The online campaign gathering Kurdish men against sexism has reached far beyond its initial scope. Can it be an inspiration for further cross-border Kurdish activism? asks Emre Sahin in Istanbul
The Kurdish city of Marivan, located in northwestern Iran, was subject to a rather unusual legal development last month. In mid-April, the Iranian courts in the city proclaimed that an arrested thief was to be dressed in traditional women’s clothes – a red dress to be exact, to ensure he drew attention – and paraded around the city. Since the thief was a man, the judges thought that forcing him to wear a woman’s dress would humiliate him and force him to live a more decent life. What made this event more controversial was that it was the third time a Marivan court had issued such a sentence in 2013.
Outraged, Kurdish women finally took this offensive issue to the streets and protested – in red dresses – the Iranian courts for their sexist rulings. Women in and around Marivan also rallied against the Iranian police officers for enforcing these sentences. However, this incident did not get much international attention until a group of Iranian Kurdish men called Kurd Men for Equality (KME) organised an online protest. In an attempt to display solidarity with Kurdish women, protest the Iranian courts’ sexist decisions and create more awareness about this issue, the KME called on Kurdish men to have their photos taken in traditional women’s clothes and to post these photos on the group’s Facebook page.
Over the next few days, hundreds of Iranian Kurdish men from different age groups flooded the KME’s page with images of themselves in women’s dresses. Thanks to the opportunities provided by the internet and social media outlets, the campaign created controversy and quickly reached thousands of people in Iran, Europe, Asia and North America. Accustomed to hearing mostly female feminist voices from the Middle East, the surprised international community warmly welcomed the KME campaign. During this period, the Turkish press also began to cover the movement and disseminate its motto: “Being a woman is not a tool to humiliate or punish someone!”
As a Kurdish man based in Istanbul, I became fascinated by this campaign upon reading about it in late April. Wanting to participate in and help disseminate it in Turkey, I contacted a couple of my friends who are also Kurdish men. One of the friends I spoke to over the phone suggested that we wait for a day or two before sending our ‘solidarity photos’ because he believed that the call may have been for Iranian Kurds only. Unaware of the KME’s Facebook page back then, I asked my friend to clarify this issue for me. Later on, the campaign fell off all of our radars. This was mainly due to our busy schedules and lack of determination with regards to actively participating in the campaign.
On May 15, I was reminded of the KME’s campaign when I came across a news article about Iranian authorities issuing an apology to Kurdish women. In response to the public outcry over the Marivan courts and police officers’ sexist punishments, the Iranian chief of police Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam apologised to Kurdish women for insulting them. Clearly, I was delighted to find out that Kurdish women and men succeeded in forcing Iranian authorities to issue a formal apology. The violation of women’s human rights does not only concern women and, as the dominant and often oppressive gender in most societies, men have a big responsibility to assist women in their struggle for gender equality. The KME’s efforts challenged the idea that the image of a man dressed in women’s clothes is humiliating, forced the Iranian chief of police to apologise to Kurdish women and filled me with hope for the struggle against gender inequality. What is even more pleasing is to see that many women from across the globe supported this form of solidarity with women and anti-feminist groups failed to engender any serious backlash. However, I also felt angry with myself for neglecting the campaign.
In anger, I began to wonder how many Kurds from northern Kurdistan (eastern Turkey) and western Turkey participated in the KME’s campaign. After some research on the web, I found the group’s Facebook page as well as some data on its visitors. Among the nearly 10,000 people who ‘liked’ the page, less than 600 of them were from Turkey. Although this information is not directly related to the people who sent in ‘solidarity photos,’ it gives us a good idea of the lack of participation in this campaign by the Kurds in Turkey. Given the number of Kurdish people in this country, it is disappointing to see how the post-WWI national borders created by England, France, the United States, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria influence social and political mobilisation among Kurdish people. Today, many Kurds use the names Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western Kurdistan in reference to the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian parts of the nation, respectively. And yet, this pro-Kurdistan attitude does not always translate into Kurdish cross-border social and political mobilisation.
Of course, this failure to join forces across Kurdistan is not the sole reason behind the Turkish Kurds’ lack of participation in this campaign. Major regional developments such as the recent peace negotiations between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan-PKK) and the Turkish state dominate the Turkish Kurds’ agenda. Since the end of 2012, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been negotiating with the Turkish state to end the 30 year-old armed conflict between the PKK and Turkey in order to bring forth a peaceful solution.
To conclude, let us imagine how a cross-border Kurdish mobilisation could operate. As the KME’s campaign successfully demonstrated, the internet is an invaluable tool for mobilising across boundaries. Although social media outlets are becoming more wide-spread across Kurdistan, their usage in mobilisation efforts is not evenly distributed. A more effective use of platforms such as blog sites, Twitter and Facebook would bolster cross-border Kurdish mobilisation. But more importantly, the dissemination of a Kurdish approach that is more critical of the post-WWI national borders in today’s world is necessary. The Kurdish people’s prioritisation of regional developments should be less hierarchical.
Images from the campaign’s Facebook page.