Constructing Subjectivity between ‘East’ & ‘West’

The question of self and what it means across cultural boundaries has always been interesting.  In this post, I aim to understand one Iranian director’s perspective on the construction of self in order to extrapolate broader themes underlying Iranian identity.  My perspective is informed by the ethnographic works of Marry Bateson and Roxanne Varzi. 

This post deals with Abbas Kiarostami’s construction of the self based on his film, Close-Up.  Critics are keen to point out a poetic pulse in Iranian new wave cinema in general, and Kiarostami’s films in particular, that signifies cultural and perhaps civilization differences with the west.[1]  It is only by juxtaposing two “cultures” that the construction of identity in either is possible.  In order to capture Kiarostami’s construction of the self, I intend to situate my investigation at the nexus of Iranian, and to a lesser extent, the “Western cultural” patterns.

Kiarostami would perhaps have nightmares about such inquiry, as he often tries to distance himself from cultural fault lines.  He has frequently claimed that his characters are not unique people, rather ordinary people in unique situations who portray “natural human characteristics,” and less cultural ones.  Yet, he mentions the following in describing his method:

I don’t have very complete scripts for my films. I have a general outline and a character in my mind, and I make no notes until I find the character. When I find the character, I try to spend time with them and get to know them very well. Therefore my notes are not from the character that I had in my mind before, but are instead based on the people I’ve met in real life. It’s a long process, it may take six months. I only make notes, I don’t write dialogues in full. And the notes are very much based on my knowledge of that person. Therefore when we start shooting I don’t have rehearsals with them at all. So, rather than pulling them towards myself, I travel closer to them; it’s very much closer to the real person than anything I try to create. So I give them something but I also take from them.[2]

What he describes is in fact similar to the anthropological approach of participant observation.  Even if Kiarostami’s characters show natural human characteristics, they also reflect other characteristics that are, all the while, ingrained in the Iranian “culture.”  The movie Close-Up was shot with a slightly different method than Kiarostami’s previous films, one that has many intersections with visual ethnography.

The people at the center of Close-Up, and the story that revolves around them, are not fictional creations—a man named Hossain Sabzian did impersonate Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the famous director), and it’s the real Sabzian we see on-screen. In fact, all the performers in Close-Up are non-professionals playing themselves, and this includes Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami, the latter of whom appears in the film interviewing Sabzian.[3]  Kiarostami’s Close Up, as a form of visual ethnography, can be used to say something about Iranian culture and in this case, the question of self as constructed by Kiarostami.

Before analyzing Kiarostami’s notion of the self, the following is a brief summary of Close-Up.  The story is about a shiftless printer’s assistant, Hossain Sabzian, who is also a film lover and a huge fan of popular Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (director of Gabbeh and The Cyclist).  While riding the bus and reading a copy of Makhmalbaf’s novel, The Cyclist, he meets Mrs. Ahankhah.  She, too, is a fan of the book and the film.  After a short discussion about the film, Sabzian introduces himself as Makhmalbaf.  Mrs. Ahankhah is a bit puzzled at the spectacle of a famous director using public transportation.  Sabzian explains that he finds inspiration in doing so.  Mrs. Ahankhah tells Sabzian that her son adores him.  Sabzian in turn asks Mrs. Ahankhah to relay his phone number to her son.  Posing as Makhmalbaf, Sabzian visits the Ahankhah family several times over the next couple of weeks.  He often eats at their house and even flatters them by suggesting that he would use their house for his next film and their son as his main actor.

Eventually Mr. Ahankhah grows suspicious of Sabzian’s authenticity, especially when a magazine photo shows a younger darker-haired Makhmalbaf.  Mr. Ahankhah invites an ambitious journalist friend (Hossain Farazmand) over, who confirms that Sabzian is indeed an impostor. The police come to arrest Sabzian, while the reporter takes several pictures for his upcoming article: “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested.” Kiarostami intersperses these scenes throughout the film, which does not progress chronologically. They are re-enactments, and they are the only re-enactments in the film.

The rest of the film is a documentary (or what passes for documentary when the subjects know a camera shooting is them). Kiarostami obtains permission from the court to film the trial (Sabzian is being tried for fraud which is real). Occasionally, Kiarostami interrupts to ask a few questions from Sabzian. Kiarostami’s interventions have been permitted by the judge in advance.  There is a judge but no lawyers, and both sides tell their story themselves. Over the course of the trial, Sabzian is questioned persistently about his reasons for impersonating Makhmalbaf.  He gives a variety of reasons: he feels empowered as Makhmalbaf and people respect him and listen to his every word. Moreover, Sabzian loves cinema. He watches films over and over again.  And he “lives” for the movie, The Cyclist.  At the end, the Ahankhah family requests that their complaint be withdrawn.  The case is dropped, the legal crisis is resolved, and Sabzian is released.

In the next scene, Sabzian does not know that a camera is following him as he is released from prison.  On his way to catch the bus, he is confronted by the real Makhmalbaf who is there to greet him.  This encounter causes an emotional scene followed by Sabzian and Makhmalbaf riding a bike to Ahankhah’s house.  Sabzian, presumably, wants to see the Ahankhah’s one more time.  Once they have arrived at the door, Sabzian rings the bell and Mrs. Ahankhah asks, “who is it?”  To which Sabzian answers, “Sabzian.”  She asks again, “who?”  This time Sabzian replies: “Makhmalbaf.” Subsequently, the door is buzzed open and both Makhmalbaf and Sabzian are greeted by Mr. Ahankhah, which is the very last scene of the movie.

Sabzian, who is portrayed as essentially a good man throughout the movie, is mistaken for Makhmalbaf (the director), or rather sells himself as such. His crime is not merely the acceptance of the Ahankhah’s hospitality, rather doing so under false pretences.  Thus, the main dilemma in this movie is the crisis of identity.  There are two resolutions to this crisis: the less important one, which is the legal resolution; and the main one, which is the ethical resolution.  The legal resolution is arrived at by the court, via the eventual request of the accusers (the Ahankhahs), which sets Sabzian free from prison.  It is the ethical resolution, however, which signifies a point of cultural contrast to the West.

Kiarostami’s Close-Up challenges ideals rooted in the Enlightenment such as, individual rights, liberal democracy, and one-man-one-vote as notions that are natural or even desired.  It is an appeal against the Western idea that “Jack” is “Jack” and nobody else can be “Jack.”  Makhmalbaf’s identity is as much ingrained in his art – and by extension, in his society – as it is in him as an individual.  The very last scene in Close-up, where Sabzian introduces himself as Makhmalbaf while at Makhmalbaf’s presence, is a moment were ethics of individual rights has been transcended.  The right to Mahmalbaf’s name, fame, books, and his creativity are no longer important, as Makhmalbaf denies himself of such rights for the sake of friendship, community, and Sabzian’s reconsiliation with the Ahankhahs.  Honesty and authenticity are no longer valuable.  What is important is the social backbone, which must stay erect at all cost.  And it is not through individual rights or honesty that this goal is achieved, rather through shared identity and “hypocrisy.”

Mary Bateson, in the analysis of her ethnographic work that was published in the late 1970’s, explores some of the contrasts between the U.S. and Iran.  About America, she writes that there has been an increasing “assertion of the fundamental innocence and wholesomeness of the inner self and its right to expression.  Evil lies in the concealment itself, not in what is concealed.”[4]  She continues to suggest that,

Harmony is to be achieved by letting the outside directly express the inside.  Thus frankness and outspokenness are regarded by Americans as good, and honesty is preferred to kindness, tact, or prudence in the scale of virtues.[5]

This means that people are less likely to conform outwardly which provides the necessary predictability making Western social life possible.

Conversely, this is what she writes about Iranian culture:  “It explicitly accepts certain types of deception and dissimulation.  To begin with, the values of kindness, courtesy, and hospitality stand higher in many contexts than the values of frankness and honesty.”  Sabzian was the recipient of hospitality and kindness from the Ahankhah family even though the authenticity of his identity was always somewhat in question.

Bateson continues:  Iranians often question why the truth should be told if feelings are to be hurt.  Why, indeed, linger of painful truths?  Deaths in the family are sometimes not reported to the bereaved until the information can be passed along tactfully and supportively.  It is important to understand that this is not the case where honesty is not valued, rather given a particular set of circumstances where honesty can cause pain, a minor deception is preferred –  which cannot be regarded as a lie, as real lies are very much condemned.

She goes to suggest that in all such cases, “dissimulation is a response to external forces, which may be negatively conceived, and goodness lies within – an inversion of the Western situation where hypocrisy conceals something ugly.”[6]  Indeed, in Iranian folk psychology, the main source of evil is in social life; it comes from without, not from within.

