen­dent from the eko­jin net­work, it was part of the ini­tia­tives sup­port­ed by the Kur­dish move­ment but at a greater dis­tance in this con­ser­v­a­tive region where many vil­lages are pro-AKP. Six months after the sack­ing of the HDP may­ors, the admin­is­tra­tors appoint­ed by the State reclaimed the agri­cul­tur­al lands leased at a favor­able price to the coop, caus­ing heavy addi­tion­al costs in rental and oth­er bills.

In May, the coop’s premis­es are emp­ty. Work has­n’t begun, the sea­son runs from June to Octo­ber. Aygün is project coor­di­na­tor. The moth­er of five chil­dren, she dis­cov­ered coops when her hus­band left and she moved clos­er to the wom­en’s move­ment. Hed­ibe has lived all her life in Bozo­va. They talk of their expe­ri­ence with the coop.

Hed­ibe : “We made bread, dol­mas, nar ekşisi, pekmez, dried toma­toes… We made every­thing.”5

Aygün : “There are sev­en of us. Before the coup d’E­tat, we were com­fort­able, we paid the tax­es even if we did­n’t earn much for our­selves. But the rent is very expen­sive now, we pay the water, the bills, it has demo­vi­vat­ed the friends. Some worked for a whole year and got noth­ing out of it.” 

Set­ting up was difficult.

Aygün : “We worked on the wom­en’s wants and wish­es. Finances are the biggest prob­lems for them. Mon­ey is very prob­lem­at­ic here, the rich live in Urfa, do their shop­ping over there, the poor stay here. Every­one wants some work. But there are no invest­ments. The pop­u­la­tion’s sym­pa­thy for the HDP plays against projects and financ­ing. There are lots of invest­ments in Siverek, it’s feu­dal and Sun­ni, so it’s well sup­port­ed by the State. But here in Bozo­va, there’s noth­ing. We opened as an asso­ci­a­tion. Women in need came, we want­ed to sup­port some ten peo­ple or so. At first, we were in the coun­try­side then we came here to Bozo­va to reach more women. City coun­cil helped us for two years.” 

Even though they are not mem­bers of the eko­jin net­work, rela­tions exist with the oth­er coops.

Aygün : “We don’t know the coop in Mardin very well, but we know the one in Van, we met them. They are stronger than we are. There’s a big dif­fer­ence between them and us, because there’s less demand here, less of a net­work. We have a dia­logue with the ones in Diyarbakır, if there’s a prob­lem, they sup­port us. A week ago, I went to see them and asked for help, they said they would help us find a spot to sell on the mar­ket­place, that’s great.”

In this con­ser­v­a­tive region, the coop has most­ly a social sig­nif­i­cance for the women. They can meet there, work togeth­er and forge links, exchanges, all things that are not obvi­ous on a dai­ly basis.

Aygün : “Nowa­days, these are places where we can sit togeth­er, dis­cuss, drink tea among women. Before, this was some­thing that was reserved for men. It is very con­ser­v­a­tive here, patri­ar­cal. A lawyer friend came to talk to us about the law, we had a course on finances, on gen­der, a soci­ol­o­gist came, we had a course on how to run a coop. We had an aşure6there were 30–40 people.”

Hed­ibe : “We’re among friends, we’re togeth­er. We dis­cuss. It is good when a women can bring home some mon­ey. I did­n’t work before.” 

Aygün : “Women helped us for the nar eksisi, we were able to pay them, we were hap­py. We dis­cussed our prob­lems, our con­cerns, we learned to know each oth­er. We touch one anoth­er. I can tell them every­thing. It might seem odd to you but peo­ple can’t stand each oth­er here, sis­ters-in-law don’t like each oth­er, we can’t tell each oth­er our prob­lems. We talk about them with women from the out­side and that’s great.” 

We have no problem with the production, it’s the sales that blocked.” 

If the social aspect is a suc­cess, the coop has trou­ble sell­ing its pro­duc­tion in a poor region where every­one has the same finan­cial problems.

