Kurdish women, like most Middle Eastern women, navigate a complex patriarchal terrain of oppression, erasure, and marginalization. Kurdish women’s increasing demands for freedom, bodily autonomy and sexual liberation, particularly in the diaspora, is progressively in conflict with notions of acceptable and idealized femininity.
One situation where this is evident recently is the case of the New Zealand-Kurdish pop singer Nouri, who has emerged on the pop charts with her smash hit “Where Do We Go From Here.” While she has received significant support, a closer look at her Instagram shows a plethora of derogatory comments, ranging from calling her a slut, to being a fake Kurd, to being a porn star simply due to the dress choices she makes and for the content of her video, which has been viewed as too risqué.
Nouri’s case demonstrates a crucial cultural tension, not uncommon for Kurdish women adopting more “Western” and “liberal” lifestyles. This tension is not only between an open sexualized representation of femininity versus toxic masculinity, involving regional resistance against colonialist “Western Liberal Feminism”, but also internalized patriarchy and misogyny within women.
“Conflict ridden societies have been known to experience higher rates of gender-based violence. “
Kurdish women have always been subjected to patriarchal values. From her dress to her language, to her education, marriage, child rearing and more, almost every aspect of a Kurdish woman’s life is regulated by patriarchal norms.
Cultural practices such as honor killings and female genital mutilation are practiced across the four regions, particularly in southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq) due to decades of war. Conflict ridden societies have been known to experience higher rates of gender-based violence. These oppressive practices have continued to thrive due to decades of war, state imposed terrorism, mass displacement, urbanization, and loss of traditional culture.
The governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey have consistently imposed economic underdevelopment as a form of controlling Kurdish rights and separationist aspirations. Part of this deliberate policy includes lack of access to healthcare, education, and other basic rights. Additionally, as a deterrent to politicization, the type of state imposed terrorism implemented on Kurdish society has often involved sexualized and gender-based violence. Saddam’s ‘rape chambers’ attest to this. These policies have had a disastrous impact on the continuation or exacerbation of these traditional practices.
Despite this, women have always resisted internally within the community as well as externally against the state. Though Kurdish women have historically held exulted positions within their tribes and communities, increasing modernization and all that it entails – increased exposure to capitalist modernity, commodification, loss of traditional land and cultures, the imposition of artificial borders and state imposed terrorism – has seen Kurdish society become increasingly traditional and conservative as a means of self-preservation.
Through the rise of the Kurdish liberation movements, women have become increasingly involved in resisting, criticizing, and generating new practices to eliminate gender based oppression within Kurdish society. This is clear in the Kurdish women who have been part of the Peshmarga forces (though often on a tokenistic level), as well as those who have gained international renown such as the guerrilla forces of the PKK and, more recently, the bravery of YPJ forces of Rojava.
“The YPJ… a modern feminist wonder”
Discussions about women’s rights in Kurdistan is not a new concept. Recently however, through the rise of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) across Western Kurdistan, north Syria, known as Rojava these discussions have increasingly come to the forefront serving as a stark contrast to the patriarchal alternative. The YPJ emerged following the Kurdish uprising against the Assad regime, during the Arab Spring protests in Syria. Their dual commitment to ending oppression and violence towards women from outside forces such as the brutal Islamic State (ISIS) or the regime, as well as internally within their own communities, have marked them as a modern feminist wonder.
Living across Rojava for close to 4 years, I had the privilege of witnessing the complexities and nuances of the discussion about gender liberation. Under the model of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava, gender equality is enshrined in the social contract. The implementation of gender liberation has been taken on by the civil society organization Kongreye Star (Star Congress) which attempted to change social norms through the widespread creation of Mala Jin (Women’s Houses) across the region. These houses act as safe spaces where women gain support regarding issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, divorce, child custody and child support, family feuds, marriage and more. Some of the laws introduced within the region, for instance, included elimination of polygamy, forced marriages and child marriages, and outlawing honor killings, domestic violence and other forms of discrimination towards women.
These laws were implemented through the existence of the YPJ but also the women’s forces in the Assayish (police), the widespread training of women in self-defense using weaponry, the collective ongoing education of society about women’s rights, the creation of women’s safe spaces such as the women’s houses, women’s village of Jinwar and more.
From what I have witnessed, however, it is premature to assume that through these progressive changes and the hard efforts of women and other pro-democratic elements within the civil society movements in Rojava, that oppression towards women is completely eradicated. Further, ideas of liberation within the Kurdish movement largely follow a gender essentialist and cis-hetero normative vision.