During the court scene in Close-Up, Sabzian is able to buy the Judges’ sympathy by articulating that his trickery was not for material gain, rather it was a push against a society which had stripped him of all dignity and esteem.  The appeal in becoming Makhmalbaf was the gain of sudden fortune and respect that society had all but denied him.  The courts attraction to Sabzian is rooted in his inherent goodness; it is the evil in the social life which has made a joker out of him.  Not surprisingly, as the court interrogation continues, Sabzian is transformed from a charlatan to something vastly more meaningful, and the movie from a semi-documentary to a poetic narrative, during which Close-Up becomes fully Iranian.

“There are a multitude of contexts in Iranian culture in which what is concealed and covered is purer and finer than what can be seen from outside.”[7]  Both object and subject have an “exoteric” meaning (zaher) and an “esoteric” meaning (baten).  The exoteric meaning which requires seeing through the esoteric is the higher one.  It is the esoteric dimension of Sabzian that saves him from himself and turns his hypocrisy to social commentary.

Kiarostami is fully aware of zaher and baten, which is why two sets of questions are asked during the court scene.  The first category of questions, asked by the judge, deal with the exoteric values.  Such questions have to do with formalities and are rooted in legal procedures:  On what day did you meet the Ahankhahs?  Did you take any money from them?  How much?  And so on.  The second sets of questions, presented by Kiarostami, are the esoteric (baten) questions.  These latter sets of questions present to us the real Sabzian; a man who is a movie lover, who has strong convictions about how a director should act in public, and what subjects must he explore.

It is important to note that Western audiences are amazed to see that a director is allowed to ask questions of his own during a court hearing.  In American courts, when a prosecutor starts his routine by declaring “the people verses Jack,” the “people” are in fact divorced from the process.  A defendant can ask for a jury trial in which the jury is encouraged to limit its contact with external links in order to prevent bias judgments.  Again, concepts of one-man-one-vote and “objectivity” are at play in Western legal procedures.  In Iran, however, the court system has no identity of its own.  If the accusers withdraw their complaint, the case is over.  This suggests that individual rights take a back seat to social cohesion in Iran.

Moreover, the predictability seen to be necessary for proper social functioning in the West, does not work in the same way or to the same degree in Iran.  Jean Baudrillard suggested that predictability has become institutionalized in the West to the extent that even death is not given a chance to occur on its own terms.  Death, the most spontaneous and enigmatic event is regulated by institutional bio-power.

To use an analogy, a merchant at an Iranian Bazaar does not have a set price for his commodity.  He bargains his way by overbidding in order to fall back.  An Iranian merchant may even sell his items below the redline, at which point he will endure losses, if the person the item is being sold to holds such a position where he could exert his influence in way potentially useful for the merchant.  Even shopping, then, is shrouded by uncertainty.  A Westerner in general may endure a week of shopping masked by such ambiguity.  But, after a while, the Westerner needs to know “what the damn price is?”  The Americans, Baudrillard says, understand nothing in this whole psychodrama of bargaining.[8]

To demonstrate the level of unpredictability that Iranians are comfortable with, one can point to the daily ritual of taarof.  Taarof is characterized as a host offering anything that a guest might want, and the guest usually refusing it.  This ritual may repeat itself several times before the host and guest finally determine whether the host’s offer and the guest’s refusal are real or simply polite.  Taarof which enacts the virtues of generosity and humility are nonetheless surrounded by a degree of ambivalence.

Bateson notes that taarof is an exchange which encompasses a degree of risk and trust.  Person X offers more than he can conveniently give and person Y must show restraint in accepting it.  The point is that X has given Y the opportunity to refrain from injuring him.  Y will usually give more in return than the negative offering or restraint – for instance, he will give thanks for the gift he has not, and was not expected to accept.  Thus, a genuine taarof portrays a degree of trust as it involves risk or the acceptance of vulnerability vis-à-vis the other, who must then show self-restraint.

The story in Close-Up unfolds to the backdrop of such peculiar unpredictability.  Sabzian is forgiven by the Ahankhah’s in court.  But with this forgiveness comes a total termination of social relations between Sabzian and the Ahankhahs.  While Sabzian is physically free, he is still socially shackled by his ethics.  He therefore has to pay the Ahankhah’s one last visit during which he will not offer his apologies, since he has already done that.   Rather, Sabizan, during his most vulnerable moment, will offer the Ahankhah’s a chance to strike back verbally and physiologically.  The Ahankhahs, having understood such extreme variation of Taarof, show great self-restraint by opening the door to him with smiles and kisses.  Thus, the trust is restored, at least temporarily.

Roxanne Varzi, in her book titled, Warring Souls, adds another dimension to our understanding of the self in Iran.  The two key terms that she uses as a way of describing the construction of self in Iran are Khodsazi and BikhodiKhodsazi is the accumulation of knowledge.  Bikhodi, “can be defined simply as self annihilation, it is a slippery term that can in one instance refer to martyrdom, a final, physical death, and in another instance refer to self annihilation and madness, which marks the death of constructed self ego, without a physical death.”[9]

The mystical definition is the transcendence of the ego, which may or may not lead to physical death.  This becomes important in Ibn Arabi’s story of Laili and Majnun.  “The annihilation of the self is the moment of divine epiphany, a notion that is illustrated when Majnun says that he no longer knows himself and has death inside of himself.”[10]  He has forgotten himself and abandoned subjectivity in order to find truth.

As Close-Up unfolds, scene by scene, Sabzian moves closer, bit by bit, to total acquittal from trickery.   The Cyclist (a Makhmalbaf movie) has had a tremendous effect on Sabzian, to the degree that he can only see the world as if it were the stage for a movie production.  He only sees himself, society, and the world through the eyes of Makhmalbaf, which is why he becomes Makhmalbaf.  And he can only do this by annihilating Sabzian.  Again, it was strange for the audience to see Sabzian introduce himself as Sabzian during the last scene of the movie.  Incidentally, it was awkward for Sabzian as well, which became clear once he introduced himself a second time, and much more confidently, as Makhmalbaf.  Sabzian’s khodsazi materializes first, by viewing Makhmalbaf’s movies and getting into each one of their characters.  Then, there is a departure from khodsazi to bikhodi, were Sabzian becomes the characters and ultimately, Makhmalbaf.   Indeed, when Makhmalbaf greets Sabzian upon his release from prison, Sabzian almost faints, breaks down, and can hardly utter words that make sense.  This is the moment that he has lost all of his identities, for he is no longer Sabzian or Makhmalbaf.  Of course, this problem is resolved at the very end of the movie where Sabzian, while at Makhmalbaf’s presence, introduces himself as Makhamalbaf, and is allowed to regain an identity and, therefore, his composure.

In a lecture on Abbas Kiarostami’s films at Penn, Luara Mulvey, a film critique who was introduced as the Einstein of cinema, suggested that those who know anything about Iran must understand the role of poetry there.  But, she failed to articulate what she meant by Iranian poetry, or whether poetry in Iran is an artistic lyrical form of expression or something broader.  Aristotle once said poetry is “something more scientific and serious than history.”[11]  The former is represented by events “either likely or necessary;”[12] and the latter by events both specific and “real.”  The mystic poet Farid al-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds is a lyrical allegory of Persian mysticism.  And it is mysticism, according to Varzi, which pervades the very foundation of Iranian society.

The story of The Conference of the Birds is about the journey of a group of birds in search of a mystic leader named Simurgh who lives in an inaccessible place behind mountain Oaf.  The leader of the birds claims to have hidden knowledge of the Simurgh, and she leads them in the search.  For years, they navigate through dangerous terrain.  During the quest, many birds are petrified by the difficulty of the journey and make excuses to quit.  The complaints and replies narrated during the journey form mystical tales that are at the hart of this lyrical quest.  Attar tells us, “the only way to understand what they suffered…is to journey with them.”[13]

During the quest, the nightingale is the first bird to come forward with an excuse as to why he cannot continue the journey toward the Simurgh: He cannot be without the love of the rose.  The leader of the birds tells him:

The love of the rose has many thorns….although the rose is fair her beauty is soon gone.  One who seeks self-perfection should not become the slave of a love so passing.  Forsake the rose and blush for yourself, for she laughs at you with each new spring and then she smiles no more.[14]

The leader warns the rest of the birds that the image (zaher) is the most powerful of manipulations.  The hardest lesson for the birds to learn is that image tricks, betrays, disintegrates, and manipulates reality leading to simulation.  It is for this reason that in Close-Up, the court resolution, which is a legal and thus a zaher type of decree is of less significance vis-à-vis the ethical resolution which deals with the baten.

In Attar’s story, many of the birds make excuses during the journey, most quit and all but thirty birds remain.  Once the birds reach the mythical peak of Mt. Qaf, they find that there is no Simurgh (the mystical leader they were searching for).  In fact, they were all alone.  Si in Persian means, thirty.  And murg means, bird.  Thus, Si-murgh means, thirty birds.  When the remaining group of thirty birds reaches the peak of Mt.Qaf, they find that together they are the Simurgh.  The Simurgh is the very group that journeyed toward a mystical leader.

