Turkey’s Kurdish “Problem”

I first heard about Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” from my friend Julien, who mentioned it to me when I asked him about Turkey’s greatest challenge. In turn, I mentioned this to my friend Mehmed (who is Kurdish, although I didn’t know this at the time). Mehmed and I then had a fairly in-depth conversation about the trials of the Kurds in the Turkish Republic.

I half-expected Mehmet to say he would be in favor of a Kurdish homeland, but instead he said the opposite, explaining that the secular Turkish state actually protected more human rights then would a Kurdish (and more traditional Muslim) state.

He gave me two examples from his family:

1) His Sisters: Mehmet, raised in eastern Turkey, is from a family of 9 children: 7 boys and 2 girls. I commented that the girls must be spoiled with 7 brothers to dote on them. But instead of spoiled, he said his sisters are treated more like servants.

He then explained that in his culturally and religiously conservative family, his sisters have few rights. And he feared under a Kurdish state, they would lose all rights entirely.

2) His Mother & Aunt: Under Turkish law, women have equal rights of inheritance, but according to his Kurdish custom, they do not. Both his mother and his aunt inherited land from their parents. His mother declined to press her inheritance rights and allowed her brothers to take her inheritance. His aunt did not.

Now their brothers (his uncles) won’t talk to his aunt; she has been disowned from the family. But paradoxically, his uncles don’t speak to his mother either since she’s a woman (inheritance or not). His mother has since regretted her decision to allow her brothers to take her share of the land.

Greater Kurdistan

I think Mehmet’s stories, while very personal, clearly relate how a more conservative culture can abuse human rights and serve as an illustration of the dangers of “traditionalism.” His family’s experience is especially instructive as the push for a greater Kurdistan, which incorporates parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and northern Syria, is becoming louder.

Iraqi Kurdistan was granted autonomous status by the Iraqi state in the 1970s and is gaining greater independence since the new government has been established after Saddam’s overthrow in 2003. Part of the current Syria uprising also has its roots in an independent Kurdistan movement.

Turkey’s Kurds

Most Kurds live in Turkey and account for between 15-20% of the country’s population, which equates to about 12-20 million people (estimates vary greatly). They are mainly based in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

In the 1930s, Turkish government policy aimed to assimilate Kurds. Part of this policy was a mass forced resettlement of the Kurdish population, the banning of the Kurdish language and the outlawing of political parties based on ethnicity.

The result was greater Kurdish rebellion and increased violence, including suicide bombings. The main (illegal) Kurdish political party, the PKK, is considered a terrorist organization by international bodies like NATO and the European Union. In fact, while I was in Istanbul there was a bombing in the east of the country that was thought to be related to Kurdish agitation.

Cultural vs. Gender Genocide

Proponents of an independent Kurdistan talk of a Kurdish “cultural genocide” by the Turkish state. In my view, it’s a choice of the lesser of the two evils. I’d rather sacrifice a unique Kurdish identity that subjugates women, then allow the Kurdish female population to be stripped of their individual rights. I stand squarely on the side of Mehmet’s sisters, mother and aunt.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012 and is filed under Social Issues.

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