On January 9, 2023, thousands of demonstrators from across Europe gathered in Paris to participate in marches organized by Kurdish groups.
Demonstrators were mourning a triple killing of Kurdish activists that occurred in Paris just two weeks before the march. The day also marked the ten-year anniversary of the still unresolved murder of three Kurdish women activists in the French capital, in an armed attack that took place in the Kurdistan Information Center. Activists suspect the Turkish state’s intelligence service was in some way behind the assassinations, though Ankara has denied involvement. The case exemplifies a trend noted by Kurdish activists in diaspora: that the Turkish state’s repression of the Kurdish movement has increasingly, over the last decade, occurred beyond Turkey’s borders. Recent events—like Sweden’s extradition of members of the PKK to Turkey as part of a bid to secure NATO membership—illustrate the geopolitical dimensions of this repression. The increasingly transnational reach also extends to tech companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, which have censored or shut down certain accounts and voices that are supportive of the Kurdish movement or critical of the Turkish state.
Anna Özbek is a multimedia journalist and filmmaker, a member of the artist-activist collectives Chinatown Art Brigade and The Illuminator and an assistant professor in journalism at Purchase College. She interviewed Elif Genç, a Kurdish women’s movement activist and PhD candidate in political science at the New School on May 9, 2023. Their conversation explores the shape of the Kurdish movement in this age of transnational repression and the gendered dimensions of the Turkish state’s targeting of activists. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Özbek: Let’s start with the assassinations of three prominent Kurdish women activists in 2013. All three were executed, shot in the head, at the Kurdish Information Center in Paris. A Turkish national was later arrested for the murders but died of illness in police custody. Could you describe the legacy of these activists’ work and the impact of their murders?
Elif Genc: The assassinations of Sakine Cansız (Sara), Fidan Doğan (Rojbin) and Leyla Şaylemez (Ronahî) is such a traumatic moment in the history of the Kurdish women’s movement because it hit the movement on three levels: Sakine Cansız was a legendary figure in the Kurdish women’s movement and was one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Fidan Doğan worked on international relations and Leyla Şaylemez was involved with the youth movement. Turkey is engaged in the feminicide of Kurdish women guerrillas (“feminicide” is the term used by the Kurdish women’s movement and other women’s movements, globally, to emphasize the state’s role in violence against women). And what the state considers a Kurdish woman guerrilla is very vast—within that fall activists and sympathizers. Kurdish women guerillas are the ultimate state enemy of Turkey. They’re Kurdish, which they despise already, and women, whom they also despise.
We see so many examples of horrific feminicide within Turkey, for example with Kevser Eltürk (Ekin Wan), when they displayed her naked dead body in the Varto district in Muş province. This happened in 2015 during the “self-defense wars” (a period from 2015–2017 after residents in some Kurdish cities formed autonomous municipalities and were besieged by the Turkish military, resulting in more than 3,000 dead, at least 355,000 displaced and massive destruction of urban residential areas from shelling). It’s a practice of the Turkish state to sexually violate dead Kurdish women guerrilla bodies and display them naked. It’s meant to have this horrible connotation about her chastity and her being a woman. It’s just sick. I want to make it clear that this kind of violence is not just exclusive to Kurdish women guerrillas and activists. Kurdish men are also killed with impunity, as with the 2015 killing of the 24-year-old Kurdish male protestor Hacı Lokman Birlik, whose body was dragged through the streets by a police vehicle in Şırnak. I believe that in the eyes of the Turkish state, Kurdish women revolutionaries are not human. They are inhuman and therefore dispensable. They can be assassinated. That’s ultimately what the Turkish state is doing because of course, these women suffer extreme violence under that patriarchal state on many systemic levels.