It is generally said in Iran that all one needs to know about mysticism – and by extension, about Iran – is in Attar.  The Conference of the Birds seems to suggest that oneness derives from the group and the only way to achieve it is through one’s selflessness (bi khodi).  It is in fact the virtue of selflessness portrayed by Imam Husain that made him one of the most iconic figures of Shiite Iran.  It is alleged that Imam Husain, Muhammad’s descendant through his daughter Fatimah, knew of his fate before engaging in the battle of Karbala.  His “martyrdom” represents utter selflessness in Iranian folklore.  Ayatollah Khoamani, the leader of the Iranian revolution and a student of Islamic mysticism (Erfan) is credited for his effective usage of the discourse of selflessness (bikhodi) which is said to have allowed him to institutionalize the culture of martyrdom during the 80’s.

Close-Up, The Conference of the Birds, and the story of Imam Husain’s martyrdom all point to a conception of self that is vastly different than Western notions in that it challenges ideals ingrained in the Enlightenment such as individual rights and liberal democracy.  It is thus, not ironic that Kiarostami’s movies are not popular in the Iranian mainstream.  His movies are redundant for the domestic viewers as they show nothing new and instead, reflect poetry that represents the essence of everyday life in Iran.  And perhaps, it is precisely for this reason that Kiarostami is adored by Western critics.

[1] Laura Mulvey is a prominent avant-garde filmmaker who is currently a professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London.  She has published many influential essays on cinema.  During her lecture at Penn in 2008, she noted that many Western critics, including herself, are fascinated with the poetics of Iranian new wave cinema

[2] Andrew, Geoff.  “Abbas Kiarostami Interveiw.”  The Guardian, April 2005.,,1476326,00.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bateson, Mary. (1979). This Figure of Tinsel: A study of Themes of Hypocrisy and Pessimism in Iranian Culture.  Daedalus Vol. 108, No 3. Pg 125.

[5] Bateson, Ibid.

[6] Bateson, Ibid.

[7] Bateson, Pg 127.

[8] Baudrillard, Jea. (2005). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

[9] Varzi, Roxanne. (2006). Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran.  Duke University Press.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ginzburg, Carlo.  (1999).  History, Rhetoric, and Proof.  Brandeis University Press.  Pg 38

[12] ibid.

[13] Varzi, Ibid.




On Nevrooz and ‘NO!’

The market in Tarlabaşı, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Taksim Square, is teeming.

A friend, Cian, and I decide to hold an impromptu breakfast with a few others in the neighbourhood.

‘Is there any coffee in the house?’ I ask.

‘Does chai (tea) count?’ He replies.

‘You’ve lived here too long.’ We laugh.

A moment of brevity.

We take the dark, stone stairs five flights to the bottom. The light from outside filters in just enough to reveal a kitten sitting insolently in the doorway. Her eyes shine in the dark before she scurries in under a small hole beneath the porch stairs.

I coo, hoping to coax her out. No luck.

My friend digs into his pocket for the keys as we walk out into the street, and the pouring rain.

I’m checking my pockets to see if I’ve remembered my phone. A friend is supposed to call in need of directions.

I look up.

Cian’s eyes are fixed at the door. My eyes move quickly towards what he is gazing at. A lump in the throat, my heart jumps.

But my fears are soon allayed; the kitten has emerged again. She sits in the doorway, in between the darkness and the light. She looks up at Cian – defiant.

Cian smiles, he feels her spirit, it’s contagious.

We make our way up the steep, meandering street. A fruit seller calls his prices in song. The beauty of the sound gently falls on us, like the rain.

People look up from their exchanges with fleeting smiles, but the drone of a police car soon breaks the mood.

Cian and I continue to climb the street up towards Tarlabaşı Boulevard. The road bends up under an overpass. A banner calling ‘Hayır!’ (No!) signed by the Resident Association of Beyoğlu is affixed to the bridge. A flutter of light from the sun pierces through the clouds, falls across the banner, and nods to the universe.

A moment of hope.

Cian and I exchange some money when we finally reach the top of the street, only to come back down again.

My hand is clenched on my phone inside my coat pocket. I want a picture of the banner, its mere presence is political, with each letter straining under the fragile hopefulness of millions across this country.

Speaking to friends and comrades we agree that either vote – ‘evet’ (yes) or ‘hayır’ (no) will likely make for a similar outcome in Turkey’s constitutional referendum. Part of the aim of this referendum, like much of what Turkey’s AKP government is doing these days, is meant to further polarise society. Nonetheless, we agree it’s important to campaign for a ‘no’, and to continue to resist the brazen fascism of the AKP and Erdoğan. And, perhaps most importantly, to use the opportunity to build a strong, cross-ethnio-religious base, that might represent another Turkey, a democratic one.

A Turkey that does not yet exist, and may have never existed, especially for the Kurds and the Alawites–and they demand that peace will only come when and where there is justice.

A steep demand for a world at the mercy of so many forces intent on its destruction.

A few nights previous, after taking in our fill of Paddy’s Day in Istanbul (which was uncannily similar to Dublin city centre adorned with ‘foreigners’ in Viking crowns, guzzling green-dyed beer and singing (badly) to ‘whiskey in the jar’ for the thousandth time) we were stopped by a cop thinly veiled as a ‘drug dealer’.

The cop calls out, hoping to snare us in some shadowy deal. Cian clicks his tongue, a universal Middle East sound for ‘no’, but its (apparently) already too late–the drug dealer/cop has made up his mind about our intentions in Tarlabaşı.

As the police officer approaches us, he seems erratic, aggressive. I know the behavior, it reminds me of the kids in college who used to sell coke in the basement cafe of our university library, talking at us a mile a minute, combative, sparing with each word.

He begins to pat- down Cian, releasing each pocket of his jumper of its assorted contents: some change, a lighter, chapstick, some crumpled up receipts. The cop acts as if the items are baiting him, each presenting a further opportunity to intimidate us.

When he finally gets to Cian’s rolling tobacco, and insists on scrutinizing each strand, I lose my mind.

‘Why are you doing this?’ My voice is soft, but firm.

A challenge.

The words buzz in front of me like mosquitoes waiting to draw blood. I flinch, wishing I could simply roll the words back into my mouth as purposefully as they exited.

I’ve transgressed what is expected. I was supposed to stay silent, to keep my eyes pointed down, to play the role of the ‘submissive woman’. I’ve never been very good at surrendering to authority, a condition I suffer from innately, since birth, really. I fear I shan’t recover.

In an instant, however, my mind plays its own judge, jury and prosecutioner.

‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ It asks me.

‘Do you know of all here, you have the least to lose? This is Cian’s home, his neighborhood. What were you thinking?’


Serif, a Turkish friend from Beşiktaş who is also with us, looks over at me, eyes wide. He is a lawyer and a Leftist. He spent the evening gushing about his new girlfriend and his plans to move to Europe to be with her (and escape, in his words, ‘the hell hole that is Turkey;’). Of all, my indignance could fall hardest on his future.

What is more, however, is that I know (amply) that there aren’t many ‘whys’ or ‘whats’ or ‘hows’ or any prudent questions fit for answers in Turkey these days.

Fascism is only really exceptional at the top. At the bottom it looks quite doltish, much like Hannah Arendt’s apt description of a ‘thought-defying banality of evil.’

Later, at a going-away party, I ask Serif a question I know I shouldn’t.

It’s a question I ask myself as well, but does appear to me as fabulously arrogant in light of the given circumstances in Turkey:

‘How do you accept that?’

I am somber, and I keep my eyes glued to his. I want him to know that the question is genuine, but also compassionate.

I am trying to empathise with something I know I cannot understand. Not like him anyway, and I want him to sense the difference.

He squints his eyes, and furrows his brow. On his face I read confusion.

In a soft voice I say, ‘I am talking about the over-reach of the police officer.’

My mouth stops there, but in my mind, I continue,

‘…and the casual ways in which we all have been calibrated by such realities that we begin to see these things as ordinary. And also, how familiar oppression feels that we bow to it not because we concede, but because its mundane.’

Serif takes a swig from a bottle of beer, contemplative. Then resolutely corrects me:

‘I don’t accept it, but what can I do?’

We both define ourselves as ‘activists’, so we have all the fancy, Left-wing answers. But none seem to square with the paradigm of Turkey, of fascism, of the seemingly intractable conflicts that have swollen this country with refugees and recession.

Serif is too polite to turn the question on me. Though, I wish he would. Not because I have a response, but because I don’t.

Because so-called ‘Western civilisation’, with its ‘bombing you to democracy,’ and its ‘worthy prices’ (paid in the blood) does not have an explanation, or solutions, or answers or ‘help’ — it’s all just the facade that keeps some at the top and others at the bottom.

We’ve commodified and exported the ideology of the ‘War on Terror’ to countries, like Serf’s, all to eager to buy their own petty versions to exact against their own endemic racist motifs.

