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  • Elif Genc

Hunger Striking as Weapon of Resistance


Across Kurdistan there is tragic news spreading, like wildfire, of young Kurdish youth, many imprisoned in Turkey, sacrificing themselves in order to end the imposed isolation on the leader of the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey and Syria, Abdullah Öcalan. The latest being twenty two year-old Mahsum Pamay, who took his life in Elazığ prison, others include Ayten Beçet, who recently hung herself in protest at Gebze prison. This was followed, just weeks earlier, by a former PKK guerrilla member, Zülküf Gezen, taking his life in Tekirdağ prison on March 17th. All of these political suicides have been in support of the ongoing hunger strikes in countless different places around the world, which were initiated by Leyla Güven, a Kurdish woman member of the Turkish Parliament from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Güven has been on an indefinite and non-alternate hunger strike since November 8 of last year, and she just passed the 150th day of her strike.


Indeed, as of February 2019, 331 prisoners in 67 prisons in Turkey and hundreds of others have joined her to end Öcalan’s isolation, which began in 2011. This is because many in the Kurdish resistance movement (and outside of it) are of the belief that a restoration of peace talks between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, with Öcalan as a party to the negotiations, is the only effective solution for an end to the ongoing conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state. And as such, the current hunger strike is similar to a previous bout in late 2012 to 2013, which helped jumpstart the last round of peace talks between the Turkish state and Öcalan. It seems that Güven and the other hunger strikers are hoping for the same results through their use of “weaponization of life and death”, a peaceful but effective method of resistance that I will introduce and discuss here.


A History of Kurdish Bodies as Sites of Resistance

Since approximately 1984, in the absence of democratic mechanisms and due process, the Turkish state’s “War against Terrorism” has forced the Kurds of Turkey to express their protest and resistance against racist nationalist dynamics and policies through the resources and capacities of their lives and bodies – as evidenced by the ongoing hunger strikes. Moreover, state institutionalized racist practices, combined with a lack of recognition of Kurdish political agency, have worked to blur or erase important political and moral distinctions within the Turkish society; here, and through such practices and institutions, the demonized Kurdish ‘terrorist’ is made and deemed a “necropolitical” body, that is, the Kurdish individual and her body become a subject and property of the state law and its violence.


This devaluation of the Kurdish life and body has resulted in the Turkish state’s gross practice of what Banu Bargu calls “necropolitical violence”. This vile practice ranges from cutting up and defiling Kurdish women guerrilla bodies; dragging Kurdish bodies behind vehicles; destroying Kurdish guerrilla graveyards; and preventing Kurds from burying their dead. This practice, that of “necropolitics”, epitomizes the Turkish state’s attempts at transforming the Kurds, and Kurdish woman especially, into “necropolitical” bodies. The ultimate aim of this practice is to ensure that the Kurdish people in Turkey are no longer considered full citizens in control of their bodies. In particular, the necropolitical practices of the Turkish military industrial complex force the PKK’s women guerrillas into the role of “disposable lives”.


All the same, the Turkish state’s attempts at “necropoliticizing” the Kurdish body have never been fully realized, because the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey has turned this weapon against itself. Indeed, the Kurdish women’s movement has repeatedly exercised its agency against the Turkish state’s necropolitical practices of genocide, rape, slavery, and sexualized violence: the women's “weapons of life” come in the form of hunger strikes and self-immolations. But the Kurdish resistance movement and its women do not stop here, with weaponizing life. Their revolutionary practice culminates into practices of resistance that make “weapons of death”, as in rituals of martyrdom and funeral ceremonies (cenaza), thus raising the fundamental question of whether life and death can be mobilized by revolutionary movements.


Necropolitics as Resistance

The wider history of hunger striking is a long and tortuous one. The British suffragettes of 1909 “revived and redefined the hunger strike as a modern political weapon of an organized movement by linking it for the first time with the discourse of human rights”. Moreover, through such acts, the suffering imposed on the body by the hunger strike becomes a radical expression of the animosity and sexual violence of the state towards women's’ bodies. Importantly, as the hunger striker refuses the power of the state over her life, death and freedom, she distinguishes her resistance “from the inmates of concentration camps” and “from all those beings that, in extreme destitution, are reduced” to a bare state of life, creating what Maud Ellman calls a “gamble with mortality”. In Lady Constance Lytton’s famous address at Queen’s Hall, the status of the hunger strike as a weapon against the political enemy is solidified through such acts:


People say, what does this hunger strike mean? They will not realize that we are like an army, that we are deputed to fight for a cause…and in any struggle or any fight, weapons must be used. The weapons for which we ask are simple, a fair hearing, but that is refused us…Then we must have other weapons. What do other people choose when they are driven to the last extremity?...They have recourse to violence…These women have chosen the weapons of self-hurt to make their protest.


Hunger strikes are acts of “necroresistance”, a radical form of action based on “the appropriation of the power of life and death into the hands of those who resist.” Through such tactics of the “weaponization of life”, “the insurgent’s body becomes the concrete battleground of domination and resistance, subjugation and subversion, sovereignty and sacrifice”. The Kurdish women’s movement resists “necropolitics” through the practice of “necroresistance", where the necroviolence of the state is countered by the necroresistance of the revolution.


