Gurbetelli Ersöz: Scientist, Journalist, Guerillera. A Short History of the Kurdish Press
F. Adar Sönmez
The first Kurdish newspaper, the `Kurdistan Newspaper`, was published on April 22, 1898 by Mikdat Mithat Bedirhan in exile in Cairo. This date has been celebrated as `Kurdistan Journalism Day` since 1973. We can speak of a tradition of Kurdish press history that began in exile, later spread from Istanbul and was strongly influenced by Kurdish men. The Kurdish press, which has a 124-year history, first developed as a result of the general spirit of the times and the organizational efforts of the Kurdish Mir and intellectuals who had been exiled to Istanbul. We can speak of a very lively Kurdish press history based in Istanbul, especially between the Second Constitutional Declaration of 1908 and the First World War of 1914.
In the history of the Kurdish press, we encounter Kurdish women's journalism only in the form of daily newspapers, which represent one of the most important stages in the history of the Kurdish press after 1990. It was then that the Kurdish political movement began to become a mass movement. In this sense, this period was existential for Kurdish women journalists. The 1990s, which was the most important milestone of the emerging Kurdish Women's Movement in the last 30 years, were a period when Kurdish women became visible in almost all fields. This period also corresponds to a historical period in which the Kurdish press diversified and reached a larger mass. In the history of the Kurdish press, "Özgür Gündem" mainly involved Kurdish women journalists in all positions from the very bottom to the very top and sometimes at the management level. This development, known as the "free press tradition,"1 began with the magazine "Toplumsal Diriliş,"2 which appeared for the first time in 1988.
The newspapers of the "Özgür-Gündem tradition" or "free press tradition" have left their mark on the history of the Kurdish press in North Kurdistan, especially in the 1990s. In a male-dominated field like the press, the struggle for existence of Kurdish women in the Kurdish and opposition newspapers has developed quite impressively ever since.
After 1990, the era began in which the Kurdish Movement mobilized more and more people and placed women's rights at the center of its political practice. In this period, the work of Gurbettelli Ersöz as an academic and researcher became very important in the practice of Kurdish women journalists in publishing a daily newspaper.
A journalist who resisted the commodification of women
After this rather general introduction to the history of the Kurdish press, let us now turn to Gurbetelli Ersöz. Gurbetelli plays a leading role in the emergence of Kurdish women's journalism, an adventure that would later give rise to JINHA3, which only gained visibility in the last 30 years of the 124-year Kurdish press tradition.
Following the tradition of "Özgür Gündem," Gurbetelli Ersöz became the first female editor-in-chief in the history of Turkey and Kurdistan when she founded the second "Özgür Gündem" in April 1993. Gurbetelli, who was actually an academic and scientist rather than a journalist and guerrilla, was born in 1965 in Xarpêt (Turkish Elaziğ). Between 1989 and 1997 she was active in the Kurdish Movement. From 1989 to 1993, she was imprisoned for membership in the PKK. From April 1993, she practiced the journalism she loved so much, this time professionally at the newspaper "Özgür Gündem". At the end of the same year, she was imprisoned for more than six months after a raid on the newspaper. From June 1994 to 1995, she started working at the newspaper again. In 1995, as a Kurdish journalist, she decided to continue her struggle in the ranks of the guerrillas due to the heavy repression and arrests. Gurbetelli fell on October 8, 1997 along with other friends on Mount Gare in the fight against the collaboration of the KDP and Turkey.
There were two things that she did not leave behind in the mountains between 1995 and 1997 even under the most difficult circumstances: Her diary and her mother's headscarf. Her diary was published under the title "Gurbet's Diary: I Embed My Heart on the Mountains." Gurbetelli Ersöz, in whose name a prize for women's journalism is awarded every year, writes in her diary mainly about her bond with her brother, Dr. Orhan Ersöz, her longings, her laments, her thoughts about women, her life with the guerrillas, the difficulties and joys she experienced.