American imperialism is not about patriotism and products. It’s about the colonisation of ideologies, about autocracies finding their own ‘9/11’s’ so that they too can fight a ‘war of terror’.


‘Pardon,’ a paunchy man with a long, white beard and black thawb is trying to squeeze himself between me and a table of olives. I look at him for a few seconds before I understand, and clumsily move out of his way.

Suddenly, I hear Cian calling me from a nearby shop where he has found a good bargain on Syrian coffee.

People move in the street like a flowing river, and you have to sort of dive in, in order to move.

I find Cian’s voice and go ‘upstream’ towards the shop. I emerge from the street soaked in my own awkwardness, bumbling my bags and terrible excuse for Turkish.

I hear a man in the shop tell Cian that ‘it’s two days until Nevrooz – the Zoroastrian calendar’s ‘New Year’ and the Spring Equinox’. He nods in my direction as if to also let me in on the news.

I know Nevrooz, or Norooz as we say in Persian, well. It is also celebrated in Iran, where my family is from. However, fixed in this market full of Kurds forbidden to show any outward sign of their most important yearly holiday, the (painful) myopia of my privilege begins to materialise.

For me, sheltered in a culture where Norooz is the cornerstone of the year, I have never experienced it as anything but public and joyous: the making of the haft-sin, the excitement of chahar-shanbe soori, the amaranthine platters of food, and a fortune straight from the lips of Hafez himself.

And, though I’ve celebrated Nevrooz across the Middle East, I never recognised it as political, lest something that could be made illegal or forbidden.

As Cian and I make our way back through the market, searching for eggs, bread, tamar (dates), strawberries, a market that feels so crowded it could almost burst. Suddenly, its as if only one component really matters – and its missing: Nevrooz.

My eyes scour the streets, the stalls, the tarps, the walls, but there are no banners, no Kurdish coloured flags, no special foods or people requesting donations like on most holiday. There is no pulse, especially not the kind that fills a space just before a celebration.

Instead, people appear tense. The atmosphere is heavy, and greetings are punctuated with silence instead of laughter.

The image of ‘what could be’ hangs in the air, and for a moment I try to imagine it.

My mind, molded by catholic/shia conceptions of the meaningfulness of suffering, and how it can bring joy into full colour, seems remarkably difficult a concept when standing, literally, amongst a community that has experienced so much pain.

So, instead I think about how the act of making (or taking) meaning from suffering can be an act of resistance. An attempt to both ask and answer the question, ‘why’. Or to say plainly,  ‘I don’t accept this.’ To be critical even of the universe’s absolutism on life and death.

I breathe in the corpulent air of such a proposal, and I think of how it doesn’t simply defy Erdoğan, but (probably) God. And I remind myself that I left the house for coffee, which I haven’t had yet, and certainly will need if I am planning an afternoon of taking on the Creator.

I also know that I’ve come again to Turkey to be amongst the Kurdish freedom movement, who even after being denied and deprived those things that define ‘a community’: language, culture, ritual, rights – has imagined something meaningful from its suffering, and for more than just themselves.

It’s not perfect. And imperilled from within and without – but it is imaginative and more than that, its brave.

The ‘illegality’ of Nevrooz has put dozens of its organisers in prison, but it has not stopped it from going. It seems that by making it forbidden, the Turkish state has sanctioned it ever the more in the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people, and it is more visible than ever.


In 2017 the Political is Personal

‘A revolution in consciousness is an empty high without a revolution in the distribution of power.’ – Abbie Hoffman

I first came across the political whirlwind that was Abbie Hoffman whilst a new activist in university. I was studying for an honours degree in Middle East studies, and living in a eco-feminist, catholic worker commune in Camden, NJ. The forty-minute commute between Camden and West Philadelphia, where my university was located, brought me through some of the U.S.’s poorest neighborhoods. In fact, my own city of Camden had routinely made the list of ‘America’s most dangerous cities’ due to the high homicide rates relative to the size of population. The contrasts between my abstemious life at home in Camden, and the cloying wealth of the University of Pennsylvania was vast.

Though, even at the tender age of 19, contrasts of privilege and power had already seeded an avid political consciousness in me. Growing up as a minority in the U.S., I knew contrast. As a child of ‘mixed’ parentage – my mother an American of Irish descent, and my father an Azeri-Iranian and an immigrant – our family was codified within the racially ambiguous term ‘blended’. Yet, in my experience, the word blended fails to capture much of the reality, as our family was probably better characterised as immiscible, in other words, we did not ‘blend’.

Already strained by the burden of attempting to cope with normative gender roles that seemed to confirm Carol Hanisch’s observation that the ‘personal is political’, my parents’ marriage seemed to suffer particularly by the inverse of that famous slogan, ‘the political [was] personal.’ My parents divorced in 1986 when I was not yet three years of age. In November 1985, the Reagan administration began secretly and illegally selling arms to the Iranian government, just at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, as means of funding Right-wing paramilitaries (aka ‘the Contras’) in Nicaragua, who were under sanction by the U.S. congress. Whilst the Reagan administration made pronouncements condemning various governments’ ‘support for terrorism’ or ‘lack of democracy’ it was, if not instigating, fuelling wars from Latin America to the USSR to the Middle East.

Unwilling to challenge the undemocratic, often surreptitious policies that have characterised U.S. foreign policy since Reconstruction, the media turned its gaze towards those who were largely its victims. In the case of Iran, the media became obsessed with curating Islam as cultish, and fixated on perfunctory depictions of Iranian women, clad in billowing, black chadors, (invariably) shouting: Marg barg Amerika! (death to America) at any opportunity.


These depictions were not simply the fantasies of doltish, American journalists. They were, rather, the consequence of economic, political, and social contexts, and intended to conjure specific kinds of reactions and affirm particular world views. In these ‘stories’, Iranian women were all the same. They did not have subjectivity, they did not ‘act’, and their reactionary politics was driven by ideology and false-consciousness. Of course these are the very discursive maneuvers that have, since the Enlightenment, helped to formalise Islam as a counterpoint to the West with the issue of women’s rights as the cornerstone. Today, the paradigm that the ‘West’ and the ‘Islamic world’ are caught in an intractable conflict continues to set the tone of debates – and worse, policies – with disastrous effect.

In recent history, one consequences of the harm of maintaining this spurious characterisation is the War on Terror, and the invasion into Afghanistan, that successfully mobilised mainstream feminist groups, like the Feminist Majority, to support it under the guise of ‘protecting the rights of women and girls.’ The so-called ‘mission of hope in Afghanistan’ – as described by Laura Bush with little recognition of the deeply colonial frame such a description provokes – included several partners from post-colonial states, including Ireland. Through its ‘peace partnership’ with NATO, Irish troops maintained a modest presence in Afghanistan from 2002 – 2014.

These political realities are the contrasts and complexities of the world I was born into, and the one in which we are all bound to dwell. They are maintained by structures of injustice, disparities of wealth and power, and animate the spatial landscapes that also determine our epistemic view. This is why it is important to notice, for instance, why certain postcodes have well-funded schools and well-connected services, and others struggle to maintain a modicum of these rights. It is also important to notice that issues of inequality such as those Hanisch’s essay articulate, were not merely ‘personal’ without political consequence, but deeply political and connected to material structures of discrimination that narrate those structures as ‘natural’.

Further, where Second Wave feminism championed Hanisch’s slogan through a myriad of campaigns like reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work, Third Wave conceptions brought the slogan into the reverse: the political was personal. The difference between the two is subtle yet critical as a means to disturb some of the ways in which certain streams of feminism have colonised what it means to be a ‘feminist’ and what feminist collective action looks like.

The difference is also important in terms of framing; our strategies of resistance to hetero-patriarchy (centrally) need to be constitutive of a larger political imagination. An imagination that both asks and attempts to answer the question: what kind of society do we want to live in?

When I began integrating the idea that the ‘political was personal, ‘several questions arose. The first went back to my childhood and my parents marriage and eventual divorce. 1979 was the year my father and mother met and fell in love, and was also the year that the romance between the U.S. and Iran went afoul. As my parents made attempts to salvage their relationship in the early 1980s, the political backdrop created new challenges that put considerable stress on them that became too much to bear. Reagan’s decision to fund the Contras in Nicaragua through weapons sales to Iran (facilitated by Israel) assisted in prolonging a brutal war between Iran and Iraq that killed nearly half a million people over eight years. The war also displaced millions, with a fortune few, like my family, able to migrate away from Iran (and Iraq) and settle in places like the U.S. and Europe.palestine, feminism
However, though it is possible to travel away from war, it’s futile to believe you can be ‘free from war’. For my family, there was a constant tension over fears that any single day could deliver news of a relative’s death, a beloved city bombed, or the further consolidation of authoritarian power in Iran. It was a political personalism never intended by Hanisch, but just as ostensible.