Outside of Turkey, there’s also the case of politician and civil engineer Hevrîn Xelef. In 2019, she was abducted and brutally assassinated by Turkey and their jihadist proxies in Rojava, which is the Autonomous Administration of North and West Syria. She was the newly elected Secretary General of the Future Syria Party after having spent years working in economic committees in Rojava. So, this goes across countries and across borders. Another recent example is the 2022 assassination of scholar Nagihan Akarsel (Zîlan), who was one of the editors of Jineolojî magazine, which is a very well-known feminist publication. She was assassinated in Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) in Başȗr (Iraqi Kurdistan). She was killed just weeks before the Kurdish women’s movement conference in Berlin, Women Weaving the Future, which she had helped organize.
Anna: In December 2022, there was another triple murder of Kurdish activists in front of a Kurdish cultural center in Paris. More than 20,000 protestors marched to commemorate both these murders and the 2013 assassinations that we discussed previously.
Elif: First and foremost, no one considered this to be an isolated incident. The fact that it was almost ten years to the day after the Kurdish women’s assassinations is obviously no coincidence. Emine Kara, or Evîn Goyî, which was her Kurdish name, was a prominent member of the Kurdish women’s movement and, I believe, more so the target of this assassination than either Mîr Perwer, who was a singer, and Abdurrahman Kızıl, who was a local sympathizer to the cause. The protests that erupted out of it were a gut reaction to the fact that once again, in the heart of Paris, there was an assassination. And the alleged motivations of the person that they pinned it on (William Malet) were nonsense. They made it look like some sort of racist attack against Muslims or immigrants. The reason why the youth ran out into the streets and started protesting, ripping up the sidewalk, was out of pure frustration and outrage because, to a degree, France and French president Emmanuel Macron would have to exercise a certain amount of complicity to allow something like this to happen in the middle of the city in broad daylight twice within ten years. Right to the same community, with the same target.
Anna: You yourself were physically assaulted while protesting a state visit from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Washington, DC in May 2017 along with dozens of other protestors. At least two dozen Turkish security agents and their civilian supporters were filmed beating protestors and Erdoğan was filmed personally watching the attack. What happened that day?
Elif: We thought it would be like any other protest. If Erdoğan is coming, of course we’re going to go to Washington and show up and counter-protest, right? So, there were two aspects to this attack: the first wave and the second wave. And the first wave I wasn’t involved with because I lagged quite a bit behind with a friend of mine who was with her kid, not really paying that much attention to what was going on around us. So, I go there and I grab my big Selahattin Demirtaş poster, and I joined the ranks (Demirtaş is a former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP, and has been imprisoned in Turkey since 2016). I did not realize that there had already been this other attack with the first wave, so I was completely flabbergasted when I looked across the street and there were these G.I. Joe-looking Turkish security guards who were threatening us. And next thing I know, I’m on the ground. It was like a wave just hit me. It wasn’t until I saw the footage of being kicked and punched and also them grabbing my arm and pulling me down to the ground that I realized exactly how I was attacked. If you’re getting beaten by four or five people, you can’t tell what’s happening.
By some miracle of adrenaline, I managed to cling onto the leg of this American police officer and hoisted myself up and ran. I remember feeling the pain of it all, and I knew in my mind, I’ve got to get out of here. But I didn’t realize the extent of how bad it was, so I made my way back to get my hat, and I had a scarf, and then I start looking around me and there are all these elderly men and they’ve got blood streaming down their faces and people having been kicked in the face, and one of my friends is having a seizure on the ground. And there was this injured uncle-type man, and I gave him my scarf, and the scarf just got soaked with blood. It was really shocking. There were about nine of us that were badly injured. And there were other incidents, like my friend, they basically tried to kidnap her, and this harkens back to the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization’s practice of disappearing people. The fact that Turkey thinks they can do these things in broad daylight in Washington is just insane.
Anna: One of the things that makes this violent attack so remarkable is that there were legal consequences for some of the Turkish attackers. Can you talk about the process that led up to this?
Elif: Once we went to the hospital, the investigations started about what actually happened. I believe right away Erdoğan’s security guards and diplomatic types and also some civilians were detained, but they all got out of there quickly. I think they were gone within half an hour.
