Those who do not conform to non-violent approaches in the fight against oppressive systems, such as white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy and authoritarianism, often find themselves scapegoated by the media, criminalized by governments, and otherwise sidelined by the hold nonviolence discourses exert over social movements.
The exclusion of various forms of resistance is particularly prevalent in liberal feminist circles. Given the pervasive sexual and gender-based violence against women worldwide, this exclusion must end and the discourse expanded to include criticism of exclusively non-violent approaches.
In ‘Feminist pacifism or passive-ism?’, published in OpenDemocracy on International Women’s Day, Dilar Dirik, an activist with the Kurdish women’s movement, challenges non-violence as the supreme mode of resistance and introduces her readers to a woman-centred philosophy of self-defense, developed by the Kurdish women’s struggle against colonialism, nation-statism, and patriarchy:
Feminism has played an important role in anti-war movements and achieved political victories in peace-building. The feminist critique of militarism as a patriarchal instrument renders understandable the rejection of women’s participation in state-armies as being ‘empowering’. But liberal feminists’ blanket rejection of women’s violence, no matter the objective, fails to qualitatively distinguish between statist, colonialist, imperialist, interventionist militarism and necessary, legitimate self-defence.
The monopoly on violence as a fundamental characteristic of the state protects the latter from accusations of injustice, while criminalising people’s basic attempts at self-preservation. Depending on strategies and politics, non-state actors are labelled as ‘disruptive to public order’ at best, or ‘terrorists’ at worst. The tendency to uphold examples like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King to make the case for non-violent resistance often blurs historical facts to the point of sanitising the radical and sometimes violent elements of legitimate anti-colonial or anti-racist resistance.
Kurdish women have a tradition of resistance; their philosophy of self-defence ranges from autonomous guerrilla women’s armies to the development of self-managed women’s cooperatives. In recent years, the victories of the Women’s Defence Units (YPJ) in Rojava-Northern Syria and the YJA Star Guerrillas of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) against ISIS have been inspiring. Kurdish women, along with their Arab and Syriac Christian sisters, liberated thousands of square miles from ISIS, creating scenes of beauty of women liberating women. At the same time, they were also building the foundations of a woman’s revolution inside society.
However, some western feminists questioned its legitimacy and dismissed it as militarism or co-optation by political groups. Western media narratives have portrayed this struggle in a de-politicised, exotic way, or by making generalised assumptions about women’s ‘natural’ disinclination to violence. If the media reporting was dominated by a male gaze, it was partly due to feminists’ refusal to engage with this relevant topic. One cannot help but think that militant women taking matters into their own hands impairs western feminists’ ability to speak on behalf of women in the Middle East, projected as helpless victims, may be one of the reasons for this hostility.
The Kurdish women’s struggle developed a woman-centred philosophy of self-defence and is situated in an intersectional analysis of colonialism, racism, nation-statism, capitalism, and patriarchy. The Rose Theory is a part of the unapologetically women-liberationist political thought of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. He suggests that in order to come up with non-statist forms of self-defence, we need to look no further than nature itself. Every living organism, a rose, a bee, has its mechanisms of self-defence in order to protect and express its existence – with thorns, stings, teeth, claws, etc. not to dominate, exploit or unnecessarily destroy another creature but to preserve itself and meet its vital needs. Among humans, entire systems of exploitation and domination perpetuate violence beyond necessary physical survival. Against this abuse of power, legitimate self-defence must be based on social justice and communal ethics with particular respect to women’s autonomy. If we let go of social Darwinist notions of survivalism and competition which under capitalist modernity have reached deadly dimensions and focus on the interplay of life within ecological systems, we can learn from nature’s ways of resistance and formulate a self-defence philosophy. In order to fight the system, self-defence must embrace direct action, participatory radical democracy, and self-managed social, political and economic structures.