We had the chance to meet with the Kurdish women’s movement and its institutions that came together under the roof of Tevgera Jinên Azad (Free Women’s Movement – TJA) in Diyarbakır when we went to 2022 Amed Newroz as a group of feminist women. We met or re-met with women who work actively in fields ranging from women’s labor to women’s language, art and culture, to combating male-state violence. We listened to the stories of how the Tohum Women’s Cooperative started to operate despite all their resources were confiscated by the trustees; how the Women’s Culture, Art and Literature Association (KASED) together with other cultural institutions created a space for tens, hundreds, thousands of women to express themselves; how women at Rosa Women’s Association struggle to build lives free from male violence and abuse by law enforcement officers despite the operations and detentions they endure. The determination of these women, all of whom are TJA members, to stand up and organize in all areas of life, despite a process through which all their institutions, opportunities and freedoms were at stake with statutory decrees, specific war and appointed trustee policies, gave us hope and strength in our feminist struggle. We hope you will feel the same way while reading this interview.
First, could you introduce yourself? When was Kadın Kültür Sanat ve Edebiyat Derneği [Women Culture Art and Literature Association – KASED] founded, and how long have you been involved in it? What kind of activities are conducted? How do women get involved? Do you also work with children?
Saliha: I have been a lecturing on and studying Kurdish language and literature for 12 years now. At the same time, I have been publishing studies that expose sexism in Kurdish literature works. Before municipalities in Van were invaded by appointed trustees, I taught language and literature at Kültür Sanat Akademisi [Culture Arts Academy] for six years. As you know, the appointed trustees first targeted cultural and women’s organizations. We were all fired following the invasion of the appointed trustees. Then, I moved to Amed, Diyarbakir and continued to engage with arts here. We were thinking about founding a women’s center in 2019, so we started working on it late 2019. I am among the eight women who founded KASED. I have been active in KASED for two years now.
As a women’s literature and art center, KASED carries out activities that only include women and children. But we also accept boys up to the age of 14 when needs arise. While founding KASED, we chose a region at a particular disadvantage. We established our center in a central district of Amed called Bağlar, a district where mostly women who have experienced forced migration, have serious economic problems, and cannot participate in social life and other vital activities. We continue our activities in this district. In other words, we are in a neighborhood mostly composed of families and mothers. Since we have been here, we were able to quickly contact the mothers. We opened courses in many fields of art. After a while, mothers, who first brought their children to these courses, started to attend these courses themselves when they realized that only women frequent the center. In other words, the mother who brought her child to class to learn how to play baglama or piano, began to say, “Actually, it was my dream too. I’m 60 years old, but I have always wanted to play baglama”. Similarly, we met 50-year-old, 40-year-old mothers who said, “Actually, I have always wanted to paint”. Now, approximately 40 mothers and children from the neighborhood attend courses at the center.
In other words, we have had contact with these women in Bağlar district, in the neighborhood. But apart from that, we also communicate with women from Adıyaman to Istanbul, from Istanbul to Van, who have been engaged with art in their own homes and have been singing for 30 years but have never been on the stage, have been painting for 30 years but have not exhibited any of their paintings. For example, we got in contact with Huriye Ahuzar in Adıyaman very recently. She had never played any instrument in her life other than the baglama. We brought her here for March 8, she got on the stage and sang with Koma Jin Ma/Ma Women’s Group. We made a television show together and then she appeared on stage and sang during Newroz celebrations in many other regions. That is, we care about contacting women who are interested in art but do not live in Amed.
To watch Huriye’s video:
The last time we were here, we met with people involved in various institutions such as Ma Müzik, Amed City Theater. Could you talk about your relationship with other cultural institutions in the city? Which institutions are more active or how do they collaborate?