Anna: Right, declassified US state department documents showed that Erdoğan’s security guards were released after being held by the United States for only half an hour and they immediately flew back to Turkey.
Elif: I returned to Toronto a couple of weeks later and I was sitting in a restaurant, which I normally wouldn’t go to, as it was a fascist Turkish restaurant, but we had just come from the Kurdish Community Center, and I was starved. And I ran into one of the guys that had beat us up in Washington. Three of the civilians that were involved in the attacks are from Toronto. That was quite a shock when I saw him right in front of me in Toronto, so I took some pictures and sent them to the American police. About a month later the arrest warrants came out for two civilians in Toronto, two civilians in the US who were arrested and jailed and then 12 arrest warrants for the Turkish security personnel, but they weren’t in the country anymore. And that night, the two guys who were charged in Toronto, Ahmet Dereci and Mahmut Ellialti, escaped to Turkey.
What ended up happening is that there was some press surrounding this arrest. I did an interview for CBC about the attack, and I said that I helped the American police. The next day my picture was in a Turkish newspaper, with them alleging that I’m a PKK member or sympathizer and that I beat these guys up, that I broke this guy’s nose. Once I was profiled, obviously, with Turkey, I became a target as well. I guess I should have expected as much, but it was a little shocking. But forget me, all of my friends here have had their families in Turkey taken in for interrogation about where they are. Turkish fascists in the US created petitions to try to get some of the protestors deported from the US, and they had to move to different states because of the harassment. None of us can go back to Turkey, which means people can’t see their families again. Some even had to apply for asylum and become refugees. It has really remarkably changed a lot of people’s lives.
Anna: Did these attacks and their visibility change anything for the Kurdish women’s movement?
Elif: In Turkey, no one ever has to answer for the brutality and torture and the straight up annihilation of the Kurdish people. This is something that we can hold Turkey responsible for, and we’re pushing for it to be recognized as hate crimes, not just assault. This is still going on, and there is both a criminal and civil court case. It turns out that the Turkish security guards beat up a bunch of US State Department people that day as well, which was the icing on the cake. Even though many of us were not US citizens, the case garnered a lot of support in the US. Interestingly, our biggest supporter was the late Senator John McCain, and he actually said that day that we have to kick the Turkish ambassador out of the US.
Anna: How do you see these attacks as part of what you’ve identified as a feminicide against the Kurdish women’s movement?
Elif: Yes, to bring it back to that whole context of being inhuman in their eyes, I also feel this whole attack falls within that category. While the guy was beating me, what I do remember is someone saying in Turkish, “I’m going to kill you, bitch.” And I really believed they would kill me, and they would kill all of us. We forget their objective is to annihilate us if they could. I hadn’t heard all my fellow colleagues’ accounts until recently, but one recalled an attacker that day saying, “Oh bitch, come back here. You haven’t had enough.” That has really horrific sexual violence connotations.
Anna: You organize with Kurdish communities in Toronto and New Jersey. Can you talk about how Turkish state violence can materially impact Kurdish people a continent away? Does this sometimes lead to self-censorship and a broader culture of fear?
Anna: In Turkey last month, another few hundred people were arrested in a supposed “anti-terrorism” sweep in the lead up to the May elections, and these arrests were mostly in Kurdish provinces.
Elif: Yes, I had some friends here who signed up to be election watchdogs or witnesses and they pulled out because their lawyer said, “you know, it’s going to affect a case back home as well.” There are a lot of people that still have things back home that are very dicey. A lot of the ones that want to get involved have a certain relationship to the Kurdish movement. We have people whose brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, have been jailed or martyred. Some people come to protests and take pictures because they really want to show that they do not want to go back to Turkey. But then there’s also that hesitation, and there absolutely is a fear of displaying PKK flags.
