Nazan Ustundag: Family as a tool of oppression

Nazan_UstundagOne of the key elements of Öcalan’s discussion of capitalist modernity and civilization is his critical analyses of the modern family and its relationship to capitalism and the nation state. My aim in this talk will be first, to summarize Öcalan’s approach and thoughts on the family, second to discuss the practices of the Kurdish Freedom Movement and how these have affected the institution of the family and finally, to open up certain questions in relation to the status of family in the political moral society that should flourish with the construction of democratic modernity. A lot of these questions are surely going to be answered in practice; still, I think we should pose them intellectually as well, in order to contribute to the ongoing international debates on themes like the organization of reproduction, love and care all of which are intimately related to the family.

The patriarchal nature of the modern state is the object of extensive debate in feminist literature. The idea that gender inequality is constitutive of modern citizenship and the national community as well as early and late capitalisms has now become a common ground on which socialist, radical and postcolonial feminists in different contexts engage in dialogue and contestation. While historical studies document that modernity, instead of enabling the liberation of women, has merely transformed the meaning of gender identities and hierarchies, sociological and anthropological research show that such hierarchies are crucial in drawing the boundaries of the social, the economic and the political, both materially and symbolically. Studies on women’s bodies on the other hand document how, the presentation and representation; inclusion and exclusion; care, disciplining and violation of women’s bodies are constitutive of modern power and state sovereignity.

In his writings, Öcalan makes similar observations. According to Öcalan women constitute the oldest colony which has no determined borders. Moreover he argues, while the colonization of women has started long ago when matrilineality was replaced by patrilineality and patriarchy, it has taken its most exploitative form during capitalist modernity. The institution of the family plays a major role in this process: Family is where sexual and labor exploitation takes place and rendered invisible through discourses of love, intimacy, motherhood and femininity. It also through the oppressive structures of family that the state and capitalism are produced and reproduced. When discussing the role the family plays in the colonization of women Öcalan gives reference to three ways in which the family is linked to the stately and the accumulation and monopolization of capital:

  1. Family is a micro state where men, who monopolize means of violence and decision making, rule over women. As such, family is the place where the stately anchors itself in society.

  2. Family is where women’s labor is exploited and where women perform reproductive functions without any return.

  3. The state makes women responsible for child bearing and raising, in other words, for the growth of the population, through the institution of the family.

  4. Finally, the family naturalizes and normalizes oppression and slavery in society, by its treatment of women.

In sum, Öcalan argues that family is an ideology that constitute the culture and materiality of capitalist modernity. Family is also the space where a war is waged against women. Enclosed in the family, women are both made into objects of unlimited pleasure through sexual exploitation and into slave labor through becoming mothers and housewifes. Also, morality is replaced with law and politics by state first, within the family; simultaneously however, all these are made invisible by discourses of love, intimacy and liberalism. Family then singlehandedly constitutes the modern citizen who can function in a capitalist modern state and naturalizes oppression.

While these are general assessments Öcalan makes about the modern family, he has more specific insights pertaining to the Kurdish family based on his own experiences and his ethnographic operations.

As we know a number of postcolonial feminists have criticized white feminism’s objection to the family and argued that in contexts of colonialism and racism, the family might have an empowering role providing its members with support and security. Öcalan on the other hand, believes that for obtaining freedom and free will, Kurdish youth have to separate themselves from their families. According to him Kurdish family not only suffers from all the problems of the modern family but in Kurdistan family is also where colonialism and cooperation with the state is achieved. Families facilitate assimilation and the internalization of colonized personalities.

Joining the Kurdish freedom movement and specifically, the guerrilla movement is then, not only a way to resist the state and capitalism but also the ideology of the family. Here, I should add that according to Öcalan, family is not an institution that needs to be overcome but an institution in need of a grand transformation. Only after this transformation will the family be able to perform its function of reproduction, in a moral and political way. Until women become liberated and equal, Öcalan believes that sexuality and love will continue to be a relationship of domination. Hence the reason why him, the guerrillas and members of the freedom movement do not engage in sexual relationships.

Although it is not seen as a sacrifice but rather an exercise of a political and moral individuality, celibacy is nevertheless not demanded from the whole society. Instead, the Kurdish Movement’s experience show that the pioneering role of the guerrilla and their ideas and practices change families directly and indirectly:

Directly, the movement enacts change in consciousness and in gender relations through multiple political and pedagogical practices. Indirectly, change occurs through sons, daughters, brothers, sisters who join the guerrilla and disconnect themselves from the family. Since they do not reproduce themselves biologically, it is up to their family and friends to reproduce them by disseminating their ideas, deeds and memories and by sending more guerrilla to the mountains which by itself restructures the family.