Saliha:There is the Amed City Theater and the Aryen Art Center in Van. There is also the Ma Music Center in Amed. All of these institutions were founded following the appointment of trustees. Even if we have male colleagues in these institutions, it’s mostly composed of women colleagues. As one of the women who remained active in the field of culture and arts during the appointment of trustees, I can say that it was women who reclaimed this field the fastest and strongest. In other words, women in theater, writers and musicians kept their positions in spite of the appointed trustees, protected their fields, and became institutionalized rapidly. Theater was a particular case. Today, yes, there are many men involved but very strong women are leading the field of theater. They get by with just the tickets they sell. After the appointment of trustees, they formed a second institution. They founded Amed City Theatre. Now they make plays and TV shows. That’s how they survive. Same with Ma Music. It makes ends meet with concerts and the young people they train. Before the trustees, there were students studying in academies. They continued their education and are now professional trainers. Together with their students, these institutions carry out musical work through concerts not only in Kurdistan but in many other parts of Turkey today. There are archival studies on this. For instance, there are discussions around rejecting the sexist discourses in anonymous folk songs. I can say that institutionalization has become the strongest proof of our organization in the field of culture and arts.
After trustees were appointed to our institutions, we never lost touch within the women’s front. We continued our dialogue with every woman who is interested in art, Kurdish music, Kurdish art and Kurdish literature. Before the trustees, there were a number of cultural centers and art institutions. Afterwards, as I have already indicated, institutions continued to be formed rapidly. As women, we have never interrupted the flow of our organized power. Whether in theater, multi-disciplinary, or music works, we have come together many times to conduct jineology workshops, art workshops and art-centered discussions. We come together as different institutions especially for March 8, Newroz or the week of November 25 for combating violence against women. We carry out joint works in theater and music and perform folk dances. Most of our friends, who are interested in Kurdish art and the Kurdish struggle, are quite self-sacrificing in this regard. Even if they work for a different institution, when there is a joint project with KASED, people tend to push their responsibilities to give priority to women’s work. In fact, I would like to use this opportunity to thank all those friends. In our culture and art institutions, there is a tendency to embrace women’s institutions, KASED, more than their own institutions. Moreover, the organized women’s movement, from TJA (Tevgera Jinên Azad) to many women’s institutions, took care of us. They immediately embraced KASED as their own institution, sent their children and referred women. We founded KASED not with very high expectations, not for big breakthroughs, but only to create a space where women can breathe comfortably. It had a positive impact.
We partnered with not only cultural institutions, but also many women’s institutions and collectives. For example, Metal Collective; a collective where a group of women involved in the health care sector sculpt together. We also provide a place for them when they want to have a meeting, a gathering. Then, there is Nefel Collective. It especially appeals to mothers who are not psychologically comfortable at home and have economic difficulties following the pandemic. It is a collective that knits, makes toys, and makes amigurumi. Our door is open to them whenever they want. Whether in Kurdistan or the Middle East, our doors are open as a venue to anyone who is interested in women’s art. We provide opportunities, we collaborate. You can learn about some of these works on Pel Film and Morî Production Youtube channels.
Of course, the culture industry is not a space solely women partake in. What motivated you to organize specifically women in this field? What are the repercussions of organizing with regards to the women’s movement and culture industry?
Saliha: This is an important question. We had planned and dreamed of a women’s center for a long time, but we could only realize it after the appointment of trustees. Since we, as women, did not want to go back to those traditional, masculine, sexist-dominated lives after putting in so much effort, we strongly protected and institutionalized these areas, especially in the field of culture and arts. That’s why our women’s organization in the field of culture and arts is very meaningful and strong.