Resisting, Even in Death

If hunger striking resists necropolitics through life, rituals around martyrdom and political funerals exemplify necroresistance in death. While every funeral is to some degree a “celebration of life”, within the Kurdish social movement death and life are aligned to an exceptional degree. Indeed, death has always been an integral political component of the Kurdish struggle, in response to the Turkish state’s ongoing necropolitical practices.

The Turkish state’s refusal to return guerrilla bodies for burial, to provide an example, has prompted Kurdish funeral ceremonies to become spaces of both resurrection and celebration of life. Ululations, decoration of the coffin with the “Green, Red, and Yellow” (the three colours of the Kurdish resistance movement) pennants, as well as dancing govend (folk dancing) to banned Kurdish resistance songs song by the attendants, transform funerals and martyrdom rituals into immensely powerful expressions of necroresistance. Such practices arose as a result of the serhildan (Kurdish uprisings) of the early 1990s, which began in the Kerboran (Dargeçit) and Nusaybin districts of Mardin, and the Cizre district of Şırnak after the funerals of PKK guerrillas. In these rituals, “the Kurds resurrect their dead as martyrs” and “promote Kurdish national identity as a sacred communion of the dead and the living” – so the Kurdish martyrs get to make political life, posthumously, from their deaths.


Another instance of Kurdish necroresistance is the practice of memorializing the martyrs, which involves gatherings in preordained spaces on the anniversary of a particular martyr’s death. Here you will often find pictures, symbols, videos, candles, or anything that portrays the (after)life of the martyr. Such memorials are generally more sombre events in comparison to the funerals, while elsewhere, before any event related to the Kurdish women’s movement, there is always a moment of silence for the fallen martyrs. Indeed, as one of the most popular sayings of the Kurdish resistance movement during funerals and memorials goes, şehid namirin (martyrs never die), which is an expression of the martyrs’ immortality that enacts, ritualistically, the “weaponization” of both “life and death”. The act of remembering the dead is an an act of necroresistance for the Kurds.


Necroresistance as Love for Life

Since the inception of the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey, necroresistance has been widely practiced. In the Diyarbakir prison, during the 1980s – arguably the birth time and place of the Kurdish resistance movement in Turkey – hundreds of Kurdish prisoners participated in hunger strikes that became death fasts for many. One of those hunger strikers was Kemal Pir, among the founders of the PKK, who died of a death fast in 1982. While on hunger strike in Diyarbakır prison, he was asked by the head of the prison: "Don't you love life, Kemal?" to which he famously answered: "We love life so much we are prepared to die for it."


Another famous Diyarbakir prison mate of his is Mazlum Doğan, one of the first members of the PKK. On Newroz (Kurdish new year) of 1982, Doğan set his cell on fire and hanged himself. This act of self-immolation was his last resort against the horrific conditions of the Diyarbakir prison. And so every Newroz, Mazlum Doğan is resurrected as a martyr, and as a central part of every Newroz celebration, particularly outside of Turkey where his image is not prohibited.


But one of the most extreme examples of self-immolation and in general, in the history of the movement, would have to be that of Rahşan Demirel on March of 1992, when she was only 18 years-old. After hearing of the attacks on the Newroz celebrations, in not only her hometown of Nusaybin but also in Cizre and many other Kurdish cities and villages in the surrounding regions, Rahşan set herself on fire in the Kurdish district of Kadîfekale in Izmir:


In her bedroom at home in Izmir, Rahşan recorded a message on a cassette declaring that she would provide a response to these events and make her own Newroz. Reportedly leaving her house without her mother noticing, she joined other Kurds atop Kadifekale celebrating the Kurdish New Year, Newroz. There, in front of numerous witnesses, she stepped into the ceremonial fire which served as the focal point for the new year events.


Her funeral was a huge event with thousands of people joining in, and, to this day, particularly on the occasion of every Newroz, she is memorialized and so immortalized along with Doğan and Pir. There are many more recent examples of this practice in the Kurdish women’s movement: Sakine Cansiz, Beritan, Fidan Doğan, Leyla Şoylemez, Arin Mirkan, Barin Kobane. Many of these women were killed in battle, acted as human shields, or were assassinated – all clearly enacting a tradition, among Kurdish women martyrs, of necroresistance through the “weaponization of life and death”.


The biopolitical binary of “necroviolence” versus “necroresistance” has, over the decades, transcended the state boundaries of Turkey. This dynamic also appears in the other three states with a colonized Kurdish population, Syria, Iran, and Iraq (respectively, Rojava, Rojhelat, and Başur). Presently, in Başur, Nasir Yagiz just passed the 137th day of his strike, and joined by Fedîla Tok, on her 77th day. And due to the sheer number of Kurdish refugees everywhere, there are hundreds of ongoing hunger strikes in Europe and North America – in France, Wales, Germany, Austria and Netherlands, solidarity hunger strikes are in their hundredth days. In Strasbourg, Yüksel Koç, the co-chair of KCDHK-E, along with dozens of others such as Kardo Bokani and Nurgül Başaran, just passed their 105th day. In Wales, Imam Sis is well into his 115th day by now. The only hunger striker in North America, Yusuf Iba, a 28-year-old Kurdish journalist, started an indefinite and non-alternate hunger strike on January 13, 2019, in the Toronto Kurdish Community Centre; he just passed his 85th day. Collectively, these individual acts of necroresistance are “weapons” of resistance against the necropolitical Turkish state.