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 we get to know you? Since when Tohum Women’s Cooperative has been around? When did you start to be involved in it? How? What kind of activities are run? How do women take part in them?
Nevriye: Hello, Tohum Women’s Cooperative has been operating since 2005, and I have been working actively for a year and a half. The cooperative was established at a time when Amed was receiving an increased number of migrants. We know that women’s deprivation and poverty have increased as a result of this forced migration that took place following the evacuation of villages. It is also traumatic for women to be detached from their own essence, to be cut off from the land they live in, to come to a new place, to be imprisoned in buildings and gated communities in the city, and to try to express themselves there. This cooperative was established so that women could glow up mentally psychologically and socially and not feel alone in this process. We are acting collectively here. We care about women’s ability to express themselves comfortably, their self-confidence strengthens when they are involved in their own production processes from start to finish.
Sevda: When a group of people who both farm and earn their living from agriculture and animal husbandry in the villages they were born and raised are forced to migrate to the city, women’s circumstances turn out different from that of men. Men can go out and look for a job. The burdens of home and children are placed on the woman. Moreover, women face difficulties when they go to school, hospital, or any other state institution when they speak Kurdish but not Turkish. In other words, apart from its economic dimensions, the fact that women cannot receive services has also surfaced with migration. Just as women seasonal workers are exposed to labor exploitation and violence wherever they go, these women have been surviving similar processes due to migration.
I worked at DIKASUM (Women’s Issues Research and Application Center) in Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality between the years 2012-2017. I was the branch manager and a trainer. I started my training by getting acquainted with the Women’s Human Rights New Solutions Association and participated in their training for trainers. In 2017, when the trustee was appointed, I was fired from my post, and I developed a dependency on my house. I have been in the Cooperative for about a year now.
Nevriye: The cooperative carried out a number of projects with local governments, taught literacy to women, and provided nursery services. It used to be active in Bağlar before, worked with EKO-JIN Tekstil in making leather bags, and produced local clothes. With the appointment of the trustees, these programs were interrupted because the trustees seized both the working place and the machines. Although we had a 25-year lease, the contract was terminated, and the equipment was confiscated.
Despite all these difficulties, I would like to talk about a few workshops we are currently holding at Tohum Women’s Cooperative. For instance, we have a book jacket workshop. This may be a small workshop, but it is done so that many women can exist here and not feel alone. There are cloth bags, felt handbags and book jackets produced here. We aim to gradually increase the size of our operations. As I said, it may be a small workshop, but I hope that in the future, when we meet again, we will have established even bigger workshops. Our goal is to reach more women.
Are there similar women’s cooperatives in other cities? Do you co-run programs?
Nevriye: There were cooperatives in Van and Nusaybin, but they were closed down by trustees. We have just started to activate the one in Van. We have cooperatives in Urfa Bozova, Lice and Suruç. We are in constant communication with them. The Mesopotamia Women’s Cooperative in Bozova produces tomato paste, dried chili peppers etc. We get together once a month, meet with them, and collectively work towards creating a market area for products. We apply for projects jointly, but none of the projects we have applied for have been accepted so far!
Sevda: We have a plan for creating a common market for selling cooperative products. For example, we are working on selling the bread produced in Cizre and the tomato paste produced in Bozova here.
What is the significance of such cooperatives for women? Where do the cooperatives stand with regard to Kurdish women’s movement?
Nevriye: Women are the real creators and propelling force of the social economy. The organization of the cooperative is also through the development of political society. We have accumulated a lot of experience and had gains over the years as the Kurdish women’s movement. It has been interrupted a lot, and we continue to be exposed to all kinds of oppression and violence. As the Kurdish women’s movement, our organization is based on democratic communal cooperatives. Cooperatives have an important place in reaching women, organizing women, raising their awareness, and empowering them to stand on their own feet.