In 2019, when the US pulled out of Rojava, and Turkey immediately attacked, there was a lot of international attention, probably the most we’ve ever had. I went to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s Office of International Relations and said we should delist the PKK. If I can do that in the senator’s office, I’m pretty sure you can do it in the streets. But I get that back in Turkey if you have a PKK flag then you’re going to jail. This self-censorship, I think the only way to actually get through it is to legalize it. And the only way you’re going to legalize anything is to normalize it.
Anna: You’re talking about normalizing the PKK in the United States by removing the PKK from the designated foreign terrorist organization list?
Elif: Yes, I think we need to delist. I’ve been in diplomatic relations in the Kurdish movement for the last ten years and everything ties to delisting. Kurdish movement activism is criminalized using that as a pretext. The fear that comes from this stigma often deters members of the community from becoming involved with Kurdish activism.
Anna: We’ve seen that the reach of the Turkish state extends beyond physical violence into digital censorship. Within the country, Turkey has blocked YouTube and Wikipedia for years at a time. Access to social media like Twitter is routinely blocked during large protests and public emergencies, most recently after the massive earthquakes that left more than 50,000 people dead. Twitter also recently announced it would comply with Turkey’s demands to censor specific accounts in the days leading up to the election. You helped organize a Facebook group in solidarity with Rojava, and you’ve said this group has been subject to censorship. Can you describe what you’ve seen happen with Kurdish digital organizing in the United States and Canada?
Elif: So obviously we live in a digital world, and social media is very essential for organizing even though we’re dealing with a lot of people who are not using the most advanced technology. We’ve mostly been using Facebook. But I’ve been banned from Facebook for months. In fact, I was lucky to get my account back. A lot of my friends did not. The Toronto Kurdish Community Center account has been shut down three or four times. Just recently the Instagram page was shut down again. It’s constant. Anything even mentioning the PKK is shut down. But it’s also for things you wouldn’t expect. There was a sweep of all the Rojava-affiliated Facebook groups. Supporting Rojava is not illegal. There’s nothing illegal about it. The armed forces of Rojava, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are not illegal, and they’re not on any list. But still there was this big sweep and even groups that have nothing to do with the Kurdish movement, like the Institute for Social Ecology, were also shut down. That prompted us to ask who was doing this, because it was on such a mass scale.
Anna: A ProPublica investigation found that in early 2018, Facebook secretly agreed to Turkey’s demand to censor the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Facebook page and “geo-blocked” it within Turkey. Sheryl Sandberg, then chief operating officer of Facebook, personally approved the action, writing “I am fine with this” in an email shown as part of that investigation. This is despite the fact that, as you said, the YPG is not considered a terrorist organization by the United States or by Facebook. On the contrary, the US military worked closely with the YPG for years in their war against ISIS. The result was that all the posts that the YPG made documenting the casualties of the Turkish military invasion of Syria and Rojava could not be seen by anyone within Turkish borders.
Anna: We’ve discussed issues of Turkey’s transnational violence from murder and physical violence to censorship and fear, but the resistance to this is also international. What is the importance of transnational and solidarity organizing to the movement?
Elif: I think the Kurdish women’s movement is a transnational movement. I don’t even know it in any other context. I’m an activist of the Kurdish women’s movement, but I’m only in North America and to some extent Europe. Because of the level of censorship and because of the draconian measures that are taken in Turkey against the movement, the solidarity falls on us to be there in those spaces. I also think that diplomacy has started to play a huge part in the movement. The armed aspect of this movement is out of complete necessity and self-defense. But I think the movement is coming to realize that this is a reflection of the century that we’re in. Fighting now also means diplomacy. Gains for us are getting interviews with senators or creating solidarity networks with like-minded people. Transnational solidarity, I think it’s absolutely essential.
 Jack Gillum and Justin Elliot, “Sheryl Sandberg and Top Facebook Execs Silenced an Enemy of Turkey to Prevent a Hit to the Company’s Business,” Pro Publica, Feb. 24, 2021.