Citizenship and the Right to Birth Control

Calling this year’s political fight about funding for contraception a “war on women” may be a catchy slogan and a strong mobilizing call. But as an analysis, it is misleading. True, birth control does affect women disproportionately, because women still take primary responsibility for raising children. But everyone needs access to birth control. It is, first, a matter of public health, in that unsafe and irresponsible sex affects us all.

More fundamentally, it is a requirement of modern citizenship. I mean by citizenship not a set of documents but the power to participate in democracy, to defend and expand it. For that reason, progressives need to make the defense of contraception and abortion funding a core part of our agenda, not—as it has usually been treated by the Left—as a separate women’s issue.

Consider what’s wrong with this picture: on February 26, 2011, there were two demonstrations in New York City, carefully organized so as to be near each other—one in City Hall Park, the other in Foley Square—and to fit together, one at 11 a.m. and the other at 1 p.m. The first was called by unions and other progressive organizations to support the struggle against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attack on the collective bargaining rights of public unions; the second supported Planned Parenthood against the Republican-controlled House’s effort to defund it. At the second rally, many speakers condemned tax breaks for the rich, the elimination of social and public services, the closing of public schools, and what union-busting means for the lives of working people. At the first, although many of the union participants were Hispanic and black women, I did not hear one speaker mention the attacks on Planned Parenthood.

Yet protecting birth control is no less important than the fight for unions, the environment, jobs, and a fair tax structure. Birth control is everyone’s right, and we all need to come to its defense. The campaign against it is part of the overall right-wing agenda of redistributing wealth and political power upward to the corporate sector. Prosperous people will continue to have access to birth control and abortion; what’s at issue is access for those less fortunate. This is true not only for heterosexuals who want to become parents even as they work, relax, and act as citizens. Because birth control is about separating sex from reproduction and accepting sexuality as an honorable and delightful aspect of humanity, it is relevant to homosexuals, too. We might call it part of a right to sexual citizenship.

Considering today’s controversy, some might be surprised to learn that the United States has had the strongest women’s rights movements in the world. In the mid-nineteenth century, women throughout the world envied the relative freedom of American women to participate in education, public life, and work. Paradoxically, the birth-control controversy is a reflection o...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.