Aygün : “We’ve under­stood that we won’t be able to hold out with noth­ing but our work in the future, it’s too hard. It’s been sev­en years and we haven’t real­ly been able to help the women finan­cial­ly here. We would like to get financ­ing from the Euro­pean Union or else­where, assem­ble some fifty women and make our coop­er­a­tive known. We have pre­cious lit­tle pub­lic­i­ty. Besides, in Bozo­va, the women work at home still, they make salça, dol­mas, they resell them but it’s not rec­og­nized as real work. We want to make wom­en’s domes­tic work vis­i­ble. It is real work. Not only in Bozo­va but also in the vil­lages. There’s need to do every­thing for women here, it’s impor­tant. There are many women vic­tims of vio­lence, young women forced into mar­riage, or mar­ried to old men. There’s a whole job of edu­ca­tion need­ed, this is fun­da­men­tal. I hope we can get such projects. The basic idea was to work for our­selves and make some mon­ey with­out pay­ing mid­dle men. 

Hon­est­ly, we haven’t suc­ceed­ed because we don’t have a space on the mar­ket. We have no prob­lem with pro­duc­tion, it’s the sales that are blocked. We want­ed to open a web­site, print brochures but all that costs money.” 

Hed­ibe : “We do some­thing that’s good and beau­ti­ful, and that’s enough for us. But we would like to have more women and real­ly help one anoth­er. The eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion is dif­fi­cult, they work a lot at home, but receive noth­ing for it. We are in the shad­ow of Urfa. There is noth­ing here, no work, nei­ther for the women nor for the men. And yet, Bozo­va is very beau­ti­ful. I grew up here, I can’t live else­where. My son has no work, he left for Istan­bul and could­n’t stand the sep­a­ra­tion. There are many poor peo­ple here, for exam­ple, peo­ple go out to work in the fields for 30TL7per day, even ten-year old chil­dren. My dream is to be a busi­ness woman, to help peo­ple, to buy things for the chil­dren; to help them study.  

But here, our aim isn’t to make mon­ey, we want­ed to meet togeth­er as women, between friends. The women must endure the hus­bands, work in the fields, take care of the chil­dren… I raised my chil­dren with a lot of dif­fi­cul­ty, with­out eat­ing at times. I could­n’t give them pock­et mon­ey, some of them stud­ied but they have no work. Myself, I am tired, we have suf­fered a lot. I told myself, I will work too, I’ll become a busi­ness woman but it’s hard. But we must go on. I’m glad of what we’ve done.” 

In Diyarbakır as in Urfa, the eco­nom­ic aspect isn’t what gives strength to the wom­en’s coop­er­a­tives in the Kur­dish move­ment but rather the fact of hav­ing women work togeth­er who were iso­lat­ed before, allow­ing them to have exchanges, to orga­nize, to give val­ue to their work.

If the coop­er­a­tives were a place for eco­nom­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion in the Kur­dish move­ment and a place of eman­ci­pa­tion for women, their growth in North­ern Kur­dis­tan was bru­tal­ly stopped by the vio­lent repres­sion that bore down on the region start­ing in 2015, despite the resis­tance of cer­tain projects that sur­vive nonethe­less. But the expe­ri­ence acquired in over 10 years of devel­op­ment will not have been lost.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic econ­o­my is now being imple­ment­ed in anoth­er part of Kur­dis­tan: Roja­va. In the dif­fi­cult con­text of an econ­o­my under embar­go, the coop­er­a­tives have been a tool through which the autonomous admin­is­tra­tion has relaunched eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and met the peo­ple’s needs. It has cho­sen not to expro­pri­ate the large landown­ers, pre­fer­ring to cre­ate ini­tia­tives on leased lands or on lands belong­ing to the collectivities.


Trans­la­tion by Renée Lucie Bourges

En français : “Les coopéra­tives dans le mou­ve­ment kurde, out­il d’é­man­ci­pa­tion des femmes” Cliquez pour lire

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Pho­to-jour­nal­iste indépendant
Loez s’in­téresse depuis plusieurs années aux con­séquences des États-nations sur le peu­ple kurde, et aux luttes de celui-ci.