Like my parents’ ill-fated attempts to save their marriage, the U.S. and Iran never regained their ‘special relationship’, and as a result, I’ve never been able to visit Iran. Nevertheless, I was always defined by it, not least because of my name, but also as a result of the particularities of my experience – those contrasts – that have come to define and determine my life. Like those whose identity and self-definition has led them to distinguish themselves outside the binaries of sex and gender, I’ve refused the homogenising spaces meant to govern the performative aspects of one’s ethnic (or racial) identity. Similar to how I moved from my early activist days seeing patriarchy as the supremacy of men over women–instead of the creation of gender as an exercise of power—so too have my thoughts on feminism at the intersection of race evolved.

I no longer seek to strictly define feminist or feminism under a single, over-arching notion of equality or choice as determined by Western neo-liberalism. Nor do I condone the idea of ‘cultural relativism,’ as what we define as culture is neither fixed nor free from structures of injustice that shape it positively and negatively.

Instead, I have found the work of artists, activists and scholars committed to ending patriarchy and building a society of inclusivity to be most instructive and most able to actively maintain a space of diversity.

Sometimes diversity will be dialectical and emancipatory, exemplifying an almost seamless congruence of the widest array of thoughts and identities. At other times, diversity will be the (mundane beauty of) work necessary to hold opposites in tension.

For feminists of our time (or womanists or gender justice activists – widely defined) there is an urgent need to re-examine and re-claim the political project of feminism from its co-optation into capitalism, Eurocentrism and heteronormativity. How we do that (in other words our strategies for resistance) is as important as the results. I think our strategy begins with what many have described as ‘de-colonising feminism’. This process has largely given way to the post-Third wave feminist paradigms that have sought to expand beyond the limiting dichotomies of Western epistemology. These epistemes attempt to simplify and bifurcate what are the very rich and complex diversities into one thing and its opposing twin: East/West, Modern/Backward, Us/Other, Mother country/Colony, Civilised/Uncivilised, White/Black.

This vision of the world is dangerous in the way in which it has defined most of the colonised world outside of the realm of ‘civilisation’,  and assumes there is a normative, natural hierarchy in which the world is organised. Those at the top of this hierarchy, mainly the U.S. and Europe, are thus able to colonise all visions of what it means to be modern and civilised – and that everything that is not ‘Western’ is therefore the uncivilised, traditional, and backwards.

In fact, Edward Said, post-colonialism’s most well-known scholar, argued that there has been a sustained pattern of misrepresentation of the Islamic world for the specific purpose of justifying Western hegemony. Chandra Mohanty expanded on Said’s research by relating how one of the central tropes of Western colonial literature in the 20th century is the depiction of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ in need of ‘saving’.  This trope racialises women of the ‘Islamic world’ on the basis of their racial /ethnic identities in many of the same ways patriarchy attempts to subordinate women identified and non-binary people on the basis of their gender identities.

For feminists interested in de-colonising their feminism, Angela Davis’ Women, Culture and Politics is instructive. In the book Davis describes  a trip she made to Egypt in the late 1980s where she came face to face with the complexities of her location as subaltern woman of the global North in relation to her fellow subaltern women of the global South. In this relation, Davis’ identity, even as an African American woman of colour, was privileged vis-a-vis many of her fellow Egyptian female identified counterparts.  This encounter prompted Davis to write about the necessity of never taking identity or relations of power for granted, and of the imperative to always interrogate one’s own power in connection to shifting relationships.

Davis’ reflexsive approach shouldn’t be seen as something that is simply ‘morally good’, but as a feminist praxis that centres the subjectivity of her fellow feminist activists over her own assumptions. In so doing she actively made space for the voices of her fellow feminist activists from less privileged positions of power  than her own to be heard. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement describes this approach as ‘leaning out’ to allow others to ‘lean in’. What’s more, Davis uses her subaltern identity to progress the reach of her feminist solidarity by offering her own platform as a space to bring in others even more marginalised than herself.

Her example asks the important question to all feminists: how do we cultivate a radical anti-capitalist / anti-systemic politics, which is constitutive of, but goes beyond, the confines of identity politics?

One way I’ve chosen to struggle with that question publicly is to start a blog called Steal this Hijab (StH). My blog was created for me to both demonstrate that the Islamic world has a rich, diverse and long-reaching history of gender justice movements, but also as a way of discussing and debating de-colonial feminisms. StH’s names was ‘stolen’ from a work of a similar title, Steal this Book by Abbie Hoffman, an American anti-war activist (in)famous for his theatrical approach to political engagement. As the passage at the outset of this essay relates, Hoffman knew that raising the consciousness of people would only be an initial step; one that would inevitably remain elitist and ineffectual without being tied to acts of political dissent. Hoffman called this ‘critical resistance’ and offered that it could be achieved whilst maintain imagination and a sense of humour.

Finally, the capacity for feminists to aspire towards changing the societies in which we live is not separate from the political and cultural regimes within which our lives are intertwined. By understanding the complex dynamics of our identities and their contexts we can transform the dominant narratives that frame our personal and political lives and make genuine solidarity possible.

Strike! for Repeal

Originally published on Sujin

NEWS CENTER- Irish women urged to strike unless Irish Government calls abortion referendum by March 8. Strike 4 Repeal movement urged the public to support the movement on social media. “We have the support of thousands of people in Ireland and the world and the media attention continues to embarrass Ireland. We will strike on the day and more and more people will continue to get involved in the movement, making it even bigger and angrier than before!” said Aoife France from Strike 4 Reveal.

In the previous days, Strike 4 Repeal, an ad-hoc group of activists, academics, trade unionists and artists with previous experience in reproductive health issues to organize a direct action, shared a video on social media and said, “The government has deployed a citizens’ assembly to delay a referendum on the 8th amendment. Meanwhile people’s lives and health are in danger; another person could die at any time. We can’t wait and we won’t wait. We have one demand to the Government, call a referendum before the 8th of March or there will be a national strike. Thousands of people took time off work last year to access abortions; we are asking you to show your solidarity with them. If a referendum is not called then strike. On the 8th of March take the day off work. Don’t do domestic work. Wear black to show your support. We won’t wait.”

‘Women have died and have suffered significant health issues’

A Dublin based activist Aoife Frances from Strike 4 Repeal spoke to our gazette on the 8th amendment and their campaign. She said, “The 8th amendment was inserted into our Irish Constitution in 1983 – it equates the life of a fetus (un-born child) and the life and health of a woman. We have been fighting for decades to remove this amendment and allow legal abortion in Ireland however the state has never moved to make it accessible. In this time women have died and have suffered significant health issues as a result – aside from abortion, the 8th amendment also means that if a person decides to keep a pregnancy, during their maternal care, if any treatment needed by the woman might interfere with the life of the un-born baby the doctors need to consult legal advice or go to court.”

‘Citizen’s Assembly has no legal precedence’

Aoife stated that a Citizen’s Assembly had been formed by the government and the assembly had no legal precedence and added, “It is simply something the government came up with to subdue and attempt to silence activists who are calling for accessible abortion. It is a group of randomly picked people (99 of them) who will meet and be asked what they think about the 8th amendment and abortion in Ireland. The government do not have to take ANY of their recommendations on however – we believe the assembly to be a delaying tactic, in reality the UN Human Rights committee, alongside several other national and international bodies have told Ireland they need to expand the law on abortion and they have not done so. So why would they now listen to a small assembly of 99 people? Why not ask the whole country through a referendum?”

‘Woman forced to give birth’

“The current law on abortion is informed by the 8th amendment in the constitution so our current law called the Protection of life during Pregnancy Act,” said Aoife and continued as follows; “It criminalizes abortion with a 14 year prison term for anyone who has one or helps someone to have one in Ireland. It only allows abortion in extremely rare circumstances, so rare that very few women try this legal route. A few years ago a migrant woman seeking refuge in Ireland who had been raped in her home country tried to access an abortion using the Protection of life during pregnancy law, they refused to grant her it and in the end she went on hunger strike and was force fed and then forced to give birth to the baby at 6 months through a C-section. It is only legal in Ireland to get information about how to travel abroad for an abortion; it is illegal to give information on how to obtain abortion pills on the internet.”

The number of women travelling to UK over for abortions increases day by day. Aoife commented on Brexit and said, “We are unsure what it will mean for women who need to travel since Brexit. But we are very worried about it as 12 women a day travel over for abortions.”

‘We have also been contacted by groups all over the world’

Stating that many organizations in Ireland and in the world supported the movement, Aoife said, “We have received a huge amount of support for Strike4Repeal, some of the main organizations who support us are – The Abortion Rights Campaign, the Anti-racist Network, Need Abortion Ireland. We have also been contacted by groups all over the world – from New York to Berlin to Argentina who are going to do solidarity actions for us on the 8th.

