Challenging the Liberal Notion of Non-violence: Feminist Pacifism or Passive-ism?

Thoughts On International Women’s Day.

By Dilar Dirik

In the face of increasing femicide, sexual violence and rape culture, we need to confront the question of women’s self-defence.


When some white women celebrate the non-violence of women’s marches against Trump and then pose for photographs with police officers while police violence specifically targets people of color, when Nazi-punchers are accused of being no different from fascists, when feminists in relative safety accuse militant women in the Middle East facing sex slavery under ISIS of militarism, we must problematize the liberal notion of non-violence which disregards intersecting power systems and mechanisms of structural violence. By dogmatically clinging onto a pacifism (or passive-ism?) that has a class and racial character, and demonizing violent anti-system rage, feminists exclude themselves from a much needed debate on alternative forms of self-defense whose objective and aesthetic serve liberationist politics. In a global era of femicide, sexual violence and rape culture, who can afford not to think about women’s self-defense?

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-defense.


Police fire riot control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters on July 9, 2016 in Saint Paul to protest the police murder of Philando Castile. Credit: Annabelle Marcovici/PA Images

The monopoly on violence as a fundamental characteristic of the state protects the latter from accusations of injustice, while criminalizing people’s basic attempts at self-preservation. Depending on strategies and politics, non-state actors are labeled 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 sanitizing the radical and sometimes violent elements of legitimate anti-colonial or anti-racist resistance.

Simultaneously, the traditional association of violence with masculinity and the systematic exclusion of women from politics, economy, war, and peace, reproduce patriarchy through a sexual division of roles in the realm of power. The feminist critique of violence is based in well-intentioned, yet deeply essentialist, reasoning of a gender-based morality, which can also reproduce portrayals of women as passive, inherently apolitical, and in need of protection. Such gender-reductionism fails to understand that inclination to violence is not inherently gender-specific but determined by interconnected systems of hierarchy and power as the case of white American women torturing Iraqi men in Abu Ghraib prison demonstrates.

Kurdish women have a tradition of resistance; their philosophy of self-defense 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-politicized, exotic way, or by making generalized 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.


Credit: YPJ Media Team

The Kurdish women’s struggle developed a woman-centred philosophy of self-defense 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-defense, we need to look no further than nature itself. Every living organism, a rose, a bee, has its mechanisms of self-defense 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-defense 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-defense philosophy. In order to fight the system, self-defense must embrace direct action, participatory radical democracy, and self-managed social, political and economic structures.

Alongside Democratic Confederalism led by the Kurdish freedom movement, an autonomous Women’s Democratic Confederalist system has been built up through thousands of communes, councils, cooperatives, academies and defense units in Kurdistan and beyond. Through the creation of an autonomous women’s commune in a rural village, the identity, existence, and will of its members find their expression in practice and challenge the authority of the patriarchal, capitalist state. Furthermore, economic autonomy and communal economy based on solidarity through the establishment of cooperatives are crucial to society’s self-defense as they guarantee self-sustenance through mutualism and shared responsibility, rejecting dependence on states and men. Care for water, lands, forests, historic and natural heritage are vital parts of self-defense against the nation-state and profit-oriented environmental destruction.

Defending oneself also means to be and know oneself. This implies the overcoming of sexist, racist knowledge production that capitalist modernity advocates and which excludes the oppressed from history. Political consciousness constitutes a fight against assimilation, alienation from nature, and genocidal state policies. The answer to positivist, male-centered, colonialist history-writing and social science is thus the establishment of grassroots women’s academies promoting liberationist epistemologies.

A fight without ethics cannot protect society. In the eyes of Kurdish women fighters, ISIS cannot be defeated by weapons only but by a social revolution. This is why Yazidi women, after experiencing a traumatic genocide under ISIS, formed an autonomous women’s council for the first time in their history with the slogan ‘The organization of Yazidi women will be the answer to all massacres’, alongside women’s military organizations. In Rojava, alongside the YPJ, even grandmothers learn how to handle AK47s and rotate among themselves the responsibility to protect their communities within the Self-Defense Forces (HPC), while thousands of women’s centers, cooperatives, communes, and academies aim to dismantle male domination. Against the Turkish state’s hyper-masculine war, Kurdish women constitute one of the main challenges to Erdogan’s one-man rule through their autonomous mobilization. Crucially, women from different communities have joined them in constructing women’s alternatives to male domination in all spheres of life. An alternative self-defense concept which does not reproduce statist militarism must of course be anti-nationalist.

Unlike violence which aims to subjugate the ‘other’, self-defense is a complete dedication and responsibility to life.

Unlike violence which aims to subjugate the ‘other’, self-defense is a complete dedication and responsibility to life. To exist means to resist. And in order to exist meaningfully and freely, one must be politically autonomous. Put bluntly, in an international system of sexual and racial violence, legitimized by capitalist nation-states, the cry for non-violence is a luxury for those in privileged positions of relative safety, believing that they will never end up in a situation where violence will become necessary to survive. While theoretically sound, pacifism does not speak to the reality of masses of women and thus assumes a rather elitist first world character.

If our claims to social justice are genuine, in a world system of intersecting forms of violence, we have to fight back.


YPJ-STAR: To the Women of the World

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