Now, ethnographic studies in Kurdistan have shown that the guerrillas movement has unsettled the institution of the family in other ways, too. Women in general and female relatives of those who were killed during combat against the state in particular, have become politically active, participate in civil society and take public positions in municipalities and parliaments leaving their husbands and sons at home hence challenge the division of labor at home. The campaign for education in mother tongue on the other hand, highlighted women’s role at home since it is mostly women who exclusively speak in Kurdish because they weren’t sent to school and hence became less assimilated linguistically and culturally. In that sense, women’s position in the family and in society have acquired a new value as agents who prevent the state and ethnic colonialism from fully achieving their goal. Aside from changes in women’s status within the family, a new generation of youth have emerged in Kurdistan who populate the cities where in 1990s their families have been displaced by the Turkish army. These children have their own political communities and are agents of major serhildans, insurgencies against the state. As a result childhood has emerged as a political status in which different age groups invest as a source of political and individual freedom.

Despite all its negative affects, we can say that the war in Kurdistan has resulted in a geography where nationalism, capitalism and the family systematically fail to be reproduced. Indeed, it is no surprise that as elsewhere, since the beginning of 2000s the Turkish state targeted the Kurdish family as its main unit of social policy and simultaneously punished women and children most severly. Social assitance programs, conditional cash transfer schemes, health reforms, social centers, schooling campaings, low cost public housing surrounded the Kurdish family and connected it intimately to the state The then prime minister Erdoğan urged mothers to properly educate their children and his then ally Fetullah Gülen garnished Kurdistan with private schools and scholarships which would prepare students to the central university exams while also shaping their conducts. Meanwhile, as a result of anti-terror laws, children participating in public protests and women members of the Movement were arrested and sentenced to long years of prison.

When the justice and development party started the peace process, it is no surprize the first martyrs of peace were Sakine Cansız and her two friends. Cansız was a founding member of PKK and a leader of the women’s movement for liberation. The next martyr would be Medeni Yıldırım, a teenager protesting the building of an army post in his hometown.

During the peace process the prime minister have numerous times declared that peace would open up Kurdistan to capital investment and accummulation while war was making it uncanny for capital. He also admitted mistakes done in the past by the state and declared his willingness to include Kurdish history to the national narrative by making reference to Kurdish historical figures like Ahmede Xani, Şıvan Perwer and Said Nursi. Finally, repeating the slogan “Mothers shouldn’t cry anymore” again and again he underlined the importance of intimate bonds and tried to reduce the guerrilla movement into a narrative of family tragedy.

The peace of the state is always one where territory made uncanny by war, is redefined and secured, where multiple histories are assimilated into one national history and where the social is reorganized as a homogenous unity. Thereby the moral and political society which found an outlet by capital’s and state’s loss of power find new forms of organization and expression. Indeed, right after the peace process was declared JDP started building roads, dams and other construction projects in order to privatize Kurdistan’s commons, built new army posts it order to nationalize it and tried to reestablish family and thereby what Öcalan would call its little state cells by means of social policy.

However, the Kurdish movement was prepared and Öcalan had developed a new paradigm to fight against all of this single handedly, by mobilizing the movement towards what we call the construction process. That is the building of the institutions of democratic autonomy and modernity in spite of the state.

Öcalan argues that the family is key to the building of the moral and political society that will flourish with democratic autonomy as a result of the construction process.

I hope that until now, the difference between Öcalan’s thinking and feminist critiques of the family became clear.

  1. For Öcalan women’s liberation and the transformation of the family into a free willed, equal togetherness are necessary for a political and moral society and vice versa. Hence society’s, family’s and women’s well being are interrelated. In that sense Öcalan rejects liberal individualism and instead foregrounds and understanding of the individual as deeply socially embedded and connected. Liberation is not “you do what you want to do” but it is an ethical cultivation of a connected self that will participate in the the construction of a new and democratic society.

  2. Also, in Öcalan’s thought critique is a praxis that immediately calls for collective action. His understanding of history which goes against both positivism and geneology is very much influenced by Engels. And I would say by Claseteres. There is a fight between society and the stately and the fight of men against women is equal to the war of state and capital against society. Nevertheless, due to its history society know better.

  3. In Öcalan’s though critique aims at mobilization and this mobilization has to have suitable strategies, tactics which will orient it towards a defined goal. We could say that this encoupling of critique and praxis, ideology and mass mobility; freedom and construction; constitutes the epistemology of his thought which we can at best define as postcolonial due to its embeddedness in a fight fought against colonialism.

Finally, the most frequently asked question by feminists: If family is that bad, if women are opressed in family, why is for example, increasing divorce rates seen as a problem in Rojava and Bakur? Why for example, do women houses in Rojava encourage women to stay in their marriage, fight against polygamy or condemn sex work? One could say not to alienate people or as a transitional solution. One could say that for the Movement a politics against family runs the risk of becoming westernized and disconnected to people. Or one could argue that family is still seen as the only viable reproductive institution. Or, one could argue that family in Kurdistan is still the only place that protects people from liberal individualism until other institutions are built. As these institutions become functional new forms of intimacy based on guerrilla’s own experience of friendship will flourish and hence models for different forms of intimacy multiplied yet further unsettling the family as an institution. These are debates that need to be opened indeed.


More about Nazan Ustundag

Title: Freelab

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