Gurbetelli's close friend Ferda Çetin describes her in the preface to the published diary as follows: "She was an alternative to the designs of the woman-as-commodity that the system wants to create. In her life, which was so short, she was able to destroy the 'god-gifts' of the system that were offered to her with one well-aimed blow. Concepts like position, career, status, 'values' for which a woman integrated in the ruling order can sacrifice everything, but which do not make much sense to revolutionaries, turned into stair steps to freedom under Gurbet's feet. She became acquainted with revolutionary ideas during her time as a research assistant in the Chemistry Department of Çukurova University. She did not hesitate. She realized - with her (still) very limited knowledge - that life, which was a dream for many women, was a labyrinth of traps and did not go that way. Because she understood what a horror it could be to live like a pleasing woman."
Hüseyin Aykol writes that Gurbetelli became acquainted with politics and revolution in Adana when she worked at Çukurova University and was influenced by the environment of "Hedef" magazine.4 In the environment of "Hedef" magazine, Gurbetelli was able to learn about journalism and gain her first experience in press work.
Aykol describes the process when Gurbetelli took over as editor-in-chief of "Özgür Gündem" in 1993 as follows: "She was not so aware that she was making history in this daily newspaper, which was published despite the severe attacks of the state. However, she was Turkey's first female editor-in-chief. I remember that during our discussions about the publication or management of the newspaper, she listened very carefully to the existing problems and took notes of everything. She stuck to the issues she had noted down. She worked in a very structured way. In human relations, she was very familiar and warm."5 In an interview with Nadire Mater, which she gave during her time as editor-in-chief, she said, "Of course, it is very important for a Kurdish woman to be editor-in-chief. Kurdish women have made it further than men in recent years. Where I stand today is related to this as much as to my own achievements."
In the end, she was aware of her own power while making history and giving appreciation to the work of women. Two of the most expressive words for Gurbetelli were otherness and awareness.
I have tried to find her traces in unpublished interviews and to understand Gurbetelli with the help of her diary and other sources. Aykol describes Gurbetelli as friendly, usually with a smile on her lips, and with a disposition that you just couldn't stay mad at.6
Nadire Mater looks at Gurbetelli with incredible admiration. She had witnessed the great energy with which she discussed news with editors and reporters, listened and made suggestions, as if she had already been running a newspaper for years.
The second "Özgür Gündem" in 1993: A time of the most intensive women's work
In my 2014 interview with Gültan Kışanak, my perspective on Gurbetelli broadened. Gültan identified 1993 as the time when women's work in journalism was most intense. All four of the newspaper's main assignments were staffed by women. Gurbetelli and Gültan were the editors-in-chief, Yurdusev Özsökmenler was the journalistic director, and Yasemin Gedik was the department head and thus responsible for general commentary and discussion forums. All the main activities of the newspaper were performed almost exclusively by women.7
In fact, said Gültan, Gurbetelli's awareness of her femininity took herself and other female journalists, her friends, a step further. Thanks to her, she said, the color of the newspaper changed. It was during this time that monthly meetings of women journalists began for the first time. The number of women journalists in the offices in Kurdistan and Turkey increased.8 There were calls for attention to language in the news9 and for more space to be given to news about women. Provision was made for the deployment of women reporters in particular in the newspaper's eastern and western offices. In the center of Istanbul, female reporters received journalistic training. However, the fact that during this period the agenda was determined by rights violations due to the war prevented women's identity from entering the newspaper. Newspapers, in some ways, considered it a luxury to highlight female identity in light of the rights violations experienced by the general population. Nevertheless, the sensitivity of the four female executives, and Gurbetelli in particular, to female identity led to change, albeit on a discursive level. Gurbetelli's work as editor-in-chief, however, was short-lived. After her arrest in December 1993, the newspaper was closed.10
Despite the intensity of women's work, the newspaper "Özgür Gündem" did not have a women's supplement or page. However, topics such as more coverage of women, increasing the proportion of women in the comment columns, refraining from using expressions that might offend female identity were at least discussed, and steps were taken against discrimination.11 The decisive factor was that women's perspectives and awareness were influential throughout the newspaper. Otherwise, it could have led to a disingenuous situation as in the mainstream media. From the women's point of view, their emancipation was prevented in mainstream media by incorporation.
