top of page

Translating Kurdish Feminism: Urgent Lessons on Radical Democracy

30 March 2024

Translating Kurdish Feminism: Urgent Lessons on Radical Democracy

Atlanta Beltline - Krog Street Tunnel 2024; Image credit: Dilek Huseyinzadegan

Review of Gültan Kışanak, ed. The purple Color of Kurdish politics: Women politicians write from prison. London: Pluto Press, 2022. “Woman, Life, Freedom” or “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” is not (only) a political slogan or a battle cry; it is also a political program that Altun and others have put to practice in Turkey. Anyone interested in radical democracy in a feminist, anticolonial, and anticapitalist key would do well to study the Kurdish feminist movement, and this book is an exceptional start.

On March 31st of this year, Turkey will hold its local elections (1). Exactly ten years ago, following another local election cycle, many Kurdish feminists dared to prioritize Women, Life, Freedom (Jin, Jiyan, Azadî; ژن، ژیان، ئازادی) in their policies. In about eighteen months, these women would be arrested with bogus charges of “being a member of a terrorist organization” and “aiding in the propaganda of a terrorist organization” intended to divide the Turkish state. A majority of them remain in prison today (2). This International Women’s Month, I propose that we turn to the newly translated book that 22 of these brave women wrote, The Purple Color of Kurdish Politics: Women Politicians Write from Prison (3) and be inspired by these women’s courage and solidarity.

Kurdish feminism is not a monolith (4); it has assumed various strategies and practices since the 1980s and it continues to evolve and adopt. This collection provides a glimpse into local Kurdish feminist activism via electoral politics in Turkey, especially between 2014-2016. The book offers stories told by 22 Kurdish women politicians, who were democratically elected as parliamentary representatives and co-mayors in various Kurdish cities and municipalities within the national borders of Turkey in the 2014 elections. These women served as mayors for about eighteen months, and after that, they were imprisoned by the Turkish state on various bogus charges. 

2014 Local elections in Turkey were exciting because it was the first election following the mass anti-government Gezi protests of 2013 (5). Tensions were high: not only were there suspicions of election-rigging, President Erdogan threatened to ban Twitter and YouTube during campaigning season after recordings of his plans to attack Syria to provoke a war (6) was revealed. 

It was also the first time that women were elected as mayors in large numbers in Turkey overall, thanks to much campaigning by the Kurdish feminist movement. Authors of the book were officially elected mayors and representatives of major Kurdish cities and municipalities within the borders of Turkey; for instance, Gültan Kışanak, the convenor of the book, was elected mayor of Diyarbakır, and Nurhayat Altun, mayor of Dersim.

As long-time Kurdish feminist activist Gültan Kışanak reminds us, Kurdish women’s political struggle began in a prison, specifically in Diyarbakir prison, after the arrests following the 1980 military coup in Turkey (7). During that period, she was detained for two years. Now, 40 years later, she is in prison again. (xiv) At this point, Kışanak sees the prison not as an end but as a beginning of the movement. 

While the book undoubtedly belongs to the prison-writing genre, it is also a unique synthesis of feminist theory and praxis: it provides urgent radical democracy lessons for all anticapitalist, decolonial, and ecofeminist movements around the world. In fact, it was originally put together as an act of feminist solidarity that takes the personal to be political. When Kışanak was asked to write a memoir about her experiences in feminist organizing, she saw it as an opportunity to connect the dots between the past and the present of the Kurdish feminist movement. That she decided to make it a collection of women’s stories rather than just her own personal/political struggle in prison is an act of feminist solidarity. 

Kışanak then mailed interview questions to her friends in various other prisons around the country. Each of these Kurdish women had a unique experience within the Kurdish movement, and they were a part of a radical democratic experiment in Turkey’s political arena, especially in that brief window of opportunity between 2014 and 2016 where they have served in elected office ( Kışanak xiii).

She turned the responses into narratives, sending them back to the inmates for accuracy. In this back and forth, she also had prison authorities reading and censoring parts of the letters. In both her preface to the original Turkish and the English translation Kisanak wryly thanks these authorities for being the first readers of the book.

As coordinating Translators point out in their Introduction that “just as the original Turkish edition was produced collectively, our translation too is the result of a collective process of feminist solidarity” (8). Indeed, the translators who contributed to the book are a group of feminists from a variety of academic and activist backgrounds and geographic locations. Throughout the translation project, we have employed nonhierarchical means of organizing throughout the process. During multiple workshops, we provided peer-review and feedback on each other’s translations and reached consensus-based decisions on important Turkish and Kurdish terms.

Another way in which the book embodies feminist solidarity concerns the way in which the proceedings of the book’s sales are being handled. The proceedings go neither to the original nor to the English publisher (Dipnot and Pluto Presses, respectively). They go to Gültan Kışanak, who intends to use the funds for a women’s library.

This is why translating this book also means “standing in solidarity with its authors as well as those committed to Kurdish women’s liberation” (9). It also makes it a risky project for those who live under more precarious conditions, where government retaliation is almost certain. One of the translators had to remain anonymous for this reason. 

I have been involved with this project from the beginning and helped to translate Nurhayat Altun’s story, who was co-mayor of Dersim for eighteen months. A Kurdish Alevi woman, Altun grew up in the 70s and 80s in a leftist “political” family. She was involved in party politics and civil Kurdish liberation organizations for the majority of her life. When we look at the radical democratic practices that her team developed and implemented in the months that she spent as co-mayor of Dersim, we see what anticolonial feminist leadership really looks like: a leader who governs with and for their community, that is, by empowering members to become agents of their own lives. 

