Les Femmes du Mont Ararat / The Women of Mount Ararat

Les Femmes du Mont Ararat / The Women of Mount Ararat, a film by Erwann Briand
France / 2004 / Betacam SP / 85 min / français, anglais, arabe s.-t.f.
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OK, now this movie had real potential, which is why I think I found it so disappointing. Not that I regret seeing it, not that I would not recommend it, just that it could have been so much better.

The director had a golden opportunity – seemingly unhindered access to a “manga” (6-person unit) of woman guerillas in Kurdistan. They were all members of the Movement of Free Women of Kurdistan, which was founded by the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK*) in 1995; this is an entirely female army, from fighter groups up to the central committee. “In the past, the Kurdish people treated their women as slaves,” a guerilla fighter explained to le Monde Diplomatique. “The Movement is a real revolution within the revolution; and it makes our links with Kurdish women easier.” (source: A Trump card for Turkey’s Kurdish Guerillas, le Monde Diplomatique December 1997)
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And yet, besotted with god-knows-what kind of fetish for “objectivity” or “neutrality” or “amorality,” film-maker Erwann Briand allowed this opportunity to slip through his fingers, largely wasted…

What else to say about a one and a half hour movie, after which members of the audience had to ask the director “Who were they fighting against?”, “When was this filmed?”, etc. only to be told at one point that he (film maker Erwann Briand) had tried very hard not to deal with politics or questions of right and wrong in his movie, so he really didn’t want to get into it too much in the question and answer period!

These women have risked their lives in a dirty war right within Europe, resisting genocidal violence from the Turkish State. As one of them explained “I hate war, there is no way I would ever choose to go to war. But unfortunately, as a Kurd, my choice is to fight or to live as a slave…”

…and Mr Brand has made a movie about them where he tries his hardest to not talk about politics or history or right and wrong?!?

I am not kidding: apart from fifteen seconds voice-over (I believe the words were from one of the guerillas) Brand did not try to provide any information about the national oppression of Kurds within Turkey. Now don’t get me wrong – several times there are descriptions of abusive and humiliating encounters with Turkish soldiers, and the women recount how they were tortured and attacked by the Turkish State, but this could well be subsumed under the heading “war” rather than “national oppression.” This could leave people who don’t know anything about Kurdistan with the impression that this is just another example of how shitty war is, rather than seeing it as the tip of the iceberg of national oppression, an oppression the Kurds suffered prior to taking up arms, rather than a State reaction to some kind of “terrorist threat.”

To give an idea of what I mean by “national oppression,” I will quote Desmond Fernandes (Coordinator of the Institute of Tourism and Development Studies at De Montfort University in Bedford, England), who has argued that what the Kurds have faced in Turkey actually constitutes an example of attempted genocide. Fernandes divides this genocidal policy into three categories:

  • forced assimilation program – banning of the Kurdish language in Turkey, denying the existence of Kurdish history, the forced resettlement of Kurds in non-Kurdish areas of Turkey for assimilation, the indoctrination of Kurds through the Turkish education system, radio and television channels;
  • banning of any legitimate opposition to the Turkish government’s programs – e.g., Kurdish cultural organisations, political parties, media outlets, etc.; and
  • the violent repression of any Kurdish resistance. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been murdered by Turkish state authorities over the past eighty years—the Sheykh Said and the Ararat uprisings in the 1920s, the bloody suppression of the Dersim in the 1930s, as well as the PKK campaign in recent years. The Turkish state has imprisoned Kurdish members of the Turkish parliament, various human rights activists, as well as many academics advocating Kurdish rights such as the Turkish sociologist Ismail Besikçi. The Turkish government has also assassinated scores of journalists and intellectuals over the years.(source: Kurdish and Armenian Genocides, Focus of London Seminar)

But I guess discussing this would have made it more difficult for Brand to avoid “questions of right and wrong”!