Sevda: Although economy is always evaluated on the basis of how much money men are making, in fact, the most fundamental factor in economy is women. It is the women’s invisible and exploited labor, in which women spend their life keeping track of finances in the house from morning to night, saying “I have spared so much money for the market, so much money for the child”. Despite this, we know that it is women who are constantly subjected to economic violence. We can think of cooperatives as follows: In Diyarbakır, a neighborhood gathers to prepare for the winter, drying the vegetables and fruits is done together in a communal manner, then the products are divided, and everyone takes their share home. The cooperative functions in a similar manner. It’s not just a matter of economic benefit; it is getting their daily lives a little more systematic under the name of a cooperative and shaping their lives accordingly. After all, their lives are getting more difficult from an economic point of view, and women are the ones who experience violence the most. We, as a cooperative, see that women are struggling economically by the time we can reach them. The cooperative also has economic problems due to projects not coming into fruition, or due to the lack of supporters. Therefore, we cannot go ahead and say, ‘Let’s employ this many women’. Some of our ideas cannot be put into practice due to the difficulties experienced, our work being interrupted. What has become of life and financial concerns do not allow us to implement some of our ideas.
How did the appointment of trustees affect your programs? We are familiar with how institutions working against violence against women were affected during the process. Could you speak to how the involvement of Kurdish women in economic life was affected by it?
Sevda: Actually, the Department of Women’s Policies, which we started within the municipality before 2016, was the only department, but it had three units: economy, violence, and education. This place also housed the cooperative, and employment opportunities started to be created. For example, the Purple Flag program was launched across Diyarbakır. Businesses prioritizing women’s employment were given purple flags and their taxes were reduced by municipalities. Women were employed in the sewing workshops established at that time, and if they did not have the skillset, they were trained by senior trainers. We had the idea of having female bus drivers in Diyarbakir, and we could implement this project. There were efforts to remove whatever barriers there were to women’s inclusion in the economy. After the appointment of the trustee, we and every link of the chain were impacted. Even the women employed there lost their jobs. Women working in the sewing workshop in the neighborhood are no longer able to go to those workshops. Workshops have been transformed into other kinds of spaces. We tried to be kept out of the economic circle. If you were to ask how the activities have been affected, they wanted to make them completely inoperable. It was a radical change. I can say that there is nothing left. But we continue to try again and again and say, “we exist in this economy whether you want it or not”.
Nevriye: Gender inequality is observed in the economy, similar to any other sphere of life. What the state logic is doing right now is to somehow make women dependent on its social aid. Instead of supporting alternative modes of production and creating opportunities for women to produce themselves, their policy is to make them dependent on the state through social aid. Women are never allowed to identify with the land, to plow their own land, and to benefit from the riches of the earth and underground. As cooperatives, we are currently trying to improve this a little, to the point we can. But you really need to know that this is a general problem. It is very important and valuable for women to cross paths with one another during this process through solidarity among women, no matter how different their thoughts, ideas or cultures may be.
Sevda: Before the appointment of trustees, for example, we had a project called ‘I Want to Feed Myself Where I Was Born’. It was initiated by the women and economy directorate of our Women’s Policies Department that I have previously mentioned. The main purpose of the project was to prevent seasonal migration in the region, in Diyarbakır. Because most of the women are exposed to violence and harassment during seasonal migration and their labor is exploited to a great extent. The aim was to prevent these and to have the fertile lands here cultivated by people. Another priority was for women to gain their own economic independence through these lands and to get rid of their dependency on others. Therefore, lands were identified in Diyarbakır and bought by the municipality. Families were identified and the planting phase had begun. Unfortunately, after the trustee was appointed, we heard that it was used completely out of its intended purpose.
Since there were three directorates under the same department, we established a mobile village team for the education directorate. Our team consisted of three people. Of course, we received a trainer’s training before launching the project. After receiving the first training from KIHEP (Women’s Human Rights Training Program) and the second training on women’s health, three women colleagues went to the field, going to another village every day, using the vehicle allocated by the municipality. We were conducting educational activities on issues such as women’s health, women’s reproductive health, menopause, and gender-sensitive child education in these villages. We did not have the time to collect data regarding the first phase of this program before a trustee was appointed. But the last records indicate that we reached around 5,000 women. We used to spend a day in each village, then return there to report on it. In those reports, we had the number of women we reached and the trainings we provided. That’s all gone now.