“We are asking the government to give us a date for a referendum before the 8th of March – not to hold a referendum before then. We doubt that they will as they have been so cowardly on the issue so far. They will regret it though – we have the support of thousands of people in Ireland and the world and the media attention continues to embarrass Ireland. We will strike on the day and more and more people will continue to get involved in the movement, making it even bigger and angrier than before!”

Emphasizing that their aim was to get a date for a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment, Aoife said, “A referendum would mean everyone would be asked to vote whether to remove the amendment and expand abortion law in Ireland. We want to remind the government not only that we want and need this change but that we are willing to fight to for it, no matter what it takes.” Aoife urged all women in the world to act in solidarity with them by holding rallies and protests outside Irish embassies all over the world and by spreading and sharing their page and video.

Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement

by: Dilar Dirik

This article is an edited version of a presentation at the “Dissecting Capitalist Modernity–Building Democratic Confederalism” Conference at Hamburg University, April 3-5th, 2015.

The fact that we are discussing the Kurdish freedom movement’s approaches, ideas, and re-conceptualizations of freedom today at this conference with people from so many diverse backgrounds is quite telling of the larger impacts of the Kobanê resistance, which go far beyond its military aspects.

The World Women’s March this year was launched at the border between North (Bakur) and West Kurdistan (Rojava), the artificial line which separates the twin cities Qamişlo and Nisêbin from each other. The committee took this decision in order to pay tribute to the resistance of the Women’s Defense Units YPJ in Kobanê against the Islamic State (ISIS). This, among many other examples, illustrates the increasing interest of feminists around the world in the Kurdish women’s movement.

So, at this crucial period in which Kurdish women contributed to a re-articulation of women’s liberation by rejecting to comply with the premises of the global patriarchal capitalist nation-state order, by breaking the taboo of women’s militancy (which is a taboo everywhere in the world, as it breaks social boundaries), by reclaiming legitimate self-defense, by dissociating the monopoly of power from the state, and by fighting a brutal force not on behalf of imperialist forces, but in order to create their own terms of liberation, not only from the state or fascist organizations, but also their own community, what can feminist movements learn from the experience of Kurdish women?

First, it should be mentioned that Kurdish women’s relationship to the feminisms in the region has often been quite complicated. Turkish feminists for instance had the tendency to marginalize Kurdish women, which they perceived as backward, and tried to forcefully assimilate them into their nationalist “modernization project”. In practice, this meant that all women first had to be “Turkish” in order to qualify for liberation. Their political struggle, especially when armed, was often met with harsh state violence, which used a gross combination of racism and sexism, centered around sexualized torture, systematic rape, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed militant women as prostitutes, because they dared to pose themselves as enemies of hyper-masculine armies. In the Western discourse, Kurdish women’s agency in their struggle was often denied by claims that they are “being instrumentalized for the national cause” or that they participate in the liberation struggle in order to escape their sad lives as “victims of a backward culture”.

Apart from being inherently chauvinistic and sexist, these kinds of arguments are further unable to explain the fact that the Kurdish movement created a popular grassroots feminist movement which challenged tradition and transformed society to a striking extent. Today, when we look at how the mainstream treats the Kurdish women’s resistance against ISIS, we can see very simplistic and problematic approaches that focus on the war in terms of a physical military fight only, even a certain Schadenfreude that ISIS is being defeated by women, a classical “girls beat boys” type of attitude. The women’s political motivations, their ideologies are ignored or co-opted within this context, even by feminists. Not many investigate the ideals that drive their struggle, barely anyone questions the fact that the ideology with which the women are fighting against ISIS is in fact on the terrorist list of many Western countries.

The aim of this talk is not to imply that feminism and the Kurdish women’s movement are two separate things. Rather, I want to investigate their relationships and focus on the original approaches of the Kurdish women’s movement that could provide some perspectives for other movements.

Of course there is not one singular feminism, but several strands which sometimes differ greatly from each other. The specifics of the experience of Kurdish women which created direct lived consciousness of the fact that different forms of oppression are inter-related, due to their multiply-oppressed position as members of a stateless nation in a world ruled by states, socio-economic exclusion, and patriarchal violence by the state and the community, as well as the Kurdish freedom movement’s critique of colonialism, capitalism, and the state, perhaps suggest anarchist, socialist and anti-colonial feminist movements to be the closest to the Kurdish women’s movement’s experience.

Yet, while claiming feminism as an important part of historical society and its legacy as a heritage, the discussions within the Kurdish women’s movement today aim to investigate the limits of feminism and move beyond it. This is not at all a classical post-feminist approach, nor does it reject feminism. Moving beyond means to systematize an alternative to the dominant system through a radical systemic critique and the communalization of the multi-front struggle, especially by politicizing the grassroots, leading a mental revolution, and transforming or figuratively killing the masculine and its multitudinous expressions, as well as questioning and resisting the entire global order, the stage of this violence and oppression. Kobanê, as well as the two other cantons of Rojava –Cizîre and Afrîn- are an example of the practical implementation of this. As I argue, the resistance of Kobanê, where courageous women defeated the most fascist forces of our day, has a lot to do with the people’s political ideology and envisioned model. The victory of Kobanê is a direct result of the social and political organization of the cantons, as well as the movement’s concept of freedom, far beyond nationalism, power, and the state.

Abdullah Öcalan, the ideological representative of the PKK, explicitly states that patriarchy, along with capitalism and the state lie at the roots of oppression, domination, and power and makes the connection between them clear: “All the power and state ideologies stem from sexist attitudes and behaviour[…]. Without women’s slavery none of the other types of slavery can exist let alone develop. Capitalism and nation-state denote the most institutionalized dominant male. More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male”.[1] He further claims: “Nothing in the Middle East is as gruesome as the social status of the woman. The enslavement of the woman is similar to the enslavement of the peoples, except it is even older”.[2] Elsewhere: “The project of women’s liberation goes far beyond the equality of the sexes, but moreover describes the essence of general democracy, of human rights, of harmony with nature and communal equality” (Öcalan, 2010, 203).

The Kurdish freedom movement’s outlook on women’s liberation is of an explicit communalist nature. Rather than deconstructing gender roles to infinity, it treats the conditions behind current concepts of womanhood as sociological phenomena and aims to redefine such concepts by formulating a new social contract. It criticizes mainstream feminism’s common analysis of sexism in terms of gender only, as well as its failure to achieve wider social change and justice by limiting the struggle to the framework of the persisting order. One of feminism’s main tragedies is its falling into the trap of liberalism. Under the banner of liberation, extreme individualism and consumerism are often propagated as emancipation and empowerment, posing clear obstacles to any collective action or to even touch the issues of real people. Of course individual liberties are crucial to democracy, but failure to mobilize in a grassroots manner requires a fundamental self-critique of feminism. The feminist term “intersectionality” of course underlines that forms of oppression are interlinked and that feminism needs to take a holistic approach to tackle them. But often, the feminist circles that engage in these debates fail to touch the real lives of millions of affected women, generating yet another vacuumed discussion on radicalism, inaccessible to most. How radical or intersectional is a struggle that fails to spread?

These attitudes, according to the Kurdish women’s movement, are linked to the subscription to positivist science and the relationship between knowledge and power, which blurs the explicit links between forms of domination, thus eliminating the belief in a different world by portraying the global system as the natural, immutable order of things. Due to its specific socio-political and economic conditions, as well as a firm ideological stance, accompanied by much sacrifice, the Kurdish women’s movement was able to mobilize into a mass movement by arriving at certain conclusions not just through theoretical debates, but actual lived experiences and practices, which not only created direct political consciousness but also an attachment to collectively find solutions, against all odds.

Thus, encouraged by Öcalan’s suggestion to develop a scientific method that challenges the hegemonic understanding of the sciences, especially the social sciences, which reproduce mechanisms of violence, exclusion, and oppression -one that does not limit itself to categorizing phenomena around humans and community without considering the fact that these are alive and potentially able to solve their problems, and that split areas of life from each other by creating myriads of scientific branches, but instead proposes a science that practically seeks to provide solutions to social problems, a “sociology of freedom”, centered around the voices and experiences of the oppressed- the women’s movement has been engaging in theoretical debates and proposed the concept of “jineology” (jin, Kurdish: “woman”). Discussions and debates are held in the Qandil mountains, at the frontlines in Rojava, as well as in poor neighborhoods in Diyarbakir – every street corner can be turned into an academy. Questions like “How to re-read and re-write women’s history? How is knowledge attained? What methods can be used in a liberationist quest for truth, when today’s science and knowledge productions take knowledge away from us and serve to maintain the status quo?” arise in intensive discussions. The deconstruction of patriarchy and other forms of subjugation, domination, and violence are accompanied by discussions on the construction of alternatives based on liberationist values and solutions to freedom issues.

