Kurdish women dance at Newroz celebration in Mersin, southeast Turkey

26/07/2017 - 20:00 0
Voices of Kurdish women’s liberation: reclaiming 'the self' through literary expression

To be able to understand the importance of Kurdish women's poetry in the contemporary context it is first necessary to illustrate the condition of the Kurdish identity, regardless of gender, in the present day Middle East. The position of the Kurdish people within the modern day society is possibly best portrayed by the old proverb “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”

Following the end of World War One, the consequence of which was a thorough reconstruction of middle-eastern borders and the creation of a new geo-political landscape, the Kurdish people have become a thoroughly disjointed, stateless entity dispersed across the mountainous territories now encompassed by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish borders. Denying the Kurds their own independent state, and forever erasing Kurdistan of the map, ushered in an era of oppression suffered at the hands of the regimes of either of the four aforementioned countries. Since they were no longer considered a legitimate nation, but rather a numerous minority in every country that they now inhabited, the Kurds have more often than not been subjected to ethnic cleansing (be it at the hands of the remnants of the fallen Ottoman Empire known as Turkey or the deceased Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein), involuntary resettlement and forced attempts at assimilation via language bans.

Within this whirlwind of endeavors to render the Kurdish identity non-existent by stripping the people of the rights to their own language, as well as abolishing their rights to freedom of cultural expression, and numerous armed uprisings in an attempt to reclaim the sense of ‘self’ from the merciless jaws of new identities assigned by none other than the oppressors, another, more covert struggle was taking place – the women’s struggle. In the midst of the Kurdish cultural apocalypse and perpetual linguicide, women have been (and still are) fighting their own battle in both the public and the domestic sphere of existence. They commenced not only fighting against culturcide perpetuated by either of the previously mentioned countries by directly facing the oppressor in the field of battle, but also decided to stand up to another, less visible, but ever so dangerous enemy – the patriarchal mentality ingrained into every pore of society, thus dictating clandestinely each and every aspect of their every day lives. In a sense, the Kurdish women became victims of ‘double oppression’, that of the regime that turned the Kurd into the unmentionable ‘other’ – an undesirable, barely existent, leper-like entity whose very language and culture are a threat to society – and that of the ever present notion of the dominant male/submissive female dynamics still deep-rooted in the middle-eastern society, thus becoming forced to tackle an array of gender-specific obstacles in an effort to save their own identities from extinction.

Their political struggle, especially when armed, was often met with harsh state violence, which used a gross combination of racism and sexism, centered around sexualized torture, systematic rape, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed militant women as prostitutes, because they dared to pose themselves as enemies of hyper-masculine armies. In the Western discourse, Kurdish women’s agency in their struggle was often denied by claims that they are “being instrumentalized for the national cause” or that they participate in the liberation struggle in order to escape their sad lives as “victims of a backward culture”. (Dirik, par. 3)

In the aforementioned passage, Dilar Dirik manages to perfectly illustrate the issues experienced by the Kurdish women caused by the prevalent patriarchal mentality. It became clear that Kurdish women’s liberation cannot be achieved solely through the means of armed struggle since the efforts will only continue to be undermined by mistreatment of women in other aspects of life. In order to fight the regime one first had to destroy the notion of the dominant male and reimagine the woman not as a submissive ‘extension’ of a man, but an equal.  Thus, in order to be able to successfully reclaim her culture, the Kurdish woman first had to reclaim herself.

In the society where women’s actions are heavily dictated by the will of the man, where little space left for women in the context of the public sphere, as well as regulated by the oppressive nation-state intent on reducing her cultural and linguistic identity to absolute nothingness, literature became another battlefront, an act of defiance and unconditional resistance. For some women, poetry replaced a gun, and verses written in Kurdish became bullets shooting through the walls encasing the Kurdish woman and piercing holes, however small, which allowed her to become seen by her oppressor and yet remain protected from him. The ambiguity of poetry allowed the poet to express and explore a myriad of issues – from those addressing the taboo status of women’s sexuality still prevalent in the majority of the world, to those providing harsh political criticism cleverly disguised in the form of a seemingly innocent musing – while still remaining safely hidden from prosecution and ostracizing by using the socially imposed ‘walls’ to her advantage and fighting the oppression by ever so carefully filling her every word with vagueness sure to enable her to render herself a submissive woman acceptable within the framework of patriarchy if the need arises.