"If the press had written the truth, there would not have been so many deaths"
A common point in my conversations about Gurbetelli's leadership style and journalism, which I have had with many women journalists who worked in the newspaper "Özgür Gündem" in a wide variety of positions, is the description of a solution-oriented, energetic, women-focused, positive, self-confident, questioning and discussing woman. There are even women who, inspired by Gurbetelli, turned to this profession and became journalists.
Doing alternative journalism in the 1990s meant being part of the war. Enormous rights violations, torture, the burning of villages, a dirty war, and murders by unknown perpetrators were commonplace. Therefore, the press was a backstop for the Kurdish Movement. Gurbetelli, however, both in prison and during her journalistic activities, constantly talked about the importance of the role of both the press and journalists and their power to convey the truth. It is no coincidence that in an interview with Nadire Mater she said, "If the press had written the truth, there would not have been so many deaths." For Gurbetelli, the press was obliged to write the truth, otherwise it was complicit. Therefore, Gurbetelli was not admitted to military briefings or ministerial meetings to which the mainstream media were invited. She was one of the few women who could combine journalism and resistance.
In her diary, Gurbetelli writes about the first national women's conference in Zap12, that there she got to know the reality of the country, and was able to experience the 'nature' of women and thus her own reality. During the first women's conference, they talked about the way they experienced the power struggle between men and women that influenced Middle Eastern politics. She wrote that she loved her gender and thus herself as a woman, that she saw male dominance as well as the role of women in war and in gender and class struggles. Gurbetelli made the decision to love her womanhood and to become a passionate fighter for it.13
At the first women's conference, "for the first time, the woman had talked so much about herself and recognized herself. It was also the first time she had talked so much about the man and recognized him. Both problems and solutions were seen."14
The Kurdish Women's Movement began to gain momentum, especially in the 1990s. It went through a partially institutionalizing process. However, we can say that with the increase in the visibility of women, who had been considered invisible for centuries, the struggle against the male-dominated view reached its first peak at that time. Gurbetelli used every opportunity in the field of the press in favor of women. In the case of the guerrilla, she additionally encountered major contradictions. Regarding the battle of the sexes, she wrote in her diary: "Not wanting the development of women. Yes, there is even fear of it. There is denial, belittling, conforming, holding in reserve. Women are supposed to be responsible only for life. They are not allowed to participate in the whole. Or rather, they are made to be their [men´s] own woman."15
Without women's freedom no one will be free
Gurbetelli made a deep connection between women's liberation and the Kurdish revolution. One of the main themes that characterizes her diary is her anger at the fact that women are seen as reserve forces in the guerrilla struggle, in the gender struggle, and in the power struggles. If there is anything she cannot tolerate, it is the keeping of women in the background. In every line of her diary, she stresses the importance of a woman's own physical and psychological will. In her opinion, a woman has a free spirit and does not need to stand in anyone's shadow.
At that time, the women's conference again seems to have found favor in all areas. The decisions to arm, autonomy and institutionalize women's (structures) showed that women were not silent reserve units, but could be a force in their own right. Commenting on this initiative of women trying to be subjects, Gurbetelli says in her diary, "When a regional coordinator jokingly says 'If this goes on, we will open a men's protection association in 2005,' it shows that the strengthening of the YAJK16 is perceived as a split-off, and when the same approaches appear in all regions, it reflects a deeply rooted mentality."
Gurbetelli understood women as married by birth. Therefore, divorce from the husband needed to be the woman's top priority. Otherwise, she was either someone's silent reserve or slave and could not become free. That is why she write, "Just as I fight male dominance, I will I will beautify being a woman, starting with myself".
Dr. Orhan Ersöz, a doctor, was Gurbetelli's only brother. At the heart of the diary is her brother, whom Gurbetelli lost shortly after she joined the guerrillas. His death left her with a deep pain. At the center are laments, poems, and dreams of her brother being burned by soldiers. The fire appears on every page of Gurbetelli's diary: "When I woke up, I dreamed of his body burning in that heat. I keep seeing a photo in my mind's eye. In the newspaper `Özgür Gündem` we once published a photo of burning bodies from which smoke was still rising."17
This article was first published in the May/June 2022 edition of the Kurdistan Report.