Ultimately, perhaps the most radical aspect of Altun’s leadership was the fact that people in Dersim could stop by the mayor’s office any time to have a cup of tea and discuss their immediate concerns with the mayor. They saw the mayor’s office as a place that produced solutions to actual community problems (10). Of course, when people stopped by to have tea, they often presumed that Altun was the “daughter-in-law” of the mayor, or another female relative of his--so unusual was it to have a woman mayor in Turkey, let alone in Dersim.  

Altun also recounts how she had to confront the patriarchal structures of the state and the assumptions of their male comrades simultaneously. Women’s election to office in these large numbers was a result of strong campaigning by the women’s committee of the party. In advance of the 2014 elections, the party had already decided to implement the co-mayoring system in all municipalities. It would nominate two candidates for one position, a man and a woman, and they would govern together.  

This was a little confusing and led to hilarious situations during the campaigning. People would come up to Altun to ask: “Are you the candidate or is it your husband? Will your husband be the official mayor?” (Note that the male candidate was not her husband.) She would explain that they were nominating two people for each position so that women’s issues would be front and center in the local government. People would continue to ask in disbelief if she was sure that the man would “allow her to govern alongside him” (11).  

During the eighteen months that Altun was mayor of Dersim, she made sure that the mayor’s office provided free mobile health clinics for women and children, scheduled adult literacy courses, and oversaw a community garden project led by women. They found an empty lot close to the city center where they could cultivate organic fruits and vegetables, reducing their dependency on exports. From sowing to irrigation, women took care of everything (12). How menacing women growing their own food must have seemed to the men, that they protested that the mayor was only serving women, not men. How threatening this was to the colonial patriarchal state for Kurdish women political leaders to dare to dream of a self-sustainable economy. As Altun remarks, bothered by the accomplishments of Dersim, the Turkish state arrested her (and other Kurdish leaders) in 2016 and appointed kayyums (trustees) to run the municipality, “invalidating the people’s will, women’s will” (13). 

Once elected, Altun would keep her campaign promises, actualizing the political program of Women, Life, Freedom (Jin, Jiyan, Azadî, ژن، ژیان، ئازادی). She built a nonhierarchical feminist governing body, attentive to the needs of the community in Dersim. That she kept her campaign promises is precisely what led to her arrest by the Turkish state in 2016.


Kurdish feminism is no glass ceiling feminism; it is not #girlboss or #leanin feminism. What these Kurdish politicians achieved is not just increasing women’s representation in the parliament. Rather, it is the audacity to prioritize community needs over the interests of the colonial patriarchal state: it is the commitment to rule of the people by the people and for the people. For this reason, Kurdish feminism proposes an alternative to liberal feminism, and as such, it is an important conversation partner for decolonial women of color feminisms as well as materialist and intersectional feminisms. Kurdish feminist praxis requires that we orient ourselves to the world differently, beyond the logics of capitalist transactionality and beyond the interests of the 1%, the political-economical elite. In this way, it prioritizes community input and well-being.

Recently, Aruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser proposed a Feminism for the 99% as the only viable alternative to liberal feminism, stretching back to the radical and transformative path envisioned by the Combahee River Collective in 1977. In solidarity with them, I take the recent feminist theory and praxis articulated by the authors of the Purple Color of Kurdish Politics to be one practical or historical iteration of a Feminism for the 99%.

Thus, “Woman, Life, Freedom” or “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” is not (only) a political slogan or a battle cry; it is also a political program that Altun and others have put to practice in Turkey, albeit for 18 months. And now the English-speaking world knows about it, thanks to this book of feminist solidarity. Anyone interested in radical democracy in a feminist, anticolonial, and anticapitalist key would do well to study the Kurdish feminist movement, and this book is an exceptional start. 



1. I thank the Purple Translation Project team for their early review of and suggestions for this article.

2. For instance, both Gültan Kışanak, the convenor of the essay collection, and Nurhayat Altun, whose essay I translated into English, are in sF-type prison and in solitary confinement as of the writing of this piece. Another author, Aysel Tuğluk, who was charged with “leading a terrorist organization and inciting demonstrations and civil unrest” was released only last year due to her deteriorating health condition and as a result of massive public pressure and international campaigning.

3. Gültan Kışanak, ed. The purple Color of Kurdish politics: Women politicians write from prison. London: Pluto Press, 2022. 

4. Benedetta Argentieri, “These Female Kurdish Soldiers Wear Their Femininity with Pride.” Quartz, July 30, 2015.

5. Amnest International. “Turkey: Gezi Park Protests: Brutal Denial of the Right to Peaceful Assembly in Turkey.” Amnesty International, June 2, 2021.

6. “SES Kaydına Göre, Suriye Ile Savaş Çıkarmaya Çalışmışlar.”, March 27, 2014.

7. See Erik Jan Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History. London: I. B. Tauris, 2017; and Gunter, Michael M. 1989. “Political Instability in Turkey During the 1970s”. Journal of Conflict Studies 9 (1). 

8. Kışanak, ed. The purple color of Kurdish politics, p. ix.

9. Kışanak, ed. The purple color of Kurdish politics, p. ix.

10. Kışanak, ed. The purple color of Kurdish politics, p. 169.

11. Kışanak, ed. The purple color of Kurdish politics, p. 169.

12. Kışanak, ed. The purple color of Kurdish politics, p. 170.

13. Kışanak, ed. The purple color of Kurdish politics, p. 170.

Related Articles

Rethinking Democracy in Kurdistan


Construction of a Democratic, Ecological, and Gender Libertarian Communal Economy in Kurdistan


bottom of page