The female poet has learned how to turn the oppression suffered by women into her own advantage and seemingly give into the concept of an obedient, submissive woman by retreating from the frontline back into her own home. Her submissiveness is her disguise which allows her to stand up to the oppressor and convey her revolutionary ideas to others maybe even more efficiently than a man – simply because she is not expected to engage in any of those activities simply due to the perceived nature of her gender. Her pages littered with words written in her mother tongue and subtly portraying the long history of her people is a weapon as effective as a gun wielded by a man or woman fighting fervently on the frontline, sometimes maybe even more so. Unlike the frenzied gun fire in the midst of battle that sends a clear message of defiance and unwillingness to yield, poetry sends a much different, but an even more compelling message.

While soldiers and various other individuals may perish, revolutionary women’s poetry will help ensure that the idea behind which they stand never does, for once the poem is completed it no longer depends on the poet. It becomes a part of society, slowly making its way from one individual to another remaining forever embedded in people’s minds. Once the poem is read for the first time after being written it cannot be destroyed. Its physical copies may be destroyed or banned, but the impact it left on its reader is something that can never be taken away from them since it is safely nested within the walls of their own minds, where it rests and waits to be transferred to the minds of others. In that regard, the pen that writes down the poem has more power than any other weapon used to fight the aggressor. The poem exists defiantly and indestructibly, sending a clear message – We exist. We are Kurds. We are women. And our existence can never be erased.

In the following paragraph is one of the poems possibly best illustrating all of the aforementioned, titled Separation from Earth and written by a Kurdish female poet by the name of Kajal Ahmad:

When I exploded

Like the horizon, my hair

Became a belt around the Earth’s waist.

For the frozen poles of the south,

I turned myself into a pair of socks,                                          

For the chills in the North, from threads of my soul

I wore hats and turbans.

The homeland was sick of me:

It wanted to tear me off like an old coat,

But I hung myself on the mercy of its beard

And from earth I was thrown off into the arms of the universe.

In the sky I became a star

And now I have my own place and my own passion

And I am denser with lives than Earth.

In this compelling poem originally written in Kurdish, Ahmad tells not only a story of herself, nor does she solely provide her own personalized experience of the world as it may seem at first glance. Her poem is her story, but behind its carefully draped veil of vagueness, it is also every woman’s and every Kurd’s simultaneously. While speaking of her own experience of forcing herself into submission and reshaping the very core of her identity for various metaphorically expressed reasons Ahmad also speaks for every woman suffering from oppression at the hands of the dominant male. She speaks for every woman desperately twisting and turning her own sense of self in a desperate attempt to conform to the expectations of society by becoming a submissive ‘extension’ of a male figure, but no matter how hard she tries to conform, any remaining particle of her true, independent self will remain an object of scrutiny by the dominant male.

The very same verses that speak of the women speak of the condition of the Kurdish culture in today’s society as well. It ever so covertly tells a story of the Kurds as a stateless nation, scattered and forced to wander the earth in search for a homeland that can never be found. It subtly evokes the notion of ethnic cleansings and forced resettlements that both played a significant role in creating the modern Kurdish identity.

Most importantly, the poem conveys a message of hope. In its last two verses, the poem accentuates that even in the face of adversity, the author, the women and the Kurds have only been given a chance to grow stronger and more resilient for what is yet to come. By being written and read this very poem has now found its own place within more minds that there are lives on Earth. Its message of resistance has become embedded within the lives of women, Kurds and Kurdish women thus first allowing the woman to utilize its power in their fight against patriarchal oppression and then all the Kurdish women to stand side by side with their male counterparts and reclaim their identity by speaking, writing and reading in the Kurdish language and openly living the Kurdish culture. Only when the women are free of the chains of the patriarchal mentality will all the people be able to efficiently fight and become truly free of any oppression they may face – and here poetry and its readers, and more specifically, women’s poetry, can play a crucial part, not only among the Kurds, but among all the peoples of the world.

Works Consulted

Ahmad, Kajal. "Magazine." Words Without Borders. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.

Dirik, Dilar. "Feminism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement." Home - N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.

Hale, Thomas. "A short history of the Kurds." Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.

"Kurdish Academy of Language enables the Kurdish language in new horizon." Kurdish Academy of Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 July 2017.

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