Notes From Kurdistan

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From the Medians to the PKK – the centrality of women to the Kurdish national struggle

Notes From KurdistanNotes From Kurdistan

By: Berivan Dosky –

According to a well-known Kurdish saying, people come into existence through their struggles. If this is true, then the women of Kurdistan have most definitely earned their existence, with their on-going fight to secure equality against state and gender violence.

The problems facing Kurdish women today are multiple and complex. For centuries, Kurdish society has been increasingly influenced and absorbed within a wider Islamic culture, with disastrous consequences for women. The devalued status of women in contemporary Kurdish society has been reflected in a number of ways, including domestic abuse, honour killings, and a lack of educational and work opportunities.

Kurdish-majority regions represent the poorest and least developed areas of Turkey, Syria and Iran, where state repression combines with a lack of financial independence to leave women facing enormous economic constraints. Moreover, as is so often the case in war, the intermittent outbursts of armed conflict in the region over recent decades has placed a disproportionate burden on Kurdistan’s female population.

Kurdish women in history

Female figures have long played an active role in the struggle to liberate both the Kurdish nation, and the Kurdish woman. For them, freedom from patriarchal domination has represented an essential component of national liberation.

[quote_box_right]Figures such as Leyla Qasim led the fight against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and women have continued to fight in the PKK’s campaign against the Turkish military.[/quote_box_right]

Historically, Kurdish women have operated on an equal footing with men. They have participated in military campaigns, both as soldiers and as nurses, and in their role as mothers, have helped to pass on Kurdish traditions, values and language to the next generation as a weapon of nationalism.

The history of the Kurds in the region is an ancient one, and the community traces its ancestors back to the Medes, an Iranian people who adopted the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism promoted gender equality, and the history of the Medes shows how women played a key role in society, in both war and peace. According to tradition, the Median army was led into battle by a woman named Zrena, the daughter of an ancient Zoroastrian wise man, or pir.

Other iconic female figures in Kurdish history include Mir Xanzad, a 16th century princess and commander in the army of the Soran Emirate, who assumed political power after the assassination of her brother, and Hapsa Khan, a 19th century educationalist. The cousin of Sheikh Mahmud, a local notable who led several uprisings against British rule in Iraq, Hapsa Khan encouraged local women to pursue their education as a means of liberating themselves from patriarchal dominance.

In recent history, women have also played a central role in the Kurdish struggle for independence. Figures such as Leyla Qasim led the fight against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and women have continued to fight in the PKK’s campaign against the Turkish military.

Contemporary Kurdish women and their struggle for equality

Today, Kurdish women are leading the fight to secure gender equality. The nature of their struggle varies from region to region, as women living in south-eastern Turkey face different forms of discrimination to their counterparts in Iran, for example. As a result, women activists across Kurdistan have drawn on different methods and ideologies to support their cause.

When the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, it embraced an anti-feudal ideological system. Women, who according to some studies formed up to 30 per cent of the organisation’s membership in the early 1990s, viewed the struggle through the lens of gender equality as well as that of nationalism. In a gun battle in 2012, 15 female PKK members held out against Turkish security forces for almost an entire day before being killed, the Turkish soldiers only realising they had been fighting women after they collected their bodies.

Women at the forefront of the struggle

In May 2013, a conference entitled ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ (‘Women, Life, Freedom’) was held in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, and dedicated to the memory of Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez – three female Kurdish activists who were shot dead in Paris earlier in the year. According to organisers, the conference aimed at coordinating women’s resistance on a wider, Middle Eastern basis.

Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the PKK, had acquired legendary status across Kurdistan for the stamina and resilience she displayed as an activist, soldier, and prisoner. Repeatedly tortured in prison, Cansiz is said to have spat in the face of her captors, and refused to be broken.

Countless other female figures have helped to challenge the political hegemony of the Turkish state. On March 21st 1992, an uprising began during celebrations for the Kurdish new year (Newroz) in the town of Cizre. A young woman named Berivan led thousands of people in protest against the Turkish authorities, quickly becoming a symbol of the resistance.

More recently, 25-year-old Gulbahar Ornek became one of the youngest people ever to be elected as a mayor in Turkey when she won elections in Sur municipality in 2010. Similarly, in the Baglar municipality of Diyarbakir, both the mayor and her deputy are women.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Turkey ranks 124 out of 135 countries for equality between men and women. However, Kurdish-majority cities like Diyarbakir are pursuing initiatives to bridge the gender divide. Authorities in the city’s Baglar district have launched a campaign to encourage female bus and taxi drivers, and are also supporting a co-operative market for women to make and sell their own wares.


The district has perhaps the worst figures in Turkey in terms of economy, domestic violence, and number of students per classroom. But despite this, Baglar now boasts a women’s shelter and two women’s centres that provide free vocational courses, as well as educational support centres for children and young people.

In short, advancing the status and position of Kurdish women requires positive changes from within the community itself. But female activists are already leading the way towards achieving a better future, and returning the status of Kurdish women to its former glory. There are reasons, therefore, to be optimistic that Kurdish society can achieve progress on matters of gender equality, and reverse the negative influence that political Islam has had on the status of women. The future of women in Kurdistan certainly looks brighter than that of other communities across the Middle East, based as it is on a historical tradition of strong, powerful women playing a key role in society. Kurdish women have an identity and a vision, and they should feel proud at this transformational moment in their history.



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