By Tara Fatehi:
The history of Kurdish women has sadly been an invisible one — not because people don’t want to know about Kurdish women, but because they don’t know where to learn about them. It’s hard to know about women from an ethnic background when their history has not been fully documented. Consequently, many precious elements of Kurdish heritage are unknown and lost.
As a Kurdish migrant brought up in Australia it has been fairly easy to read up about great, influential women in the West. However, learning about my Kurdish history has been difficult because books about the history of Kurds are focused on their geographic location and struggles towards self determination and, even then, the individuals highlighted throughout history are mainly Men. You may have heard of the likes of Salahadin, Mîstefa Barzanî, Qazî Mihemmed, Dr. Abdul Rahman Qasimlo and Abdullah Öcalan, to name just a few: All great men who have contributed immensely to Kurdish history in their eras. But the same efforts of women seem to go unnoticed.
Conversely, even looking through feminist history – literature, books, documentaries and reports about influential women – you will not find many which highlight Kurdish women and their influence in the world or, more fittingly, the Kurdish struggle. As a Kurdish woman I feel we are greatly underestimated, undermined and un-represented by the world. You will hear countless stories of influential women in the Middle East, but Kurdish women are yet to be adequately highlighted, even by the feminist world.
The Kurdish struggle is unlike any other in that, not only women, but Kurdish people in general do not get a lot of media coverage. However, due to the nature of our struggles and the long and hard battle for an independent Kurdistan, many influential Kurdish women have risen to the occasion, at times being even more influential and greater contributors to our history than their male counterparts.
I found an article, dating back to 1887 in the New York Times, which talks about a Kurdish visitor to the Turkish capital by the name of Kara Fatma and describes her as “the redoubtable female warrior of Kurdistan”. The article is about her recognition by the Ottoman Empire for singlehandedly leading a group of Kurdish volunteers to battle during the Crimean war. Only in recent years has there been public discussion about allowing women on to the front line during wars for the Australian Army. The article, dated November 8 1887, shows a ‘modern’ mentality of Kurdish women two centuries ago that the west is only now catching with. Zrena – who was the first woman who led the army of the Median Empire – and Mir Xanzad – who was a senior commander in the military, in 1590, who took over the reins of power and became princess of the Soran Emirate – are also great examples of Kurdish women who have greatly contributed to our history and feminism alike.
In the modern age, Leyla Qasim and Layla Zana are two of the most obvious and influential Kurdish women in Kurdistan. During a period of history when society was not accepting of women entering the political arena, Leyla Qasim dared to play an active role, not just in politics, but Kurdish politics. Leyla was one of five children and the only girl in the family. In 1970, she joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). A year later she started her studies in sociology at the University of Baghdad. In 1972 she became an active member of Kurdistan Student Union (Yekiti Qotabi yen Kurdistane). On April 28, 1974, Leyla was imprisoned by the brutal Iraqi regime. Despite the fact that Leyla and her friends were nothing but symbols of freedom and peace, they had become victims of the unlawful Ba’ath regime. Her heroism and brave spirit was an absolute threat to the Ba’ath regime for she was perceived to make a great impact on Kurdish students and Kurdish women and encourage them to become active figures in Kurdish politics. She was arrested, tortured and ultimately hanged after a lengthy show trial, broadcast throughout Iraq. But before she died and during her hearing in front of the Ba’ath judge, Leyla, with a loud and brave voice, said:
“Kill me! But you must also know that after my death thousands of Kurds will wake up from their deep sleep. I am happy that I will die with pride and for an independent Kurdistan!”
Leyla Zana is a living symbol of Kurdish patriotism and women’s, as well as human, rights activism in Kurdistan. Leyla’s greatest dream was to breathe freedom and live in a fair society, which created her love and commitment to politics and the Kurdish cause from as early an age as fourteen. In 1988, she and a group of people protested against Turkish soldiers for torturing the imprisoned men they wanted to visit, including her husband Mehdi Zana, the former Mayor of Amed in North Kurdistan. She was tormented and treated with cruelty for the 57 days she was held in prison without trial. Her ill-treatment in prison and the suffering of her husband led her to take a political stance for her people and she decided to take the first step to break the cycle of oppression. So, on October 20 1991, Leyla Zana became the first Kurdish woman to be elected to parliament in Turkey. Celebrating her identity and her successes Leyla concluded her oath as a Kurdish female parliamentarian with the following famous statement in Kurdish, shocking the Turkish government at the time:
“I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.”
Her representation of and pride in the Kurdish flag, her identity, her stand on human and women’s rights and the statement she made in her native language has put her in prison many times. A highlight of her career and a proud achievement for Kurds and women alike was when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1995, for her courage and will to create a peaceful environment between Kurds and other nationalities. During her 10 years in Turkish prisons she was awarded other peace prizes such as the Sakharov Prize and Bruno Kreisky Award and she was nominated a second time for the Nobel peace prize in 1998.
From our military warriors to our modern day heroes, from Kara Fatma to Leyla Zana, Kurdistan has had many great Kurdish women who have greatly contributed to human and women’s rights: Even though they have had to fight not only the oppression of their ethnicity, language and culture, but also to overcome the suppression of their sex.
Even the women who haven’t fought wars and died in the mountains for their rights, even those who haven’t stood in parliament and been imprisoned for their language and ethnicity, are still great heroes in Kurdistan. The most unsung of all are probably the Kurdish mothers: Those who have lived through genocides and wars only to see their sons killed and daughters raped. Only to see their own mothers and fathers live the same fate.
I was sitting in a café once across from a Kurdish mother who knows all too well of the atrocities committed against her people, having lived through it herself. I was deeply moved by her inner peace and passion for women and Kurdistan despite all she and her family had been through. As she sang with her angelic voice about the Kurdish struggle, it took all the muscles in my body not to break down and cry. As she looked through me and at the world in the window outside, the fear, anger and passion that burned in her tears fuelled the fire in me. I will never forget that moment and, just like Leyla Zana and those before her, she stands as a hero in my heart – as do all Kurdish women and I vow to not let the world forget our Kurdish mothers, sisters and great women warriors as they continue their struggle for our freedom.
Tara Fatehi is originally from Sine, Eastern Kurdistan. She has completed undergraduate studies in medical science and is currently undertaking a PHD in Nutrition at Adelaide University in Australia.