An Ode to Kurdish Women on International Women’s Day

Originally uploaded to Washington Kurdish Institute, posted here with permissions.

By Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain

March 8, 2022

To begin, the mosaic containing the story of Kurdish women contains many colorful tiles and a rich history that could never be fully covered in one article. However, it is my hope to provide a very brief overview here of that story, which is both equally inspiring and tragic.

First, we should recognize from the outset that for every known Kurdish heroine – whose story has been preserved and acknowledged – there are thousands if not millions of Kurdish women who have struggled on a daily basis for survival, held their families together, sacrificed everything for their children’s success, and at times risked everything as refugees to give their kids a better life abroad. For instance, many Kurds who graduate from university in the diaspora, often recount how their mother carried them on their back through deserts, while fleeing bombs or poisonous gas.

These heroic Kurdish women, of which there are too many to name, often exist in silence, amidst a patriarchal society that devalues their wisdom, and views them as instruments of domestic productivity, rather than the complex and brilliant women they are. Smart, savvy, and stoic, they are often taken for granted, and considered inferior and weak when compared to men. The main glue that holds the male-controlled structure together is an ideology which links family honor, to female virtue and purity. 

At the same time, Kurdish women are often hailed for their strength abroad by non-Kurds, but we must acknowledge that this fierce will to never give up comes at a very high cost, and we are usually only seeing the survivors. For every Kurdish woman who has defied a dictator or taken up arms to defend her village, there is also an unknown Kurdish woman who was married off at a young age and can never achieve her personal or professional dreams.

The Kurdish culture itself is a beautiful garden with many flowers, containing wonderful music, communal spirit, and rich traditions of respect and kinship – but that garden also has weeds that must be removed, such as honor killings and female genital mutilation – which oppress Kurdish women and girls.

Yet, despite all of these obstacles, Kurdish women have risen to the top of Kurdish society and inspired millions across the world in the process. In fact, Kurds may be one of the few ethnicities in the world, where an outsider abroad thinks of the women first, rather than the men, at first mention. And this is not an accident, as that reputation has been gained through decades of resistance, politically, but also culturally and socially. 

For instance, the recent Western interest in Kurdish women that arose from the fierce resistance of the YPJ in Rojava against ISIS, has its roots in decades of Kurdish women battling in the mountains as guerrillas and Peshmergas, all throughout the four main regions of Kurdistan. Those brave young girls in the rubble of Kobane did not just wake up one day and decide to fight for freedom, but came from a long tradition of Kurdish women who realized that the same ferocity they use to succeed in a society set out to exclude them, can be useful on the battlefield.

It is this same bravery that we continually see from Kurdish women politicians, who continue to be arrested and given long prison terms, for challenging the states which occupy Kurdistan. There is a reason why it is the Kurdish women activists and politicians who are often given such harsh sentences, or have assassins sent after them in the diaspora, and that is because the tyrants who they denounce understand their power and determination. 

Whether it is the determination of Gültan Kışanak, the former mayor of Amed, who years earlier spent 6 months sleeping in a dog cage of Diyarbakir Prison. Or the resilience of Parliamentarian Leyla Zana, who spent a decade in prison for calling for brotherhood between Kurds and Turks in the illegal Kurdish language.  What we continually see are extraordinary women who have not let themselves be confined by the structures meant to restrain them.

Oftentimes this same heroism is personified in heroic Kurdish women who become martyr figures. Whether it is the activist Leyla Qasim, who defied the dictator Saddam Hussein, and was arrested, tortured, and executed by hanging following a nationwide televised show trial, and is now seen as a national hero. Or Arin Mirkan, a mother of two, who when she found herself surrounded by ISIS fighters in the Battle of Kobane, detonated herself under their tank rather than be taken prisoner, and is now seen as a feminist hero around the world. Or Hevrin Khalaf, a skilled diplomat, who was building ethnic bridges between Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, and Assyrians in Syria, when she was pulled from her vehicle and executed by extremists who wanted her silent and locked inside a burqa. What we see are Kurdish women who when met with injustice, stood up and said enough! And it is this moral fire that often makes Kurdish women special and known around the world. 