While defining itself as a women’s science or women’s quest for knowledge itself, an objection that jineology poses to feminism is that it often occupies itself with analyzing social issues merely through gender lenses. While deconstructing gender roles and patriarchy has immensely contributed to our understanding of sexism and other forms of violence and oppression, this has not always successfully proposed what kind of alternative we can collectively create instead. If concepts such as man and woman, no matter how socially constructed they may be, look like they will persist in the minds of people for a while, should we perhaps try to set new terms of existence, provide them with a liberationist essence in the attempt to overcome them?

Let us not forget the background behind which these discussions are being held – in and around ultra-conservative societies with limited room for individual self-expression that deem women as unworthy, voiceless servants of men, a context of normalized, overtly institutionalized violence against women. If it is possible to re-imagine concepts of identity such as the “nation” by disassociating it from ethnic implications and aiming at forming a unity based on principles, in other words, a unity of thought, consisting of political subjects rather than objects serving the state (which is the idea that is advocated in multi-cultural Rojava, the “democratic nation” as articulated by Öcalan), can we also create a new free, radically empowering women’s identity, based on autonomy and freedom to shape a new sense of community, free from hierarchy and domination? Jineology does not aim to perpetuate an essentialist concept of womanhood, a new assigning of a social role with limited room for movement, neither does it regard itself as a provider of answers, but proposes itself as a method to explore such arising questions in a collectivist manner. By researching history and history writing, jineology tries to learn from ruptures in mythologies and religions, understand the communalist forms of organization in the Neolithic age and beyond, investigate the relationships between means of production and social organization, and the rise of patriarchy with the emergence of accumulation and property.

And yet, while criticizing feminism’s fixation on gender, the Kurdish women’s movement at the same time, due to its own experience, recognizes the urgent need to pay attention to specific oppressions. In fact, the core element of this movement’s organizational structure is the autonomous self-organization of groups and communities in order to enhance radical democracy. Unlike most leaders of classical national liberation movements, Öcalan emphasizes the need for autonomous and conscious feminist struggle[3] and even prioritizes women’s liberation: “The twenty first century must be the era of awakening; the era of the liberated, emancipated woman […]. I believe [women’s liberation] should have priority over the liberation of homelands and labour” (Öcalan, 2013, p.59). There are plenty of examples of how the Kurdish women’s movement tries to live this autonomy in practice here and now, rather than projecting it to a time in the future – even one brief look at Kurdish women’s participation and power in Turkey’s politics would speak volumes. Women’s liberation is not just seen as an aim, but as a method that needs to be practiced on an everyday basis. It is not something that will be achieved in a democracy, but it is democracy in practice.

Today, the movement splits power equally between one woman and one man from party presidencies to neighborhood councils through its co-chair principle. Beyond providing women and men with equal decision-making power, the co-chair concept aims to decentralize power, prevent monopolism, and promote consensus-finding. This again demonstrates the association of liberation with communalist decision-making. The women’s movement is autonomously organized, socially, politically, militarily. While these organizational principles seek to guarantee women representation, massive social and political mobilization raises society’s consciousness, which requires a radical mentality revolution, because hierarchy and domination first establish themselves in thought.

Inspired by these principles, the Rojava cantons enforce co-presidencies and quotas, and created women’s defense units, women’s communes, academies, tribunals, and cooperatives in the midst of war and under the weight of an embargo. The women’s movement Yekîtiya Star is autonomously organized in all walks of life, from defense to economy to education to health. Autonomous women’s councils exist parallel to the people’s councils and can veto the latter’s decisions. Men committing violence against women are not supposed to be part of the administration. Gender-based discrimination, forced marriages, domestic violence, honor killings, polygamy, child marriage, and bride price are criminalized. Many non-Kurdish women, especially Arabs and Assyrians, join the armed ranks and administration in Rojava and are encouraged to organize autonomously as well. In all spheres, including the internal security forces (asayish) and the People’s Defense Units YPG and Women’s Defense Units YPJ, gender equality is a central part of education and training. As Ruken, an activist of the women’s movement in Rojava said: “We don’t knock on people’s doors and tell them they are wrong. Instead, we try to explain to them that they can organize themselves and give them the means to determine their own lives”.

Interestingly, though women’s liberation was always part of the PKK’s ideology, the women’s autonomous organization emerged simultaneous to the general shift of the political aim from the nation-state towards local grassroots-democratic mobilization. As the relationship between different forms of oppression was identified, as the oppressive assumptions and mechanisms of the statist system were exposed, alternative solutions were sought, resulting in the articulation of women’s liberation as an uncompromising principle.


Rather than aspiring to quest for justice within state-granted concepts such as legal rights, which is one of the pre-occupations of mainstream feminism, the Kurdish women’s movement came to the conclusion that the road to liberation requires a fundamental critique of the system. Instead of putting the burden on women, women’s liberation becomes a matter of responsibility for all of society, because it becomes a measure for society’s ethics and freedom. For a meaningful freedom struggle, women’s liberation must be an aim, but also an active method in the liberation process. In fact, expecting any meaningful social change from the very mechanisms that perpetuate rape culture and violence against women, such as the state, would mean to resort to liberalism with its feminist and democratic pretensions. A slogan I have seen in Rojava quite often, “We will defeat the attacks of the Islamic State by securing the liberation of women in the Middle East” is quite telling of this. Because one cannot just defeat ISIS militarily without also defeating the mentality that underlies it, the persisting global rape culture that gives it a platform. That mentality is not just embodied by ISIS, but is also partly expressed in our own minds, in our own communities – liberal state violence, ISIS’s violence, and honor killings in our own community are not that different from each other. Against all odds, after decades-long struggles and sacrifices, Kurdish women have established a political culture in and around the PKK in which sexism and violence against women will meet social ostracism.

The women’s movement independently produces sophisticated theories and critiques, but it is striking that a male leader of a Middle Eastern movement places women’s liberation as a critical measure of freedom. This has led to many feminists –who often haven’t actually read Öcalan’s books- to criticize that the Kurdish women’s movement is centered around a man in a leadership position. But if we analyze women’s freedom problem beyond narrow understandings within the gender framework, but instead treat it as society’s freedom issue, as fundamentally linked to centuries-old reproductions of power and hierarchy, when we rearticulate our understandings of liberation outside of the parameters of the dominant system with its patriarchal assumptions and behaviours, but seek to pose a radical alternative to it, if we thus stop regarding women’s liberation as a side effect of a perceived general revolution or liberation that may never come, but instead recognize that the radical fight for women’s freedom and their autonomous self-organization must be a central method and mechanism of the process towards freedom here and now, if we link the radical critique of the very methods we use to make sense of the world to the process of designing a more just life, in short – if we broaden and hence systematize our struggle for liberation, and recognize that the road to freedom requires self-reflection and internalization of democratic liberationist values, perhaps it would not be surprising after all that one of the most outspoken feminists can in fact be a man. Rather than concerning ourselves with Öcalan’s sex or gender, we should perhaps try to understand what it means for a man from an extremely feudal-patriarchal society to take such a position regarding women’s enslavement. What does it mean when a person in such a leading position calls to “kill the man”? Perhaps this is the radicalism that we need to solve our issues…

The World Women’s March that I had mentioned in the introduction joined this year’s 8th March celebrations in Amed (Diyarbakir). While photos of martyred Kurdish women militants were waving in the wind, I saw a group of singing people forming a circle of traditional Kurdish dances. One woman was playing the daf on which she had drawn the Anarchism A, while a veiled elderly woman in traditional clothes with fingers forming the victory sign was dancing to her rhythm, next to a young man accompanying her joy by waving a large LGBT flag. Quite an unusual sight to say the least, but indeed telling of the character of the Kurdish women’s movement.

Those wondering whether the Kurdish women’s movement “is actually feminist or not” need to realize the radicalism that swings between the two fingers raised to the victory sign by elderly women in colorful robes with traditional tattoos on their faces in Rojava today. That these women now participate in TV programs, people’s councils, the economy, that they now learn to read and write in their own language, that, once a week, a 70-year old woman recites traditional folk tales at the newly established Mesopotamia Academy of Social Sciences to challenge the history-writing of hegemonic powers and positivist science, is a radical act of defiance against the former monist regime, because rather than replacing the person on top, it refuses the parameters of the system altogether and constructs its own standards. And this platform will eventually defeat ISIS in the long-run.

The struggling women in Kobanê have become an inspiration for women around the word. In this sense, if we want to challenge the global patriarchal, nation-statist, racist, militarist, neo-colonialist and capitalist systemic order, we should ask which kinds of feminism this system can accept and which ones it cannot. An imperialist “feminism” can justify wars in the Middle East to “save women from barbarism”, while the same forces that fuel this so-called barbarism by their foreign policies or arms trades label the women who defend themselves in Kobanê today as terrorist.

The dominant system considers one of the most mobilized and empowering women’s movements as an inherent threat to its status quo. Thus, it becomes clear that the Kurdish freedom movement does not pose a threat to the international order due to its potential capability of creating a new state – in fact, it opposes the state paradigm-, but because of its radical alternative to it, an alternative life explicitly centred on abolishing 5000 years of systematic mental and physical slavery.