Actually, our motto is derived from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. This led us to create an institution of our own. Create an institution of your own and write, produce, frequent, and conduct the artistic work that pleases you at the institution without thinking about what men have to say. Therefore, it is very important that an institution, a women’s center, is established. We embarked on this journey by caring that a woman should come without worry and fear and become competent in the artistic field she desires comfortably under an institution. And when we set out, we always took this into account: There are women who have been subjected to feudal impositions from their father, older brothers, then their spouses and even their children. Because we, as women who carry on the Kurdish women’s struggle, have experienced many problems, customary and feudal impositions. When a man wants to pursue art, they say “go try and come again”. He can travel all around the world and return home to sit around as if nothing happened. On the other hand, when a woman wants to be involved in art, she has a hard time going outside of her house. This is a phenomenon not limited to the Middle East, it happens regardless of where they are on earth. Today there are many examples, even in Europe, where modernity and freedom is emphasized, but for the last 100 years, women have been strongly engaged in art. We know very well what the state of university education was until the 20th century. The schooling imposed on women was only about being a ‘good woman’, a ‘good wife’, being a mother, and being able to clean well. That’s what was taught academically. Therefore, anywhere in the world, women are not able to easily engage in art, cannot go out, or attend an institution or a center. We wanted to create an institution of our own. That was our position. We wanted women to try themselves in these institutions. So come with no expectations. If you’d like to read a book, read a book. Do you want to play the piano – play the piano. Do you want to do theater – do theater. Whatever you want to do, just do it. Treat it as an opportunity offered to you. For instance, our beloved student, Beyza. No one in her family can read or write. Beyza is still in school. She comes in here, knocks on the door, doesn’t even say hello, goes, sits in the piano room, and just plays the piano. It really means a lot to us that she can come as she pleases, play the piano, and leave without saying goodbye to us. This is what we set out for.
You have previously told us that all work is conducted in Kurdish. What is the significance of conducting your activities specifically in the mother tongue of women?
Saliha: I can talk about it for hours since it is my own field, but I would like to say very briefly: It is indispensable for us that the Kurdish language and art come to the fore, but most importantly, Kurdish is established as the language of education. While the struggle to establish Kurdish language as the language of daily life, the language of media and especially the language of education has been going on for years, it would have been a great contradiction to deal with Kurdish culture and not teach in Kurdish. That’s why all our cultural and artistic activities are in Kurdish. But of course, we do not approach the language issue from a fascist point of view such as ‘one nation, one race, one language’. We welcome Turkish, English and all other languages. But if you are dealing with Kurdish art, you need to know Kurdish well and you need to know the story of this language, its literature, novels, music, theater, and characters. That’s why language is emphasized in all our work as a fundamental principle.
We also know that the language struggle grows with women. Today, Kurdish women lead the struggle for the Kurdish language. The reason why we say ‘mother tongue’ is that the language is transmitted through the mother, and the child’s participation in life develops through the mother. Therefore, the language issue is also a women’s issue. The issue of women is also an issue of language. Of course, we all fight for our mother tongue, but it has reached this point with the support of women who carried it to the present day. You know, Kurdish has been banned for centuries, and it still is. No matter how much TRT ŞEŞ seems to exist, many people are prosecuted for making Kurdish art, singing in Kurdish, speaking Kurdish. And they are putting in a lot of effort for their right to speak in their mother tongue in the courts, even to be tried in Kurdish. As the women’s struggle has grown, the language struggle has gained greater and broader meaning for us.
With regards to language and women’s resistance, there are courses for women on dengbeji, correct? Why are women dengbej so important?
Saliha: Dengbej training is given at the Ma Music Center, yes. Oral literature is very important for Kurdish, it has a great share in the success of Kurdish literature. We still don’t have as many written sources as we would like. You know, it has not been the language of education for many years. We are talking about a language that has been oppressed and destroyed, buried under the ground. It is a language passed on through oral tradition. And dengbeji is our most fundamental and critical resource for Kurdish. Now, there are many dengbej men, but when we look at the content, it is actually the problems of women described. Dengbeji stories are told using women’s language, from her position, but the man claims it’s his, that he is the one telling the story. However, dengbeji is said to be women’s rebellion, a woman’s way of revealing herself. There is serious proof that women actually started dengbeji and it came this far with women. Then, unfortunately, there is a process in which women are pushed aside due to some religious pressures, where women’s voice is seen as haram, and men continued this tradition with the data they received from women. But in the last 50 years, we see that many women have embraced dengbeji. In fact, there were names such as Ayşe Şan, Meryem Xan, and Sûsika Simo from before. When the time came, women like Ayşe Şan left their home, children, everything only to sing. But especially in the last 50 years, within the Kurdish women’s struggle, women have started to claim and talk about dengbeji very seriously. Fighting militant woman sing dengbeji, a mother sings it, and a very young person who believes in the Kurdish struggle sings it as well. There is a dengbeji section at the Ma Music Center. People go there and are trained to sing dengbeji in the correct form. Recently, it grabbed the attention of young women, too. While dengbeji used to be a form of kilam sung mostly by middle aged or older people, currently more and more young people are interested in it.