But just as Kurdish women can have bravery, they can also be fountains of creativity. But even in these cases of artistic expression, Kurdish women are often again trapped by a net of political repression. You have the case of the painter Zehra Dogan, who was recently jailed for her paintings depicting the destroyed Kurdish city of Nusaybin. Or the voice of Nûdem Durak, who is serving 10 years in Turkish prison for singing Kurdish folk songs. What these cases display, is how even non-political acts by Kurdish women, oftentimes get drawn back into the arena of politics, since the 40 plus million Kurds still lack a nation of their own. Painting, singing, writing, or dancing, which for many women around the world might be everyday normal acts, for Kurdish women can take on a deeper layer of meaning and personal risk. Because just existing, as a Kurdish woman, is itself a political act.

And because I believe that it is important to focus on the rich ways that Kurdish women challenge power and spread positivity through culture, I am going to highlight some other Kurdish women from various fields, who each in their own way represent the best of Kurdish women and our experiences.

Within the area of music, you have Kurdish women like Ayşe Şan (Aysha Shan), who was a singer from Amed, and is popularly considered one of the most legendary voices in contemporary Kurdish music. Her father was a traditional dengbej singer and in 1960 she recorded her first album in Kurdish – a brave act that was unheard of at the time, and which forced her to emigrate to Germany for her own safety. One Kurdish woman musician who is following in her footsteps is Aynur Doğan, who is a contemporary singer from Turkey / Northern Kurdistan. She has infused traditional Kurdish folk music with modern Western instruments to create a very unique fusion and popular sound, making her a prominent representative of Kurds throughout the world. However, even she has not been able to escape politics, as in 2004 one of her songs contained the words “girl” and “battle”, leading a Turkish court to ban the song.

In the area of contemporary literature, you have the novelist and poet Sara Omar, who is often cited as the first internationally recognized female novelist from Kurdistan. She left Iraqi Kurdistan as a child refugee in the 1990s and settled in Denmark. As such, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s usually serves as a backdrop in her novels, one of which, called ‘Dead Washer’, has become a well-known best-seller in Denmark. Interestingly, she tried to get her work published in the Middle East and was rejected, and for many years wrote under a fake name where she pretended to be a man in order to be taken seriously. Luckily however, she can now show her true talents without hiding. Another Kurdish woman novelist of note is Ava Homa, whose recent debut novel entitled ‘Daughters of Smoke and Fire’, is a portrait of the struggles faced by 40 million stateless Kurds, as told through the characters’ lives in Iranian Kurdistan. Her work also looks at the meaning of identity, and the effect of trauma, that many Kurds face. She now resides in Canada, and it’s often said she might be one of the first English-language Kurdish woman novelists. 

Lastly, I want to look at the arena of poetry, and two influential woman poets who have made an impact on myself personally. The first, Kejal Ehmed, was born in Kirkuk, and belongs to the 1990’s generation of woman poets, who led a feminist awakening. Her poetry is known for dealing with themes such as exile, isolation, homeland, and conflicting emotions. What makes her work unique is how she portrays the pain of women and the world through their eyes. She is also a fierce critic of gender-based violence and honor killings in Kurdish society. One of her poems which I want to read from, speaks of how for many Kurdish women, the so-called dangerous streets it is viewed as safer than male and family’s home, writing: 

The street did not want anything from me

Whereas it presented me with all beauty

His long and rough hands

Were not red with the blood of any women

Therefore, when I arrive at the station of women killers

I have a feeling

That I love the street more than man.

And finally, the poet Qeredagî Mehabad. She was a women’s right’s activist, who was brought in as an advisor for the Kurdish Regional Government in 2005, helping them look at the issue of women’s equality. In her work she argues that the commitment to old traditions ends up killing women, compassion, and love throughout the entire community. In her poem Love Bunch (Hêsûy Esiq), she expresses the feeling of hate towards the unjust killing of women, symbolized by the autumn season that she detests, writing:

How much furious I am with autumn!

How much!

How much dissatisfied I am with this fruitless October, how much!

Which eliminates love in bunches!

Which distorts the colours of dreams!

Qeredaġî focuses on critical issues that many women in Kurdish society face and gives voice to their obstacles. For her entire life she was a strong advocate for women’s freedom and was never afraid to speak truth to power and the patriarchy. She understood that women’s liberation was an urgent matter and not something that we should approach with a fear of upsetting the institutions that men use to oppress women. 

So, as you can see with all these various tiles of the Kurdish women’s mosaic, whether they are revolutionary martyrs, fighters, politicians, academics, musicians, novelists, or poets – the rich story of Kurdish women has many layers. And whether they battle with a gun, a pen, or with their voice, Kurdish women typically find themselves both carriers of culture and advocates for women’s freedom. Which on International Women’s Day, is a message we can all appreciate. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the WKI.


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