1The "tradition of the free press" is a definition of Kurdish press history - primarily related to "Özgür Gündem" - that was developed with the aim of describing the line of journalism that, with its news and broadcasts, represented an alternative to the discourse of the mainstream media in the state-power-army triangle. Since the 1990s, the "free press tradition" has shaped the history of the Kurdish press to this day, identified in particular with "Özgür Gündem" and often referred to as "movement journalism" and "militant journalism".
2The magazine "Toplumsal Diriliş," which is considered the first legal publication of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement, was closed after a short time. Hüseyin Aykol states that more than 50 daily, weekly and monthly newspapers were published in the short period. According to Aykol, the first important publication of the "free press tradition" was the weekly newspaper "Halk Gerçeği", which was closed on April 22, 1990. "Halk Gerçeği," a joint publication project of six political groups, was terminated by the newspaper management after three issues. This was followed by the weekly newspaper "Yeni Ülke." When the joint publication project failed, Aykol writes, they decided to continue this time alone with "Yeni Ülke," which appeared for the first time on Oct. 20, 1990. In the same week, the newspaper's office in Diyarbakir was bombed. The founding editor of the newspaper was Günay Aslan. The newspaper was published for two years until it was closed in December 1992. The editor-in-chief was detained for a while. Source: Aykol, H. (2010). Twenty years of Kurdish media. Istanbul: Evrensel. p. 149.
3JINHA was a news agency where only women worked. The name comes from "Jin," which means "woman" in Kurdish, followed by "H" for "haber" (Turkish: news) and "A" for "Ajansi" (Turkish: agency). JINHA was founded in 2010 by Kurdish women. Women from different nationalities worked together. The headquarters of JINHA was Diyarbakir. News were written in English, Kurdish and Turkish. The goal was to use a language other than the hegemonic and male-dominated one. The journalists wanted to report from the women's point of view and not portray women as (sexual) objects. JINHA had various offices in Rojava and Turkey, as well as one in Silêmanî in South Kurdistan/North Iraq. At first, the website was only accessible to subscribers. Later, JINHA opened up to a wider audience and also made freely accessible articles available. After the end of the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government, it became increasingly difficult for Kurdish news agencies like JINHA to continue their work. For example, Güler Can from JINHA's Diyarbakir office reported that published articles were used as evidence for charges against journalists. In December 2015, while attending a demonstration in Diyarbakir to report on it, Beritan Canözer was detained by police for allegedly looking too "enthusiastic." On October 29, 2016, JINHA was closed by Decree 675.
4Aykol, Hüseyin (2012 /2nd Edition 2015). Aykırı Kadınlar: Osmanlı’dan Günümüze Devrimci Kadın Portreleri, Ankara: İmge (S. 236).
6Ibid., p. 237.
7In fact, Aysel Kılıç emphasizes in her thesis that in the Turkish press in the 1990s and 2000s, there were hardly any women on the leadership level, while in the Kurdish press it was the opposite. See: Kilic, A. (2013). The position of journalists in the Turkish press at management and production levels. Institute of Social Sciences, Marmara University, unpublished master's thesis, p. 125.
8Source: Unpublished interview from September 2, 2014
9In terms of language, care was taken not to write sexist news. It was intended that news with women in the foreground and success stories of women would be given more space. At the time, there were no specific women's pages or attachments. However, the interviews note that a certain sensitivity was developing in the discourse at the time.
10Çakmak.Y., Şur, T., (2018). ‹Gültan Kışanak›, Portraits from Kurdish History and Politics, İstanbul: İletişim.
11Source: Unpublished interview from September 2, 2014
12The first national women's conference of YAJK was held from March 30 to April 17, 1996.
13Ersöz, Gurbetelli. (2014). Gurbet’in Güncesi: Yüreğimi Dağlara Nakşettim. Diyarbakır:Aram (p.128)
16The YAJK (Yekîtiya Azadiya Jinên Kurdistan) was the Association of the Freedom of the Women of Kurdistan and was the beginning of independent women's organization with the establishment of the Women's Army. In 1999, the women's party PJKK was developed from this.
17Ersöz, Gurbetelli. (2014). Gurbet’in Güncesi: Yüreğimi Dağlara Nakşettim. Diyarbakır:Aram.