What kind of activities do you have regarding literature? We have talked about oral literature, could you speak to what kind of activities women are involved in terms of written literature?
Saliha: Although the language was banned, Kurds never stopped writing. This needs to be underlined. Although the novel is one of the most modern techniques in literature, and the story and poetry are much older than that, Kurds have been writing novels since 1920. Erebê Şemo wrote the first novel in Bakur. It is written in the form of an autobiography in the 1920s. There is actually a lot of data since the Kurds never stopped writing, but it is difficult to put together because it is not the language of education. For the last 50 years, Kurds have been actively writing novels, stories, and poems. This applies not only to Bakur, but also to Bashur, Rojava, and the regions we call Rojhilat, that is, to the four parts of Kurdistan. For example, the first novel in the Rojhilat region was penned in the 1950s. First novels in Başur date back to 1957.
Our literary works at KASED, on the other hand, are more focused on deciphering sexist discourses. This is one of the areas that I set a target for myself. We are currently reading Kurdish novels and we are working on deciphering the feudal traditionalist aspects and sexist discourses in these novels from a women’s point of view. Yes, women hold a very important position in the Kurdish struggle. The Kurdish struggle we wage is also a women’s struggle, but you find too many feudal attitudes and sexist discourses in the works created. This is true not only for Kurdish literature, but also for world literature. A woman can never be a hero. This is often the case in world literature. Sure, there are some very good examples, there are also classics, but authors still do not seem to understand Simon de Beauvoir’s problem. They still don’t understand Emma Goldman’s problem. Nearly 80 percent of the works created in the world still lack a heroine. This is also the case in Kurdish literature. Either the woman becomes a man, one of the second and third spouses, or a good cleaner, or a mischief-maker, gossiper, or seducer, or the way they put it a “depraved” woman. (We call it fesat in Kurdish, I find it difficult to remember the words in Turkish, because I always use it in Kurdish. I have to translate it before saying it to you.) She can never be a hero. The woman is kidnapped, raped; the author just kills the woman. Because their honor is defamed. But then, the author tells men to become militant, he sends men into the fighting ranks. In a novel, he sends the man to the other side of the world to fight. But he does not send the woman, he tells the woman to die. This is the point I am making about Kurdish novels, and I criticize it in my writings. A woman is not considered valuable enough to be a hero. A woman is an ordinary commodity. She stays at the point that moves the man. She only makes an effort for men to become revolutionaries. While the man becomes a revolutionary, the woman stays at home, waiting for him. We discuss these points a lot in our workshop. We also collaborate with Komeleya Wêjekarên Kurd (Kurdish Writers’ Association) from time to time. We are having discussions with friends who are interested in Kurdish literature and who are competent in other fields of art. We critique Tolstoy, Neruda, Victor Hugo, we criticize the sexist discourses in their works, but we invite them to look at authors and works in Kurdish literature, too. This is a very common problem unfortunately.
This workshop has been going on for about a year at KASED. We read many novels, wrote articles on them, critiqued, and analyzed them. We do not accept this role assigned to women. It is high time the younger generation stepped in this field. Because in practice, women lead the struggle. Today, there is a female frequency in the Middle East and in the world. Women are really resisting. But these women do not have stories or novels. There is very little. Despite all that research I have conducted, there is only Yıldız Çakar that I came across. She is a good Kurdish novelist, a woman of letters, and her pen is very strong. There are women militants and heros in her novels. She is also criticized a lot on these points. She is asked how there are so many women heroes. She answers, there can be. In my world, she says, the women are the heros. That’s why I believe that works on women who have raised the struggle in practice should also be written.
Your answer was quite enlightening for us, too. Could you now speak to how the appointment of trustees impacted your work, especially in the cultural arena? How was it before? What has changed? For instance, what happened to opportunities provided by the municipalities to city theaters, cultural centers, academies?