Brand’s fervent desire to not discuss politics leaves us with an hour and a half of watching relaxed guerillas playing volleyball, bathing in mountain streams, climbing one ridge after another… I guess it would be too “political” to explain that there is a ceasefire in effect! The result is that one is left wondering if this is war, well what is so bad about it after all?

Indeed, I wonder if some audiences – who do not get to find out by questioning him afterwards that there is a ceasefire in effect – come away with the idea that the PKK’s Women’s Army is some kind of token showpiece, for there is not much we see on the screen that resembles what we have come to expect of real guerilla warfare. Never mind the kind of dirty war that Turkey has waged, in which thousands of guerillas (and tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians) have been killed.

Brand explained that the reason he wanted to avoid politics was because he didn’t like moralistic movies that tell people “these are the good guys and these are the bad guys.” The only reason he picked the Movement of Free Women of Kurdistan is because that was where he managed to make some contacts – he would have preferred doing a movie about women guerillas in Afghanistan, but the U.S. invasion ruined his chances!

Brand described his real interest in finding out what would make a woman want to be a guerilla. I was not clear after hearing him speak exactly what his attraction was – is it that the aesthetic of a woman doing the unexpected somehow fascinates him? Or is it that he sees such female guerillas being an important force for women’s liberation? And would any woman have been good enough; I mean the Israeli and American armies have lots of women fighters, would they have been just as interesting? (avoiding questions of good and bad, of course!)

Of course, for the women he filmed, politics is obviously not a question that can be left out of the story. So often when he asked them questions, their answers were mos definitely political. This is why, on the RIDM voting stub I got I gave this film 2 out of 5, rather than 1 – hearing the women talk of their lives, and what it means to be a woman in Kurdistan, was still worth the $6 ticket.

So what did they have to say?

Well, one woman, who had obviously grown up in France as she spoke with a strong French accent, described how when she was “in Europe” and she would pass Europeans on the street she wanted to smack them. Here they were, living in luxury, with all of these rights, and yet they deny these same rights to the people of her nation. “They have the right to rape, and I have the right to be raped,” was how I believe she put it.

The same woman described how she felt more free that “those European women,” because even though they may have economic and social equality, they can’t do as she does now that she had joined the guerilla: climb a mountain and shout out “I am free!” It is not just being free, she explains, it is being able to shout it out – I must admit I was not quite sure what she meant, though this reminded me of something I had read by some other guerillas from another time about their time in the mountains: “As we walked among the trees and mountains we had a feeling, almost a sensation, that we could reach out and touch utopia, the possibility that we could build something entirely new.” (The Other Italy, by Maria de Blasio Wilhelm)

I was also reminded of what Butch Lee wrote in The Military Strategy of Women and Children: “no matter how successful you are as a girl in dick’s world, you have no power to fight for women. Actually, you have no power at all. Women in amerikkka keep confusing privilege with power. We have a lot of privilege on a world scale, maybe a high living standard as consumers, but no more power than women in Nepal or Afghanistan. […] Sushma Katuwal [a member of a group of former slave prostitutes who fight against pimps in Nepal and India], who is penniless, homeless and stricken with AIDS has more power than a woman u.s. army captain or corporate manager in Superpower America. Which is why only what Amazons do will determine our future. Let me repeat that, rudely – only what Amazons do will determine the future for all women.”

So hearing this Kurdish guerilla speak how she was more free than those European women (who she wanted to smack!) I was wondering, is this an Amazon army like Butch Lee talked about? A question the film never really answered, or even broached head-on…

In another scene, we see the women debating with men from the PKK. One woman challenges the men on their sexism, saying “If you don’t change you will not be able to help us.” To which one man answered: “Before I was a man in the PKK, I was a man from the Middle East.” This kind of exchange, which was friendly, but obviously serious, was really interesting to watch – it said a lot more about the different levels of struggle than most scripted left-wing puff pieces.