When we look at the two sides that fight in Kobanê today – smiling, hopeful women on one side, and murderous, violent rapists, who build their hegemony of darkness on destruction and fascist brutality on the other side, it looks like a movie script, the storyline of a novel. But it is in no way a coincident that these two lines are fighting in Rojava. The current order may be the legacy of millennia-old systems of domination and subjugation, there may have always been oppression, but at the same time, there have also always been revolutionary, rebellious, resistance struggles. The Islamic State is not a coincidental evil, but a result of the world order, and this order, with all of its mercenaries, meets its biggest enemy in the radical smiles of struggling women. Smiling is an ideological act. And these women are the guardians of our option of freedom.

Kurdish women have always been excluded from history-writing, but now their power has gone down in history. We are proud to belong to a generation of young Kurdish women, who will grow up having witnessed and identified with such a glorious struggle. It is not an empty pride in meaningless things such as nationalism, but a pride in resisting and sacrificing oneself for fundamental principles, for life. We do not need any myths or romanticizations to justify our demands for freedom. And I cannot imagine any mythology, any religious text, any fairy tale that could be more epic, liberating, and empowering than the resistance displayed by Kobanê’s women against fascism. We were all reborn with the resistance of Kobanê.


Öcalan, Abdullah, 2010, Jenseits von  Staat, Macht und Gewalt (Cologne: Mesopotamien Verlag).

Öcalan, Abdullah, 2011, Democratic Confederalism (Cologne: International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan),

Available online at

Öcalan, Abdullah, 2013, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution(Cologne: International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan), Available online at


[1] (Öcalan, 2011, p.17)

[2] (Öcalan, 2010, p.267)

[3] (Öcalan, 2013, p.53)

Occupying democracy

First published on Open Democracy

The replacement of democratically elected HDP/DBP mayors and local municipality workers by AKP appointees is a grave threat to democracy in Turkish Kurdistan and the larger region.

In the aftermath of the July 2016 coup d’état attempt in Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dismissed, detained and in some cases imprisoned co-mayors from 51 majority Kurdish local authorities across South East Turkey (North Kurdistan), replacing them with appointees from the AKP. The majority of these co-mayors belong to the AKP’s leading opposition parties, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and its Kurdistan branch the Democratic Regions Party (DBP). Mass layoffs and detentions of municipality workers, again a majority of whom were Kurdish, followed, alongside an occupation of the municipality buildings by the Turkish constabulary forces. Amongst the seized municipalities are North Kurdistan’s de-facto capital city of Diyarbakir (Amed) and other politically consequential cities such as Van, Mardin, Siirt and Dersim.

The capture and occupation of the local authorities is symbolic of a new phase in repression against the democratic opposition in Turkey, following the failed military coup in July 2016. Continue reading

Neoliberalism, Feminism and Afghanistan

Maxine Molyneux (2008) discussing neoliberal trends in feminist social policy in Latin America argues that the term ‘neoliberalism’ has become so profuse it had lost a sense of any specific meaning. In their essay Introduction: Reclaiming Feminism: Gender and Neoliberalism, Cornwall, Gideon and Wilson (2008) have described neoliberalism as a ‘set of economic policy prescriptions associated with the Washington Consensus’.

Originally, neoliberalism came to prominence under the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and promoted the theory that privatisation and deregulation of an economy were the best means of safeguarding the freedom of the individual to consume and compete without the intrusion of the state. Economist David Harvey (2006) argues that nations of the global North stumbled towards neoliberalism in response to the 1970s recession, where ‘the uneasy compact between capital and labour brokered by an interventionist state’ broke down. Continue reading

Gender(ed) Paradoxes

Feminist, anti-imperialist and student movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought to the fore the concept of the ‘personal [as] political’. Since that time, the ‘personal [as] political’ has become axiomatic, offered as a means of dismantling the dichotomy between the public and private spheres of our gendered lives. Feminist activists and scholars often use ‘the personal [as] political’ to address a diversity of questions related to gender, patriarchy (Hanisch, 1969), class and race (Lorde 1978; 1984). Similarly, I use the personal [as] political to show how it has been personal experiences and events that have attracted me to feminism. However, there are few causal lines between my ‘personal life’ and my adopting a feminist politics. Rather, it is my feminist principles that much affect on personal life.

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Migrants, Modernity and the ‘Islamisation of Europe’

I also come from a Muslim, Iranian, migrant background – where many in my family migrated to the U.S. from Iran in 1979 and throughout the 1980s as both economic migrants and refugees from the Iran-Iraq war – though we never considered ourselves that. In America, at least in the 1980’s, immigrants weren’t categorised as such–we just became ‘Americans’ for better or worse!

So, for me, though I did a PhD on the subject of Islam and feminism, my ‘expertise’ (if I have any to impart) is sourced at the intersection of my studies as well as my life experience. Continue reading

Solidarity and ‘the veil’: Why wearing a hijab in solidarity is more complicated than you think

Lately, there have been many stories of non-Muslim women deciding to wear the Muslim head scarf (or hijab) as a way of showing solidarity with Muslims, especially Muslim women, in this age of growing Islamophobia. One example is the Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, who is donning the hijab for the Christian season of Advent, explaining, ‘as part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws and at church.’ Continue reading

The Power of Memory

Collective hatred comes from narratives of cultural memory.

In 1916, anticipating victory, France, Russia, and Britain created the “Middle East” out of the remains of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire. Lebanon and Iraq were directly controlled, others kept in spheres of influence. Haifa, Gaza, and Jerusalem were an Allied “condominium.” Arms control was strictly European. The Arab powers learned of this at war’s end (1917). Agreements assuring Arab independence had disappeared. Continue reading


Walli Ullah Safi, 21 years of age, has been in Cloverhill prison for more than two weeks.

In very different circumstances, I was in prison at the same age for two weeks after protesting the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was one of hundreds of demonstrations I had been on after returning to the United States from Iraq. I had first travelled to Iraq, just barely 18 years of age, with a campaigning group who had highlighted the humanitarian crisis Iraqis faced under the sanctions. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the group had rallied in opposition to the Iraq war, mobilising thousands onto the streets. Continue reading

Impossible Solidarities: Islam, Feminism and (fortress) Europe’s Shifting Frontiers

Impossible Solidarities: Islam, Feminism and (fortress) Europe’s shifting frontiers

Whilst co-organising a vigil this past week commemorating those who drowned in the Mediterranean attempting to breach fortress Europe, I came across a passage by the late James Baldwin that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. The passage comes from an interview Baldwin did for the NY Times on the occasion of his 52nd birthday and his return to New York after more than a decade in Paris. Time constraints won’t allow me to give you much of a background, but given the ways in which racism and the tropes it perpetuates again and again remain as prevalent today as they were in 1977 when this article was published, it’s perhaps better you hear it as if Baldwin is speaking about Baltimore or Ferguson or even Lampadusa or Calais when he says,

there is a history we all have to contend with…For a long while, liberty was a privilege in this country–if you’re doing well, you can shout to your heart’s content, provided no one starts listening to you and your message doesn’t threaten too many people. We act as if this is a free country, until the White people tell us its not by jailing us or killing us. And a lot of us have been locked up or murdered over the centuries we’ve been here. Its a hard thing to talk about…Some people have tears in their eyes and let me know how awful they feel about the way our poor live, our blacks, or those in dozens of other countries, but people can cry much easier than they can change.

Continue reading

Talk Notes from Kieran Flynn Memorial Lecture Series on Islam in the West


The silence around feminism and religion is a profound one, and I think some of its roots lie in the narrative of secularism and its influence on feminism in both the academy and in feminist social movements. I think the silence functions to highlight a difficulty in approaching the subject of female autonomy in relation to religion, but also indicates a negativity towards religion on the part of feminist scholars –justified or not.

Although there has been a significant amount of work on religion and patriarchy (Dominance of a society by men, or the values that uphold such dominance.) as well as on agency, autonomy, and gender; there has less on the subject of women, religion and autonomy. Continue reading

The Koran does not Forbid Images of the Mohammad

The Charlie Hebdo killers were operating under a misapprehension. TOPKAPI PALACE LIBRARY

In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.

The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.

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Islam and Feminism: Whose Islam? Whose Feminism?

‘Islam and feminism have had a troubled relationship’, and goes on to warn us of the perils of faith-based feminism. While concurring with the essence of her critique of political Islam’s gender discourse, I suggest that the ‘troubled relationship’ has changed, and this change is actually due to the rise of political Islam, which has opened a dialogue between feminism and Islam. But before I go any further, some clarifications are in order. Both ‘feminism’ and ‘Islam’ are contested concepts, that is, they mean different things to different people and in different contexts. In other words, we need to start by asking: Whose Islam? Whose Feminism? These questions are central to Sholkamy’s critique, but remain implicit and unpacked in her essay.  Continue reading

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