Saliha: We reiterate this point a lot, but I still want to underline that the trustees specifically targeted women’s and cultural institutions. Because they were aware of the contributions of artistic struggle to social life. Kurds have over 20 years of experience in municipalities, and culture and women’s work have had great importance during this period. Once the trustees occupied our institutions, they initiated a process of vacating institutions and destroying all gains, especially women’s gains. In the field of culture and arts, there were people who had to put their artistic work aside, postpone them, and work different jobs due to economic concerns, but most of them were not women. In other words, more women in the field of culture and arts have embraced this process. Sometimes you hear that the culture-art field was institutionalized after the trustees, but that’s not true. The culture-art field was institutionalized in the municipal processes that predate the appointed trustees. Just after their appointment, art centers and institutions were founded faster under the leadership of many women colleagues. Therefore, for us, it’s only the places that have changed. We continued our artistic and cultural endeavors. Walls have changed, rooms have changed, neighborhoods have changed, places have changed, addresses have changed, but institutions were sustained.
You know, another election was held after the appointment of trustees. It is debatable how democratic of a process was followed, but there, too, the Kurdish people in Amed, Van and the region made their point clear, and the municipalities were again passed to the HDP [The Peoples’ Democratic Party]. Although we have worked in municipalities for many years, we did not become complacent after winning the election. We didn’t say let’s go and open new places based on the municipality. On the contrary, we embraced our existing institutions. Despite the difficulties we experienced on the women’s front during the pandemic, such as not being able to go out to the streets and being left alone to take care of all domestic responsibilities and labor, including care for children, we kept these institutions alive. Of course, things will not continue like this. We know that one day the trustees will leave, we will remain in our place. Our institutions will endure.
You stand up tall despite the pressure exerted on you via arrests, detentions, bans. How do you cope with all that? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Saliha: You know, these difficulties have been around for a long time now. This has always been the case, especially for the Kurdish struggle and for women. Today, thousands of people are in prisons, dungeons. Thousands of women are resisting there. The meaningful resistance of those women is guiding many other women. This also applies to women’s struggle in general. This is true not only for the Kurdish women’s struggle, but also for the feminist movement today, in and outside of Turkey. Let’s consider what is happening in the Middle East or Afghanistan. We keep getting news that the Taliban banned women from flying alone, they forbade this and that. But there are strong women, struggling for their rights all over the world who resist, and stand against these bans. They end up in prisons, get arrested, detained, no matter where they are in the world. But women don’t give up. At least that’s how it has been for the last 300 years. There has been an active and very strong feminist struggle since the late 1800s, and women are resisting. In terms of the Kurdish women’s struggle, we are faced with more specific war policies. These war policies are mainly pursued through the denunciation, arrest, and extermination of women. For example, the corpse of Gülistan Doku is still not found. There is also İpek Er. We don’t need to go far back in time, our memory is very strong on this subject. There is an understanding that kills, murders, tortures, arrests, destroys women, and wants to destroy the women’s struggle. And unfortunately, it exists all over the world. Even if we were in a much comfortable position here today, we would still be concerned about women in Afghanistan. We would not be able to remain silent about what is happening in Lebanon or in a state of the USA. There is an intervention against the women’s struggle as a whole. Women resist it. Specific war policies are also putting in effort to make more women withdraw from resistance. But the result does not change. Fifty women were arrested, thirty women participated in a new initiative. One hundred women get arrested, five more join the struggle. A thousand women are arrested, five thousand women work. I think these successors are very important. I believe that as the women’s liberation struggle grows, its impact will be stronger.
For example, we had breakfast together, you see, nothing changes for us 🙂 Today there is a women’s news agency, JinNews; there is a television that only broadcasts the news and troubles of women on JinTV. There are institutions like KASED that only work for women to produce art. That’s why several institutions were founded to create alternatives. It has been difficult, but I think that this has a stronger effect on the resistance and strengthens the resistance from the women’s side.
We got really moved by hearing all about it, thanks a lot.
Saliha: Me too, I also got excited while talking about these with you. Thank you.
For more information on KASED, other institutions, and channels, click on the links below:
Radio jin: Instagram
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan
 Dengbeji refers to the art/song, dengbej refers to the artist/performer.