Finally, another woman – the only Iraqi Kurd in the manga – described how when she was young her family arranged to have her clitoris excised (not a tradition amongst most Kurds, but seemingly still prevalent amongst those who live in Iraq). She spoke of how horrible the experience was and how she had to be held down, explaining that this event was decisive in her attitude towards men.

That women like this have joined the PKK, and are visiting villagers and trying to convince them to give up excision and other harmful and sexist traditions, is a powerful fact. “Only what Amazons do will determine the future for all women.”

Meeting with villagers and talking to them about politics was an important part of the manga’s work. As there was a ceasefire, and they had retreated into Iraq, their only real duties were to hold ground and to carry out such “political education.” As portrayed in the film (again, no explanation or context or details by the film maker – what little there was came out in the question and answer period) this seemed to amount to talking to women about their lives, about things that were oppressive to them, and encouraging the villagers to change these oppressive customs. We saw a conversation with a young woman who had been sold for marriage, even though she did not want to marry the man in question. The guerillas did not order the family to cancel the deal, nor did they rescue the woman, nor did they kill the guy – they just talked to the family and (seemingly to no avail) tried to convince them that this was not a fair situation.

As one of the guerillas pointed out, countless women commit suicide by self-immolation in order to escape such forced marriages, so there must obviously be a better way of doing things.

(It was noted that for some women, joining the PKK is actually their ticket out of a forced marriage – if this is a widespread phenomenon it would help account for the growing strength of a pole for women’s liberation within the party. Again: it would have been nice to explore this more, but this wasn’t that movie…)

As for why the women interviewed had joined the guerillas, they explained that as women they were targets of Turkish State violence for it was felt that they were the weak link, the most vulnerable section of the Kurdish nation. One guerilla told how the Turkish army entered the home of some of her family members and force a young teenaged girl to strip naked in front of her father, and then threatened to rape her. This was devastating, the guerilla explained, not only for the girl, but also for the father. Due to ideas of family honour and how this relates to women’s position in the home, the Turkish security forces try to demoralize and degrade the entire community by attacking the women.

So as a response to this violence, these women left their villages and joined the PKK. They expressed that they did not want to be in the same units as men, and were happy to have a separate Women’s Army.

The Movement of Free Women of Kurdistan is a hopeful sign. Not simply because women with guns are a hopeful sign – as I noted above, imperialism has been arming women for some time now – but because this seems to be a semi-autonomous women’s military organization. While it is subservient to the overall politics of the PKK, women have also clearly had an effect on the latter: the relationship works both ways.

Clearly beyond the purview of our film maker, it would have been interesting to hear about why the PKK incorporated elements of an anti-patriarchal critique and organized women into its ranks, while other Kurdish armed groups have remained staunchly male chauvinist, and around the world women’s armies are the exception not the rule. Is it related to the PKK’s brand of Marxism-Leninism? Is it related to the history of feminism within Kurdistan? Or is there some other explanation?

It is too bad someone else didn’t make this movie!

The dearth of information and context around the Movement of Free Women of Kurdistan is all the more disappointing because it is in stories like this – of women leaving situations of persecution, taking up arms, and fighting not only the State but also the patriarchal traditions of their people – that I find more hope than in most left-wing “victories.” It is because the PKK’s Women’s Army seems to be such an incredibly important example that I would have wanted a more in-depth and political examination. I am not saying that it need be uncritical or a puff-piece – indeed, there may be much to criticize the PKK and Women’s Army for, I don’t know… but that’s the point, after seeing this movie I still don’t know!

In other words, this might have been an acceptable or even good movie if its subject matter was not so important. I wanted to know more than just “what would push a woman to be a guerilla,” I wanted to find out what it meant to be this kind of guerilla…

* Since the movie was filmed, the PKK has changed its name to Congress of the People (Kongra-Gel).

Other Links, With More Information on the PKK and Kurdish People’s struggle


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