Such criticisms are valid but also fall within the notion of the cultural relativity argument. They are valid because revolutionary movements need to adhere to intersectional notions of progress involving, for instance, LGBTQAI+ rights. On the other hand, such arguments fail to take into consideration that widespread underdevelopment, lack of education, religious and cultural conservatism has entrenched patriarchal values, leaving little space for the visibility of queer people. Additionally, comparisons to Western feminist achievements fail to consider the long trajectory of organic change required within developing societies to reach a similar level.
Much remains taboo and many barriers require acknowledging and addressing.
However, progressive values cannot become organic within a society overnight. Despite the ongoing work of the Kurdish Women’s Movement in the past forty years, there is still a long way to go before, not only women, but society collectively is seen as truly free.
The cultural identity that prevails in Kurdish society today is a paradox of patriarchal gender values and more progressive standards that are always in tension with each other. These liberal elements, the remnants of a matriarchal history, are constantly in conflict internally, and further challenged due to the ongoing oppression of the Kurds under anti-Kurdish regimes.
Male entitlement ensures that women like Nouri, and other ordinary Kurdish women who wish to determine how they live, how they dress, marry and so on, often have to contend with the opinions of the entire Kurdish community.
Of course, women like Nouri have the added privilege of having lived in the West and have the safety, means and capacity to live in their sexuality openly. Millions of Kurdish women, not only those living back in Kurdistan but also across the West, are heavily barred from accessing that privilege, that sexuality and femininity openly.
The alternative and widely accepted, idealized vision of femininity in Kurdish society involves modesty, submissiveness and religious piety. The open display of sexual-femininity shown by women like Nouri works in direct tension against those ongoing conservative values, and idealized visions of femininity across Kurdistan.
Likewise, many women often become the carriers of toxic masculinity and perpetuate it readily and uncritically towards other women viewed as not adhering to cultural norms. We need to acknowledge our role in the internalization of the patriarchal values imposed on us, and the important role we play in monitoring and controlling each other as women to stay within the boundaries of accepted femininity.
Another complex element of this discussion is the capitalist nature of heterosexual relationships across the region through the widespread cultural practice of dowry prices, always paid in exorbitant sums of gold. Traditionally, the dowry has acted as an economic safety mechanism for women in societies where they were often barred from access to the public arena and lacked financial independence. However, the gold-dowry price commodifies women’s bodies, and sexuality becomes a purchasable material in a transactional relationship that places the power solely, again, within the men’s hands. Conversely, if he cannot gather the adequate dowry he is incapable of participating in the marriage market.
Earlier this year, when Turkey and its jihadist allies invaded the northern region of Afrin the YPJ forces were on the forefront of the fight in protecting the Christian, Kurdish, Yezidi and Armenian communities in the area. Soon after the mutilated body of a YPJ fighter named Barin shocked the world. With breasts mutilated and cut off, her body burned, obscenely exposed and undressed, the Kurdish community was traumatized into witnessing the terrible price women pay for their resistance towards fascist and colonizing forces. However, mass protests followed with men and women holding placards and chanting that Barin’s mutilated body did not represent shame but the honor of the community, that no invading or fascist forces could ever take away Kurdish women’s honor. Such progressive views, which decades earlier would have prevented thousands of women from political activism and self-defense, now encourages women to take on Barin’s ideology of self-protection against fascist and patriarchal forces.
“street harassment involving two young men on the back of a motor cycle, with the latter reaching out to slap my ass before speeding off around the corner”
In late 2016, I was about to leave Kobane, after over a year of living there and working with the Kobane Reconstruction Board. The day before I left, I decided to walk to the Kongreye Star office to say goodbye to my friends. Almost across the road from their office I had a terrible experience of street harassment involving two young men on the back of a motor cycle, with the latter reaching out to slap my ass before speeding off around the corner.
I was overwhelmed with a feeling of deep anger and disgust. I remember thinking “but this is Kobane, the city of revolutionary women, the city of YPJ. How could this happen?”
But the reality is that the patriarchy is evident everywhere and lives in every society.
Battling it, and smashing it is a moral imperative for all.
To date, despite its limitations, Rojava continues to set the bar for what we should aim for in progressive collective and gender based rights for Kurdistan in a way that is organic and paced.
However, it certainly shouldn’t be the end point for gender liberation.