The Kurdish conflict and peacebuilding in Turkey — what does this have to do with gender and queer politics? Maria Hartmann and Bahar Oghalai spoke with the activist and researcher Irem Aki about why an intersectional Kurdish-queer perspective is important for sustainable peace processes in Turkish society. Like so many other academic activists in Turkey, Irem was exiled after signing the well-known Peace Petition “We Will Not Be a Party to This Crime” in 2016. The petition aimed to draw public attention to the brutal acts of violence perpetrated by the state in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
Irem Aki is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Conflict Studies at the Philipps University of Marburg, where she works on “Queering Transitional Justice and Peacebuilding”.
Irem, you study processes of peacebuilding in Turkey. Can you tell us a bit more about that? What is your understanding of conflict and peace in Turkey?
I look at Kurdish Queer politics and their potential contribution to the process of peacebuilding in Turkey. You might think, why is there even a peace process needed in Turkey? And what does gender have to do with it?
Well, I consider queer and gender politics as an important element when it comes to a broader understanding of peace and a peaceful society. So when I speak of peace, I don’t understand it as “the opposite of war”. I am talking about a positive understanding of peace that acknowledges the reduction of structural violence and oppression against different individuals, identities, and groups as a necessary part of achieving peace. Forms of structural violence can be based on class, on gender, on sexual orientation, on minority or cultural belonging and so on. When this structural violence is ignored, this can be considered as a state of conflict for a society, which may still be existing long after official disarmament has happened, or a peace agreement has been signed.
What does all this mean for a peacebuilding process in Turkey? When we look at the situation of the Kurdish people in Turkey, what we can see is both structural violence as well as more direct forms of it. For example, many Kurdish politicians are still in prison, and the violence against Kurds as well as against people speaking Kurdish still continues. The recognition of the Kurdish language has not been on the agenda of the state until today. And that, for me, means that Turkey cannot be considered a peaceful society or state.
The last attempt to deal with the past in Turkey took place between 2013 and 2015. The process ended without a resolution of the conflict, not least because it was blocked by the government. Nevertheless, it left an important legacy: things that were taboo for a long time have come back on the table and are openly discussed.
In a sense, the demand for peace has never disappeared from the agenda of civil society in Turkey. This shows that while the peacebuilding process is not on the official agenda of the Turkish state, it is very much on the agenda of civil society. Sustainable peace and a peaceful society in the sense I described above are still desired.
Why is it important to consider the intersection of Kurdish and queer politics in the peacebuilding process?
Gender lenses have been used in peacebuilding for a long time. However, for a sustainable peace, we should go beyond the gender lens and consider the intersection of multiple identities and experiences, such as sexual orientation and gender identity during and after conflict.
In this case we see the intersection of sexual orientation, gender as well as ethnic identity of Kurdish queers at the same time. The types of violence people face based on their different identity lines are diverse. To consider one type and dismiss another would just raise the continuum of violence and trauma within society.
When we talk about peacebuilding, we cannot ignore the structural violence against queers in general and Kurdish queers in particular: they face violence because they are queer and Kurdish. This brings with it a very particular experience that needs to be addressed.
Can you explain this intersectional experience of violence a little more? What is specific about it?
Well, to give an example of multiple violent experience, last year in Istanbul five Kurdish trans*women were arrested shortly after a demonstration for International Women’s Day. In fact, they were arrested long after they had left the protest. They were pulled out of a taxi by the police and got charged with house arrest and 3,500 Lira for violating the public health law.
It was obvious that they were arrested because they were queer and Kurdish. This shows the potential of police violence that people at the intersection of these two identities — queer and Kurdish — face. Furthermore, the level of digital violence against Kurdish queer people, particularly threats and slurs on social media, is enormous.
Moreover, Kurdish queers are also exposed to violence in the Kurdish community: “You are Kurdish, you can’t be homosexual. There is no such thing among Kurds!” Kurdish queers may experience violence during Newroz celebrations, even though most civil society organizations condemn these attacks. A Kurdish queer activist told me she would define herself primarily queer or trans*, because she is not considered Kurdish in her own community.
How is the Kurdish queer struggle organized in Turkey? What are the demands of the communities and their specific challenges?
Some of the Kurdish queer community is organized in legal associations. Unfortunately, this means that they are under state control, which might prevent them from being able to use the word Kurdistan and Kurdish wording in their bylaws.
A part of the Kurdish queer community is organized under the Halkların Demokratik Kongresi (HDK) — the People’s Democratic Congress — which is a union of diverse left-wing political movements as well as minority identities. Both the HDK and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have LGBTI matters explicitly in their political agenda.
But on the other hand, Kurdish queers have criticized that during wartime the LGBTI movement and its problems easily slip from the HDP’s agenda. In times of conflict escalation and war, matters of queer liberation become a side topic for the party. They tend to focus more on the Kurdish conflict and make it their priority.
For Kurdish queers, however, both issues are equally important in order to create a sustainable situation of peace. In their campaigns, for instance, they use terms such as “Rojava” and “Kurdistan”, which are used by the Kurdish political movement, and then try to link it to queer matters. I found a poster saying “There is Kurdistan — There are Homosexuals!” It is like saying: “Both exist, even if you keep claiming that they don’t exist!”
Since there is a strong interlinkage between masculinity, militarism and war on the one hand and minority discrimination as well as homo- and transphobia on the other, the queer movement in Turkey and specifically Kurdish queers also advocate politics of anti-militarism and conscientious objection. In that sense, police violence in Istanbul is not independent of the violence perpetrated against Kurds in Diyarbakır, and war is not independent of transphobia and homophobia. That is what Kurdish queers emphasize.
What can we learn from the intersectional approach of Kurdish queers? Why is their perspective ultimately so relevant to the liberation of society in terms of creating sustainable peace in Turkey?
One of the main achievements of this intersection (of queer and Kurdish identity) is that it has the power to create a bridging space between movements and identities: it forced the feminist and LGBTI-movement to think out of their box and connect to multiple social and political topics, but it also made the Kurdish movement extend their horizons.
This connection can make visible the complexity of identities and the need for a holistic understanding of emancipation, which cannot be limited to a singular identity or claim. For example, you can’t just create a safe bubble for queer people in cosmopolitan Istanbul while ignoring the war in eastern Turkey. This is a very important message that I learned from this intersectional thinking.