Thirdly, within the Directorate of Combating Violence there was a first step station, a women’s shelter, and a hotline to report violence. These were fully active. Banners were all around, advertisements were created, leaflets were distributed. Each program had its own team, they were only focusing on that specific job. If women preferred to seek shelter for a short time, they stayed at the first step station. Then, if they wanted to stay for a long time, they were placed in a women’s shelter. These are completely gone; they don’t exist anymore.
Other than that, I mentioned our Purple Flag program. Moreover, there were women’s laundry houses. These functioned as a means for women to leave their houses. These laundry houses were founded in low-income neighborhoods. Women with insufficient financial means in those neighborhoods brought their laundry to these places, because they did not have a laundry machine at home. If they did not have a place to leave their children, they would bring them along and leave them in the playrooms within the same structure. Children could stay in the playrooms from 8 am to 5 pm. From time to time, there were workshops, trainings on women’s reproductive health, breast cancer, and certified training studies taking place at the laundry houses. At a later stage, those laundry houses started to branch out. Then, sewing and embroidery workshops were established in the laundry houses. Women produced sheets, bedspreads at these workshops. Things have started to pick up like that. There is no trace of any of these programs at the moment.
Your programs have truly touched upon a wide array of issues. We are all very impressed by them all. It’s difficult to think about the detriment their absence has caused. It has been six years since the appointment of trustees, and then the pandemic happened. We understand that, despite all that has happened, activities did not come to full halt, and continued to take place here and there. People continued to get together, and organizing endured in all circumstances. Could you speak to that?
Sevda: Yes, despite such difficult conditions, there is resistance and organizing is sustained. And, it will continue as such. Although we cannot find support for our projects, this institution is still open. The picture of solidarity that was formed when you came here came to fruition despite all these pressures
Nevriye: Our place was confiscated when our cooperative was in Bağlar. There were sewing machines donated to us along with the venue, which were also confiscated. We were not allowed to take any of our materials from inside the venue, including the materials we bought on our own. They were seized by the trustee. There was also the Xavesor cooperative in Van, it was a large cooperative. A lot of programs were going on there. For example, there were large machines to make detergent. Different production programs were going on – from detergent to soap and carpet weaving. Even though they had their own machines there, they were even confiscated. Currently, the court process continues, but they have already shaped the law to their advantage. So, we are not expecting much. Our equipment was confiscated along with our gains in this struggle. But we still come together thanks to the power of women. We are establishing new workshops here. As the Kurdish women’s movement, we are the successors of a spirit of resistance. Despite all the pressure, we manage to stand tall.
As you have mentioned earlier, you stand tall against the pressure exerted on the cooperative, along with financial extortion, arrests, detentions. The cooperative regrouped and continues to implement its activities. How do you cope with the pressure? Is there anything else you would like to add in this regard?
Nevriye: Despite the price we have to pay, we continue our struggle to ensure that the procedures and principles of communal cooperatives become the permanent foundation of our lives as advocates of the Kurdish women’s struggle. At the same time, we continue to keep the economy, culture and language of the ethical-political society created by women alive. Sure, there have been arrests, detentions, we have paid the price, but we will raise our voice to spread the women’s struggle everywhere – louder each time. We will never take a step back against the oppression and arrests. Today, we are facing a serious economic crisis. When an economic crisis is at stake, all women are the same and belong to the same culture. It is important for women to create local solidarity networks. Conducting collective work, inspired by local examples, will make women stronger. Together, with all women, we need to engage in a collective effort that speaks out against poverty, develops and implements action plans and builds local solidarity.
Sevda: I agree with Nevriye. We did not expect anything different when we launched the program for women. Their mentality and attitude towards us are clear. Considering what they can do, we took a risk and embarked on such an adventure. Let’s call it an adventure because it has no end. How do we gather our strength? Well, by looking at the beautiful things in life, really. Witnessing the good work. I am in Amed, but I get inspiration from what’s going on in İstanbul or İzmir, or perhaps another day, I will get inspiration from another program here. This is how we start each next day. All because we are familiar with the system since the day we set out on this road.
Click on this link if you would like to follow Tohum Women’s Cooperative on social media: https://www.instagram.com/tohumkadinkoop/
Tags: Diyarbakır, economics, migration, women’s labor, Kurdish Women’s Movement, purple flag, newroz, free women’s movement (tja), Tohum Women’s Cooperative
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan